By Muhammad Sajid, Illume Magazine
"...everyone is responsible for the faults and redemption of the black Muslim, even the black Muslim himself...we have to transcend what America made us in regards to the lower lifestyle so many of us are pre-disposed to falling for. I believe we can't do it without Islam."
Illume Magazine sat down with Bay Area-based hip hop artist T-K.A.S.H. and talked about his journey to Islam and more.
Can we start by going into your background? You grew up in Oakland. Can you talk about where you grew up and how you were raised and how that influenced your music and the way you see music?
Well, my time in a middle-class black household fell short when I was nine because my father left us when he got hooked on crack. My mom, my sister and I were all homeless for the most of 1989 and that's where I bounced around from Oakland to Berkeley to my Aunt Tina's in the Freedom West projects over in the Fillmore. The most time was spent in Sacramento in the Delta and North Highlands with my relatives out there. My mom didn't really get along with her mother that much, so we ended up back in Oakland.
I grew up in Oakland between two areas. My mother's on 11th Avenue, which was known as Funktown, and 43rd Street in North Oakland with my younger cousins and uncles. I was raised on Reaganomics and the crack epidemic. Post civil rights era demise. A lot of activists and freedom fighters were smoked out on dope. Most of them were dead. I mean, even if they were alive physically the legacy wasn't alive in us, as far as the 90s generation was concerned. No disrespect, but the only direct contact I had with Huey Newton was painting his mural on the hoop court at Mosswood Park after he got shot. I mean, besides Paris, we didn't have a clue about none of the glory of the legacy of the civil rights era. We really didn't bump no East Coast records, and it was a chosen few that really got played in the hood. Oh, and Askari X, we stayed bumping that too.
I think that influences my music in a way to where I have to stay in the present moment and save all the anachronism for my colleagues. I try to stay focused on present-day issues instead of reverting back to the sixties and seventies like some of these dudes do. My generation didn't come up on that, so we don't honor it as much. My generation was the harsh proof that the civil rights era only came so far. So from production to the content of my lyrics, I try to stay rooted in what's actually going on right now.
I see music as a language. It's a form of communication from the culture that produced it. So really, I'm just saying what needs to be said, in the language of someone who grew up in the same area and era as me. You have to know the language in order to understand what I'm saying, and if not, it just makes you realize that you don't understand unless you learn. And you can't just look it up online, you know?
Can you talk about your music and its influences? How it has developed over the years and what you want listeners of your music to get out of it? You talk about in one of your bios that you want your music to be a part of the resurgence of quality hip-hop. What do you mean by that?
Lyrically, my music is the language of the culture I grew up in. My production is based on what I grew up on and what's poppin' today. I guess the music that influenced me the most was LA gangsta rap and the Bay Area form of it called Mobb Music. Again, it wasn't positive, but it was relevant. It reflected the times of the generation, and not the one before.
I think my music has matured over the years. I mean, I've been through so much and I'm not the one to hold back, so I guess you hear the growth in it all. Physically, from my tone of voice, all the way to the issues I address. I mean to mature is to continually transcend the same limits you produce. So I've broken a lot of my own barriers. As well as the ones today's industry tries to put on you. When I say the resurgence of quality hip-hop, I mean the resurgence of the quality of self. The better quality person I am, the better music I make. So I stay away from drugs, alcohol, poor diet, fear, hatred, miserliness, fornication and counter-faith agendas. I just want people to see that it's just fine to do the right thing in life, no matter how pressured we feel from society's pop culture dogma to the contrary.
Can you talk about some of the problems you see it mainstream, commercialized hip-hop? Your thoughts on white suburbia playing mainstream hip-hop/rap. The positives and negatives of this?
Well, now the problem is two-fold. First, you have the music, then the response to it by so-called 'conscious' emcees. I don't think the problem lies exclusively with mainstream hip-hop. But it's the fact that mainstream hip-hop is given the media a pedestal as if it speaks for all of the culture. That's the real issue. In order to find some real politically or socially aware music, you have to revert to means that are not as accessible, or not as streamline in conveyance. And that suggests to people who know better that what's good for the people isn't the true agenda. The root word of commercialized is commerce or money. So in theory, what you are hearing is 'money music.' So the agenda is money and you need not be down with the struggle to make some.
Now on the flip side, you have the rebuttal by the so-called 'conscious emcee.' They pride themselves on being different from the mainstream. But different does not mean better. When your production is soggy and your lyrics don't make any sense in the end, you're just as wack as the artist you rebel against. Another point I'd like to bring up is that some of these 'conscious' mcs I've met throughout my career are really bitter and unhappy people, so they don't leave a positive lasting impression with the fans once their records stop playing. Their music does but they can't go the distance in the end because of their own personal pain.
At least the mainstream artist is being open and direct about their faults. It does not help us fight the mainstream blitz when we look for the revolutionary behind the music and get some womanizing drug addict who is living the same life that he just wrote a song against. I've met some conscious mcs that really don't care for the well being of the black community. If anything they are pimping the struggle for its ability to get them some fame and then they turn around and pimp the fame in order to get this street respect that they feel they need to be accepted. So here we are thinking that these dudes have a pure heart and want what's best for us but behind closed doors, they are on some gangster-thug madness, while the real dudes who came up in it are looking for that same mc to bring them out of it. That makes you the same hypocrite that you're talking about. Being conscious only means being aware. Being aware of the problems means nothing if you are not aware of a true solution. You might as well make mainstream music too if you're still as vain as the people you diss.
