References to Islam in hip-hop go back almost as far as the genre’s origin. In the ’80s, the Zulu Nation movement borrowed philosophical groundings from the Nation of Islam. Later in the ’90s, the Wu-Tang Clan’s lyrics occasionally referenced the teachings of the Five Percent Nation, and Q‑Tip of A Tribe Called Quest formed a collective with J Dilla and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad named “The Ummah” – a title used to define Muslim communities.
Common prayers and Arabic terms have famously been incorporated into rap music. Mos Def started his 1999 album Black on Both Sides with the words “Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem”, a Quranic opener meaning “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful”. Across the pond UK rap frontrunner and Channel U fave Sway recited Surah Al-Fatih, the first chapter from the Holy Quran, in its entirety on his 2006 record This Is My Demo.
Islam is often prominent in the communities where hip-hop music thrives, and so it’s not uncommon for citations to appear in the work of non-Muslims artists. Take “Ride with the mob, Alhamdulallah,” a lyric from ASAP Ferg’s 2017 single Plain Jane. Whilst the New Yorker doesn’t identify as Muslim, he mentioned his Muslim grandfather in a Genius interview and explained, “It was just another way to say all praise goes to God.” Another example is when Drake dropped “this is a blessing mashallah, wallahi” on Sweeterman remix. The saying “mashallah” is a positive affirmation of thankfulness for God’s work and “wallahi” being a version of “I swear to God” that’s become permanent lingo in the Toronto rapper’s hometown, thanks to its Somali population.
But despite a long spanning history of nods to the religion from musicians, recently we’ve seen a few instances that tap dance on the line between controversy and a celebration of faith.
In September, London rapper Krept (half of duo Krept and Konan) came under fire for incorporating words of invocation into his guest verse on D‑Block Europe’s track Thoughts in a similar manner to many before him, but he was met with social media backlash and accused of “mocking Islam” by mixing parts from the Quran with a song which also has explicit lyrics about sex and dealing drugs.
“These rappers need to stop using Allah’s sacred words in their songs,” one Twitter user shared. “Krept used a verse from the Quran in a song that is about pussy and drugs. The Quran is the literal word of God to us,” pointed out another. Twenty-four-year-old student Hakz expressed that he feels there are “no standards when it comes to rappers mixing religion and music nowadays,” arguing that “a Muslim rapper should know now not to recite the Quran in their song… using the religion to gain more fans is not a very good idea.” Krept immediately defended his verse, saying he was sincere in his celebration of Islam and that no disrespect was intended.
Beyond the realm of hip-hop, the Quran has been referenced in music many times, from “nasheed” songs of worship to short prayers known as Dhikr being incorporated by Arabic pop acts and British Indian artist Harris J, who is dubbed by some as the “Muslim Justin Bieber”.
Saina, a 21-year-old Muslim living in London, argues that Asian and Arabic acts come under less scrutiny than black Western rappers when referencing Islam. “As black people, we’re used to the double standard served to us, but that doesn’t make it OK… people see rap music as inherently crude, violent or vulgar. Why? Because it’s a genre created and enjoyed by black people.”
“However, this being said there is a wrong way and a right way,” Saina continues. “If you are talking about religion in the context of something good, you’re obviously doing a good thing. Talking about Islam as well as how fat your girl’s ass is, [that’s] not the context you want people to consider your faith in.”
Moroccan-born South Bronx rapper French Montana also became a trending topic after sharing the cover art for his forthcoming album Montana, which features him surrounded six women shrouded in the niqāb, the face veil some Muslim women wear.
Montana’s move may have been an attempt to normalise the presence of modestly dressed Muslim women, empower niqāb wearers and represent his Arab roots. But the conservative clothing clashed against red patent leather thigh high boots, drawing criticism for sexualising women or trivialising a highly politicised garment that many face prejudice for wearing (for example, Boris Johnson’s “letter box” comments or France’s niqāb ban, which has been ruled as a violation of human rights).
Whilst the Montana cover art drew a few positive comments from figures like Amani al-Khatahtbeh, editor-in-chief of web zine MuslimGirl, in an article for gal-dem Ruqaiya Haris argued that it “contributed to Orientalist fantasies of Muslim women and historical obsession with unveiling them”.
But not all portrayals of Muslim women in pop culture are so badly received. The Montana artwork isn’t completely unlike the work of fellow Moroccan contemporary artist Hassan Hajjaj, who’s worked with figures like Cardi B and Madonna and is often referred to as the “Andy Warhol of Marrakech”. Hajjaj produced the celebrated photo series Kesh Angels, which showed badass ladies in colourful traditional djellaba and niqābs riding around Marrakech on motorcycles.
North Carolina hip-hop artist Rapsody’s recent single Ibtihaj, which features D’Angelo and Wu-Tang member GZA, references Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first ever woman to wear hijab whilst representing the U.S. at the 2016 games in Rio. The song’s video stars stereotype-defying sisters on the streets of Harlem, poppin’ wheelies on quad bikes and chasing down bullies all while dressed in vibrant hijabs.
French Montana and Rapsody’s work may share similar intentions but differ in their execution, with the latter being far better received – due to the perception that it’s empowering Muslim women rather than sexualising them.
Proud representation in hip-hop is often welcomed by the younger generations of Muslims. And if rappers are willing to challenge perceptions in a way which is respectful, then they’ll likely enjoy their support. “I think it’s important that musicians include religion in their work because we live in a world that thinks there is only one way to be Muslim,” Saina says. “Breaking down stereotypes is paramount to getting people a step closer to accepting a real Islam.”