Peace, one and all…
Before I begin, please note that this post details my musical journey to Islam. It includes my own personal thoughts on what some important songs meant (and in some cases, still mean) to me. I have also included You Tube clips to the songs themselves. I am aware that there are many Muslims who believe, with due scholarly support, that music is prohibited (haram). I am also equally aware that there are scholars who feel that music is not haram, in and of itself, but only insofar as it is put to haram purposes. I have great respect for other positions, but as will become clear, I do not believe that music itself is forbidden. I have no wish to get into an argument on this topic and will simply say that the purpose of this post is to reflect on my own life. It has no greater (or lesser) application than that.
On a related note, as you will see, my early musical encounter with Islam came mostly via Hip Hop, and thus the Nation of Islam and more specifically, the Nation of Gods and Earths (popularly known as the 5% Nation of Islam). The ideas of both these groups have caused a great deal of discussion, fierce agreement and equally as fierce disagreement. Without going off track, all I want to say is that in terms of my own experience, both groups had a great (albeit largely unknown) influence on me. That is, given my youth and lack of knowledge, I assumed that both represented ‘mainstream’ Islam. It is, of course, clear to me now that both NOI and NGE teachings differ radically from Sunni Islam, as it has been traditionally understood. This does not mean that I reject dialogue and discussion from such quarters, or that I believe I cannot learn anything from either community. It simply means that Sunni Islam differs in many important respects from both the NOI and the NGE. (On this note, you can find out more about the Nation of Gods and Earths by reading the very informative blog and watching the You Tube videos of Saladin Quanaah Allah; see Ted Swedenberg’s interesting essay entitled ‘Islam in the Mix‘).
Finally, what about race? Or, in other words, what significance does my own genetic heritage as a white male have upon my interactions with these ideas? Well, an ultimate answer is beyond the scope of this post. But, suffice it to say, that one of the reasons I enjoyed listening to this music as a teenager was its shock value (a common feature of teenage musical choices I think). Although I was always intrigued by the use of Arabic terms (principally the salaam), and they always made my heart leap within me for reasons I could not then understand, I soon realised that, as a young white man, I stood very much on the outside. Looking back, this was one of the main factors in pushing me to search further, to find my own answers. This is not to say that I thought in terms of ‘ownership’, rather that I simply looked for a place in which I too could belong.
What then of race? Well, growing up in the East End of London, I was aware of great ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious and social diversity from a very young age. I viewed (and still view) this as an entirely positive experience. I have been strengthened immeasurably by this diversity. I have seen that human experience lives, moves and exists in all sorts of ways – though it is still utterly, profoundly and joyfully, human. Throughout my life, I have been blessed through my interactions with Black people and wider Black cultures. Indeed, I have learnt much from all sorts of peoples and cultures. I freely and deeply acknowledge my debts in this regard.
Although there is much that I, as a white man, am unaware of, I acknowledge the existence of white privilege, just as I aslo acknowledge gender privilege. Do these privileges de-bar me from seeking and talking about, a liberation that embraces every single human being? Personally, I do not think so. Although they do have to be accounted for, worked through and reconciled, to argue that my genetic heritage precludes my participation in human growth (depsite of and through its difficulties) would exclude a vast swathe of humanity from doing its necessary work. Individually, it would also open the door to despair – and despair opens the door to a complete immorality in the face of life’s challenges.
Finally, before we begin, I feel it is important to say that this post is a record of my growing engagement with Islam (or my perception of Islam as the form of my life). It does not mean that all of these songs are ‘Islamic’, nor does it mean that I would now (in later life) agree with all they say. Rather, it simply means that these songs were the soundtrack of my life’s journey towards Islam.
My journey towards Islam continues and will do so until the day I leave this earth. But, that’s another story…
The Soundtrack to My Journey towards Islam
Music has always been very important to me. Looking back, every major turning point in my life was accompanied by an important song (or songs). According to my parents, the first song I ever learnt to sing along to was ‘Bye, Bye Baby’ by the Bay City Rollers. During my time at primary school (from around the age of 8 onwards), I first encountered early 80s Hip Hop. Hearing these songs, I instantly knew that it was for me. I loved the music and it spoke in ways that I could understand, relate to and indeed inspire to. Moreover, as I soon came to discover, Hip Hop also had a voice and could be used to speak about social injustice.
Grandmaster Flash: The Message (1982?)
This Hip Hop classic was probably the first rap song that I heard that spoke to ordinary life, and to the economic, social and financial challenges people face. In other words, social activism was there at the very beginning of my meeting with Hip Hop.
Grandmaster Flash: White Lines (c. 1983?)
