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27 1 The Loop of Muslim Cool Black Islam, Hip Hop, and Knowledge of Self Three pairs of Adidas sneakers and a pair of black combat boots lined the doorway of my apartment. The first pair of sneakers was chocolate brown with beige stripes, and the second was white and black underneath scuffmarks. The last was a pair of shell tops with emerald green trim and hot pink stripes. The shoes’ owners were a small but diverse group of U.S. American Muslim grassroots activists—three men and one woman, of U.S. Black, South Asian, Arab, and mixed race heritage— whom I had invited to my home, then on the North Side of Chicago. As activists, they worked at the intersection of art and social justice through Chicago-based nonprofit organizations whose agendas for social change were characterized by the centrality of hip hop. I had invited the group over for what I was calling a “head discussion ,” “head” being shorthand for hip hop head. In hip hop communities , a hip hop head is someone who knows hip hop, loves hip hop, and takes hip hop seriously, whether as an artist, an activist, an artistactivist , or a fan. At this point I had spent several months in Chicago, primarily on the South Side, exploring questions of hip hop and identity with college-aged Muslims. Since, as the hip hop saying goes, “real heads know,” I was eager to pick the brains of some heads who were also Muslims equally dedicated to the future of young people and to the future of hip hop. My Muslim hip hop head teachers had been raised in the city of Chicago or the surrounding suburbs; some had been born into Muslim families, while others had converted to Islam. Their trajectories to hip hop were likewise varied and included international migration and grade-school graffiti writing. For Tyesha, a Chicago native and a convert to Islam, that variation was what linked hip hop and Islam: 28 | The Loop of Muslim Cool That’s the beauty in it to me, to see someone who just came here, that immigrated , that is Muslim, and is attracted to hip hop, and a shorty [young person] who hip hop’s all they know, and it’s a different kind of hip hop, a ghetto hip hop is obviously different because it has a different purpose and different means for coping, but I think the beauty of it is that this one thing, hip hop, it serves all of our needs for really healing and dealing with living in these times wherever we are. That’s why [hip hop], it’s Islam; it’s the costume for Islam. Tyesha’s comment points to the way in which hip hop could be relevant to a “shorty” and to “someone who immigrated,” given its transcendent quality, which it shares with Islam. Tyesha made this claim based on her years of experience as a Muslim and a Chicago activist who uses hip hop to empower young U.S. Black Americans and Latin@s. In fact, because hip hop “serves all our needs,” it is so strongly aligned with Islam that Tyesha equated the two: hip hop, she said, is Islam. She further claimed that hip hop is “the costume for Islam.” Although the term “costume” is often associated with artifice or exaggeration, I read her intended meaning as “hip hop is Islam in a different outfit.” Hip hop is Islam because of the long-standing dialogic relationship between hip hop and Islam as practiced in urban Black communities in the United States. This is a relationship that begins with hip hop artists taking up ideals of self-determination, self-knowledge, and political consciousness as poor and working-class Blacks and Latin@s from the antiracist Muslim cosmologies of Black Islam. It is a relationship that takes shape in a number of ways, including representations of Islamic beliefs in hip hop music, adoptions of specific Muslim practices and ethical stances within hip hop communities, and stylistic choices such as kufiya scarves and knitted kufi caps. It is a relationship that has constructed an epistemology through which the distinct yet historically rooted set of understandings , self-making practices, and ways of meaning making give shape to what I call Muslim Cool. In Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta, Clyde Woods theorizes the blues as epistemology. He argues that U.S. Black American conflict with “plantation powers,” namely, the White...


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