Introducing hip-hop's songs of praise

Hip-hop has often been used to promote hate, violence, and greed. But now, says jerome taylor, it is being adopted by Britain's Muslim youth to publicise religious, pacifist, and progressive messages
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In a darkened, cramped venue above a west London fitness club a crowd of young men and women talk animatedly as they eagerly await the night's entertainment. A DJ, dressed in the obligatory baggy pants and shades, turns down the volume on his turntables as the first act of the night takes the stage. Heavy bass and beats, intertwined with complex samples and scratching, resonate around the room.

This could be the start of any other hip-hop gig. But when the rapper begins his first song, you know this is something entirely different. "Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim!" he shouts. "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful" – the opening lines of the Koran.

Welcome to the world of Islamic hip-hop, a new style of urban music that is becoming increasingly popular among Britain's young Muslims.

The normal time one might hear the opening words of the Koran resonating in song is when a muezzin calls on the faithful five times a day from the top of a minaret, in an Arabic tradition that dates back 1,400 years.

Tonight's "Bismillah" is a thoroughly modern, Westernised interpretation of that tradition but its aims are remarkably similar: to remind the audience of the "one god Allah" before the show begins.

A closer look at tonight's venue, the monthly Rebel Musik night in Ladbroke Grove, quickly clears up which particular genre of hip-hop we are now listening to. Pinned to the door of the club is a sign politely reminding the audience not to bring alcohol inside.

Religion and bling-obsessed hip-hop might not seem the likeliest bedfellows but, even within mainstream rap, faith has become an increasingly acceptable topic to rhyme about – Kanye West's song, "Jesus Walks", is a recent commercially successful example.

In the United States the relationship between Islam and hip-hop has always been a strong one. Prominent commercial Muslim rap stars like Mos Def, Chuck D and RZA have long rapped about their religious influences, while Nation of Islam followers producing politicised Muslim rap are many. But since the mid- to late-Nineties a new genre of Islamic hip-hop has emerged, one that rejects the misogynistic, materialistic overtones of gangsta rap and instead concentrates almost exclusively on using hip-hop as a way to preach about Islam.

One of the earliest Islamic hip-hop bands to try their luck in Britain were Mecca2Medina. Set up in the late 1990s, Mecca2Medina switched from the usual diet of extolling the triple "hip-hop virtues" of money, drugs and women and began recording songs with a distinctly Islamic edge. But, initially, they found few fellow believers to play to.

"To be honest, most of our early fans weren't even Muslims," Ismael South, one of the band's three members, admits as he sips sugary mint tea in a café on London's Edgware Road. "Our fans were generally from the underground scene, which was getting increasingly tired of the direction mainstream hip-hop was going in."

The early years were lonely, but, ironically, it was the terrible events of September 11 that changed all that. "September 11 was definitely the tipping point," recalls Rakin Misbah. "British Muslims were suddenly forced to ask some searching questions about themselves, like: 'Who am I? What am I doing here? Am I Muslim or British or both?' All the organisations that had once condemned us for rapping about Islam suddenly clamoured to get hold of us. They needed people to represent and talk to young British Muslims."

Although Islam has strong musical traditions – Sufi chants and the devotional songs known as nasheeds are just two examples – some orthodox interpretations of Islam believe that music itself is forbidden. The confusion stems from the hadiths, words and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that Muslims use, alongside the Koran, as the source of all guidance. Although there are a number of hadiths in favour of music, there were also times when the Prophet appeared to voice his disapproval of musical instruments, and scholars still remain divided on the issue to this day.

One of the reasons why rap is such a popular form of music is that it is possible to circumnavigate these arguments entirely by relying on just beats and vocals.

Nowhere is the role of rap and Islam more controversial, however, than when it comes to female hip-hop artists. Rabiah Abdullah, 21, is a typical example of the type of confident outspoken Muslim women currently gaining strong reviews and acceptance from their peers. As Pearls of Islam, Abdullah, her younger sister Sakinah, and friend Khadijah Muhammad are one of the few female acts willing to use musical instruments and singing in their set.

Their Sufi-inspired songs steer clear of the politics that so often creep into the genre and instead concentrate on the idea that Islam, like Christianity, is fundamentally a message of love – "love is the bind that binds the heart" is a frequent refrain found in their songs.

"When we first started out it was such a new idea, not just Islamic hip- hop music but also the idea that Muslim ladies are able to do so," says Abdullah, her smiling face wrapped in a brilliant turquoise hijab. "There are these silly misconceptions about Muslim ladies."

Sakinah, Abdullah's equally confident younger sister, remembers what it was when they had just started: "I remember this one time, we'd only just started rapping and we got invited to an event to perform. I think the person organising it didn't really understand what our act was about because the venue was full of those Saudi-type men, the Wahabi-minded Muslims. We jumped on stage wearing bright-coloured hijabs and started rapping and they just walked out."

Other female acts have begun using their position as artists to try and persuade their Muslim "brothers" to give women a greater voice. Poetic Pilgrimage, a powerful vocal duo consisting of two sisters, whose motto features a veiled woman holding a Kalashnikov with a flower in the barrel, are one of the major bands who rap as much about encouraging social change within the Muslim community as they do about the religion itself.

"The way things have grown is truly remarkable," says Muneera Williams, one half of Poetic Pilgrimage. "A few years ago we were one of the few female acts on a struggling scene. Now we have a magazine devoted to the genre, national tours, regular music nights across the country and we even have our own record labels."