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Muslim Voices in America: The Making of a Modern Music Scene

The Muslim presence in America dates back to the 1600s and the forced transfer of Africans as slaves. Approximately a third of all slaves brought to the what would become the United States were Muslim, and they brought not only their regional cultures with them, but their religion as well. Current research suggests that the expression of West African music, influenced by the Arabic basis of Islamic liturgy, has a deep and abiding impact on American musical culture. The Muslim call to prayer, the adhaan, is performed on the Arabic musical system, using wavy intonation and a different note scale. These same characteristics appear in Blues music. Although there is no one-to-one correlation between West African Muslim music and Blues, the implied relationships is very strong, and demonstrates that although a Muslim religious identity did not survive the slave period, Muslim culture became part of American culture.

As Muslims were forced to give up their faith in public, they practiced in private and many of their rituals were preserved, but the deeper theological significance was lost. For example, churches in Georgia were built facing Mecca. In the early part of the 20th century, this cultural memory was revived by groups like the Moorish Science Temple, who saw themselves as belonging to an “Afro-Asiatic” religious community. This tendency was reinforced by the arrival of members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, based in South Asia, who had come to teach about Islam. Their primary target audience became the African-American community, many of whom became Muslim through these interactions.

In the mid-20th century, Islam was identified as much with a Black political identity as it was a religion. It was consciously part of the African-American experience once more, and had a deep impact on the jazz world. Dizzy Gilliespie’s biography, To Be or not to Bop, is littered with references to his musical peers who were Muslim, or admit to being influenced by Islam.

By 1953, the trend was so pronounced that Ebony magazine ran an piece entitled “Ancient Religion Attracts Moderns,” about “Moslem musicians.” Notable names include Talib Dawood, who organized a 17 person all Muslim band called “The Messengers” (later “The Jazz Messengers”), Art Blakey, Yusuf Lateef, Sahib Shihab, Ahmed Jamal, and McCoy Tyner. John Coltrane, although not Muslim himself, exhibits the impact of Islam in the jazz world on his album A Love Supreme. The first track, “Acknowledgment,” includes the repetition of the phrase “a love supreme” in a way similar to the Sufi repetition of religious phrases, called dhikr (remembrance [of God]). The repeating phrase morphs into “Allah supreme,” clearly referencing Muslim beliefs.

Like blues and jazz, hip-hop emerges from an American cultural system infused with the ideas of Islam, specifically Bronx, NY in the 1970s. One of the key figures is Afrika Bambaata, who did not identify as a Muslim, but who brought the sensibilities of the surrounding Muslim communities to hip-hop. Some of the earliest performers self-identified as Muslim, including the Poor Righteous Teachers and the Last Poets. The language of Islam is an integral part of hip-hop culture, that almost all artists utilize. The phrase “OG,” understood to mean “Original Gangsta,” actually means “Original God.” Grammy-nominated rapper Common speaks of Muhammad on his album Like Water for Chocolate, although he is a member of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s United Church of Christ in Chicago. Several popular artists who do identify as Muslim include Mos Def, members of the Wu-Tang Clan, members of A Tribe Called Quest, and Grammy-winner Lupe Fiasco.

The international flow of music has also introduced Muslim musics to the American soundscape. Qawwali artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan worked on the soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ, and performed with Eddie Veder of Pearl Jam on Dead Man Walking. Bruce Springsteen, on the track “Worlds Apart,” from The Rising, includes qawwali music as a way to consciously counter misperceptions of Muslims. British band Queen, although having no Muslim members, introduced the phrase bismillah, “In the name of God,” into American rock consciousness on their track Bohemian Rhapsody. Of course, one of the emerging areas of relationship between America, Muslims, and music are the transnational flows of music. For example, the lead singer of Pakistani rock band Junoon, Salman Ahmad, credits his time in New York and exposure to various musics as a catalyst for forming the band.

The Muslim presence in America is conceived as relatively new, but it has been here for centuries. Muslim musical culture impacted the development of signature American musics like blues, jazz, and hip-hop. With the international flow of music, there are more obvious inclusions of Muslim musics in American pop, and the transformation of music in Muslim communities to include American musics.

By Hussein Rashid, Hofstra University

Further Reading:
Bayoumi, Moustafa. “East of the Sun (West of the Moon): Islam, the Ahmadis, and African America.” Journal of Asian American Studies 4, no. 3 (Oct. 2001): 251-263.

Curiel, Jonathan. Al' America : Travels through America's Arab and Islamic Roots. New York: New Press, 2008.

Curiel, Jonathan. August 15, 2004. Muslim Roots of the Blues: the Music of Famous American Blues Singers Reaches Back Through the South to the Culture of West Africa  (accessed June 6, 2007).