Thanks to the excellent recommendations of Mizzo and several others, I’ve been recently checking out underground hip-hop artist Jay Electronica (download his unofficial album here). Vastly different from the materialistic, pop-friendly, bling-heavy blather permeating hip-hop radio (how many songs about money can there possibly be?), Jay Electronica drops introspective, socially conscious hip-hop with a great flow and a knack for realistic storytelling.
On his song “Exhibit C”, a song widely considered one of the best of 2009, Jay Electronica brings an old theme back into hip-hop, the thoughts and theories of the 5% Nation of Islam. Although I am not sure if Jay Electronica is an official 5%’er, throughout Exhibit C, Electronica mentions that he is supposed to “educate and 85′er”, “Allah through your monitor”, and that he is “bringing ancient mathematics back to modern man”. All of these phrases were the norm during what many call the “golden years of hip-hop”, the era between 1989 and 1995 when New York ruled the hip-hop scene and artists from Rakim to Nas to the Wu-Tang Clan ruled the airwaves.
In Islamic culture, the term ” Jahiliyya” is used to describe a state of ignorance, especially in regards to worship and acknowledgment of God. According to Islamic history, the people of Arabia were in a state of jahiliyya before they were presented with the Word of God. They drank, fought, had no higher belief, and lived generally directionless, God-less lives. Then, according to the Qur’an, Muhammad came with the Word of God and helped them shed their barbaric ways.
Like the ancient Arabians, hip-hop before the late 1980s was somewhat directionless. There were some established groups, such as Run DMC, and there were a lot of groups and rappers known throughout the urban underground music scenes, but hip-hop was struggling to make an impact on mainstream culture. Then came the Golden Age of Hip Hop.
Few would disagree that this era of NY hip-hop was influenced by the tenets of the 5% Nation of Islam (see this article: Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the 5%). The Supreme Mathematics and Supreme Alphabet of the 5% mantra provided a guide to many rappers, from solo artists such as Rakim to collective groups such as the Wu-Tang Clan and the Native Tongues (the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and a Tribe Called Quest). These rappers frequently made mention of “suns and earths”; “arm, leg, leg, arm, head” (ALLAH); and the “uneducated 85%”. For these rappers and their fans, rap was not the black CNN that Chuck D of Public Enemy famously said it was. It was the black Al Jazeera, a news network catering to a community with a specific religious lifestyle.
As the 90s drew to a close, hip-hop quickly became more mainstream. As it did, artists who did not use religious context grew more prominent. From 1995 to 2000, the religious doctrine of the 5%ers all but faded from the airwaves and mainstream hip-hop. In its place emerged more commercially friendly, less socially challenging tales of crime and violence, glitz and glamour propagated by rappers such as Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G., Fat Joe, and Jay-Z.
Led by these secular rappers, hip-hop in late 1990s would grow into a billion-dollar business. Soon rap scenes throughout the country would stake their claim in the hip-hop landscape. Although the LA rap scene had always been strong, rappers were making names for themselves from cities such as Atlanta (Outkast), New Orleans (Master P), and St. Louis (Nelly). Much to the dismay of hip-hop nostalgists, this new wave of mainstream hip-hop (which continues to today) did not concern itself with the social consciousness and philosophic undertones of its predecessors. New hip-hop was either pop friendly or soaked in the idolation of materialism. Although the Wu-Tang Clan maintained prominence, they were one of the few, as a new era of jahiliyya descended onto hip-hop .
There is no question the 5% dogma had an impact on late 80s-early 90s hip-hop. The question of what happened next, however, is the age-old “chicken or the egg” dilemma. Did commercialism, complete with the simplicity and ignorance of catering to the lowest common denominator, kill off hip-hop’s religious references? Did money make it more advantageous to quote movies such as The King of New York than to cite religious doctrine?
Or did the hip-hop community merely run out of philosophical-minded rappers? Was their message not as influential as they believed? Did 5% Nation of Islam membership decline as the national economy grew and America prospered? Was all that needed to be said said between 1989 and 1995?
If the latter, could a dogma once again influence hip-hop enough to make a genre-wide difference? Or would political correctness allow the bog of corporate materialism to suffocate hip-hop? Could there be a reluctance to embrace philosophical lyrics in mainstream rap, especially those mentioning Allah? Could the continued lyrical jahiliyya be the combined result of a paranoid post-9/11 buying public, the formulaic processing of corporate America, and collective community disinterest?
There is no doubt mainstream hip-hop has been mired in lyrical jahiliyya for over a decade. According to Adisa Banjoko, in his book Lyrical Swords: Hip Hop and Politics in the Mix, “Unless we rid Hip Hop of all its Jahiliyya elements, we can only expect more sharp minded but misguided youth to perish over territorialism, materialism, and the pursuit of the sensual path.“
Perhaps Jay Electronica is the beginning of a new trend. A new social and lyrical awakening. Perhaps he is the one who will bring insight, knowledge, and thought out of the underground and back into mainstream hip-hop.
If only he would release an official album.