As long as you got mentally dead people/Who are living in a mental death/Meaning living in a mental grave/You need somebody to dig that grave up and bring them back to life ...
There are Hip-Hop godz walking among us. And by incorporating messages inspired by Islam within their lyrics, they're on a mission to resurrect the masses from the stupor that has consumed us since Hip Hop left the streets of uptown for the boardrooms of downtown.
Blues, R&B, Jazz and other genres of popular music often borrow from spiritual traditions to underscore the pleasure and pain of life. Hip Hop is no different in this respect. Yet, while rappers draped in platinum and diamond crucifix medallions have become the norm, artists who embrace the teachings of Islam are often at the forefront of the positive/political Hip-Hop movement.
Perhaps the most visible (and least understood) representation of Islam within Hip-Hop culture is that of the Nation of Gods and Earths (more commonly known as the 5 Percent Nation), an offshoot of the Nation of Islam founded in Harlem, circa 1963. Over the last 10 years, Hip-Hop artists such as Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Brand Nubian, Gang Starr and even Neo-Soul songstress Erykah Badu have included hints of 5 Percent philosophy in their songs. (It is critical to note that while many scholars and adherents of orthodox Islam reject the notion that the 5 Percenters practice true Islam, the impact of the 5PN's interpretation of Islam on Hip-Hop culture cannot be denied.)
The 5 Percenter belief system is based upon a complex series of philosophical lessons that describe the socio-spiritual hierarchy of the western world. The gods (men) and earths (women) of the 5PN teach that 85 percent of the population are the deaf, dumb, blind and spiritually dead masses led like sheep by the 10 percent, who represent the corporate elite. The remaining 5 percent are the poor, righteous teachers whose purpose is to enlighten the masses by "dropping science" about knowledge of self, history, culture and religion.
Watched MTV lately? Before you dismiss the theory as a crash course in Conspiratorial History 101, consider the abysmal state of entertainment and popular culture as well as the corporate interests that drive what we see and hear daily. Suddenly, the oversimplified statistics offered by the 5PN begin to sound much more plausible.
The union between Hip-Hop culture and Islamic doctrine (orthodox or otherwise) was bound to happen. Just over 10 years after the 5PN was formed in Harlem, a Bronx-bred, ex-gang member, Afrika Bambaata, would organize the Universal Zulu Nation, merging Hip-Hop culture with community outreach and social activism. Bam is often quoted as citing the teachings of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey as the foundation for the Zulu Nation's operating philosophy which contains hints of Afro-Islamic cosmology and eastern spiritual tradition. Because early participants and members of the Zulu Nation claimed allegiance to the 5PN, their expressions and beliefs would eventually work their way into the lyrics of more socially conscious Hip-Hop songs of the '80s and '90s (like the classic Islamic call to prayer at the intro of Brand Nubian's 1993 hit "Allah U Akbar").
Ali Asadullah, in an article appearing on Beliefnet.com, adds, "Islam has long played a prominent role in Hip Hop. (By) the '90s ... references to the 5 Percent Nation of Islam were popping up on albums by the Wu Tang Clan and Busta Rhymes. Especially when the topic is social justice, an Islamic understanding has been a hallmark of socially-conscious Hip Hop."
The concept of spiritual, cultural or political awakening has always been a central theme within conscious Hip Hop. Recognizing a spiritual void in music and culture, 5 Percenters routinely chastise "85ers" for abandoning responsible lyrical content for the ubiquitous commercialism present in Hip-Hop music and culture. Despite their proclivity for aestheticism, even members of the 5PN are not immune to the trappings of an industry defined less by what you think than by how you live. A recent VH-1 documentary finds former Wu Tang Clansman/5 Percenter Ol' Dirty Bastard shopping for a mansion in upstate New York while complaining to the mothers of his 13 children about his lack of money. Certainly, not what we'd expect from a "civilized god."
Even in Hip Hop, it all comes down to the eternal battle between good and evil. And while most Hip Hop continues its descent into the fiery abyss, the gods and earths of the 5 Percent Nation are poised to rescue us — the 85ers — from the nescience that defines today's entertainment industry. Clearly, members of the 5 Percent Nation of Islam are not the sole keepers of the solution for all that ails Hip-Hop culture. But a little knowledge goes a long way.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip-Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.