Lena Felton is a multiplatform editor at The Lily.
Previously, she was a politics editorial fellow at the Atlantic.
“Remember Rappin Duke? Duh-ha, duh-ha/ You never thought we’d make it to Lā ‘ilāha ‘illā Allah”
It’s no coincidence that rapper Jay Electronica particularly chooses to lay this bar down on a track entitled “Flux Capacitor” – a reference to the infamous contraption from the cult classic Back to the Future which powered the DeLorean Time Machine.
Because that’s exactly what Electronica is doing here – taking us back to not just Biggie’s timeless 1992 classic “Juicy” but the very origins of hip-hop. Playing on words from the legendary Brooklyn wordsmith who rhymed “Remember Rappin Duke? Duh-ha, duh-ha/ You never thought Hip Hop would take it this far” Jay swaps in this reference to hip-hop for the Islamic proclamation of faith (the Shahada) – “There is no God but Allah.”
The multidimensional symbolism of this line is vast and speaks to what Jay Electronica has accomplished in his career. Jay Electronica, like Biggie, makes a throwback reference to Shawn Brown’s comical song that parodied the art of rhyming – and while Big attested to himself being the breathing pinnacle of rap’s success as an industry, Jay Electronica boldly redirects our focus to the Oneness of our creator.
Islam, as Imam Zaid Shakir once described it, is like a chain – passed down generation by generation. An oral legacy in hip-hop is no different. The art of memorializing and poeticizing over a beat extends far beyond The Last Poets in the 70s to before African civilization was disrupted due to European slavery, to the Griots in the courts of many Muslim rulers on the continent.
“A Written Testimony” is a testament and a return to hip-hop’s Islamic origins.
This being his first career studio album, supposedly a decade in the making, the release finally fulfilled the anticipation that had been building up since he signed with Jay Z’s Roc Nation label in 2010.
An almost nomadic figure wrapped in mystery, Jay Electronica rose to prominence in 2007 off of Myspace when a breathtaking near seven-minute long track called “Act I: Eternal Sunshine” debuted, rapping over snippets of Jon Brion’s score for the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
A poet and a dreamer, he built himself up as a near mythical force outside of just a “mainstream rapper.” Staying predominantly in the shadows, the New Orleans native rarely released any tracks apart from a handful of half features in the build up to this project. On this debut album he only adds to the enigmatic aura.
Having a titan like Jay-Z ever-present throughout the body of work, Jay Elec is still able to carry his own over some of the best production around. As he has always done, he captivates us with thought provoking, seamless lyricism – meticulously weaving together an array of distinct topics ranging from mysticism to I.C.E. and Palestine, U.F.O.s and tales of his rise, but most importantly, Islam.
What stands out most about the album is the unapologetic embrace of his Muslim identity. We can get into nuanced discussions over the Nation of Islam (NOI) and what constitutes traditional beliefs when it comes to the myriad of sects and offshoots prevalent in the global Islamic community, but there is no denying that what Jay Electronica manages to do through this album is monumental – he testifies to what the NOI and Islam gave him. It’s a throwback to the legacy of Black pride expressed through art – to the once so ubiquitous presence of Islamic culture which was at the crux of Hip Hop music.
Hip-hop created a culture and a community that meshed together the ferocity of Malcolm X, the uplifting attitude of Pan-African Thought, and the political radicalism of the Black Power movement. Founding organizations like the Zulu Nation even proclaimed itself after the NOI. Islam was always exalted and understood by a long line of MCs from the legendary Rakim Allah to Nas and more recently, Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco.
Hip Hop and Islam went hand in hand – no one was surprised that they’d hear Arabic references or the tenants of the faith on a track in the 80s and 90s. Yet, while it’s visibility has diminished within the mainstream over the past two decades, Jay Electronica’s resurfacing with this album is timelier than ever.
In a moment where we are entrenched within all sorts of uncertainty, one’s faith can easily be shaken. From the perspective of a Muslim listener, you’re taken aback by the brash attitude with which Jay fixates so much of his content around merely praising Allah.
The track “Universal Soldier” begins with an elaborated version of the Shahada and excerpts of the five testaments; song after song, Jay speaks to the moment we are living through (the day of Qiyamah is fittingly referred to vividly) and how his belief in Allah keeps him grounded to complete his mission in life.
Referring to the Shahada as his ultimate protection on “Fruits of the Spirit” exemplifies what faith has given him as he repeatedly recounts his rise from the infamous Magnolia projects, abject poverty, homelessness and addiction, to the redemption he found through Islam and the community which uplifted him.
Sonically the album may have it’s critics and the choice of beats and choruses particularly were questionable in some cases, but in an era where the prevalence of the War on Terror has demonized and vilified Muslims and Islam in mainstream discourse,
Jay Electronica pridefully embodies an era and a message that has long been lost as he takes us back to the source and the essence of this beautiful tradition.