Championed by Diddy and Will Smith, Neelam Hakeem is breaking onto the scene with her piercing rap and modest hijab style.
Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
“I converted to Islam in 2007, but I never felt like I was fully ready to commit to hijab – my hair was a crutch for me,” says burgeoning rap artist Neelam Hakeem. “From a fashion perspective, I didn’t realize that you could be modest and fierce at the same time; that you could walk into a room and command it. Not that I was ever a skin-shower,” she laughs. “I don’t have a Kardashian body.” The diminutive Hakeem, whose face has the full and regal features of an African queen, is speaking from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, Marquis Henri, their two young children, and her mother. At first glance, the 31-year-old, with her Instagram following of 300 000, may give the impression of being just another modest influencer, posing in brands like Dulce by Safiya, Culture Hijab, and Hayah Collection. Then you play one of her videos, and she starts rapping about everything from political and social injustices to women’s rights.
In a matter of months, her lyrics, rapped to songs by Jaden Smith and Kanye West, have made impressive rounds on social media. Diddy, Will Smith, The Shade Room, and Erykah Badu have all regrammed her songs. Their combined followings have broadcast Hakeem’s lines and modest style to some 47.7 million followers.
With her international visibility on such steep ascent, how does Hakeem stay grounded? “I have a mission,” she says, with distinct determination. “And my mission is more important than my ego.” Hakeem was born in 1986 in Seattle, Washington. She describes her childhood as normal, peppered with outdoor adventures alongside her two sisters. When she was 15, her parents divorced, and the world as she knew it shifted. “My mom drove us from Seattle to Los Angeles, we stayed in shelters along the way. My first day in South Central LA was September 11, 2001,” she remembers. In her new neighborhood, she was exposed to guns and gang shootings around her school. Meanwhile, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I saw her lose 80% of her bodily function,” she says of her mother’s rapid deterioration. “Growing up, I was a shy kid, scared of everything, but when my mom got sick, I had to step up – I had to take care of her and my sisters. That completely changed me. I grew strong.”
It was Henri, her husband of eight years, who saw her inner light. “He told me I had talent. I didn’t know what he was talking about.” He has always supported her evolution. “I remember it was March 27, Muslim Women’s Day, and I was going through the hashtag on social media. What I saw inspired me. When I told my husband that I was thinking about wearing the hijab, dressing modestly, and seeing if I can use my social media to inspire other women, he told me to do it. I’m a believer in doing something because you want to. Hijab should be a choice.”
A former medical claims analyst, Hakeem and her husband began collaborating to produce music. Of her genre, she observes, “Rap is not always positive in its portrayal of women. While I do believe that we should do whatever we want – no one should dictate to a woman how she should dress. There should be options.” She reminisces of artists like Lauryn Hill and Badu, “These are women who are positive and authentic and not overly sexual. Meanwhile, rap has been calling women bitches and hoes – there’s no other music genre that treats women like that. It’s unreal. As if twerking is all we have to offer. Just have some more positivity! Instead of degrading a woman, call her a queen. I’m surprised by how many men are into this new direction, who say, ‘Wow, you’re so beautiful and not naked.’ People tell me that I’m changing the narrative; opening their eyes. It’s important for me to be able to touch people from all walks of life.”
Neelam Hakeem’s EP will be released this October.