Muslim Culture and Rap Songs: Reclaiming Identity or Exploiting Religion?
The world isn’t black and white, so why are we always trying so hard to paint it these two colors?



“Shake, shake ’em up, shake (Shake ’em up, shake) / As-salāmu ‘alaykum (As-salāmu ‘alaykum)” sings Moroccan rapper French Montana in his brand new song titled Salam Alaykum.

The latter phrase, which translates to “peace be upon you” for those unfamiliar, is commonly used by Muslims to greet each other. And it so happens to be the sixth track on MONTANA, the singer’s third studio album following his sophomore chart-topping album Jungle Rules.

In a now-deleted Instagram post – after he had cleaned his gram before the release of the new project – Montana shared the album cover portraying himself sitting in the middle of six niqabis. Though dressed in black abayas with only their eyes revealed, we see them sitting cross-legged, flaunting knee-high red boots.

Juxtaposed between his Moroccan origins and his career in the notorious hip-hop world, Montana left a message to his followers. The caption read: “You don’t have to change who you are. You can bring people into your own world.”

And sure enough, the photo caused a lot of debate and discussion online.

“Liberal Muslims are wack for hyping this shit up” and “he would sell his religion for money” are a few examples of the backlash Montana received upon debuting the cover. But it is precisely here where the real issue lies. Was Montana exploiting his religion by portraying something scandalous for-profit or was he just expressing a part of his now-complex and layered identity? And more importantly, is it up to us, the general public, to decide what an artist’s vision is?

Born and raised in Morocco, Montana – whose real name is Karim Kharbouch – regularly highlights his Moroccan and Muslim roots.

Back in May and on the first night of Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month that’s reserved for fasting and helping others, he wore the traditional Arab thobe to the 2019 Met Gala.

On the 27th day of Ramadan, he shared a now-deleted Instagram post in which he revealed he was taking part in Laylat al Qadr rituals, whereby Muslim worshipers commemorate the holy night during which the Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

“May Allah forgive us and show us the way,” he wrote in the caption.

He also celebrated Eid el-Fitr at Kourtney Kardashian’s last year.

But Montana isn’t the only controversial Muslim-American public figure in the music industry

Another name (#anothaone) that comes to mind vividly is that of famous songwriter/producer DJ Khaled, born Khaled Mohamed Khaled to Palestinian parents who emigrated to the United States.

Speaking to Esquire Middle East about his religion, DJ Khaled once said, “It’s life for me. I was born Muslim, my family raised me Muslim.”

The producer attributes the blessings upon himself and his family to his religion but admits he’s not the perfect Muslim. “I am born and raised. If you’re asking if I’m the perfect Muslim, and I do everything down to a T, then no.”

Other prominent Muslim rappers include Lupe Fiasco, Busta Rhymes, Akon, Ice Cube, and T-Pain. And though not technically a rapper, American singer and songwriter SZA (Solána Imani Rowe) has spoken out numerous times on her Muslim upbringing.

“I’ll feel most comfortable with Islam forever. It just makes most sense to me out of everything else, there’s less variables and less space for human error. It’s very rigid but it’s safe because you can trust it. There’s no photos or idles, no songs or hymnals, it is what it is. I like the clarity,” she said in a past interview with Complex magazine.

Are they different from the rest of us for simply being in the limelight?

Maybe French Montana’s buzz-worthy album cover did indeed contribute to its popularity and therefore success, but who are we to deny him agency or decide how he should practice his religion?

Is his depiction of niqabis in a provocative way inaccurate? Is it a misrepresentation and considered haram? Probably to a lot of people, it is, but that doesn’t mean Montana doesn’t get to express his religiosity the way he wants to or sees fit.

Have we forgotten Girls of Riyadh, the critically acclaimed novel that sheds light and opens up the hidden world of Saudi women as well as their culture and traditions?

The world isn’t black and white, so why are we always trying so hard to paint it these two colors?

DJ Khaled and French Montana are no different from the vast majority of us Muslims, trying and failing and trying again every day. They’re just doing so in the public eye, and maybe they’ve spent less time than us setting boundaries and figuring out what right and wrong mean in their dictionaries.

It’s also worth mentioning here that people change, their ideas and belief systems go through mental wars on a daily basis, which means in no way are we allowed to judge when we haven’t been through the same battles ourselves.