How Muslims Defined American 'Cool'

A conversation with the Purdue University professor Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, whose new book documents the connection between Islam and hip-hop culture in the United States

The Muslim rap artist Mos Def, who is also known as Yasiin Bey, performs in 2009  (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

In the opening to her new book, Muslim Cool, the Purdue University professor Su’ad Abdul Khabeer makes an ambitious declaration of intent: Her research “poses a direct challenge to [the] racialization of Muslims as foreign and as perpetual threats to the United States.” For more than a decade, Khabeer has worked with young Muslims, largely in America, who are interested in art, fashion, and activism—and think about all of these things through the lens of hip hop. While she studied people from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, she focuses on the intersections between hip-hop culture, black culture, and Islam, arguing that all of these cultures define what is “cool” in the United States.

Khabeer is a Muslim who defines herself as a “hip-hop head.” She’s arguably a product of “Muslim cool”: “Hip hop is the soundtrack to my life,” she writes. “Growing up in Brooklyn and particularly being a teenager during the golden era of hip hop made my connection with it even more meaningful. I was black and Muslim … and the music and culture of hip hop were replete with Islamic references and pro-black and pan-African messages.”

While Muslim Cool celebrates the spiritual grounding of hip hop and tries to tease apart its complex relationships with race and religion, the context surrounding the book is perhaps what’s most challenging about it. During this election cycle, rhetoric about Islam has been disturbing and violent. Last year, hate crimes against Muslims increased, and at various points, Donald Trump has proposed religion-based bans on all Muslims seeking to enter the United States. The idea that Muslims create “cool” in American culture while also being severely marginalized is dizzying.

I spoke with Khabeer about the dynamics of “Muslim cool” in American culture and politics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Green: What is “Muslim cool”?

Khabeer: “Muslim cool” is a term that I’m using to describe a way of being and thinking about what it means to be Muslim in the United States. It’s engaging blackness to counter anti-blackness, as it appears in Muslim communities as well as broader American society.

Muslim cool manifests itself in different ways: conversations and ideas, but also style, fashion, and activism. I worked with young Muslims, ages 18 to 30, who were multi-ethnic. They were black, South Asian, and Arab Americans who were engaged in arts-based activism, and particularly hip-hop-based activism.

I’m also juxtaposing Islam and hip hop. For a number of Americans, that might be unexpected, because they don’t necessarily put those two things together, but I found that looking at those two things together gave me some critical insights into the way race and blackness function in the U.S. today. These young Muslims are resisting anti-blackness in their activism and their style, but they also find themselves reproducing it. And I think that is really key to how race and blackness function in the U.S.

“The reason we love Muhammad Ali is that he stood up for justice, and the reason he did that was because he was Muslim.”

Green: Everything you’re describing—style, fashion, music—are the building blocks of what makes something “cool.” And yet, there’s some cognitive dissonance. One could argue that Muslims in the U.S. are, politically speaking, marginalized and demonized.

In that context, what does it mean for Muslims to be “cool”?

Khabeer: In mainstream U.S. conversations about Muslims, yes, I think “the Muslim” is made into a threat or a terrorist—something really scary. But in the hip-hop community, Muslims are more like prophets. And that’s where the “cool” comes from.

People don’t recognize Muslims right in front of them. Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims and wants [Muslim immigrants] to register [with the government as they enter the United States], and then he’s like, “Muhammad Ali is a great guy.” Muhammad Ali’s greatness is inextricable from his blackness and inextricable from his Muslim identity. The reason we love Muhammad Ali is that he stood up for justice, and the reason he did that was because he was Muslim.

In the United States, we have a mainstream, but we also have multiple streams—we have multiple communities. While the mainstream conversation dominates [culture] and pushes policy on some level, it’s not the only conversation.

“‘Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn’ [is] not exactly a revolutionary mantra.”

Green: In those “mainstream” conversations you describe, whether it’s politicians making speeches, TV news broadcasts, or articles in the newspaper, Muslims are often portrayed in narrow stereotypes: Arab, foreign, immigrant. Of course, this doesn’t reflect reality: U.S. Muslims come from all sorts of ethnic and racial backgrounds, and a large portion are African American, as you point out in your book.

How has the cultural notion of who “Muslims” are shifted over time in American history, especially when it comes to this divide between your concept of “Muslim cool” and the stereotype of Muslims being “scary”?

Khabeer: I don’t know if I think it’s changed, but in the United States, black cultural production has always been a source of culture and cool. When we think of “cool,” we think of something that goes against the grain. To be black is to always be against the grain already.

That “cool” has always been about resistance and revolution, and this is why black Muslims fit in that really well. I think hip-hop music has always been about that, even though the music that is commercially profitable doesn’t seem as explicit around those kinds of questions.

Of course, we can’t romanticize things, because hip hop has always had a lot of different messages. Take the Sugar Hill Gang. One of their lines is “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn.” That’s not exactly a revolutionary mantra.

“Islam, particularly as it is practiced by black people in this country, is fundamental to hip hop and to our notions of cool.”

Green: One of the things you’re arguing is that hip hop—and, by extension, Islam—are really pervasive in American culture. Especially in the realm of politics, I think it can be easy to talk about “Muslims” as though they are defined by their religion and hermetically sealed off from the rest of culture. How does your research push back against that?

Khabeer: In the book, I talk about young people who are engaging hip hop, and thereby engaging the black experience, to really understand who they are in the world, who they are as Muslims, and who they are as racial minorities. Then they do something with that—they become activists, or work on some racial-justice issue. They appreciate a particular culture, find what’s meaningful to them, and are in community with those people.

This is opposed to appropriation, which is like: This thing exists, you think it’s cool for your own reasons, and you take it up and you use it. The people who created it and the issues that are important to them—it doesn’t really cross over. Many people understand hip hop as black music, but not something beyond that one-dimensional frame—it’s just entertainment. They appropriate, rather than appreciate.

What I am arguing is that Islam, particularly as it is practiced by black people in this country, is fundamental to hip hop and to our notions of cool, to our notions of what it means to resist.

“The struggle against racial inequality in the United States is a long one. But art has always had a really important role.”

Green: The phenomenon you’re describing—young people who are racially conscious, artistic, and drawing from a deep faith tradition in their work—isn’t new. Something similar arguably happened during the civil-rights era, for example. But over time, a lot of those former young people grew up, and this year, many of them voted for a presidential candidate—now president-elect—who enforces stereotypes around what it means to be black, Muslim, etc.

Do you think there’s staying power to the kind of youth-led artistic and political movement you’ve observed, and if so, what does that look like?

Khabeer: I think that yes, there’s staying power. The struggle against racial inequality in the United States is a long one. But art has always had a really important role, whether it was enslaved African Americans who were using spirituals as encoded messages to get to the North, or authors writing poems and imagining new worlds. That is the staying power.

Part of what art is about is translating messages to people. Part of what music has done, also, is educate people. Here’s an example: I gave a talk at the University of Nebraska in Omaha on the Thursday after the election. A young white student, who was male, asked me, “I’m from a rural town in Nebraska. I’ve come to college, and it has basically blown my mind. What do I do with all that information? Do I go back?”

And I was like, “Yes, you go back. That’s exactly what you do. That’s your cousin, not mine. That’s your aunt, not mine. You have a relationship with these people—you know them better than I would, and you know where they’re coming from, and you also understand how to bring them to a different understanding.”

I think the staying power comes from that: People working in their communities.