One of the few places where Islam has found a place in modern Western culture is in hip-hop music. Artists like Mos Def and Jurassic 5 have shown that it is possible for Muslim identities and Islamic values to find their place amid the bling of the hip-hop world. Now, a street-smart Muslim kid from Chicago has attracted a lot of attention, proving that the aforementioned artists aren’t a fluke.
Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, otherwise known as Lupe Fiasco, grew up in Chicago’s southside and began rapping while in high school. Raised in a family of 9 children, Fiasco was immersed in global cultural influences (thanks to his well-traveled mother) and grounded in the local Muslim community. After a few guest appearances on various rap singles, Fiasco attracted the attention of Atlantic Records (founded by the late Muslim-American Ahmet Ertegun) as well as Jay-Z, who assisted him with the production of his debut album.
The iconic style magazine GQ recently named Fiasco the “Breakout Artist of the Year“, and Fiasco was one of the first hip-hop artists to secure a fashion endorsement before releasing an album (an avid skateboarder, Fiasco was spotted by Reebok wearing one of their caps and recruited him).
But it’s not just his fashion sense that has been receiving accolades. Rolling Stone magazine praised Fiasco’s Grammy-nominated debut album, Food and Liquor, observing that “Fiasco reflects on the personal and the political, and reminds fans of everything hip-hop can be.” The Washington Post noted that when “the Muslim MC rhymes over well-known hip-hop tracks and manages to outshine the artists who made the beats famous – without mentioning sex or illegal substances – his skill is undeniable.”
That talent is apparent in Fiasco’s “Muhammad Walks,” a clever remix of the famous Kanye West song “Jesus Walks”, which can be downloaded free because, as Fiasco raps in the song, “I ain’t trying to make profit of off the Prophet.” Fiasco is not eager to parade his Muslim identity, though. When asked about his faith, he said, “I was born Muslim, so Islam plays a part in my everything I do, to a certain extent. I’m not like the poster boy for Islam, you know what I’m saying? So it’s like I still got my flaws and stuff like that, so I don’t really wear that on my sleeve.”
That consciousness infuses his entire album, whether he is addressing misogyny, the conflict in the Middle East, or inner city poverty. In the song “American Terrorist“, he raps “camouflaged Torahs, Bibles and glorious Qur’ans / the books that take you to Heaven and let you meet the Lord there / have become misinterpreted, reasons for warfare / we read ‘em with blind eyes I guarantee u there’s more there.” It’s a lesson that many – including Muslims – could heed.
Zahir Janmohamed is the co-founder of The Qunoot Foundation and associate editor of altmuslim.com.