Hip-Hop: Common Links:
Mohammed Yahya on Hip-Hop, Islam and the Power of Music
THE ISLAMIC MONTHLY: I read that you studied Buddhism and other religions but that you converted to Islam during a trip to Gambia. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience? Why Islam? Why Gambia?
MUHAMMAD YAHYA: At the age of 12 or 13, I decided to become a born-again Christian out of my own choice. And at 16, I reached an age where I started having a lot of doubts in the religion of Christianity. I had a lot of questions and a lot of things that I saw were contradictions to what the Bible was teaching. So I was constantly asking my pastor to clarify these questions. But the answers he gave me weren’t fulfilling. So I moved away from Christianity. I looked into Buddhism and I looked into a lot of different lifestyles and a lot of “isms.”
One day, my friend basically asked me if I wanted to go on a holiday to Gambia. It was the first time I had the opportunity to go back to the continent which I was born in and left at such a young age because of a civil war. At the time, I was going just to visit the country because I knew about the film, “Roots,” and it was supposed to be based on an individual that was taken and enslaved from Gambia. So I went there and I found out that 95 percent of the population was Muslim. I just came across very humble, very pious, very simple people. Very poor financially, yet very giving. And the way that they did their lifestyle made sense to me. So I started looking into Islam and the actions were just so beautiful. They made me want to find out more. When I came back to the U.K., London, I decided to convert.
I notice you mention “Roots.” In your video, “A World Full of Sin,” you have a character who seems to reflect Malcolm X. Were you influenced by Malcolm X? In some sense, did the American narrative or experience affect you?
Definitely yes. I was definitely interested in Malcolm X because he represented so many different things. He represented a person who came from a deprived community … and he was able to change his life around despite all the struggles around him: despite having friends that were involved in so many negative activities, and regardless of that, he was heading towards a brighter life.
I grew up around a lot of poverty, and I could relate to that. I remember at the age of 5 years old seeing my uncle injecting heroin. So I could understand what Malcolm was coming from – the drugs, the crime – because I grew up in that surrounding. Seeing him change his life around and becoming such a positive role model had an immense effect on me. So when I read his autobiography years before I converted to Islam, I was like, wow, this guy was amazing. I definitely feel that, subconsciously, he definitely influenced me and contributed towards my conversion to Islam.
Let me switch gears to the music. Would you describe yourself as a Muslim hip-hop artist or just a hip-hop artist?
I would say I am a Muslim who is a rapper. I wouldn’t say Islamic hip-hop or Muslimhip-hop because I don’t think that from Islam, there is hip-hop. However, I am a rapper who is a Muslim. And because I am a Muslim, my concepts and my ideas and what I reflect in my art form is a reflection of who I am, and I am a Muslim. So you can clearly hear that in my music.
How would I see that in your music? Where would I find it?
Well, starting off with me calling myself Muhammed Yahya. It doesn’t sound like a British name (laughter). My name was Cataclysm before. The word “cataclysm” is something that’s going to cause a great change. And the reason I was called cataclysm is because, even before Islam, I was quite socially conscious. I wanted to contribute and create a positive change in hip-hop. … That’s why I was called cataclysm. But after I converted to Islam, I decided to change my name so that people would be familiar with who I am and what I am as my identity. I went through a lot of struggles because people, when promoting, they would come across my music and just by hearing my name they would be very – they wouldn’t be as welcoming. Let’s just put it that way. But alhamdulillah. And another way that you would hear that I am a Muslim is because actually in my lyrics – like, for example, in “A World Full of Sin,” at the end of the video, there is a hadith from Prophet Muhammed, salla allahu alayhee wassallam. A lot of my lyrics also start with bismillah alrahman alraheem. And sometimes I will talk. Even on the “World Full of Sin,” I’m talking about the deen. So there is a lot of Islamic reference in my lyrics that you would be able to hear.
There are a lot of Muslims who believe that music is sinful or a deviation from Islam. How do you work within the Muslim communities that you are a part of or that you engage in as a hip-hop artist? How do you deal with the issue of music?
There is definitely that school of thought which says that music is haraam. And it’s something that I respect. I respect people’s opinions and I respect all. Further, they can also respect my opinion. If there is something that is gray – There was a period of time that I considered coming away from music (unknown word) just a variety of scholars with different ideas. There was one for example, Sheik Michael Mumisa, who is a professor at Cambridge University – a very respected scholar. He’s written various books and writes for various publications like the Guardian as well as publications abroad. And he’s translated a lot of classical literature, and he was explaining to me – him as well as other scholars – that a lot of the hadiths about it being haraam is, they’re very weak hadith. So I feel confident in what I do. Obviously I do come across obstacles in my community, the Muslim community. But there are also people that do listen to music. And the reality is that if you are a young person, a young teenager who is a hafeez of Quran and you don’t listen to music, then my music may not be for you. But my music is for those who are listening to 50 Cent, those who are listening to a lot of hip-hop that is propagating violence, drugs, sex and all these immoral acts. So my music is to provide an alternative for those people and to help them with their identity. And alhamdulillah. It is successful because there is a demand for it. The Muslim community (can) not turn their backs on our young people and sweep these problems under the carpet. And that is why I try to tackle a lot of these issues in my music because music is a universal language and it’s a language that the youth can relate to.
