Whether you’re a hip-hop historian or a casual listener that’s heard an Arabic word or two in a Drake song, it’s hard to miss Islam’s influence on hip-hop, and, by extension, R&B.
Poetry culture was popular in pre-Islamic Arabia. Poetry battles complete with creative insults (naqa'id) were commonplace and bore resemblance to battle rap culture. Rhymed Arabic poetry was fifteen meters; Al-Akhfash al-Akbar later identified a sixteenth meter. Hip-hop verses – 16 bars – are similar in theory. Upon the arrival of Islam, poetry retained its cultural significance, with the work of Muslim poets such as Hafez, Rumi and Omar Khayyam still relevant today. Much like hip-hop, their work spoke to the cultural, social and political climate of the time.
During the slave trade, large numbers of Muslims were enslaved and trafficked into the United States. Despite attempts to forcibly strip them of it, many held on tightly – and spread – their faith. Black Islam continued to influence generations of artists, including some of hip-hop’s pioneers like Afrika Bambaata and the Zulu Nation, Rakim, Public Enemy, Brand Nubian and other legends in the game whose protest rap was inspired by teachings from the Nation of Islam and Five Percenters. As educator and historian Zaheer Ali tweeted, “Because you can’t talk about Hip Hop without talking about Black Islam, which has shaped Black music from blues to jazz to R&B.”
In celebration of Muslim Women’s Day, MuslimGirl.com partnered with Spotify on a global playlist takeover highlighting Muslim artists to watch right now (masha’Allah!) — and PAPER asked a few how their faith impacts their work.
Songstress SZA was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother. She was raised Muslim and pays homage to Islam in her stage name. SZA is an acronym derived from the Supreme Alphabet that stands for “Sovereign Zig-Zag Allah.”
The Grammy Award-winning artist told MuslimGirl.com that she realizes spirituality is “super-individualized,” elaborating that “everybody’s journey with God, source, spirit, Allah, whatever you want to call it, is very personal.” She reflects that she did wear a hijab at one point but removed it due to fears about the sociopolitical environment in a post-9/11 world.
Abir Haronni, known professionally as ABIR, was born in Fez, Morocco, arriving in the United States at age five. Young Abir’s penchant for song began soon after the family settled in Arlington, Virginia, when she would listen to Etta James with her father, a chauffeur. Her singing career began with her doing guest vocals for rappers like Fabolous. Within a few years, she made her debut as a solo artist with the song “Wave” and made waves internationally representing Morocco in the Europa Song Contest.
Abir tells PAPER that her faith “permeates every aspect of my life and work. It’s in the brief minutes before I take the stage when my team and I recite a surah to bless the show and audience, it’s in the lyrics I compose in my songs that remind me of my faith and God and what a beautiful connection. It makes me feel protected and loved at my best and worst moments.”
Moroccan-American Dounia’s original claim to fame was being an Instagram model known for body positivity and thrifting. Dounia’s otherworldly charm helped catch the eyes of the right brands and people, and instead, she ended up working as a professional model for major companies like Forever 21 and Refinery29 before launching her music career.
Dounia credits her culture – and Islam – as being formative for her as both an artist and a person. “Growing up with a foundation in God is something I’ve always appreciated,” she says. “My mother always had this trust in a greater divine force; a trust which I’ve also continuously leaned on in music, career, and life in all facets. I remember the daily prayer in my childhood home in Morocco, breaking fasts with a large family, and the energy of love, comfort, and authentic laughter. More than anything, these moments represent a culture that shaped me into the unique human and artist I am today.”
Neelam Hakeem is the first Black Muslim woman rapper to be featured in Vogue Arabia. Born in Seattle, Neelam moved to LA, where she currently lives, at the age of 15. She reverted to Islam in 2007. Neelam’s witty bars and smooth delivery captured the attention of music industry majors like Diddy and Erykah Badu.
Neelam confessed to Vogue Arabia that she “never felt like I was fully ready to commit to hijab.” In an interview with Amaliah, she cites Muslim Women’s Day as inspiration for her decision to cover and ultimately launch her music career: “Social media is honestly what influenced me to wear modest fashion. On Muslim Women’s Day, I went through the hashtag and became inspired by all the beautiful and confident women and girls who displayed their modesty in such a gorgeous way. That day I decided to dress modestly and wear the hijab, wraps, and turbans. When my platform grew and girls continued to reach out to me telling me how much I inspired them, l felt compelled to do more with my platform and speak on issues going on in the world.”
Elyanna is a Palestinian-Chilean singer and songwriter. Coming from a creative family – her mother is a poet and her grandfather is a poet and singer – it was only natural that Elyanna start singing at age seven. Encouraged by her musical family, she began posting covers on SoundCloud. Her family then relocated from Palestine to California to help her achieve her dreams of stardom. Once she arrived stateside, she started posting to Instagram as well, resulting in hundreds of thousands of followers. Her soulful signature sound is a very deliberate fusion of Arabic and English.
“I always want to make sure my music sounds different. Yes, I have the Arabic lyrics but at the same time it’s not so Arabic, [and] not so American,” she explains. “It’s in-between and I want to keep that happening... it gets everybody to listen,” she toldGQ Middle East.
