"I think that Islam itself is the unofficial religion of hip-hop," proclaims Adisa Banjoko, the San Jose-based writer, publicist, radio show host of One Mic on KNEW-AM, and student of Gracie-style Brazilian jujitsu. "So much hip-hop has come to be that has referenced Islam, that many of the people themselves don't even recognize it. Like, why is it that Biggie Smalls was going on about From Mecca to Medina? He's not talking about Saudi Arabia."
Banjoko, aka "The Bishop of Hip-Hop," has been one of the truest voices of West Coast rap journalism for more than a decade now: His byline has appeared everywhere from XXL to Yoga Journal. In fact, it's tempting to call him the prototype rap intellectual. He is equally at home in a coat and tie, or a beanie, puff jacket, work boots, and Tupac T-shirt. Furthermore, he is equally willing to debate the merits of Chuck D vs. Ice Cube, George Jackson vs. George Jefferson, or Sonny Chiba vs. Chow Yun-Fat.
Banjoko was born Jason Parker in San Francisco some 35 years ago. He changed his name in 1988 when he adopted the Muslim faith, after being inspired by Public Enemy's classic "Bring the Noise," which sampled Malcolm X's now-famous "Too black, too strong" quote. Before settling in San Jose, he lived in San Bruno and Oakland; super-OG Bay Area hip-hop fans might even remember his stint as an MC in the Afrocentric group Freedom T.R.O.O.P. 187.
Rather than simply plugging Banjoko's new book, Lyrical Swords -- a collection of essays on hip-hop culture and its connections to Eastern philosophy, spirituality, and religion -- I thought I'd employ him as a guest commentator on Islamic hip-hop. We absorbed ten cuts (both new and old) from Islamic-identified rappers, and afterwards talked hella shit ... oops, I mean, engaged in an analytical discourse about various issues and tangents relating to Islam and rap.
Azeem, "Platinum Trendz"
Show Business (2004)
AB: I can tell this is from the Westside. Who is this? Aaah, he's so raw. ... I think that's the sad part of a lot of hip-hop is it's just a list of brand names. It's just a checklist of what you have. One of the things about Islam is God definitely wants you to live well. You don't have to live all outside your means, and mortgage the house for some gold teeth or whatever, but if you can afford the cool ride? Buy it. As long as you're not buying it just to drive by the people who are on the bus.
C2tE: Around my way, I see Geo Metros with spinners on them.
AB: At that point, you just gotta shake the head.
Ali Shaheed Muhammed, "Industry/Life"
Shaheedullah and Stereotypes (2004)
AB: That was tight. I like that whole album, by the way. Again, just the cat's name, it's one of those things that makes Islam the unofficial religion of hip-hop.
C2tE: Ali Shaheed Muhammed, he's up there with Farrakhan and Malcolm X, he's like the Muslim that people know.
AB: Yeah, that's true. Even if you don't know anything about Islam, you know his name.
Mos Def, "Ghetto Rock"
The New Danger (2004)
AB: Well, Mos is one of the best lyricists in hip-hop, possibly ever. It's been a long time since an MC made me feel that way. The stuff he says goes past a lot of people, but a lot of people it still hits. He's very beautifully Islamic on wax, meaning that a lot of it is not very overt, like this one right here, with The star and the crescent. I was told, and I don't know if it's absolutely correct, that man has no real light, he just reflects, and any good that shines from him shines as a reflection of God.
C2tE: I thought it was interesting that Mos used a rock beat. That's definitely not your typical run-of-the-mill hip-hop song.
AB: At the same time, even though the beat is real bare-bones, he kept it ghetto with that. I don't know what it is about guitars and black people. Especially young cats. Like, our parents listened to the guitar all day. But this generation is not really checking for the guitar. Still, cats in the hood aren't necessarily gonna turn it, even though they hear the guitar. They might be like, "Hmm. But the beat's knockin."
Brother Ali, "Star Quality"
Shadows on the Sun (2003)
AB: Know what I thought when I was listening to this? In this first verse, he mentions something about the Koran, and I realized at that point that that's one of the things that has happened in hip-hop. You hear terms like the Koran being used, and you don't know what it is. But later on in life, you hear the same phrase and you're like, "Oh, the Koran, that's what Brother Ali was talking about." You come to Islam less afraid than most people in America, who have no frame of reference for it.
C2tE: He talked about the Koran in the first verse, and then in the next verse, he's talking about, If I would have known it was Ladies Night, I would have put baby wipes on my balls.
AB: (Laughing) I know! That was too much information for me!
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