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An Examination Of The Islamic References In Jay Electronica's 'A Written Testimony'
If there's any rapper who has been consistent with their references to Islam it's Jay Electronica. On his debut album, A Written Testimony, his spirituality is at the center. We take a close examination of all the Islamic references featured on his debut.
After a decade-long wait, Jay Electronica was resurrected with his debut album, A Written Testimony. For 40 days and 40 nights, he worked on an album that weaved motifs from Sunni Islam, Nation of Islam, and the Nation of the Gods and Earths' teachings (more commonly known as the Five-Percent Nation) and incorporated samples from Louis Farrakhan's speeches and recitations of the shahadah and Islamic sayings that sound familiar to most Muslims. "It’s the day qiyamah," Electronica raps on "The Neverending Story." In other words — rap's messiah has returned.
Islamic references have been peppered throughout rap music since the early '80s, most notably through the teachings of the Five-Percent Nation. Founded by Clarence Edward Smith, a former student of Malcolm X who disbanded from the Nation of Islam because he didn’t agree with their views on God, the group believes that 10 percent of the world knows the truth about life and they keep 85 percent of people in ignorance, making for the remaining five percent to teach and enlighten others. In 1984, the World's Famous Supreme Team released their hit song "Hey DJ," which made references to the Five-Percent Nation. This influence continued well into the late '80s and early '90s: Rakim wore the organization's "seven and a crescent" Universal Flag symbol on his jacket for the cover of Eric B. & Rakim's 1988 album Follow the Leader; Brand Nubian, Busta Rhymes, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, and others favorably acknowledged the Five Percenters as well. The early 2010s saw a minor resurgence of the Five-Percent in mainstream hip-hop courtesy of JAY-Z, who wore the Universal Flag pendant during his press run for Magna Carta... Holy Grail throughout 2013 and 2014.
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In 1991, Harry Allen — Public Enemy's former publicist, as well as an activist and journalist — once called Islam the "unofficial religion of hip-hop." In the cover story he penned for the March/April issue of The Source magazine, titled an "An Islamic Summit: Righteous Rappers Talk About Hip-Hop and Islam," Allen called "an Islamic summit for the community in which members of the Five Percent faction of Islam laid out the parameters of Islamic influence in the rap world." Twenty-five years later, in her 2016 book Muslim Cool, Dr. Su'ad Abdul Khabeer wrote, "In US Black American communities, Islam has consistently been seen as a viable alternative to the White and Christian US mainstream, and as a result, the pairing of Black consciousness and Islam is a consistent feature of the US Black American experience." The people listening for these references hear them each time, but the real-time literature and analysis of these cultural moments live and die on social media.
If there's any rapper who has been consistent with their references to Islam, it's Jay Electronica. In 2007, the New Orleans-based rapper released Eternal Sunshineon Myspace. The 15-minute project — which acts as one singular track but is split into five movements — can best be described as cinematic, a whimsical and esoteric Electronica offering more questions than answers throughout the debut mixtape. In the fourth movement, "Voodoo Man," Electronica raps "Let the wisdom of Elijah [Muhammad] purify ya / Take a nigga higher." The final movement, "FYI," begins with a speech from Muhammad. In 2009, Electronica released "Exhibit C," which includes what is arguably one of his most well-known — and self-referential — bars: "They call me Jay Electronica / Fuck that, call me Jay ElecHannukah / Jay ElecYarmulke / Jay Elect-Ramadan, Muhammad Asalama Aleykum Rasul Allah subhana wa ta'Allah through your monitor."
Since then, Electronica's spiritual lyricism has evolved, as is evident on A Written Testimony. Now, we know him as the man who dated a Rothschild who is now bouncing back and forth with JAY-Z on his debut album. Electronica may as well be rap's Mansa Musa: bizarrely weaving mysticism with materialism, situated somewhere between the Roc Nation and the Nation of Islam. Existential ennui is intertwined with oligarchy raps –– capitalism is also a religion. A Written Testimony sometimes sounds like a sentient kente cloth kufi demanding you to study financial literacy. It's hard to believe how anyone that isn't remotely aware of Islam and its teachings would understand this album wholly. Christian hegemony reigns supreme, and if Kanye West's Jesus is King was a gospel rap album, this is a nasheed rap album for the skeptics and aspirational.
Prior to A Written Testimony's release, Electronica was already making Islamic references to build anticipation for the album. He took to Twitter on February 7 to say that he recorded the project over 40 days and 40 nights and that it would be released in 40 days. Forty is a significant number in Islam: the prophet Muhammad was 40-years-old when he first received the revelation from the Angel Jabreel; it's believed that the Dajjal –– an evil false prophet who will come to earth and try to lure people into following Satan –– will roam the earth for the 40 days; and similar to the rest of Abrahamic faiths, there's the story of Musa (Moses).
The title of the album is written in Arabic on the cover; testimony in Arabic translates to "shahadah." The shahadah is the first pillar of Islam; an attestation of one's faith and submission and a testimony to Allah SWT–– "there is no God but God." The shahadah is both a declaration of faith and an oath; it's the first pillar of Islam and the last words the dying are exhorted to say. "Shahadatah Maktuub (the latter word translates to "it is written")" is an apt title for a long-awaited debut album.
A Written Testimony's opener, "The Overwhelming Event," begins with a speech by Louis Farrakhan. In a virtual listening party and discussion on the album hosted by the Black Muslim platform, Sapelo Square and Pillars Fund, historian Zaheer Ali pointed out that the 88th chapter of the Quran –– Al Ghashiyah –– translates to "The Overwhelming," another name for the day of judgment. The chapter deals with the afterlife, heaven and hell, and speaks to the power of Allah's creation, with the first verse in the chapter (surah) asking: "Has there reached you the report of the Overwhelming [event]?"
People and places that have significant importance to the end of times are alluded to in A Written Testimony. There's a strange allusion to the Dome of the Rock on "Ghost of Soulja Slim," which is the place where Muslims believe the scales weighing the souls of all humanity will be balanced on the day of judgment. On "Blinding," Electronica raps: "It's the return of the Mahdi." The Mahdi is a leader that Muslims believe will rule before the end of the world and will help restore justice. "The Neverending Story," which follows "Blinding," finds Electronica rapping: "What a time we livin' in, just like the scripture says / earthquakes, fires, and plagues, the resurrection of the dead." There are minor and major signs that signal the day of judgment in Islamic eschatology: earthquakes and fires are minor, while the resurrection of the dead is major. Electronica continues this theme on "Flux Capacitor," saying: "you never thought we'd make it to Lā 'ilāha 'illā Allah / It's the day of the judgment, the fulfillment of the covenant."
On the closing track, "A.P.I.D.T.A (All Praise Is Due To Allah, alhamdulillah)," which was recorded the night Kobe Bryant's died, JAY-Z meanders as he grapples with morality: "I got numbers on my phone that'll never ring again/ 'Cause Allah done called them home, so we never sing again." In Muslim Cool, Dr. Su'ad recounts a conversation she had with Popmaster Fabel, where he discussed the relation between Islam and hip-hop, and listed what was called "warning songs" –– a tradition that alludes to "the Quranic assertation that the Prophet Muhammad was sent to warn humanity." Muslims have an inclination towards fatalism because we believe everything is predetermined. This contentment with what Allah decreed isn't supposed to breed complacency, but surrender. Islam translates to submission to God: through the good, the bad, and the lethargy of our current reality, we stay gracious because we can still create a future for ourselves as long as we’re alive –– even if that means that future is in the afterlife. We mourn, grieve and sink in our nostalgia, but there is little we can control. So we submit and move accordingly because All Praise is Due to Allah.
Jay Electronica and JAY-Z fashion themselves as prophetic on A Written Testimony, with the former even declaring in "Ghost of Soulja Slim": "If it come from me and Hov, consider it Qur'an." But it's on "Fruits of the Spirit" where Electronica embodies the role of prophet most, rapping: "My Shahāda is my cantada / My heart chakra light up when I make sajdah at Fajr / ¿Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo?…My people out in Flint still bathing in the slaughter / ICE out here ripping families apart at the border / Satan struck Palestine with yet another mortar." He transcends a nation state, and embodies a political identity that speaks to how Black American Islam and globalization coincided to disseminate cultural beliefs that are now mainstream. Even though rapping about opulent wealth is jarring against a backdrop of spirituality and where the world ending, this album managed to fuse multiple cultural contexts and landscapes in a disorienting way all while staying topical. As distinct as all of these references are, it is catering to a gaze that is its own. Those that don't get it aren't meant to get it.
Much of being a Jay Electronica fan is trusting that he'd reappear with a new project. He has maintained a sense of allure and mystique despite his lack of releases, and has even maintained relevancy in myth. Avid fans of the rapper joked that the reckoning would arrive before his debut album, as if he's their prophet and they're awaiting his message. We are now in the wake of the reckoning. The end of times has always been near for many people; our collective proximity to death is making the sound of trumpets and signaling the last hour that blasts in our heads. What we've learned from awaiting the final days is that it's relatively anti-climatic, and the same can be said about A Written Testimony.
Najma Sharif is a writer living in NY.