When Syrian-American rapper Mona Haydar released her debut single, “Wrap My Hijab” in 2017, mainstream media and parts of the Muslim community celebrated her as the “first” female Muslim emcee. However, history of female Muslim emcees began not with Haydar, but with Miss Undastood, a New York-based rapper described as the Muslim answer to Eve and Foxy Brown. At the turn of the millennium, Miss Undastood was the only known female Muslim rapper. For almost two decades, the First Lady of Islamic hip-hop’s slick lyricism has been ricocheting around the halls of underground rap battle gatherings, community gatherings, and more recently on Instagram, unleashing a salvo about domestic violence, the struggles of single parenthood, 9/11, her lived experiences as a Black woman, and quarantining in the age of the coronavirus. But when she started rapping, Miss Undastood faced challenges as the first Black, female Muslim rapper.
“They used to say things like I was ‘hip-hopping my way to the hellfire.’ Sometimes people would send their kids to the stage to tell me to shut up. Whenever I wanted to talk about political topics or stuff that’s taboo, people were taking things out of context, twisting a lot of the words and making my intentions look negative. I was just being a ‘feminist,’ or a ‘man-hater.’ The fact that I rap makes men feel like I’m not religious enough, that I’m not pious enough. ‘Oh, you’re doing that? You can’t be on your religion. You can’t be on your deen (faith).’”
Twenty years later, a new generation of Black, female Muslim emcees in the US has emerged to carry on the hip-hop crown of Miss Undastood. These pioneers face new challenges as they use their Islamic hip-hop to celebrate their womanhood, racial identity, and faith, offering unapologetic social and political commentary on topics including the Black Lives Matter movement, the erasure of Black Muslims from Islam, and US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies.
From Lauryn Hill to Drake, Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, and Mos Def, Islamic references have long been used in hip-hop. As Harry Allen from Public Enemy once remarked, “If hip-hop has an official religion, it is Islam.” The relationship between Islam and hip-hop, however, isn’t as well-known, as Dr Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, author of Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States, explains. “That has a lot to do with how hip-hop is seen as ‘Black music,’ which is configured around pathologies like poverty, criminality, and sexuality. Islam and Muslims get pegged around sexuality and being very strict: There’s no music and there’s no sex.”
The lyrics of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill, the first US number-one single by a female hip-hop artist, includes a well-known Islamic phrase referenced 33 times in the Qur’an, which Muslims utter every day while performing their five daily prayers: “Yo, my men and my women / Don’t forget about the deen [faith] / The Siraat Al-Mustaqim [straight path].” For Miss Undastood, this unlikely marriage between hip-hop and spirituality opened the floodgates for her to become the arbiter of a genre – Islamic hip-hop – that was not only religiously conscious but also culturally relevant to young Muslim Americans. “Lauryn was being modest. She was putting some scriptures here and there and dropping some Islamic words,” Miss Undastood says. “It was hip-hop and spirituality together, which is what I’m doing: infusing hip-hop along with Islamic messages.”
These Islamic influences also found their way into the aesthetic of hip-hop. Queen Latifah popularized typical clothing from the African diaspora in the form of head wraps and West African kente print in hip-hop fashion in the mid 1980s. Alia Sharrief, a California-based emcee, human rights activist, and hip-hop teacher, salutes her faith and her African heritage with her head wraps and jewelry featuring the shape of Africa; a continent where practices of modesty for Muslim women have in some places been eclipsed by the Arab and South Asian practices of hijabs and chaadars. Modesty is a thorny issue, with Sharrief acknowledging the struggle to thrive in an industry that promotes the hyper-sexualization of women, and Black women especially. “There are so many battles to represent yourself as a Muslim woman in the limelight of hip-hop. Not only do you get judged by fellow Muslims because everyone’s talking about how a female emcee is haram and you’re not supposed to be doing this. To top it off, you’re in a hijab, and you’re dealing with big booties and cute hairstyles.”
New Jersey-based emcee, model, and writer Boshia Rae-Jean converted to Islam in 2015. Her debut song, “Qnowledge,” begins with “Bismillah hirahman nirahim,” a nod to Mos Def’s opening to his 1999 debut album Black on Both Sides. Though Jean features no other explicit Islamic references, the song references the tradition of female scholarship with the chorus line, “Where you gonna get that knowledge?” “My music is about Muslim women seeking scholarship, defending their rights, and not being afraid to say that’s not right,” she states. “We grow up in families that say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t speak too loud’ or ‘You’re a woman, you should do this.’ But hip-hop says no. Hip-hop says fight for your rights. Don’t sit there and be meek. Islam teaches us that as well; to fight for justice. Don’t sit there and let it continue, because then you’re oppressing yourself, your community. That’s the foundation of hip-hop. Islam is literally in hip-hop.”
For identical twins and hip-hop duo Aint Afraid, who go by the stage names Straingth and Wizdumb, their music is rooted in the remembrance of God. With more than 137 000 followers on Instagram, the twins address the “Muslim baes” of Instagram, defining God’s names in a “99 names of Allah challenge,” and creating Islamic renditions of nursery rhymes such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” which they reprised as “Ra, Ra, Ramadan.” They first began thinking of rapping about Islam and their faith a year after they left high school, and noticed that all the scholars and artists they looked to for inspiration on how to juggle their American and Muslim identities were men. “We didn’t really know about women artists,” says Wizdumb. “We realized young Muslims – especially sisters – needed to see that you can live a dope life and value your religion. That it is possible. So many young sisters ask us, ‘How are you guys so cool, and still so Muslim?’ For us, that was our life. Our mother brought us up on that.”
Hip-hop endures as the musical arsenal of choice for a new generation of female Muslim emcees who are building online and real-life communities with their music for the same reason it always has: the very soul of hip-hop demands a better world, in the same way the Muslim faith does. “What these Muslim women are doing when they think about socially conscious hip-hop music, they’re not just picking up on the civil rights movement or the radical Black power movement,” says Dr Abdul Khabeer. “They’re picking up on generations of people who were doing this. To create culture, to embrace it, to do it in the context in which our ancestors lived and which we currently live in, is to resist. To live, to have joy, to do all the things we do, is a form of resistance.”
Originally Published in the October 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia