How Hip-hop Fell in Love with Arabic

If you are an avid listener of hip-hop’s hottest stars, chances are you have heard a snippet of the Arabic language in hip-hop songs. Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye West are just a handful of artists who use Arabic words in their music. This influence is traced back to the Nation of Islam in New York City, which is the birthplace of hip-hop. Hip-hop originally arose as a way for African Americans to accentuate oppression in American society. This history is especially important in the contemporary era as racial tensions in America have become more xenophobic.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X became the face of the Nation of Islam and was exposed to the world of hip-hop and rap. The legendary hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, based in the Bronx,  rap about Malcolm X in their song, “My Philosophy” as a tribute to Malcolm X’s contributions in fighting racism. Similarly, another Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, has a relationship with rap. Prior to joining the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan studied music in college and dropped out in order to pursue a career in music. The Notorious B.I.G. even mentions Farrakhan in his song "The What," saying “It’s the praying mantis, deep like the mind of Farrakhan, a [...] rap phenomenon.” Biggie uses a simile to describe Farrakhan’s musical talent and to pay tribute to Farrakhan’s departure from music to spirituality. These two examples of artists mentioning prominent Nation of Islam leaders illustrates the influence of the Nation of Islam in hip-hop songs and the inclusion of words in Arabic.

The Wu-Tang Clan is another prominent hip-hop group that mentions the Nation of Islam in its songs. In the song "A Better Tomorrow," the Wu-Tang Clan mentions Malcolm X: “protect one another, that’s word to my brother Malcolm, As-Salaam Alaikum Wa-Alaikum-As-Salaam.” Again, Malcolm X’s influence and his foundations in the Nation of Islam and his journey converting to Sunni Islam is present. Hip-hop was created to highlight racial oppression, and Malcolm X was at the forefront of fighting this struggle. Wu-Tang’s lyrics are symbolic in including Malcolm X and the Arabic greetings, As-Salaam Alaikum and Wa-Alaikum-As-Salaam, which both mean “peace be upon you.”

Compared to the 1990s, hip-hop in the twenty-first century has evolved; but one thing remains the same: the influence of Arabic. In 2017, Drake released a song titled “Portland.” The song begins with Drake saying a common Arabic word “Habibi.” “Habibi” means “my love” in Arabic and is a common phrase used in the Arab world. Drake’s producer and closest friends are of Arab descent, which points to why Drake used the word in his song. Another hip-hop star, Kendrick Lamar, also uses the Arabic language in his music. His song titled “Blue Faces” mentions the Arabic word for God, Allah: “I paid my way through praying to Allah, you played your way through.” Lamar implies a religious dichotomy by finding himself through God, while others do not. Kendrick Lamar may have used God instead of Allah, but it appears he chose the latter because of the cultural significance of Arabic in hip-hop.

It is important to note that these artists mention words in Arabic, yet are not Middle Eastern. The use of Arabic is tied to the early influence of the Nation of Islam in New York City and now to the immigration of Arabic-speaking people to America. This fact is important to note because of the diffusion of cultural identity into hip-hop music. Hip-hop is a form of self-expression against racism and oppression.

Hip-hop began as a form of political protest. However, xenophobia has risen at an alarming rate in America. In 2015, three students from the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, lost their lives from hate and Islamophobia. This issue is extremely frightening and needs to be addressed. Because of rap’s iconic significance in music, many Americans listen to various artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Drake who use words from the Arabic language in their lyrics. However, the group of Americans who are xenophobic and also listen to rap is extremely problematic. It is not right to listen to a song with Arabic words and phrases yet be xenophobic and unwelcoming of diversity. Hip-hop was created to highlight the struggle of oppression in America and highlight the issue of political racism. However, those who listen to hip-hop and still retain their racist ideologies need to reevaluate their ideologies and to come to appreciate the foreign influence in hip-hop music.