“He was a statesman without a state, a revolutionary, an outlaw…” said Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) about Malcolm X. We had just spent the day together, going to the “Great Black Music” exhibit at the Musee de la Musique in Paris, which showcased the genius of Black musicians throughout the African diaspora, from Fela Kuti to Nina Simone, Bob Marley to Gil Scot-Heron, and Public Enemy to Lauryn Hill.
I was in the midst of curating my own exhibit Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop, which was to open in Los Angeles, and Yasiin agreed to be interviewed for the project. We sat for several hours in a wide-ranging conversation, as he opened up about his own conversion to Islam, the significance of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali as archetypes for Black possibility, the rise of hip-hop and Islam’s deep influence on the culture, the powerful, but often under-appreciated role of the Nation of Islam, as well as his remix of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “N****s in Paris,” the legendary group N.W.A. and so much else.
I excerpted a portion of the conversation for the exhibit book, which also includes an essay by Public Enemy front man Chuck D, photos by legendary photographers Jamel Shabazz, Ernie Paniccioli, B+, Cognito, and Katina Parker, as well as album cover art, flyers and other historical material. I hoped to show the central role that Islam has had in shaping Black politics and art, from empowering Black communities, to influencing Black literature, poetry, jazz, soul, and of course hip-hop culture.
It was ground I covered in my previous book, but I wanted to translate those ideas into another medium, and a gallery/museum exhibit seemed like a powerful way to bring these histories to life. Just as in that work, Malcolm X loomed large in the exhibit. During our conversation, Yasiin and I kept returning to the continuing relevance of Malcolm today, especially for Muslims. It wasn’t just Malcolm’s dignified desire to shape and keep alive the flame of Black radicalism, but also his insistence on internationalizing struggles and seeing Black people not as a national minority but as part of a global majority. For Yasiin, Malcolm’s influence endures, particularly for those who Bey says are “poor, or hungry or hunted.” At a moment when policing and militarism in America are once again being challenged, these words couldn’t ring more true, or sound the alarm more clearly.
Sohail Daulatzai is the author of Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America and co-editor of Born to Use Mics, a literary remix of Nas’s album Illmatic. He is the curator of the exhibit Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop, and editor of the companion commemorative book of the same name. He has written liner notes for the 2012 release of the 20th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set of Rage Against the Machine’s self titled debut album, the liner notes for the DVD release of Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme and the centerpiece in the museum catalog Movement: Hip-Hop in L.A., 1980’s – Now, and his other writings have appeared in The Nation, Counterpunch, Al Jazeera, Souls and Wax Poetics, amongst others. He is the founder of Groundings, a conversation series that has included Immortal Technique, Chuck D, Rosa Clemente, dream hampton, Robin D.G. Kelley, Brother Ali, and Jasiri X. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies and the Program in African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Follow him @SohailDaulatzai
Yasiin Bey, better known by his former stage name Mos Def, is an American hip hop recording artist, actor, and activist from Brooklyn, New York City, New York. (wikipedia)