Muslim Musicians Rap About Islam

They rap about growing up, being teased by other kids, saying no to drugs, doing well in school and praying.

But one figure is mentioned over and over again in their songs … Allah.

They are three young, black Muslim-Americans who are in a religious rap group called Native Deen, based in a suburb of Washington, D.C. -- and they're part of a growing trend of singing or rapping about Islam.

Mainstream musician/actor Mos Def, who is Muslim, incorporates Islamic principles and Arabic words into his raps. Even R&B star Lauryn Hill has been known to use Islamic terms in her music.

"Any rapper or singer sings about where they come from," said Native Deen group leader Joshua Salaam, 29, of Sterling, Va. "We rap about our experiences, what we know -- growing up Muslim in America."

Because Muslim youths aren't allowed to date until they marry, must pray five times a day and are expected to adhere to diet and dress requirements, Salaam said being a teenager wasn't easy.

"It was fun at times, challenging at times," he said. "Sometimes it's nice being different." But often he and his friends were the object of ridicule, an experience related in some of the group's songs like in this excerpt from "Busy Bees":

"What's with the scarf girl, rapped up like a mummy./They all made jokes and they said that you look funny./You ran into the bathroom and your friends began to scoff./After that encounter you had planned to take it off./But then you thought how much Allah likes how your dressin'. /Pleasin' him was top priority to you no question."

Muslim rap album sales are hard to track -- many songs are swapped instead of bought -- but Salaam said Native Deen shows can draw several hundred to several thousand spectators. The group mostly performs at Muslim weddings, conventions and dinners.

The group has recorded five albums under the label Muslim Youth of North America Raps, which are sold by Astrolabe Islamic Media online and through its catalog.

Astrolabe President Taher Rasheed said the company -- which distributes Islamic videos, books, games and software -- sells about 3,500 copies of the MYNA Raps/Native Deen albums a year.

But the concept is likely to raise questions in the post-Sept. 11 era, making some wonder if any of the songs advocate terrorism or anti-women sentiments.

Rasheed said the music turns the notion that Islam promotes violence and hatred on its head. "It helps to reinforce the positive aspects of the culture," he said. "[Usually] all you hear about are the negative aspects of the religion."

Salaam and rappers like Mos Def say they leave reference to negative applications of Islam out of their music.

The Web site for Mos Def, who is married with children, says that "in his music videos, he doesn't portray women as objects, as many rappers do." He also doesn't "swear senselessly" or allow alcohol at his concerts.

"You'll never find anything in our lyrics that's degrading to women -- never," said Native Deen's Salaam, who is married with two small sons. "When there are references to women, they're either about praising our mothers or about how much we love our wives."

In one of the group's songs, "I-S-L-A-M, The Light Turns On," there is a phrase some might at first interpret as offensive: "Confess, yes detest the Western attitude's mess."

But the subsequent line condemns religious zeal like that which drove the Sept. 11 terrorists:

"Zest for doing righteousness is nil./Got to obey Allah and obey Allah's will!"

Group member Abdul-Malik Ahmad, who wrote the song years ago, said the "mess" he was referring to is what he sees as a lack of "religiousity" in Western culture.

And Salaam, a former security police officer in the U.S. Air Force, said he hopes the music of Native Deen and other Muslim rappers and singers will unite people, not divide them.

"People who like music will like most of our songs," he said. "Music is universal."