Global hip-hop conference unpacks the genre’s Muslim influence

The “Global Hip Hop and New Muslim Culture” event brought poets, rappers and scholars to the Student Center to discuss the intersection of hip-hop and Islam.

Sohail Daulatzai (left), a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and Zain Abdullah, the moderator of the "Global Hip-Hop and the New Muslim Culture" event, host a discussion in the Student Center on Sunday. | VEENA PRAKRIYA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When Zain Abdullah thinks about how much he loves cultural programming, he thinks about a quote from poet Maya Angelou.

“Maya Angelou said, ‘People will long forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel,” said Abdullah, a religion professor. “For me, it’s about making them feel good about what they’re learning.”

Abdullah has taught at Temple for thirteen years, and on Sunday, he helped facilitate the conference “Global Hip Hop and the New Muslim Culture.”

The event, hosted by Africology and African American Studies professor Aaron X. Smith, highlighted the work of several artists, including Philadelphia poets Ndeen Al-Barqawi, Victor Jackson and Husnaa Hashim, as well as rappers Shahroz, Miss undastood and Jakk Frost.

At the event, Dr. Abdullah posed a question: “What is this connection between Islam and hip-hop? It seems like a wrong connection and an oxymoron.”

For him, the connection between religion and music was always there. His father was a rock ’n’ roll musician in the 1960s, and music and Islam went hand in hand in their household.

Souhail Daulatzai, a University of California, Irvine professor and hip-hop and religion scholar, also spoke about poetry’s role in Islam in his keynote speech.

“On a basic level, the Quran is a book of poetry,” Daulatzai said. “It literally rhymes!”

Daulatzai went on to recite a rhythmic “surah,” or chapter, from the Quran. As he spoke, an image was projected behind him depicting the rapper Jay Electronica wearing a Palestinian “keffiyeh,” a black-and-white head scarf, posed in front of The Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

“For me, the highest expression of Islam is ‘ihsan,’ which is beauty,” Abdullah said. “People don’t realize that. … If we’re not showing the beauty of the faith and Muslims as human beings, then we’re not showing Islam, because it’s all about beauty.”

As the event went on, Philadelphia DJ Rashaun Williams, known as DJ Reezey, played samples of artists like Mos Def, Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Queen Latifah and A Tribe Called Quest. The music was integrated into the conversation and unpacked by Abdullah and Daulatzai.  

The pair analyzed the evolution of hip-hop from its foundations to contemporary artists. Within each step of hip-hop’s modernization, Abdullah and Daulatzai shared how Islam has influenced the genre.

Daulatzai discussed how Malcolm X, an African-American Muslim, is one of the most sampled voices in hip-hop.

“To me, he is the most significant figure to emerge out of this land called the United States,” Daulatzai said. “He is the most prophetic voice to emerge from the United States.”

While planning the event, Abdullah had assistance from some of his graduate students, like Shereen Masoud, a second-year religion Ph.D. student.

Since moving from San Francisco to Philadelphia two years ago, Masoud said she has appreciated the strong Black Muslim presence in the city.

“Philly is such a Black Muslim city, and it’s part of the culture and the language of the city,” Masoud said.  

Masoud studies Islamophobia and race, gender and sexuality in Muslim-American communities.  A visual artist herself, she also creates mixed media calligraphy pieces and helped curate the art showcased during the event.

“Hip-hop is important to the history of Islam in the U.S.,” Masoud said. “Because it’s also been appropriated and borrowed by so many cultures, paying homage to hip-hop is also so important because there is history of erasure of Black Muslims.”

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