Is It Nation of Islam Time Again in Hip-Hop?

July 19, 2014

A revival of the Nation of Islam connection—if it avoids repeating some of the errors of the past—could signal a new era of consciousness in commercial hip-hop.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a wave of commercial hip-hop artists, like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian, Eric B. & Rakim, Paris, Gang Starr, Ice Cube and MC Ren, used their platform to promote political awareness, community uplift and cultural self-determination. They drew their inspiration in part from Islam—as culture, ideology and religion—influenced primarily by the Nation of Islam and its offshoot the Nation of Gods and Earths, or Five Percenters.

As movements, both the NOI and NGE actively engaged hip-hop artists and the communities in which the artists and their audiences lived. The NOI organized anti-crime patrols, established drug-prevention programs and negotiated gang truces. The NGE’s cipher gatherings rewarded those most skilled in wordplay. The theologies of the NOI, and the NGE in particular, proclaimed the black man “God,” and while contested by other Muslim traditions, this fit perfectly within the hip-hop tradition of the superlative boast (who, after all, could top God) and placed black men at the center of hip-hop’s universe.

For Electronica, the NOI is much more than stage props or costumes: He has sampled Elijah Muhammad on his tracks; and in his freestyle remix of Drake’s “We Made It” with Jay Z, he declares the Muslim “shahada”—the testimony of faith that “there is no god but Allah”—in Arabic and proclaims himself “the Farrakhan of rap.” In the days since his performance, Electronica has tweeted and Facebooked even more references to the NOI and its leadership. He’s clearly committed to asserting the presence of the NOI and NGE more broadly in hip-hop music and culture.

And he’s not alone in this NOI revival in hip-hop, and in black culture more broadly. Earlier this year, R&B artist Raheem DeVaughn collaborated with Chicago rapper Rhymefest to release “Final Call (Saviours’ Day).” The song’s title references both the NOI’s annual Saviours’ Day convention and itsFinal Call newspaper, sold by the FOI, who are also featured prominently in the music video.

The Fruit of Islam seem well suited for this role. When Jay Elect stepped to the stage with FOI in tow, he seemed to be channeling a moment from 25 years ago when Public Enemy took to the streets of Brooklyn, also with FOI, to film the Spike Lee-directed video for their anthem, “Fight the Power.” More than an entourage, the FOI’s military like presence conveys a charismatic power onto whomever they secure, a level of real-world seriousness: “They treated him like he was Barack Obama,” remarked one observer of the FOI guarding Jay Z at the festival.