Verbal incantations in the form of ritualistic propagations can be heard from many poets, lyricists, and rappers who sling the mic, control a crowd, and spit fire. Just like how the star batter in America’s favorite past time of baseball performs a ritual before a home run, a repetition of “yo,” “uh,” “yea,” “mic check,” and “check” can be heard from hip hop emcees who get ready to move a crowd.
But one lyricist can be heard saying, “Bismillah Al Rahman Al Rahim,” which means “In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate.” These words native to the tongue of Islam are in the beginning of almost every chapter of the Quran and is also in the beginning of almost every one of Mos Def’s songs.
Mos Def, or Dante Terrell Smith, is an iconic rapper born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. As a strong proponent of Islam, Mos Def goes by his newly given Islamic name Yasiin Bey.
“You’re not going to get through life without being worshipful or devoted to something,” Yasiin Bey said. “You’re either devoted to your job, or to your desires. So the best way to spend your life is to try to be devoted to prayer, to Allah.”
Bey was introduced into the faith when he was 13 years old, starting from when his father had taught him the procedure of Wudu, an Islamic procedure of washing the different body parts with water before prayer and before reading or handling the Quran. It was not until he was 19 when he had taken the Shahada, a testimony or the proclamation of his faith. This creed proclaimed ones belief in one God and accepting Muhammad as a prophet sent by God.
This turning point for Bey had influence from a hip-hop group called “A Tribe Called Quest,” some of whose members also practice the Islam faith. Bey declared his faith in Battery Recording Studios in New York during the creation of the Tribe’s 1996 album Beats, Rhymes, and Life according to the awl in the Feb. 27 article titled “Yasiin Bey Would Like You To Quit Calling Him Mos Def.” As Bey declared the Shahada, Tribe members were with him.
Most emcees venerate the stage with their depictions of the past and present, stories told and untold, and with an explicit rhyme scheme, but Bey illustrates a different picture. Like an intrepid force, Bey’s spiritual connection is ever present within his music.
“His reason for doing music is to give praise to God; that’s the reason why he writes,” hip-hop artist Talib Kweli said, according to the same article from the awl. In a song titled “Thieves in the Night” by Black Starr (a rap duo that includes artists Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey), Bey states “I’m trying to live life in the sight of God’s memory.”
Bey’s music is not just a recollection of his experiences painted onto a blank canvas, but the world an unfinished painting is slated with color as Bey’s music acts as an advocate for the unheard voices of the oppressed and poor. “If Islam’s sole interest is the welfare of mankind, then Islam is the strongest advocate of human rights anywhere on earth,” Bey said.
Bey defends Islam on the topic of 9/11 in an interview with Cornel West, an American philosopher on the Bill Maher show. Bey rationally delineates the ignorance society has against Islam after the 9/11 incident. He goes back to the roots of American history when Americans were terrorists to the British Empire.
“George Washington and all his dudes were terrorists,” Bey said. “There is terrorism that comes from every religion. It is not about the division of Muslims and Christians, Democrats and Republicans, Autobots and Decepticons, black and white, and Bloods and Crips…. Islam is not the threat. There are crazy people everywhere, in churches, mosques, and airports.”
As Bill Maher stated that Islam extremists are getting their ideologies from the Quran, Bey stated that “they are getting it from themselves.” One can see that Bey is an advocate for Islam and breaks the ignorance that is used against it. Bey had also appeared in a video that shows the painful and torturous force-feeding procedures of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. He uses himself as an example of how these prisoners are treated.
The Quran, just like any other holy text used by other faiths, is the core for Muslims. Bey connects hip-hop and how its poetic elements are related to Islam. “Hip-hop is a medium where you can get a lot of information into a very small space and make it hold fast to people’s memory,” Bey said, according to a book Rock the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture by H. Samy Alim. “It’s just a very radical form of information transfer.”
The Quran is very similar to this process Bey said. This is how a Muslim can be a Hafiz, literally translated as “the guardian,” or one who memorizes the entire Quran. Bey states that the memorization of the Quran is possible because the entire book rhymes. When the Quran is embedded within the memory and is recited, he explains that one can have a deeper connection with the Quran. Then when learning and reciting, that is when one understands. “Hip-hop has the ability to do that on a poetic level,” Bey concludes.
Bey’s name comes from the Quran. More specifically, it is the 36th chapter. It is a name that is not translatable and the meaning of the name is “almost a complete mystery” according to the awl.
“That idea of peace and love toward humanity shouldn’t be nationalistic or denominational,” Bey said. “It should be a chief concern for all mankind.”
Bey is listed on “the Muslim 500” as one of the world’s most influential Muslims.