I only have a problem with white suburbia playing mainstream hip-hop when they assume that 'this is black culture in its entirety.' It is important for the white suburbanite to have enough respect for the black experience to study it and try to correspond with it, so you know better than what you're listening to and you won't end up making prejudice and stereotypical proclamations about black people. This is where the so-called conscious mc has to make sure he is living proof that what his counterpart is coming with is not the complete truth, in return you are giving the white suburbanite the balance he needs for his outlook on us to be from a point of truth and enlightenment, not minstrel-dismissive comfort.
Can you talk about your journey to Islam What influences your spirituality and what role has your spirituality played in your music, if at all?
My journey to Islam was a long one. But I'm so happy to be here! I guess it started back in my teenage years, but I didn't take shahada until 2006. Right before Turf War Syndrome dropped. The same issues that seemed to plague me for most of my life were accelerated. But all of the worldly answers and solutions to my problems were not sufficient anymore, so I knew that in the end, like Leo Tolstoy would say, "the only cure for emotion is reason and the only cure for reason is God." It was suggested to me by a close friend and mentor that I reconsider my allegiance to worldliness, science, and logic, and revert back to the creator of man's ability to practice that. I took shahada with Zaid Shakir of Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif.
I think the everyday blessings of Allah influence my spirituality the most. I can see, I can walk and talk and hear. I have a family who loves the fact I am a Muslim. I'm happy. I can read. I'm a really simple guy and I'm really not looking for any trouble. I just don't tolerate any, that's all. So I'm thankful for Allah's mercy in giving me the tranquility of mind that some never experience, even other persons of faith. And I try to speak of this experience in the language of the streets I grew up in, my music.
Can you talk about the connections between hip-hop and Islam, if any, that you see? How were you perceived in the industry after you converted? How do people in hip-hop perceive Islam?
To me, hip-hop in its true form is one of Allah's greatest resources against the devil. Al-Ghazali teaches us that Prophet Muhammad revealed to us that Allah gave the devil music as an inviter, poetry as a Qur'an, and false talk as hadith. So to take the music and poetry and base it on the true talk of Allah and the Sunnah of the Prophets like disarming the devil. It's doing God's work. I think the industry as a whole has no problem with my faith. Adisa Banjoko's most recent article (p. 14) breaks down the influence hip-hop and Islam have had on one another, and when it's done right, it's pretty harmonious. Islam for hip-hop is really the spiritual standard because of the fact that they both reared the most barbaric cultures on earth and returned them to being the civilized people they truly are. So they both see the same elements in one another, that's that common bond. Even though hip-hop is not a religion, its reforming process on some people can be identical. But it's not a religion.
You did an album that you called a gift to the ummah. Why did you do that? And on that album you sampled Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir, can you talk about why you chose to do that and why did you choose those particular talks to sample?
Basically, that release dropped in the month of Ramadan, so I sold it to non-Muslims and the ummah got it for free. It really was a gift. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the fiscal charity we are obligated to give, but it can come indirectly as long as the intent is good-natured.
As far as Yusuf and Shakir, I not only took shahada with Zaid Shakir but at Hamza Yusuf's institute. So I wanted to show them gratitude by taking some of the work they've done that means so much to me and send it in to a circle that might not always experience it, due to social differences. When I first heard Yusuf, it was a lecture disk about domestic abuse and sexism, called Men and Women. But the lecture that means the most to me is the Seventeen Benefits Of Trials And Tribulation. That was why I put it on the mixtape. I mean, there is so much you can learn from your pain. And he also pointed out that the proof of Allah's presence in one's life is only as strong as their fikr. When I heard that, there was no way I couldn't let the hip-hop community not hear it.
Now when you speak of Zaid Shakir, you are looking at a man who understands that one of the biggest problems with black Muslims in America is the pressure of Islamic racism, Islamophobia and Middle Eastern racism/bigotry towards us. Let me be the first to say that those are all forms of transgression, and it hurts me so much. Anyway, his speech on Malcolm X in 2005 in Oakland he gave was a really good piece. He broke down the fact that everyone is responsible for the faults and redemption of the black Muslim, even the black Muslim himself. He pointed out that we have to transcend what America made us in regards to the lower lifestyle so many of us are pre-disposed to falling for. I believe we can't do it without Islam. Good brothers man, both of them.
See, I live with the concept of race, but not by it. I am a Muslim, who is identified under American standards as black. But Prophet Muhammad revealed to us that at the end of the day, there is no race in Islam. So there should be no deen based on race, or it's fruition.
What does hip-hop have to offer Islam and what does Islam have to offer to hip-hop?
Well, this is where Hamza Yusuf's lecture I put on the mixtape is so relevant. It's important for the ummah to understand that there is wisdom inside the pain of seeing our youth so heavily influenced by the improper form or commercialized hip-hop. This form of hip-hop shows us that Iblis is using certain elements to lure our children and adults away from the straight path. Worldliness, material success, miserliness, and greed. We have to be wise and study that, not just turn the other way. Be wise enough to see that this is what our youth are tempted by, and what makes it so appealing. From the dress to the cars, to the jewelry. These elements play a part in what Islam has to offer hip-hop.
Prophet Muhammad did not like to enter a home occupied by dogs. He taught us that likewise, angels can't enter the heart of a person if it is occupied by the same elements of hip-hop I just mentioned. So Islam offers hip-hop, especially the stars, who are usually the most miserable, a way to rid the heart of the 'dogs' so the angels can enter.