6. Saint Levant
Saint Levant (born Marwan Abdelhamid) is an LA-based artist of Palestinian, French, Algerian and Serbian descent. Known for his effortless fusion of English, French and Arabic, Saint Levant was born in Palestine (Jerusalem) during the second intifada and raised in Gaza. His infectious style prompted him to go viral on social media, skyrocketing him to stardom.
In an interview with Arab News, Saint Levant described the jarring contrasts of his childhood: “...childhood is very meaningful. And for me, it was a juxtaposition because I remember the sound of the drones and the sounds of the bones. But more than anything, I remember the warmth, and the smell of...and the taste of food and just the odd feeling of soil.”
Rotana Tarabzouni, originally from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, is a US-based artist and pleasure activist. Her work centers on women’s rights and addresses cultural and religious taboos around sex, pleasure, body image and more, encouraging women to shed their shame and embrace what it means to fully experience living in – and feeling good in – our bodies, because only then can we partake in the full experience of being alive.
In 2021, Rotana released a comedy special, F*d & Blessed. “This show is me finally saying out loud that sexuality is not bad. It is good, and in fact, holy. It is a gift, and a portal to the divine,” she told MuslimGirl.com.
Sara El Messiry’s stage name, Felukah, was inspired by a conversation with her mother. The Egyptian rapstress shared the story with PAPER: “A felucca is essentially a sailboat that the pharaohs used to travel along the Nile River, and modern-day Egyptians still use them for transport – and also celebrations! My mama and I were brainstorming names that were both Arabic and easily pronounced in the West when she thought of Felucca, which then became Felukah. I started developing the Felukah Philosophy around this name easily… we falayek (plural of felucca) are artistic travelers guided by the wind. The ebb and flow of the universe that many call turbulence is necessary for us to continue sailing/floating. It’s all part of the process.”
Felukah’s faith takes center stage in her life. She says it brings her a sense of peace and certainty, telling PAPER, “My faith keeps me grounded when everything else feels up in the air. I can rely on the unlimited divine love that brought me here, and know in my heart I’ll always find my way because of it.”
Moroccan-American artist ilham had dreams of becoming a singer from a young age. A classically trained vocalist, she initially resisted going to college but relented under pressure from her parents. She applied to Ivy Leagues in hopes of being rejected and pursuing her music but ended up attending Cornell University. Post-college, ilham headed to LA for an internship at Capitol Records. From there, her dreams started coming true, culminating in fellow Moroccan French Montana signing her.
For ilham, success is bigger than herself. “Being a Muslim woman in the music industry pushes me to go ten times harder than the average artist because I know how it important it is for young Muslim girls and boys to have representation, especially in entertainment. I want our youth to know we can more than dream to exist in these spaces. We are here. I do it for them. I do it for us.”
Her faith has given her the confidence to succeed in a tough business. “I think being in an industry like this requires you to have unshakeable faith or you’ll get lost. I love music so much, and it has been part of my life as far back as I can remember. That comes from a pure space, but the reality is not everyone will have pure intentions. My faith allows me to stay grounded when faced with circumstances and situations that conflict with my moral compass. In fact, it’s safe to say most people are trifling AF in this industry, so leaning on my faith is what keeps me going and motivated to achieve my goals as an artist,” she expressed to PAPER.
Nemah Hasan’s clever wordplay should be evident from her stage name, Nemahsis. The Palestinian-born, Canada-raised crooner quickly gained a massive social media following for her fashion and beauty looks. She started showcasing her vocal prowess by posting covers on social media before releasing her original single “What If I Took It Off For You?” in 2021. Within a few months, she dropped her sophomore single, “Paper Thin” – a powerful song about her struggles with self-acceptance.
11. Ain’t Afraid
Ain’t Afraid made their debut as musicians in June 2020. Twin sisters Inah and Yahzi have been singing since they were just two years old. The dynamic duo says their mission is to “empower, inspire, and motivate people all over the world.” Their music is a testament to their mission; in less than a year, Ain’t Afraid racked up millions of streams. The multitalented twins are creative souls, with talents including spoken word, dance, fashion, and creative direction, in addition to their music. Advocacy and allyship are at the center of their artistry and creative endeavors. Their work has been featured in HypeBae, GQ Middle East, Vogue Arabia and more. They are currently part of Meta’s “We the Culture” program committed to empowering and elevating Black creators.
"Our faith is a big part of who we are," Ain't Afraid tells PAPER. "It naturally flows through our art and creativity. We are not limited because of our faith, but rather equipped to speak on relatable topics in a way that makes others feel heard and validated through shared goals, views, and experiences."
Yassin Alsalman, known to hip-hop heads as “Narcy,” is an Iraqi-Canadian rapper, writer, and professor. Alsalman teaches at Montreal’s Concordia University, where his curriculum focuses on music as a vessel for social change, as well as media and narrative. His work has been featured on the Netflix show Mo, as well as in the movies Voices of Iraq and Furious 7. His credits include collabs with Shadia Mansour and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def).
Narcy remains true to his roots on his tracks, often weaving in references to his faith. When we asked Narcy about his influences, Islam was undoubtedly at the forefront. “Islam directly impacts my creativity,” he tells PAPER. “I always start with intention whenever I have a show, studio session, creative build, or project. I think about what reverberations my words might have without literally censoring myself. Islam being my science of life, it permeates all my public works, from education to music and video.”
Photos via Getty