Twenty years ago I was in high-school in the northern suburbs of St. Louis. Far from Generation X I was a part of the Hip-Hop Generation at a racially and economically diverse school. This was not the sixties or seventies. There was no spirit of revolution in the air and the racial-fighting at our school, while still occasionally rearing its head, had subsided from just a decade earlier.
Our generation co-existed for the most part with kind of unwritten rules. White kids had their tables in the cafeteria and white students divided themselves along sub-categories: jocks, preps, burnouts, druggies, nerds, and so-called wanna-be’s who imitated black culture. Black kids had their own groupings: jocks, nerds, the disinterested and gang-bangers and dope-dealers from different neighborhoods with little interest in the non-social aspects of school. This was the height of the crack-epidemic in St. Louis and fighting over gang-colors and our school had kids coming from Kinloch, Berkeley and other neighborhoods at the center of these national tragedies.
Few talked about politics. A lot of the white kids were racist, and if you were cool with them they would talk about it: but they had good enough sense to keep it to themselves. Most came from blue-collar union households like mine and probably would have been socially-conservative Democrats if I had to guess ( many have become Tea Party Republicans and are out in St. Charles or Lincoln Counties now far from their North St. Louis family roots). The black kids didn’t talk about politics either for the most part. You would occasionally hear “fuck these white people” or “they prejudice” or the repeating of some rap-lyric and that was about it. Teenagers, of both races were more concerned with schooling, sports, fornication, music, and in the case of many kids from the ghetto making money in the streets. There were a handful of standouts though, such as black students named Lawrence and Marquis, and their motivation for getting turned onto politics was the socially-conscious hip-hop coming out of New York.
By the time we were in school hip-hop had come a long way from the parks of the South Bronx and Harlem and was in the mainstream. Most kids gravitated towards “gangster rap” that was popular in St. Louis. NWA, Too $hort, Ice-T, DJ Quick, MC Eiht from the West Coast along with Scarface and the Geto Boys out of Houston were popular in St. Louis and I liked them too. However, at this time, you could tune into MTV or BET and also hear the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Poor Righteous Teachers, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, and a variety of other socially-conscious artists (which today you will seldom see or hear on the air as there is more money in minstrelism).
These positive artists talked about the pressing issues of our time: racism, poverty, greed, and history that needed to be taught. Those paying attention would get an education- “edutainment” as KRS-One said. Often, these lyrics would contain Islamic phrases or references to Allah. Some of this was because MC’s were Five-Percenters. Others were either Sunni Muslims or knew about the deen as the borough of Brooklyn, which was the cultural epicenter of the culture, had been the home of the Dar al Islam Movement and later the base of Imam Siraj Wahhaj.
The scene was set in 1992 for me to explore Islam. Imam Suhaib Webb refers to this generation as the Das FX Generation (a hip-hop group that came out in 1991) which he pins as the height of hip-hop influenced conversions at the time. I put it at 1992. Already interested in Islam from hip-hop along comes the hype to the release of the X film by the great filmmaker Spike Lee. In preparation for the film the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley is re-released. Like so many thousands of others of my generation I read this book and filter it through the light of my own experiences. I have met hundreds who took Shahadah, including myself, largely as a result of reading the chapter on hajj in the book.
While powerfully moved by Malcolm’s story, and moved to tears by the hajj, I did not immediately convert. I let it marinate. In the meantime I began listening to the Death Certificate album of Ice Cube (one of the greatest albums of all-time and in the hip-hop canon). One side contained the Death Side and was for the streets and it was bumped by the mainstream. Then there was the Life Side which was a poetic and powerful in its assessment of the pain and condition of the people at the time and a call to reform. The next phase was the X Gear. Malcolm shirts and hats were everywhere and Malcolm’s name became a regular feature in hip-hop lyrics and his image began appearing in videos. Armed with an X shirt and hat I began attending the Islamic Center on West Pine and Vandeventer and by the opening-weekend of the film I was with other Muslim brothers outside of the old theatre at Union Station passing out fliers on Islam to moviegoers.
What did Malcolm mean to me? Why was he so powerful? Over the years I have discovered Malcolm is like Jesus. A modern day Christ. I do not mean this in the shariah sense as Prophethood ended with Muhammad (peace be upon him). I mean this in the sense that just as everyone claims Jesus everyone claims Malcolm.
To the Conservatives in America they are preserving a Judeo-Christian Ethic perfected by Jesus. The liberal serves the poor and calls for equality inspired by the words of Jesus. The slave-master believed bringing the savage Africans to Christendom justified slavery and Jim Crow was installed to preserve a white Christian order. Meanwhile, abolitionists and the Civil-Rights Movement were inspired by the person of Jesus more than anyone else.
Today liberals claim Malcolm as a man who was global in his thought and progressive. Communists and Marxists claim Malcolm as he advocated for African revolutions and other workers struggles. Some conservatives claim Malcolm because of his message of self-reliance and cultural-reform. Black Nationalists claim Malcolm because first off he was black and a leading figure in the black struggle in America and almost all of his words were geared towards black people. Muslims claim Malcolm because he came out of the Nation of Islam and later evolved to Sunni Islam after his hajj and rebuking of Elijah Mohammed.
Malcolm with his story of One God and One Humanity inspired me to pick up the Quran from my school library, inspired me to go to the Islamic Center and inspired my conversion like he did for so many others. Yet, others were inspired by Malcolm who never dreamed of converting. At the end of the day you get from Malcolm what you are looking for. The story of Malcolm Little become el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz is one of evolution and change. It is a story about a constant search for the truth, striving to become a better person, speaking out against injustice, and seeking a true relationship with the Creator. That message is timeless and will lead different people in different directions. It led me to the deen. Malcolm will be reexamined generation after generation and mean something different in each time period. I have no doubt a hundred years from now Malcolm will be read in jail cells, ghettos and refugee camps, will be the father to the fatherless and will inspire. He came to me when I was a young man struggling with issues of race, class, and the injustice of America and looking for a voice and he spoke to me. The foundation he gave me means I will always support an understanding of Islam that has a message of liberation, social-justice, racial-equality and stands against White Supremacy and neo-colonialism. I never met the man, but he changed my life, as Malcolm changed other lives and will continue to do so.
This essay was inspired by my dear old friend Shaheed Williams of Wichita, Kansas who is writing a book on Malcolm. I told him we need to publish a collection of essays on Malcolm from different people and then realized getting people to write them would be like herding cats so here is my humble contribution to the memory of an American Shahid.