Native Deen is an African American Muslim vocal trio formed by Joshua Salaam, Naeem Muhammad, and Abdul-Malik Ahmad. Salaam, Muhammad, and Ahmad have all been actively involved with various Muslim youth organizations and met through their involvement with the Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA), particularly the MYNA Raps project. Combining their dedication to Allah, young people, and ministry through sonic performance, the group has performed for Muslim audiences across the United States as well as in England and Australia. Their two CDs, Deen You Know and Not Afraid to Stand Alone were created with Muslim youth in mind and offer up a wealth of religious lessons as well a strong source of moral support for members of a religion that has been a frequent target of hostility and intolerance within the United States.
For those used to Western pop, Native Deen’s style may take some getting used to. Because of Islamic prohibitions on instrumental music and the nature of the album as a religious CD, the group has purposefully adopted a musically thin texture. Although a few of tracks, such as “The Deen You Know,” “Intentions,” “Small Deeds,” and “Sakina” incorporate xylophone, most of the songs rely solely on drums and vocal harmonization to add richness and texture to the sound. In many cases the drums are pitched to add a slightly melodic quality.
The vocal harmonies and melodic lines often embrace the singing style of nasheeds-a type of Muslim devotional song that sounds somewhat similar to Gregorian chant-intermixed with more laidback forms of American rap. For example, the song “For the Prophets” from their first album alternates a chorus sung in Arabic and a Middle Eastern style accompanied by hand percussion with glibly rapped verses about the lives of Musa (Moses), Isa (Jesus), and Muhammad backed by drum machine and turntable scratching. The overall feeling of the albums is subdued, austere, and very unique.
Native Deen’s first commercial release, Deen You Know (“Deen” is Arabic for religion), take a slightly narrative approach and is structured around an average day for the group members. The first track “Alhamdullilah” opens with the group stopping for gas on their way to the studio to record their next album. To warm up their voices for the session, they decide to perform a South African vocal drill, and to perform it “Native Deen style.” The song, which also functions as a benediction, consists solely of the repeated phrase “Alhamdullilah subhanallah” (“praise be to God, glory to God”) sung in tight, Middle Eastern style harmony over a throbbing bass line.
From here, each song on the album offers up a sung lesson on Islam. “Dedication” praises parents who raise their children to follow the path of Islam and young Muslims who choose to embrace lives of purity and morality. “Paradise” urges Muslim teenagers to pray to Allah for strength against the temptations of drugs, sex, and materialism and includes criticism of other rappers such as JZ, LL Cool J, Eminem and Genuine, warning that “Living ghetto fabulous will lead you straight to hell.” “Intentions” raises the question of whether one is following the path of Islam for the sake of pleasing Allah or to gain status and praise.
Some of the other lessons are relatively similar to ones you would expect to find on a CD of Christian devotional songs. For instance, the theme of convincing a sinner not to give up hope because it is never too late to ask God for forgiveness is treated in “Looking Glass” while “Small Deeds” is about the importance of performing acts of kindness consistently throughout our everyday lives. “Small Deeds” also contains some clever English and Arabic rhyming, including lines such as:
Put a dollar every day in the sadaqah [charity]
It may be small but you do it for the baraka [blessing]
I know you’re saving for the Polo and the Nautica
A poor student but you do it just to please Allah
Other songs may be a bit more difficult for non-Muslims to grasp. Although “Drug Free” with its warnings about avoiding mind and body altering substances because of the risks of addiction, deteriorated health, and loss of self-control may initially sound familiar, the extension of the word “drug” to alcohol and cigarettes (the former of which is explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an) may seem a little odd. The concept of “Sakina,” or a feeling of peace of heart and tranquility sent by God in times of stress, may also be a foreign concept, although certainly lines like “Then when I come and I see my daughter’s face so bright / With smiles there to greet me at the door, like a beautiful light / I can only thank Allah for this blessing on me / For giving me Sakina, this tranquility!” will resonate with many people.
For those concerned about missing out on the meaning of the songs due to the occasional use of Arabic terminology, the accompanying booklet provides almost word for word liner notes with translations. The booklet in and of itself makes use of modern aesthetics and could almost be mistaken for accompanying any recent rap release if it weren’t for the textbox inserts containing verses from the Qur’an.
Despite offering an interesting sonic mix of Muslim and hip hop culture, the CD does have a few problems. The dialog between songs, while at first interesting and somewhat amusing, quickly grows stale. Its longevity isn’t helped much by the stilted delivery of the dialog, which feels a lot like it was pulled straight out of an afterschool special. Instead of relegating the dialog to individual tracks so that the listener could easily banish them from their iPod track list, they occur at the end of almost every track and will probably have people scrambling for the advance track button by the third or fourth time around. “Drug Free” also has a number of musical problems. Not only does it feel like someone clipped off the beginning, but there are some serious pitch problems at points.
Overall, this album offers some fantastic and uplifting listening material for Muslim listeners. For everyone else, this CD offers an excellent overview of both Islamic beliefs and the moral and religious concerns faced by American Muslims during their daily lives.
Music video for “Small Deeds”:
Posted by Ronda Sewald