Hip Hop, Islam, and Black Radicalism: Discussion Forum for Sohail Daulatzai’s BLACK STAR, CRESCENT MOON, Chapter 3

Ajam Media Collective is proud to launch its first ever digital book club, featuring Sohail Daulatzai’s Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America.

Mark your calendars–we will be hosting live-streamed conversations with the author at these dates:
Sunday, March 22nd at 12pm PST: Discussing Chapter 3 and
Return of the Mecca
Sunday, April 5th at 12pm PST: Discussing Chapters 4 and 5, Conclusion

To catch up on Chapters 1 and 2, check out the discussion by Omar Kamran, and our recording of the live-streamed discussion with Sohail Daulatzai. 

Prior to each live-streamed conversation, we’ve invited an outside reader to comment on the chapter readings for that week. This week, Rasul Miller sent us his comments with some questions to get our discussion started. 

Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history. He is also a hip-hop head and accomplished emcee, performing under the name Sul Milli.

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The third chapter of Sohail Daulatzai’s Black Star Crescent Moon entitled “Return of the Mecca” explores the role of the Muslim International within the genre and cultural landscape of hip-hop. He begins by providing a description of the political context during the time of hip-hop’s emergence as a cultural form. This marked a historical moment in the United States that was characterized by increased state repression of Black and Brown activism through the systematic infiltration and destruction of radical Black youth movements as well as the rise of “tough on crime” policies in the 1970’s that further demonized and criminalized urban communities of color. While authors and theorists within the field of Hip Hop Studies – including Jeff Chang, Tricia Rose, and a host of others – have dealt extensively with the impact of urban blight and the environment of postindustrial New York City in shaping the aesthetics and political orientation of hip-hop cultural during its formative years, what makes Daulatzai’s historical investigation particularly interesting is his emphasis on linkages between the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s and hip-hop’s emergence directly after.

Daulatzai’s contextualization is crucial for understanding the relationship between hip-hop and the politics of Black internationalism, as he traces the trajectory of hip-hop’s collective cultural and political consciousness from that of the radical Black artist-activists in preceding decade. These artist-activists helped forge a Black spiritual and cultural universe of which Islam was a visible part. This spiritual and cultural investment with Islam, evident in the life and work of artists such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, and countless others, was accompanied by these artists’ attendant investment in building solidarity with aggrieved peoples of the Muslim Third World who were also victimized by the neo-imperial forces of the United States and the West. These solidarities mirrored the coupling of Black and Brown people domestically, and Muslims internationally, within the criminalizing, xenophobic white American political imagination through the crystallization of the notion of the “Black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorists” as the primary threats to American security and prosperity. In this manner, Daulatzai is able to examine the relationship between Black art in the US and the crafting of the Muslim International.

In reconstructing this historical evolution of hip-hop culture, Daulatzai calls the reader’s attention to the longstanding presence of an Islamic consciousness among Black artists and radicals, stretching back into the Bebop era and beyond. However, his primary focus centers on the enormous influence of Malcolm X on subsequent generations of Black artists. Throughout the chapter, Daulatzai demonstrates the connections between the spiritual, political, and cosmological perspective of Malcolm X and those of the hip-hop artists he cites. He makes a compelling case for the high degree of influence exhibited by Malcolm X and his legacy upon the sensibilities and ideological positions embraced by many of the most important architects of the genre.

Daulatzai’s treatment of the songs and lyrics by a wide range of artists such as Ice Cube, Gang Starr, Public Enemy, Rakim, the Wu-Tang Clan, Lupe Fiasco, and Mos Def reveal the deep cultural legacy of what he terms the “Muslim International” within the consciousness of these canonical hip hop artists. His analysis is insightful and compelling. Clearly a hip-hop head, Daulatzai brings the eye of a careful cultural and literary critic to the work of some of the genre’s most important and most political artistic representatives. His notion of the Muslim International, combined with his ability to intimately engage the art, allows him to tease out connections, allusions, and ideological proclamations that might easily be missed by those unaware of the contours of the Muslim International or those who have yet to be initiated into the subtleties of some of the highest forms of hip-hop’s artistic production.

Further, Daulatzai demonstrates the almost ubiquitous presence of Malcolm and his ideological legacy within the hip-hop cannon. While his emphasis on Malcolm brings many of the aforementioned connections to light, I wonder what it might obscure. Daulutzai makes mention of some the other sources of the metaphysical and political sensibilities that characterize the Muslim International within hip-hip culture, including the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, the Zulu Nation, and the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan, yet he attributes the bulk hip-hop’s Muslim International consciousness to the impact and legacy of Malcolm X. While this perspective assists him in making his argument, due to pervasive influence of Malcolm within the genre, it may detract from the force of his intervention in certain ways.

What might it mean to identify multiple currents for the Muslim International running simultaneously within hip-hop? While all these streams (the Nation of Islam, the 5% Nation, the Zulu Nation) may all be connected, they certainly have different histories. In particular, the 5% Nation enjoys its own unique history within hip-hop’s spiritual universe. Had Daulutzai focused more on this history and the particular metaphysical, as well as geographical, orientation of the 5% Nation, in what ways might this have rendered the Muslim International more legible, and for whom? Conversely, for whom is it more intelligible as a result of his emphasis on Malcolm? Had the 5% Nation figured more prominently in his analysis, how might his treatment of artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Rakim been even richer? Given the 5% Nation’s status as, arguably, just as great an influence within hip-hop as the figure of Malcolm (even on more “mainstream” artists like Nelly, Jay-Z, Noreaga, Big Pun, etc.), might it have enabled him to incorporate more contemporary artists beyond hip-hop’s “golden age” into his framework? A greater emphasis on other Islamic currents within hip-hop might have offered similar possibilities to treat artists from other regions, i.e. Outkast or David Banner in the South, Common or Twista in the Midwest, etc.

Daulatzai’s treatment also raises questions about the nature of political dissent within hip-hop. While the examples provided in the chapter illuminate some of the ways in which “golden era” hip-hop artists articulated critiques of racism, capitalism, and American political repression in the US and abroad, many have lamented the decline of such a political consciousness among hip-hop artists in subsequent years. I wonder of Daulatzai would agree, or if he might identify a healthy tradition of dissent and critique “beneath the surface” in hip-hop’s underground, or encoded within the literary form of the genre. If political dissent in hip-hop has, in fact, been on the decline, then what are the factors that have stifled it? How have the politics of liberalism and Islamophobia hit hip-hop? And might hip-hop serve as a space for contesting such discourses of marginalization? If so, how?

A final question prompted by my reading of “Return of the Mecca” concerns the creation of global solidarities through the Muslim International. If hip-hop has provided an environment ripe for the flowering of a Muslim Internationalist political and cultural orientation, has it also served as an engine for the formation of tangible political and cultural exchanges between oppressed and disenfranchised peoples across the globe? If so, then what are the factors that have served to activate the construction of such bonds? How might hip-hop actually lend itself to a “return of the Mecca” that was once imagined by Cheryl Clarke and others, or assist in its manifestation from the imagined to the real?

 

 

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