You say there is a demand for the music. I was wondering if Muslim hip-hop artists have to accept that they will never be commercially successful as far as reaching the mainstream. Or do you think that’s changing now and that you may actually have a space within the mainstream in the future? I believe that you can be a Muslim and that you can be a commercial artist because many commercial artists are Muslims. You look at Lupe Fiasco, he’s a Muslim. You look at Mos Def, he’s a Muslim. … There are literally hundreds of rappers who are Muslim: orthodox Muslims or those influenced by Islam or some of the teachings of Islam. And some of them are like offshoots – people like (the Wu-Tang Clan were) influenced by some of the teachings of Islam and the Five Percenters. Other artists were influenced by the Nation of Islam. It might not be orthodox Islam, but still some elements of Islam. So I think that you can definitely become a mainstream artist and be a Muslim as well. And even outside of hip-hop: when you look at world music, a lot of people like Youssou N’Dour from from Senegal and a lot of great world musicians from Mali and from other parts of west Africa, they are very known, and yet they are Muslim. And for myself, allahu alim, Allah knows best what He’s got in store for me. But I don’t feel, I don’t see it as a setback, being a Muslim. I see it as a great blessing and it’s something I’m very happy to be. And if I didn’t, I would’ve hid my Islamic identity. But I consciously and purposely put it out there.
You are trapped in a tradition of hip-hop that I remember growing up with, Public Enemy and these older groups, that I think were doing what you do in many ways. Do you think that now that you are rapping in a period where global communication has allowed you to reach a much wider audience, which means you can tap into a larger Muslim audience or non-Muslim audience, do you think that has helped you musically in any way?
Yeah, because of social networks and the Internet, I am able to collaborate. This week alone I had to go and record a verse for a rapper who is based in Canada. And I had to write another verse for a rapper who is based in New York. … Before the Internet came, it was a lot more difficult for me to be able to communicate with artists as well as the audience. Now I can put my stuff on Bandcamp or Myspace or Youtube or Twitter and have people following me from different parts of the world. So it facilitates a lot. I think underground artists and artists who are independent have got much more of a chance to get their music out there and kind of compete with mainstream artists.
I noticed that you are obviously involved in a lot of youth work. Do you see this as part of your musical career or separate? Why is this important to you?
I think the youth are the future. I don’t see any difference between me performing where the majority of the audience is teenagers or me going to prison, which is what I do, or going to a school and also performing there and working on a hip-hop workshop. I think that that is just as important and just (as) powerful, sometimes even more powerful, because I actually have time to spend with them on a one-to-one basis. I think that it’s very important because the youth are the future. They are the ones who grow up and get jobs that will affect society. So if they are equipped with the right tools and the right concepts and the right understanding of society, then they can make positive changes in the society by the will of Allah. That’s why it’s so important to target them.
Michael Vicente Perez is the Diversity Faculty Fellow at Montgomery County Community College and senior editor for The Islamic Monthly. He received his PhD in anthropology from Michigan State University.
Mohammed Yahya is a London-based rapper/spoken word artist originally from Mozambique. His first album, “Luvolution,” was an extraordinary collaboration with Iron Braydz and multiple artists from the U.K. and U.S. Yahya’s most recent album, “Beyond Conflict,” is his first solo effort and captures his distinct blend of poetry, hip-hop and social justice. Yahya, along with artist and community activist Daniel Silverstein, created the first Muslim/ Jewish Hip-Hop collective in the U.K. Yahya is also the president of Speech for Peace, a youth organization designed to inspire community engagement and promote social justice across religion, ethnicity and nationality.
Inscribed morals over lined pages / Conquer my sorrow in divine stages / Open my hearts window and absorb the sunshine / Where every lesson flourishes / In accordance with time / We all make mistakes / Then battle our fears until the evil vacates / This world’s full of snakes / Trying to keep us closed minded / Blinded by the darker forces / Through reflection we find it / Since creation we’ve been sinning / We haven’t reached the end but this is far from the beginning / Patiently I harmonise my higher self / Hoping that in a later stage they’ll be reflected through the actions of someone else / I spit with elegance / A frankincense aroma and a colourful flow / Intense devotion to the one who gave breath to my soul / I’m so thankful / A burst of happiness that I tried to ignore it/ Now liberated from fear / Through expressions we show it / I don’t pretend to know how or why / All the answers to the questions that exists / I just express myself / Be free