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Hip-Hop's Imitation of Malcolm X

On the morning of February 27th, 1965, in his eulogy of Malcolm X, actor and activist Ossie Davis delivered his final praise: “And we will know him for what he was and is - a prince- our own black shining prince- who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.” These words evoke a picture of the messiah. Davis conveyed a sentiment that so many others believed to be true of Malcolm: that he was a martyr for the black liberation movement. For days, thousands of mourners formed lines around the door to pay their respect at the Unity Funeral Home in Harlem. It was evident that Malcolm Latif Shabazz had become more than a socio-political leader and minister of the Nation of Islam but something of a black messiah. For generations to come, he and his unrelenting black power rhetoric, self-knowledge, and Muslim identity permeated American culture. These concepts specifically resonated with disenfranchised black youth who were looking to find their way through a white-dominated society. The legacy of Malcolm X and his ideas of black power gave hope to the Hip-Hop generation in the same way many look to religion. Indeed, twenty years after Malcolm’s death, the Hip-Hop movement appropriated the Nation of Islam (NOI) precepts, incorporating them into the world view that they were conveying to their audience. In some ways, rappers were preachers for the NOI.

In “Introduction: What is religion? What is popular culture? How are they related?” Terry Ray Clarke defines religion as “not only an explanation for why human life is in some ways problematic or difficult” but also as a way to “provide a solution to this problem . For Malcolm X, the NOI provided a way to deal with the problem of oppressive social conditions, of being black in America and explored solutions to overcome them. His expression of spirituality through both ministry and leadership, had not only reached NOI followers but attracted many to convert to the Nation. Had Malcolm X become a cultural messiah or a religious one? According to John Wiley Nelson in Your God is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular Culture, both were possible. Wiley’s definition of American ‘cultural religion” looks similar to Clarke’s traditional definition of religion. Cultural religion acts as “a system regarding the nature and source of problems…the nature of resolved situations, and