Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Muslim Women of Hip Hop

Although still a male-dominated realm, women have been an important part of the hip hop world both as artists and consumers. Anaya McMurray, in her journal article* Hotep and Hip-Hop: Can Black Muslim Women Be Down with Hip-Hop? explores the relation of Black Muslim women to hip hop music and asks the question, "Can Black Muslim women be a part of hip hop and Islam?"**

McCurray says that unique spaces in the discourses surrounding Islam are often ignored, consequently ignoring certain groups of Muslims, including Black Muslim women. Black Muslim women have become "agents in negotiating Islamic faith and hip-hop culture." She aims to examine the ways in which Black Muslim women create unique spaces and negotiate Islam and hip hop in their music, as well as ways in which society represents Islam and hip hop which marginalize Black Muslim women. She does so by discussing the works of Erykah Badu, Eve, and herself as Black Muslim women hip hop artists.

When speaking of Erykah Badu we find out that the Islam McMurray tells us Badu follows is that of the Nation of Gods and Earths, or Five Percenters. Five Percenters are those who follow the teachings of Clarence 13x, a former member of the Nation of Islam. Five Percenters do consider themselves Muslims but not in the religious sense - in the political sense. Therefore, many mainstream Muslims do not consider them Muslims. And in reality their beliefs have very little in common with Sunni or Shia Islam. McMurray tells us how Badu does create a space for Muslim women in her songs by rapping about Five Percenter practices - practices which encourage men and women to remain within their respective, traditional roles. Beliefs which seem quite sexist but ones which Badu says are quite flexible, in her music. However, as Five Percenters have so little in common with mainstream Islam, and in fact consider themselves a part of a political movement rather than a religious one, using Badu to represent Muslim women in hip hop struck me as false advertising. She does not, from my understanding, represent the religion but rather the political movement.

The situation of Eve is not so clear. She has been quoted as saying that she finds Sunni Islam beautiful but cannot follow it properly. McMurray argues that, according to her calculations, Eve is a Muslim woman, though even McMurray admits she cannot be sure. McMurray reads Eve as a Muslim woman. Eve refers to Allah in her work as well as thanks Allah on her CD credits. Additionally, McMurray tells us that her own personal communications indicate that she is Muslim. McMurray makes an interesting observation about people's assumptions about Eve and her religion. In one song Eve says "I thank Allah every night and pray there’s no turning back." In many online lyrics sources this line is written as "I thank the Lord every night and pray there’s no turning back." McMurray tells us that people, on all sides (within and without) just cannot fathom Eve as a Muslim so would never assume that she would use "Allah." She tells us that people have never even asked the question of her being Muslim despite her use of "Allah".

The author then presents her own creation of a unique space which proves to be the most fascinating of the three. She proves to be an intellectual rapper referencing not only academics such as Tricia Rose, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Fatima Mernissi, but also the Qur'an. McMurray states that it is her Islamic spirituality which guides her lyrics. For her Islam is a key source of inspiration for her work, in which she commonly critiques patriarchy.

McMurray presents another image of Muslim women. In her paper, she states that the images of Badu, Eve and herself challenge the traditional images of Muslim women and women in hip hop. She states that "Our images challenge the misrepresentation that all Muslim women are Middle Eastern and/or that Muslim women cover at all times, and don’t have the freedom to pursue careers in music and entertainment." Additionally, she states that "we challenge the assumption that women who are not visibly marked as belonging to another faith are by default Christian."

McMurray critiques the Muslim community, the hip hop community, and mainstream society for making assumptions about women in hip hop in general, and Black Muslim women specifically. Though at times her examples of Muslim women may seem weak, McMurray makes some very important points worth consideration about the space for Black Muslim women in hip hop. Muslims don't see Black Muslim women in hip hop as Muslim because of what they wear and/or their controversial lyrics; many rappers don't see them as Muslim because they would rather see women in hip hop as objects; mainstream doesn't see them as Muslim because Christianity has been so important to the mainstream Black community. Therefore, Black Muslim women in hip hop are left in a difficult position where they have to struggle to create and maintain a space. Further critiques of their unique spaces would be interesting to see.

McMurray, A. (2008). Hotep and hip-hop: Can Black Muslim women be down with hip hop? Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 8(1), 74-92.

** Unfortunately I cannot post the article here but I have provided the reference so that if you have access to academic journals you can look it up. If you are interested in reading it and cannot access it please email us and we can email it to you.