March 6th, 2009
Holy Hip Hop has gained a following in recent years as a new genre of rap used to deliver the gospel to the streets and to bolster the faith of Christian listeners. The mix of rap and religion, however, has existed since at least the 1970s when the Nation of Islam influenced the philosophies and lyrics of Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation. Rappers including Mos Def, Jurassic 5, Nas, the Wu Tang Clan, and Lupe Fiasco (among others) have continued to incorporate ideas and symbolism from the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters into their works.
More recently, rap has crossed over into more mainstream Islam. Rap’s emphasis on lyrics and its use of thin melodic instrumentation allows for an easy melding both with Islam’s prohibitions of instrumental music and with genres such as nasheeds (Muslim devotional songs) and sung folk poetry. In some cases, rap is used to express explicit religious messages. Most of these albums, however, are released in the form of CD-Rs through smaller religious organizations such as www.muslimhiphop.com. On other albums, the lyrical references to Islam are more subtle, but the influence of religion on the performer’s choice of topics, imagery, and aesthetics may be more apparent. The group Native Deen and Somali-North American artist K’Naan represent both ends of this continuum.
Unfortunately, the post-9/11 climate probably hasn’t done much to encourage the visibility of Muslim rap artists. A recent article by Marian Liu for the Mercury News suggests that Muslim rappers may be disappearing back into the woodwork through name changes and downplaying the religious references in their lyrics. On the other hand, the US State Department is touting Native Deen as a voice promoting both tolerance of Muslims in the United States and better relations between Americans and Muslim communities overseas. Although it’s difficult to imagine Muslim rap artists cornering a huge piece of the hip-hop market, it’s possible that performers like Native Deen and K’Naan may at least be tipping the balance towards the establishment of a recognized genre in the same vein as “Holy Hip Hop.”
The following reviews examine three recent releases by Native Deen and K’Naan in greater detail.
 Liu, Marian, “Hip-Hop’s Islamic Influence: Music Reflects Faith, but There’s a Struggle to Beat a Bad Rap,” San Jose Mercury News, ca. June 2003, see http://www.daveyd.com/commentaryhiphopislam.html.
 Walker, Carolee. “Muslim Rappers Use ‘Voice of Youth’ to Promote Tolerance: Native Deen Shows Positive Image of Americans, Islam through Hip-Hop,” http://www.america.gov/st/washfile-english/2007/February/20070201145311bcreklaw0.1939508.html.
Review Genre(s): African American Culture & History