HIGH STANDARDS: Al-J (left) and Yusuf (right) are on a pilgrimage to elevate the hip-hop dialogue, no matter how many mobs of bacon-loving blunt smokers they have to serenade.
“Muslim hip-hop is not like Christian rock,” says Yusuf, the Merrimack Valley half of the Allah-inspired Boston-Lowell tag team Blak Madeen. “Our music is relevant to society. It’s like the difference between the two religions. Ours is part of everyday life, not just something that we think about once a week.”
Here’s the other difference between Muslim rap and Christian rock: the former is not shamelessly vapid. More hip-hop legends than not have kicked wisdom rooted in divine teachings — from Rakim Allah and Bronx rhyme architect K(nowledge) R(eigns) S(upreme)–One to the Wu-Tang Clan, whose members have guided cats from Brooklyn to Berlin to internalize the Twelve Jewels of Islam. If you’ve ever sung along to Gang Starr, Paris, Nas, Q-Tip, Mos Def, Jurassic 5, or virtually any other exalted rhyme act, chances are you’ve praised-due without even knowing.
But though Muslim themes have always been more latent than deliberate in rap music — with such metaphor maestros as RZA slipping arcane wisdom into figurative charades — an increasing number of artists are superseding the secular. Proud kufi-wearing cats like Narcicyst, Amir Sulaiman, and Brooklyn’s M-Team are at the forefront of a palpable Muslim hip-hop movement — one in which several acts are astonishingly lyrical. Here in Boston, Yusuf and Al-J (formerly Al-Jabra) of Blak Madeen are on a pilgrimage to elevate the hip-hop dialogue, no matter how many mobs of bacon-loving blunt smokers they have to serenade.
“The Blak Madeen team spits jewels,” says Al. “We’re the voice of the people, the voice of the oppressed, the voice of the disenfranchised, the voice of those on Main Street, and the voice of those eating meat and potatoes. All that . . . You don’t have to be Muslim to build with us, so long as you’re righteous, so long as you’re living right and doing right, and so long as you have a brain cell to build with.”
To Islam outsiders (myself included), attempting to understand the difference between Al-J’s faith and Yusuf’s beliefs is like distinguishing trance from house and techno. A white convert who follows a regimented prayer schedule, Yusuf describes himself as the “Muslim kid who rhymes for a hobby,” whereas Al-J, he says, is “the consummate MC” who was galvanized by golden-age hip-hop. And whereas Yusuf is a devout Muslim, Al is aligned with the Five-Percent Nation, a Nation of Islam offshoot that operates more like a motivational cradle than a strict religion.
“What’s important is that we agree on the basics and acknowledge God and all the prophets,” says Al. “There’s also a common ground that keeps us together, and it’s that we’re certain of everything we speak about.”
Easily one of the most distinguished Boston rap albums this year, Blak Madeen’s debut, Sacred Defense (Leedz Edutainment), bangs hard enough to compensate for the group’s lack of profanity and death threats. In the spirit of such enlightened rap gods as Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian and Hell Razah — both of whom appear on the album — Al and Yusuf disrupt the sociopolitical establishment with beats and banter that even superficial and depraved coke-rap fiends would nod along to.