Since its birth in the ‘70s, hip-hop has become a global phenomenon and cross-cultural unifier. Countless artists like the members of Native Deen, a D.C.-area trio, have harnessed the power of the genre for social good. United by Islam, an organization known as Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA), and a passion for music, Joshua Salaam, Abdul-Malik Ahmad, and Naeem Muhammad formed Native Deen nearly 16 years ago. The trio combines elements of hip-hop, R&B, and pop while employing only percussion and synthetic sounds to remain accessible to Muslims who adhere to certain regulations around instrument use.

Native Deen has released three albums and performed for audiences around the world with the goal of inspiring young Muslims to be proud of who they are and keep their faith. Though much of Native Deen’s music is framed through the lens of African-American Muslims in the United States, its positive messages have much broader appeal. The group hopes to challenge and dismantle the often negative imagery and rhetoric Muslims face in the United States and around the world.

The members of Native Deen chatted with Arts Desk at Salaam’s house in Northern Virginia—-just a few blocks from the group’s recording studio—-about Muslim accessibility, how music can combat extremism, and Islam’s relationship to hip-hop.

Arts Desk: How would you define your music in relation to hip-hop?

Naeem Muhammad: It’s kind of like fusion. We grew up in the beginning stages of hip-hop, and that was the music of the time, so naturally when we were doing something creative, it came out that way. But we also grew up in Muslim communities where there was music of Middle Eastern influence and Far East influences…Eventually it just became whatever we sell or whatever we expressed. We didn’t try to put it in a box. If we want to rap on this one or sing on that one or have it be more like a chant type of thing, it just evolved that way. We let the people label it, but we just hope it’s considered good music.

Abdul-Malik Ahmad: Some of the songs [like “Intentions” or “Unknown Future”] were not hip-hop, but people tell me that I had a lot of Caribbean sounds in it, but I don’t know if that’s just because we’re using a lot of percussion instruments and, you know, the Caribbean has a lot of percussion. My background is in the Caribbean, though. My father is from Cuba, and my mother is from Aruba. My grandparents were from Trinidad, so Caribbean music has definitely worked its way in there too, but it’s really whatever we’re feeling.

Historically, hip hop has always had a pretty close relationship with Islam and has even been referred to as hip hop’s “unofficial religion.”

N: I think the biggest thing is that the Muslim community in inner-city, African-American neighborhoods was really prevalent. You had people who had names like Khadijah or Bilal but who weren’t Muslim, so the influence was there already. In the eras leading up to hip-hop—-the ‘60s and ‘70s—-people were reaching back and learning that something like a third of slaves were Muslim. So you have this undercurrent in the community…And then oftentimes the positive brothers in the neighborhood were the Muslim brothers who had the kufis on and were clean cut. Whether he’s in the Nation [of Islam] and he’s got the bowtie and the suit selling bean pies or the brothers in the neighborhood who were simply like “We’re not going to have any drug dealers around here.” So the people who were rapping would see all this, and it’s a part of their situation so it also becomes a part of the music…You had people like Rakim—-I remember when he first said “all praises due to Allah and that’s a blessing.” When we were kids, we would just rewind that a million times…Islam has had that presence because of its proximity in the community. You know the mosque is there, whereas in the suburbs, you’re not going to hear the call to prayer.

A: A lot of people now, they don’t know Islam in the way that they used to know…I saw a study saying it’s not as prevalent, that the references to Islam in hip-hop have gone down in recent years. And I think that’s partly due to us as African-American Muslims—-our presence, our role and a lot of the things happening overseas. The noise of what’s happening there has become louder than what’s happening in the cities, and our voice is not as strong. That’s something that Native Deen would like to bring back. We want that infusion of Islam back in the music again.

Joshua Salaam: I don’t have a strong hip-hop background…the music that we were listening to when I was coming up was a lot of Motown plot of classic hits from the ’60s and ’70s. We lean more on Naeem [when it comes to hip-hop] because he has more of a rich background.

Why do you think there’s been a bit of step away from that over time, and where does Native Deen fit in that shift?

N: It seems there was a time where people maybe thought people were being too preachy and it stopped being so much on the forefront…You had practicing Muslims like Mos Def, like, Q-Tip, like Ali Shaheed Muhammad, or even Lupe [Fiasco] where it’s not in your face. But for us, it wasn’t meant to just be implied…When we growing up with the music, there were kids who needed this message because they would be the only Muslim in their neighborhood or the only Muslim in their high school. And come Ramadan, they’d just jump in line and eat with everyone else because they didn’t want to stand out. They needed these messages. When rappers didn’t want to be preachy and just put it out there, we took the stance of saying “We need this to get to these youth who need this kind of enrichment.” They need these messages to give them pride and to give them a sense of identity.

Some of your music is a bit of a departure from traditional hip-hop aesthetics and leans more towards some Islamic traditions in terms of the vocal-only projects and your use of percussion.

