Hip-Hop's Imitation of Malcolm X

August 2, 2020

 

            

            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 the proper path to the future”. In both the definitions of traditional religion and cultural religion, we find the theme for identifying problems and offering solutions. Malcolm X and the NOI both embraced and espoused these ideas. And it was in this way that the “shining prince” offered hope to the Hip-Hop generation and became, in essence, a cultural-religious messiah. 

 

         In an interview with The Source Magazine, rapper Prodigy, who later became part of Mobb Deep, acknowledged that his mother had seen his interest in rap groups like Public Enemy- known for appropriating the messages of Malcolm X- and bought him Malcolm’s autobiography for his 16th birthday. He believed Malcolm X's story helped him to find “a higher purpose” in life. Years later, Prodigy died from complications with sickle-cell anemia. In a tribute to the rapper, Nation of Islam minister Abdullah Muhammad quoted Prodigy, who had once proclaimed: “I am the new Malcolm X.”  

 

            According to Juan M. Floyd-Thomas in “Jihad of Words: The Evolution of African American Islam and Contemporary Hip Hop,” Malcolm X’s life served as “the definitive articulation of rage, struggle and hope of African Americans” in the late twentieth century. Malcolm X denounced racism, bigotry, capitalist exploitation, and social injustices within the framework of the tradition of black nationalism and his Muslim faith. Floyd-Thomas uses the dual essence of the Arabic word “jihad” in Islam, which both addresses “striving within the self” and also emphasizes “striving in the path of Allah”. Floyd-Thomas saw that Malcolm X’s work not only made him a good Muslim but also a symbol of black power. Unsurprisingly, rappers like Prodigy, living on the margins of society, found their “higher purpose” through this cultural-religious messiah and aligned themselves with Islam. In the same way that Christians aspire to live a Christ-like life, these rappers wanted to be like Malcolm. By adopting Malcolm’s speech methodology or “jihad of words” as their own, rappers express their rage and distrust through the rhyme and verse of rap. 

 

                   Havoc (Left) and Prodigy (Right) of Mobb Deep 

 

         The Nation of Islam and its offshoot, The Five Percent Nation, are inextricably linked with 1980’s and 1990’s Hip-Hop. The NOI and Five Percent Nation identify themselves as both a religion and socio-political movement. Rappers from these decades imitate Malcolm X; they too are equally tied to both their faith and black identity and adopt his style or “jihad of words” through rap to represent their religion and their cause. 

 

       In the 1980s, Reagan’s America was defined by wealth inequality, loss of faith in democracy, and racial re-segregation, causing a spike in hate crime violence. Black America searched for their leaders and their modern-day Malcolm X. In Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang cites minister of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, as one leader who advocated for “slavery reparations, exhorted Black men to save the race and constantly reminded his followers what Elijah Muhammad had preached: “Separation is the Solution”’’. Like Malcolm X had impacted the boomer generation, Farrakhan resonated with black youth of the 1980s, precisely one kid in the suburbs of Long Island: rapper Chuck D. According to Chang, Chuck D’s rap group, Public Enemy, was the answer to new black radicalism, “preparing to emerge from the darkness, they demanded to be heard as the expression of a new generation’s definition of blackness”. Chuck D. made no secret of his devotion to the ideals of the Nation of Islam. In their 1988 song, “Party for Your Right to Fight,” from their album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Chuck D. raps:

J. Edgar Hoover, and he coulda proved to you

He had King and X set up

Also, the party with Newton, Cleaver, and Seale

He ended, so get up

Time to get ‘em back

(you got it)

Get back on the track

(you got it)

Word from the honorable Elijah Muhammed

Know who you are to be black

 

Here Chuck D. makes a nod to President Hoover and the FBI’s fear of a “black messiah,” suggesting either Martin Luther King Jr. or NOI member, Malcolm X. He then names the founding members of the Black Panther Party (Huey Newton, Eldrige Cleaver, and Bobby Seale) who, according to Hoover’s administration, posed a threat to US National Security. These allusions to black nationalism reinforce Chang’s assertion that Public Enemy represents a new black radicalism. Further, Chuck D. makes his religious affiliation known referencing “Elijah Muhammad”- a one-time leader of the NOI and mentor to Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. Here, Public Enemy, like Malcolm, use their “jihad of words” to name the problem, the government’s long pattern of oppressing black leaders, and offer a solution to Black Americans- to “get back on track”- and enter a new era of radicalism.

 

         By the mid-1990s, Hip-Hop music had gone even beyond American mainstream; it was now global. According to Chang, new monitoring technology, racial profiling, youth curfews, zero-tolerance programs, and rising incarceration rates created “a miasma of dread” in the hood. Urban youth had taken to wearing camo and calling themselves “souljahs," but despite Hip-Hop expanding and commodifying globally, underground groups like Mobb Deep emerged speaking in Five Percent ciphers. Their style encapsulated a new “mood” of rap that was both “claustrophobic and swarming”. From the ghetto of Queensbridge, New York, Prodigy, and his rap partner Havoc brought back an authentic, street aesthetic to New York rap which had been missing from the increasingly commercialized East Coast rap style and sound, perhaps epitomized best by Puff Daddy.  

 

         In the song “Still Shinin’” from their album, Hell on Earth, Prodigy makes several references to Islam. “The truth gets revealed liked W Fard,” he raps, referencing the founder of the NOI and insists, “I’m headstrong, at peace with myself like Islam.” He signals the Five Percent Nation key concepts like Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet created by Allah, “Fuck the myths, but science in numbers is how I live/If we ain't getting mathematics something got to give.” On the hook, they repeat “We build and destroy,” a direct nod to the number 8 in Supreme Mathematics, and reference the “divine nine,” where D is “divine” in the Supreme Alphabet.

 

Chuck D of Public Enemy

             Was Malcolm X, a cultural messiah or a religious messiah? I think he is both. The hope that his words and exhortations inspired young black men, like Prodigy, who were searching for purpose and meaning fits with Clarke’s definition of religion, providing an “explanation” and “solution.” Chuck D. and Public Enemy’s message of black radicalism in response to racism in America, resting heavily on Malcolm X’s legacy in his work with both the civil rights and the NOI, demonstrates Wiley’s suggestion that cultural religion is a system that serves as a “proper path to the future.” In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Chuck D. described how he was able to unify other members of Public Enemy, who held separate beliefs, by emphasizing the concept that “art is God-talk.” He goes on to say, “Any time I’ve felt that I was kinda lost, I always reached down within and expressed myself. That’s helped me understand that everything is beyond us.” Malcolm X was a force for change through his expressions of cultural and religious “jihad of words.” Like Malcolm X, Chuck. D. enunciates the unified nature of culture and religion through words:

“Culture is my religion, art is God-talk. I keep it at that.”

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