Foreign Policy Blogs

Cultural Diplomacy: Islamic Hip Hop from the US

From left, Naeem Muhammad, Joshua Salaam and Abdul-Malik Ahmad form the Islamic hip-hop group Native Deen – Image Credit – Philip Scott Andrews/New York Times.


The New York Times recently ran an article on the band Native Deen, which took a State Department sponsored tour of several countries and recently released their latest album. When they were first asked to participate in the first tour they had qualms:

“We had a debate in the community,” said Abdul-Malik Ahmad, one of the three members of Native Deen. “ ‘Should we do it?’ ‘Should we not do it?’ Some people were saying, ‘Y’all are going to be puppets, going over there saying: ‘Everything’s O.K. We’re bombing your country, but we have Muslims, too!’ ”

They decided to accept the offer and go on a concert tour of Mali, Senegal and Nigeria – and later to Egypt, Tanzania, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.  But the article also notes how their work as cultural diplomats entails what they do in US as much as it does tours overseas:

At Native Deen shows, audience members are more likely to be from Middle Eastern or South Asian backgrounds than to be American blacks. One reason, according to Suad Abdul Khabeer, a Purdue University anthropologist who studies Islamic hip-hop, is that Native Deen’s “harmonies and melodies sound like the kind of nasheed” — Muslim praise music — “you get from the Middle East.” As a result, Dr. Abdul Khabeer said, Muslim immigrants who may look down on African-American culture find Native Deen’s work palatable, while American blacks may find it insufficiently aggressive, sonically speaking. “Hip-hop lite doesn’t speak to them in the same way,” Dr. Abdul Khabeer said. “Black audiences are like, ‘That’s kind of lite.’ ” But Native Deen’s faith places it in the history of American hip-hop more generally. Pioneering hip-hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Wu-Tang Clan have demonstrated in their lyrics the pervasive influence of Islam in black America. Even when rappers are not themselves Muslim, Dr. Abdul Khabeer said, many borrow ideas and terminology from orthodox Islam and from Muslim-identified groups, like the Nation of Islam and the Five-Percent Nation.





James Ketterer
James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement