Abd al Malik on his journey from drug dealer to rap star to Sufi mystic.
Ode Editors | April 2009 issue
I lived Islam as a body of commandments that I only needed to put into practice scrupulously. My satisfaction was made all the greater when I noted everything my discipline was allowing me to escape. While we were keeping vigil, the youth at the foot of the buildings were smoking joints and knocking back one half-liter after another of 8.6—those well-known cans of Dutch beer that are 8.6 proof alcohol. These kids would drink and carry on, shouting unbelievable insanities and violently fighting among themselves when everything else had worn them out.
Most of the time the whole scene was enlivened by the squealing tires of stolen cars—a kind of background music. We, on the other hand, were certainly not large in number, but our meetings took place in an atmosphere that was serious and one of real solidarity. At that time, our ideal was to live the way Muslims had during the time of the Prophet as it was described to us in the books of piety. For us, the modern Western world, with its insipid and materialistic values, its contempt of dignity and human spirituality, constituted an aberration in history, a cancer even, that only Islam had the tools to cure.
And, of course, as Muslims immersed in this Western reality, we were in a particularly good position to criticize and correct this state of affairs.
This black-and-white vision made it so that at any moment, despite the apparent candor of our utopian considerations, there was a risk that feelings of hatred could rise back to the surface. All the more so as this rejection of our surroundings could easily be shored up by a very concrete reality, which we’d rapidly worked on interpreting by assuming roles as its victims.
Hadn’t we all suffered humiliations during identity checks? Hadn’t some of us been victims of police violence? How many of our peers had we lost to car chases? How many “police blunders” or the strong suspicion of a desire to kill a “nigger” or a “wog” had never led to any convictions? Not to mention the fact that all of us, for two generations, had been in difficult social and family situations. Finally, any event that affected us even a little was capable of toppling our Islamic altruism into total, unrestrained hatred of the West.
My recent entry into music, which I believed to be incompatible with my religious activity—music is haram [sacred], according to certain authorities—posed a cruel dilemma for me. I therefore continued to perform rap in much the same way a patient follows the course of treatment for a shameful disease. I eventually constructed a rationale for my activity based on fairly twisted logic: The more quickly we advanced professionally and gained success, the more quickly I could retire and devote myself entirely to Islam. In the meanwhile, I led a double life of preacher and rapper—while pursuing my studies. I took scrupulous pains to ensure that none of the people with whom I was involved spiritually were at all aware of my musical activity.
When our first album, La Racaille Sort un Disque (“The riffraff release a record”), was finally available in the record shops, it became a genuine hit. The objective of this album was, first, to show that youth from the ghetto could still accomplish something, and that we not only knew how to express ourselves but could even—what a surprise!—show proof of intelligence and profundity. Using la racaille (racaille is a derogatory term used in France to refer to non-white immigrants) gave us back for our own purposes a term used to stigmatize us and turned it into a title of glory—just as in another domain the most militant radicals of African-ness called themselves “niggers” and not “blacks.” The national recognition we attained exceeded all of our hopes. We became stars of the ghetto.
Our manager, Nadir, had been the architect behind the success of our first album, but the day inevitably arrived when his past caught up to him. After serving a year of preventive detention, he was summoned to appear in court where, accused of armed robbery, he got 10 years of hard time. At almost this exact time, my youngest brother Stéphane sunk into the most violent kind of criminal activity. He stayed out all night on a regular basis, hung around with the little thugs of the projects, smoked and drank himself into a stupor and inevitably ended up in prison while he was still a minor.
This chain of misfortunes made me aware of the relativity of everything I’d set up as absolute truth. The act of believing deeply (without ever proclaiming it openly) that we, the Muslims, were on one side, and the miscreants (the kufar), were on the other, had contributed to maintaining this duplicity in me. This discrepancy, this discreet and hypocritical distance with respect to suffering, made it obvious that, over time, all my actions, even when I thought they were pious, could only be resolved in paradox or by continuously pulling me to a lie.
I could clearly see that there was neither an “us” nor the “others,” just men and women in quest of happiness. I strongly felt that all of us were “one” and that any notion of a radical splitting of humanity into two camps was only a comforting lie. Islam seemed to have offered me some help at the beginning, but I now found myself with my back to the wall, having no greater confidence than I had at the start of my journey. Nothing I had learned so fervently—a confused blend of authentic spiritual truths and moronic slogans—was of help. My hunger remained unsatisfied.
Then one day the emir of our group took me aside in the mosque and gave me a long lecture. He ordered me to cease all my rap activity because, according to him, music was a perilous threat to my Islamic practice. To soften the harsh tone of his criticisms and threats of divine wrath, he explained to me how he’d been a huge fan of the American singer Barry White, but hadn’t hesitated to destroy all of White’s 33s for the cause of God. Since that time, the emir said emphatically, things had only gone better for him. I then had to face the disapproving gazes of the group members, and perhaps it was this ordeal that left the most painful impression upon me. I asked myself if they might not be right, after all. It was impossible to reconcile two such conflicting activities any longer.
While I was going through this grim period of doubt, the major label BMG signed us to a fabulous contract for our second album, La Fin du Monde (“the end of the world”). While we were recording it, I felt a pressing need to make my activities more relevant to my beliefs. I made a capital decision: Never again would I be satisfied with a superficial religious attitude and never again would I artificially separate my artistic activity from my spiritual path. What remained unclear, however, was just how I was going to translate these sterling resolutions into practice.
I was enthused by this Sufi literature that sometimes shook me up so much that I wept. But I remained convinced it was no longer possible to live this kind of spiritual experience, that no initiatory path still existed in our age. Expanding the field of my religious education had been in vain; while I never ceased to believe in its meaning, the source of my Being remained hidden away there. My actions, my attitudes and my frustrations only definitively formulated one major question out of all those posed to me by life: Who did this meaning veil from me?
This intuition, that something resembling plenitude existed beyond the veil, was something I’d always felt. It had manifested, for example, in the inner upheaval I had experienced in my first Sufi readings. These experiences had made me let go and open myself to the real to a degree that was more profound than what I had experienced through criminality and the projects. I felt it now, and the Sufis only confirmed what I was feeling: Everything I’d lived, up to the present, including my wanderings in the maze of institutions and ideologies boasting their Islamic identity, including even rap and my life as an artist, were only veils in comparison to my personal essence, that profound source to which I had to climb.
Since my childhood, whether at school or in the street, I always occupied the position of the leader, the independent ringleader who influences without being influenced. This haughty figure crumbled away. In reality, the preacher was no different from the criminal; I’d only been wrestling on the surface of myself, seeking to flee what, in the depths of my being, exceeded me. I’d always been proud and believed myself to be more intelligent than everyone else, and here I found a magnificent ignorance opening within me.
This is an edited excerpt from Sufi Rapper: The Spiritual Journey of Abd al Malik by Abd al Malik, published by Inner Traditions.