Malcolm X: Rap, Race and Islam

22 February 2015
Published in Blog

By Laith Saud

February 22, 2015

This past weekend, the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination passed – with less notice than it deserved. Yet so much of Malcolm X’s life: his words, his tone, his courage, remain relevant. And many of his struggles as a black man and Muslim man in America persist. Fifty years after his death, we may have a black president, but American culture has regressed. Malcolm X remains a touchstone to discuss American music, television and popular politics – not to mention race relations and Islam.

X and American Music

Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City on February 21, 1965. We have all seen Spike Lee’s biopic (if you haven’t, you should), so we know where and how. The anniversary of his death also falls within black history month. But there are no school closings, holidays or statues commemorating Malcolm X like his contemporary Martin Luther King Jr. But Malcolm X’s legacy might have more deeply penetrated subaltern culture than King’s. As an Arab-Muslim kid growing up in very white Indiana, rap music appealed to me. At the time, rap was far from mainstream or widely played on radio or MTV. Rap was too subversive, political and even angry – all of the frustration of the silenced were improvised into street poetry. Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, KRS-One and the early Ice Cube and 2Pac – many of whom also made references to Islam in their music - were political. The connection between golden-age rap (mid 80’s – early 90’s) and Islam comes directly from Malcolm X.

Africa is the only Muslim majority continent in the world. In the 1950’s and 60’s, many black-Americans turned to Islam for many reasons; to return to Africa ‘in spirit,’ to protest the legacy of slavery of which the Church was a part and to invoke Islam’s strong message of social justice. Rap from the mid-80’s to the early 90’s reasserted the voice of black awareness, strength, and American hypocrisy. Malcolm X was a powerful symbol in this respect. “No Malcolm X in my history text, why’s that? Cause he tried educate and liberate all blacks. Why is Martin Luther King in my book each week? He taught blacks, when they get smacked, turn the other cheek.” 2pac, 2PACALYPSE NOW. “Ice Cube is outgunned, what is the outcome? Will they do me like Malcolm? Ice Cube The Predator; both albums are inspiringly political, centered on one prominent feature of American culture – that rights and privileges of America do not extend to blacks, thus our claims to American exceptionalism and universalism are hypocritical. It is this very premise that has carried on into the #BlackLivesMatter and #MuslimLivesMatter campaign today.

Malcolm X once asserted: “no matter how much you hear it talk about democracy, America is as racist as [apartheid] South Africa…the only difference between it and South Africa is South Africa preaches separation and practices separation, America preaches integration and practices segregation, this is the only difference they don’t practice what they preach, whereas South Africa preaches and practices the same thing. I have more respect for a man who let’s me know where he stands, even if he’s wrong, rather than one who comes up an angel and is nothing but a devil.”

This speech can be found on The Predator album, just after Ice Cube’s song ‘Who Got the Camera;’ a song documenting the nature of police brutality in black neighborhoods. The album, produced in 1993 in the wake of the LA riots, still stands as one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time – it was timely and decades ahead of its time. None of these quotes or songs can be found in most (but not all) mainstream rap albums today. Mainstream media prefers black music/videos that privilege consumption and vacuous Hollywood celebrity. Rappers are rarely street prophets anymore, but more so royal court profiteers, who celebrate ‘getting paid,’ yet remain silent on the conditions in black America that make that nearly impossible. Would we be better off if Malcolm X was still around?

X, American Media and Islam

Malcolm X was a radical. He was famously pictured with AK-47’s and openly discussed militant resistance to white society; yet he was also a public intellectual. He was interviewed by Mike Wallace, did numerous television interviews, debates and spoke at some of our most prominent universities. Likewise, James Baldwin debated William F. Buckley and Muhammad ‘Ali refused to be drafted, but still found places to express himself as a public political being. Do we have public intellectuals today? And if so, who is the last radical intellectual to have access to mainstream television? I’m not saying radical politics are the only politics or even good politics, but such voices from dispossessed communities straighten the political spectrum and insure more well rounded-discussions for democracies.

Maybe that generation, who grew up without TV saw TV as an extension of papers and books. Where evidence had to be provided and arguments made, they weren’t afraid of radical politics. But the generation that has grown up on TV, thinks of TV as the purveyor of images and images now stand in for argument. Malcolm X famously ‘converted’ to ‘mainstream’ Islam after doing the pilgrimage to Mecca, his experience revealed to him the deep humanity of Islam. What would he say today about Islam being incessantly reduced to the images of ISIS? He warned us “If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Which brings me to Islam, after another week of Islam and Muslim bashing, we should take pause and think of Malcolm X’s life as anecdotal evidence of the general spirit of Islam. In 1964, when Malcolm made his pilgrimage, he was a Black Nationalist firebrand, who insisted that whites and blacks could not live together. It was his visit to Mecca that changed his views on race. It was there, the symbolic heart of Islamic belief and practice, that he broke bread with blonde blue-eyed Muslims. He came back a changed man and testified to Islam’s prowess in bringing about ethnic and racial harmony. Contrast this real experience to the simulated reality of Islam fabricated on television, where 1.5 billion human beings are reduced to 10,000 ISIS bandits. If Malcolm X were alive today – would all of those self-proclaimed Progressives who bash Islam have bashed him? Accuse him of being ISIS? He elevated humanity by having the courage to reach out, sadly, only to be killed the following year. His spirit for truth, justice and debate would not have been met with the respect it deserves – in fact, today, we probably never would have heard of him. His voice would’ve been silenced by the barrage of silent images of masked, anonymous men who claim to be of the same faith as Malcolm X. But Im glad we heard from a man with no mask, who spoke of Islam, justice and history. RIP Brother Malcolm.                   


Laith Saud is a Senior Fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies and co-author of An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century. You can follow Laith on Twitter


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