This song spoke against another social ill of the 80s (and sadly of now), namely cocaine addiction. Hip Hop at its best is thus a direct challenge to the culture of addiction and materialism.
Kurtis Blow: If I Ruled the World (1983?)
Another mid-80s classic. I used to listen to this song during my early secondary school days. It also speaks of justice and equality too, in its own way of course.
Eric B & Rakim (1987)
This was probably the first time I actually heard someone from the Arab world singing. The video also contains Arabic script (which may well be drawn from the Quran itself). Although I was unaware at the time, it also gave me my first introduction to the Nation of Gods and Earths, of which the rapper Rakim was/is a member. This song was important in my journey to Islam because its underlying message (as I perceivd it) was that a no-nonsense, go-getting approach to life was Islam.
Public Enemy: Rebel Without A Pause (1988)
Public Enemy exposed me to the revolutionary side of both Hip Hop and Islam. Islam had the power to subvert unjust societies – very sexy to a young teenager.
De La Soul: Me, Myself and I (1989)
De La Soul’s groundbreaking song of 1989 opened my eyes to another possibility – Hip Hop beyond the usual form. Moreover, with their thoughtful, thought-provoking rhymes, De La Soul also showed that Hip Hop could simultaneously be intellectually and poetically stimulating.
Soul II Soul: Keep on Movin’ (1989)
Soul II Soul were a UK-based soundsystem. The two songs selected here were their biggest hits. Both were released as I was leaving school. They are both songs which mark a major turning point in my life and with their celebration of life and its living, help me make the beginning transitions to adult life.
Soul II Soul: Back to Life (1989)
Young Disciples: Apparently Nothin’ (1990)
In mid-91, I bought my first turntables and began mixing music in my bedroom. This song was one of the first I bought at this time.
Gang Starr: Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?
Another very influential early 90s song. I remember learning the words to this one
Brand Nubian: Wake Up (1991)
Although I can’t remember the first time I heard a Brand Nubian song, I do remember buying their first album. ‘Wake Up’ samples Roy Ayers ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’. It was the first song that I owned to say ‘al-salaamu alaikum’. I can still remember hearing these words for the first time. For some unknown reason, they sent a chill up my spine. In terms of the message, I must confess, there was much that I didn’t understand (beyond a broad Black nationalism). However, it further added to my perception of Islam as a radical, socially-positive force.
Brand Nubian: Slow Down (1991/2?)
This second Brand Nubian song is another example of socailly aware Hip Hop, in this case being an attack on crack cocaine.
Paul Weller: Bull Rush (1992/3?)
This song, with its lyrics of travel and leaving behind old ideas, was really the soundtrack to the beginnings of a conscious search for answers.
Galliano: Prince of Peace (1992)
I was/am a big fan of Galliano’s music, which fused rap, jazz, funk and reggae. It was also both socially and spiritually aware – and being from London, I could relate to their experiences.
Stevie Wonder: Higher Ground (70s, I first bought a copy in approx. 1992)
A 70s classic, taken from the ‘Innervisions’ album. This is a beautifully spiritual song on a profoundly spiritual album.
Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (late 70s, I bought my first copy in 1991/2)
When I first started Dee Jaying I came across this record in a record fair at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. I was hooked from the first beat. This began my love of George Clinton and his music.
Parliament: Mothership Connection (c.1975, though I bought a copy in early 90s)
For those unfamiliar, the various incarnations of Parliament/Funkadelic/George Clinton offered a diverse and eclectic mix of rock, blues, funk, disco and early rap. Over the years, GC’s music has been heavily and repeatedly sampled by rappers. I have always loved the energy of GC and his music. Moreover, his funk-opera style, with numerous characters and alter-egos, drew my attention to another aspect: music could be consciousness-shifting.
Lonnie Liston Smith: Expansions (1975, I bought it in 1993)
Another fine example of mid-70s music. The album cover features a painting of the artist strolling through what looks like a Muslim country, replete with mosque-like buildings and so on.
Omar: Keep Steppin’ (1994)
Omar is another UK-based artist, responsible for the hit ‘There’s Nothing Like This’. The music is amazing and the lyrics are an exhortation to searching within for truth.
Bob Marley: Crisis (late 70s?, but I first heard it c. 1993-4)
I am a big fan of Bob Marley’s music (as indeed, are many Muslims). This was when I first began to really search and was, in many respects, the soundtrack to my undergraduate degree.
Bob Marley: Natural Mystic (mid-70s, first bought in 1995)
Bob Marley: Small Axe (from Burnin’ album)
These are some of the most important songs on my long walk to Islam. I have long enjoyed them and I share them here in the hope that others might enjoy them too.