Saturday, May 21, 2011

Kufiya and some Islamic refs in Digable Planets' "Where I'm From"

"Where I'm From" is off of Digable Planet's first album, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), released in 1993. The best known single from the album is "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," a Grammy winner for best rap performance by a duo or group, and a crossover hit. Due to the album's jazzy feel and its apparently pop and light feel, the group was hailed by white hipsters and, as a consequence, got a reputation for being the opposite of hard and "street." A look at the video for "Where I'm From," which is all "street" scenes, and an investigation of the lyrics reveal that this impression was quite mistaken, and that there was a great deal of continuity between Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and their second, much more overtly political album, Blowout Comb.

What I want to point out here are a few "Islamic" references. The kufiya worn by one of the Digable's posse in the video is one. As is the shot of some members of the Nation of Islam (NOI), including a woman in distinctive NOI dress (on left) and the man in bowtie, who looks like a member of NOI's paramilitary organization, Fruit of Islam. (Ladybug, a.k.a. Ladybug Mecca, is at the right.)

One line from Butterfly, whose influences seem not to drawn from any Islamic sources, goes "We be reading Marx where I'm from."

Meanwhile, one of Doodlebug's lines goes, "That's most asked by 85, where I'm from." This is a reference to the beliefs of the Nation of Gods and Earths (Five Percenters), that the world is divided into the 5%, those with knowledge of self, the poor righteous teachers, the "gods," the 10%, the bloodsuckers of the poor, who teach lies for the sake of personal gain, and the 85%, the masses, the people who are ignorant of the truth -- but to whom the 5% attempt to bring true knowledge.

Doodlebug (Craig Irving) hung out with Five Percenters while a student at Howard University. I don't know whether he considers himself to be a full-fledged "God," but he now goes by the name Cee Knowledge -- a very Five Percenter sounding name -- and tours with a group called Cee Knowledge & the Cosmic Funk Orchestra. The Digables' second album, Blowout Comb, is full of Five Percenter wisdom and references.

As for Butterfly (Ishmael Butler), his terrific, experimental-rap musical project Shabazz Palaces references the name of the ancient tribe that, according to NOI doctrine, settled in Mecca and then was led by a scientist, named Shabazz, into Africa. It was also the surname adopted by Malcolm X.

Shabazz Palaces' first performance in Seattle (where Butler is from) earlier this month certainly played up the Afro-Islamic imagery. Check out how Butler/Butterfly, who goes by the moniker Palaceer Lazaro, was decked out.

This was the poster for the show.

And check out the cover of Shabazz Palaces' 2009 album, Of Light.

My last example of Shabazz Palaces' crypto-Islamic references is from the group's 2009 video, "Bellhaven Meridian," directed by Kahlil Joseph, shot in Watts, which is a kind of tribute to Charles Burnett's film Killer of Sheep.

In this video the Arabic word
appears at 0:36. It means "he saves us." I have no idea how it fits into the theme of the video.

Shabazz Palaces has recently been signed by Sub Pop, the first rap group the Seattle label has ever signed, and has an album called Black Up, due out in June.

One last thing. Cee Knowledge recorded a version of "Space Is the Place" with the Sun Ra Arkestra. Check it out. (Five Percent knowledge is afro-futuristic too.)


Abdallah said...

Check out Seattle's "City Arts" magazine feature on Shabazz Palaces:

Ted Swedenburg said...

a belated thanks, Abdallah.