Back in July, reclusive Roc Nation rapper Jay Electronica emerged from self-imposed exile to the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, playing a raucous, cameo-filled set that ended with his mentor Jay Z conferring a righteous honor upon him. Flanked by besuited members of the Nation of Islam’s Fruit of Islam wing, Jay Z removed a glistening Five Percent Nation medallion from his neck and placed it over the head of his enigmatic charge. For a fleeting moment, hip-hop appeared as it once did: powerful, black and Islamic.
That moment quickly passed. With rare exception, the Fruit of Islam, Jay Electronica’s Nation of Islam uniform and Jay Z’s Five Percent Nation necklace were not mentioned in the festival coverage that followed. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Once as common in rap videos as Timberlands, Nation of Islam imagery and broader Islamic references have all but disappeared from hip-hop in recent years. Often called “hip-hop’s unofficial religion,” Islam is now a negligible force in rap. What happened?
To find the answer, let’s go back to 1998. Hip-hop was at a crossroads: firmly entrenched as a dominant commercial force but reeling from the deaths of its two biggest stars. There was a vacancy atop the rap game, and plenty of people were trying to fill it. Jay Z broke out in 1998 and landed his first number one album, DMX grunted his way to two number one albums, and Outkast released its twice-platinum masterpiece Aquemini. But for our purposes, 1998 was significant because it was the first year since hip-hop entered the mainstream that Islam fell out of favor. Replacing it? Christianity.
We know this thanks to Rap Stats, a tool from Genius.com that plots “the frequency of words appearing in rap songs from 1988 through the present day.” Here’s a chart showing that starting in 1990 (“the year that rap exploded,” according to Billboard editor Paul Grein), rappers’ use of the word “Muslim” rocketed past their use of the word “Christian.”
As you can see, the trend continues today, with the use of “Christian” at an all-time high and “Muslim” near its lowest ever. But those are just two words. Let’s dig deeper.
In the battle of God versus Allah, at least as it relates to hip-hop, God wins. Don’t focus on the frequency here—rappers have always used the word “God” more than “Allah”—but the trajectory. The use of “God,” which, granted, is a much more general term than “Allah,” is increasing, and in 2014 it’s being used in hip-hop more than ever. Conversely, the use of “Allah” is decreasing and at its lowest now, in 2014. The same is true for the holy books of Islam and Christianity. The word “bible” is being used more than ever, and the word “Quran” less than every year measured except 1988.
That’s not all. The use of “Islam” is near an all-time low, and “Mecca,” which spiked in the early ’90s, is barely used now. Same goes for “mosque.”
That leaves one last comparison: “Jesus” versus “Muhammad.” From 1988 to 1992, the pair of prophets were mentioned by rappers with nearly the same frequency. Today, the difference is greater than ever.
What’s behind the change in hip-hop’s religious preference? A change in the people making the music, for starters. The late ’80s and early ’90s were rife with Muslim rappers and others who identified with the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation, two groups that are rooted in Islamic teachings though their members may not consider themselves Muslim. Even rappers outside those groups were using Islamic language that infiltrated mainstream hip-hop. In a paper outlining the relationship between hip-hop and Islam, University of Arkansas anthropologist Ted Swedenburg writes that many Five Percent Nation terms “such as ‘droppin’ science,’ ‘sup G?’ and ‘let me break it down for ya’ have achieved such common currency within the hip-hop community that they have lost their original resonance, at least for fans who know nothing of Islam in rap.”
The best known rappers affiliated with the Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation and more traditional Islam include Brand Nubian, Nas, Rakim, Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, Poor Righteous Teachers and several members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Many are still recording and performing in their 40s, but they don’t hold much relevance to hip-hop’s young fan base. Islamic and Islamic-sympathizing rappers are older, less prolific and, in the case of Ice Cube, too busy making bad family movies to preach the gospel of Muhammad or Farrakhan. In their place is a generation of rappers who grew up during a time when the influence of the Nation of Islam and Five Percent Nation was on the wane. They also grew up in a time when hip-hop wasn’t confined to the inner cities where those groups were strongest, meaning religious views in hip-hop have begun to better reflect those of America at large.