The relationship between hip-hop and Islam is one of the culture’s oldest influences. From the days of the Zulu Nation in hip-hop’s infancy through the ubiquity of Islamic iconography and references in the early '90s to today, hip-hop has always had a consistently strong Muslim presence.
Drawing attention to this is the new exhibition Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop. Part of The Los Angeles / Islam Arts Initiative (LA/IAI), Return of the Mecca is runs now through November 22 at the William Grant Still Arts Center in West Adams.
Including videos, music, photography, album art and other media featuring such hip-hop icons as Ice Cube, Rakim, Public Enemy and A Tribe Caled Quest, it’s an incredibly comprehensive look at hip-hop and Islam’s relationship as an alternative black consciousness.
We spoke to LA/IAI project manager Ami Motevalli and exhibition curator Sohail Daulatzai about Islam and hip-hop’s relationship throughout the culture’s 40-year history.
What was the first time you saw Islam's influence in hip-hop?
Sohail: I do remember a turning point of hearing Rakim’s “Move the Crowd.” Hearing “All praises due to Allah, that’s a blessing.” Growing up in a Muslim majority country [Pakistan] and moving to the States, hearing that on a record in that context was kind of like a turning point that shaped my world from that point on.
As I say in the show, [with] the influence of Islam on jazz and the black arts movement, Islam had already been a part of black political culture and black art. It wasn’t necessarily new; it was hip-hop’s turn to pick up the baton and run with it.
Along with the East Coast rap icons featured in the exhibit, there's also L.A.'s own Ice Cube. Is there much of a difference in the presence of Islam between East Coast and West Coast rap artists?
Ami: Certainly. West Coast was where a lot of the industry was, so there was a push-back to those who would get involved in political or cultural statements. I feel the East Coast artists had a little more freedom in that.
Sohail: I would say hip-hop on the West Coast emerged on its own but it was deeply influenced by the East Coast because of how it was broadcast. On the East Coast it was more spread between the NOI [Nation of Islam], the Nation of Gods and Earths and what some would call orthodox or Sunni Islam. On the West Coast, the most powerful influence was the Nation of Islam in and of itself, and I would say that would be the only real difference.
With hip-hop being primarily a youth culture, do you find it captures the experience of Muslim youth today, as well as 10 or 20 years ago?
Ami: I think it does. I still see a strong involvement with hip-hop. While some of the practices have changed, we offer classes and kids are totally into it.
Sohail: Part of the reason why I did the show was for heads like me who are older and look at today’s hip-hop scene and say, “It ain’t the same.” We look back to ’85 to ’95 and think that was the dope time. But most of us who do that don’t even realize how dominant Islam was in the golden age. Hip-hop’s high point of artistic integrity and political integrity was deeply influenced by Islam.
That also ignores the fact that even today, you have young artists who are upholding this tradition. You have Lupe Fiacso, Jay Electronica and independent cats like Oddisee who continue to pick up this mantle and shape this Muslim identity through the music. So I think it’s still prevalent today.