Great artists that happen to be Muslims: Mos Def & K’Naan

20 08 2010

I was flipping through the channels the other night when I stumbled across a couple of great re-runs of Austin City Limits on PBS. (As often as this happens, you’d think I would actually make a note of when Austin City Limits comes on and deliberately plan to watch it. And yet, I don’t. But that’s a blog for another day.) I had way too much fun singing along with the two artists that were featured that night — Mos Def from Brooklyn, New York and K’Naan from Toronto, Canada (by way of Somalia).

After the show was over it occurred to me that both of these inspiring artists are Muslims — people who, by association, are being unfairly smeared by way too many media voices right now. Perhaps fewer people would accept all the stereotyping and hatred directed at Islam if they were more aware of some of the Muslims they come across in life.

So I decided to highlight a few Muslim artists that have made significant inroads with American audiences. It’s my own tiny way of reminding people of the valuable contributions Muslims make to to our culture. So many Muslims are our friends and neighbors, not our enemies. Protecting their religious freedom under the First Amendment is really about protecting those freedoms for all of us.

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Of all the rapper/actors out there, Dante Smith, better known as Mos Def probably does it best. There aren’t too many other people  who can say they’ve been nominated for both a Grammy and a Golden Globe — and even fewer from the world of hip-hop.

(Mos Def was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his role in the made-for-TV film “Something the Lord Made.” He was nominated for Grammys for performances of “Sex, Love & Money,” “Ghetto Rock,” “Undeniable,” “Casa Bey” and for his latest album, The Ecstatic.)

There are a few actors — like Will Smith, LL Cool J and even Mark Wahlberg — that have built serious movie careers after making a name for themselves kicking rhymes. But most of them eventually left rapping behind in pursuit of their new craft in Hollywood. Most of the rapper-turned-actors that still tried to maintain serious musical output haven’t exactly become master thespians. (Snoop Dogg comes to mind…)

Perhaps Mos Def’s secret is that he really isn’t an “actor-turned-rapper,” at all. He’s kind of always been both. Born and raised in Brookllyn, New York, Mos Def started both acting and rapping as an adolescent and the two skills developed at the same time. Though he became more famous for an explosion onto the music scene in the mid to late ’90s, he actually earned his first acting credits a few years before. (Some of his early acting work included a few short-lived TV series like You Take the Kids and The Cosby Mysteries.) His acting leans  pretty hard on comedic roles, including projects like Chappelle’s Show and voice work for The Boondocks, but he can get it done dramatically, too.

The 1998 album Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star is widely remembered as a seminal hip-hop record. (And it happens to feature several songs produced by Cincinnati’s own DJ Hi-Tek.)

Mos Def’s solo albums have also been consistently top notch. The first song on each album begins with a simple, oft-repeated Islamic phrase — “bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm.” It’s often translated from from the Arabic as “In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate.” And whenever I hear Mos say it, I know something impressive is about to happen.

A few Mos Def songs: “Casa Bey,” “Definition,”  & “Ghetto Rock

A few Mos Def movies: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Cadillac Records, Be Kind Rewind

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Keinan Abdi Warsame, better known as K’Naan, is probably most famous for the single, “Wavin’ Flag,” from his acclaimed sophomore album, Troubadour, which came out in February 2009. It already had healthy chart positions before Coca-Cola chose the song as the anthem for its 2010 FIFA World Cup program, so during the long lead up to this year’s global soccer tournament in South Africa, K’Naan performed the song frequently on tours throughout the world and Coca-Cola used in in advertisements and promotional events. Soon, an artist that only a short time ago was considered a little known underground sensation became globally recognizable as part of the single biggest sporting event in the world.

But don’t let the corporate endorsement fool you; hip-hop fans of the “conscious” and/or “back-packer” variety have raved about K’Naan’s unusually engaging flow and potent social consciousness for years. The musicians picturesque descriptions of growing up poor in Mogadishu, Somalia (where the population is overwhelmingly Muslim) are sometimes beautiful, other times heartbreaking. He can explain the new prevalence of piracy in engaging ways. But he can also make his fans laugh with brag raps about being born wearing a high-top fade and a gold chain.

K’Naan’s  rapid delivery and nasally voice may seem strange or even grating to some listeners, but his brand of Afro-beat-meats-pop-meets-hip-hop music is one of the finest examples of how globalization has impacted our culture. And his recent collaborations with people like Keane and Maroon 5 have deepened the diffusion. The traditional African flavor of his rhythms are probably about as novel to his American audiences as his hip-hop influences are to his Somali fans.

A few K’Naan songs: “Strugglin,” “ABC’s” & “Stuck in a Moment” (U2 cover)

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