N: There is a Muslim opinion or school of thinking that says you should only use percussion or even a certain type of percussion drum and that all other instrumentation is wrong and a distraction and you should stay away from it…We don’t necessarily hold that same opinion, but the organization where we started out, that was the opinion that they held just do percussion. We were already doing that with the MYNA Raps project, but as group we felt that the message and the lyrics was first and foremost. And secondly, we didn’t want to exclude anyone from the conversation. We wanted the most amount of kids that we’re trying to reach to get this, so we kept in the percussion only. I remember people used to be like, “You don’t have this or that in the song and that’s why they didn’t like it.” To me, it’s like, if it sounds good, turn it up and if it doesn’t, turn it off. For us, it had to sound good and we had to keep it percussion only. Now the community has a much looser stance, but we still try to maintain the same things because we want to make sure that it’s as accessible to as many kids as possible…In Mali, there were kids who were like, “We didn’t think we could do rap because we didn’t have a turntable or we didn’t have this or we didn’t have that, and you showed us we can use our own instruments and still do this music.” To me, that was inspiring.

J: I got frustrated with that whole opinion thing, and that’s why I bowed out after the first MYNA Raps album…There was too much restriction on what we could do creatively and too much restriction in performing…But as far as the Mali thing, I do want to say that I think when you’re submersed in a culture, anytime you hear the drum, it’s always going to be a certain type of beat. We came there with those congas and it wasn’t a traditional African beat. It was a hip-hop beat we were playing on those drums, and it was eye-opening for them. Sometimes people take something that you’ve always used and flip it into something else.

In his book, Hisham Aidi asks “Can a performance by an African-American Muslim group really push young men away from extremist ideas?” Have you all confronted this idea?

J: Of course. Anybody can push anybody away from extremism.

N: Music is powerful, but there’s more to it. These kids are living in really complex situations and just one song won’t do it. Who knows how many generations of them living through things and mindsets they’ve gone through? Just one performance? No.

J: It’s one piece of many opportunities. I think music and specifically African-Americans have a backdrop—-we have an experience that maybe gives you credit when you start talking about oppression and complicated things. Even in those countries, there are people there saying the same thing we’re saying, but sometimes it takes that fifth person for it to really connect.

A: It’s just saying, “This country has a lot of things that we’ve got to work on, but there’s some American Muslim rappers that are proud to be who they are, and they practice their religion freely, and you didn’t know about them ’til now. So before you go saying U.S.A. is all evil, listen to these guys.”…[In our music] we’re just talking about our faith. We’re talking about what we believe, and we believe Islam is peace.

J: One thing that I did like about the project that we were working on with the State Department is the concept of sharing cultures and perspectives. They were bringing groups from Muslim countries to America and bringing American groups, sometimes Muslim, to those countries for artistic exchange so that we could understand each other because what we’re doing is similar. For example, America’s attacked on 9/11, over 3,000 people died, and people were inspired to join the military to go get them. I don’t know if anyone looks at it like this, but I was in the United States Air Force and you heard so many stories of that. “Why did you join the military?” “Well, after 9/11 I felt like I had a duty.” And from our perspective, the talk was that was honorable for them to do that. So you flip it on the other side and it’s like “Why did you become this jihadi?” “Well, our town was bombed, so I joined this group to go get them.” And it just keeps going back and forth like a street war, and no one is really stepping out of themselves to really get to know each other and find out the root causes.

You all had hesitations in going with the State Department though, right?

J: We did. We knew it was a good cause. We knew there was good in it, but we also didn’t want to become—-since we are familiar with that perspective on the other side—-the face of “Everything is alright!” while they’re still being oppressed. We wanted to get our narrative in there which is, yes, we are Muslim in America, but we have grievances and we have organizations and institutions that are working towards those grievances.

When people talk about the Muslim experience in America, it’s usually in terms of post-9/11. What were the conditions like pre-9/11?

A: I remember one guy who is working actively in the community and after 9/11 happened, he was like, “There goes 10 years of hard work.” He felt like all of the work he was doing to give Islam a good name went down. After 9/11, everything became reactionary: “No we’re not this, no we’re not that.” And even today with ISIS, more “No we’re not this, no we’re not that.” As opposed to before 9/11, I remember these posters called Discover Islam and they had all these beautiful pictures, and it was more “This is what Islam is.” For me and for Native Deen, and we have this new thing Deen TV that we’re working on, I know this has to be done, but I want to go back to where it’s more this is Islam, this is who we are.

Tell us a bit about Deen TV.

J: Deen TV is an effort to be a spot within the internet that Muslim families can go to without having to search [through the Internet] and run into stuff that they don’t want…There was a big effort to pull as many music videos that were out there, to put as many comedy things, to put all of our stuff—-that was the initial stage. The next stage is to start creating shows and asking other people to create shows. The ultimate goal is for it to be the source of Muslim entertainment online.

N: Plus, I think it was a bit of a necessity. There isn’t a big industry in the U.S. for Muslim artists that are targeting Muslim communities…This is kind of going in that direction—-creating a portal that people can come to.