But there is more to the story than these superficial inquiries. The synergy between Islam and black music in Philadelphia has a long history. As such, the global spread of the moustacheless beard cannot be understood in isolation from the rich blending that took place between various strands of Islam and music in black America.
City of Brotherly Love
Philadelphia’s Muslim elders are quick to list the jazz greats who lived in or came out of the City of Brotherly Love since the 1930s — John Coltrane, Lynn Hope, Pharoah Saunders, Sun Ra, McCoy Tyner, George Jordan and the Heath Brothers. Many of these artists had an intimate relationship with Islam. Saxophonist Hope was featured prominently in Ebony magazine’s famous 1953 article on Muslim jazz artists, sitting on the floor of his Philadelphia home smoking hookah with his two young sons in fezzes.
“The history of Islam in Philadelphia is reflected in the music. Some artists were openly Muslim, others more private,” says Imam Nadim Ali, a celebrated jazz deejay and community leader who spent his youth in Philadelphia. “We knew Pharaoh Sanders as Abdulmufti. One of his first albums from 1966 was called “Tawhid.” Likewise, George Howard was a great funk/smooth-jazz artist. Kenny G co-opted his style. We knew Howard as Tahir — I grew up with him in West Philly. But when he died, his family buried him in a Christian cemetery. This sometimes happens when converts to Islam don’t leave a will.”
Jazz artists in the 1940s and ’50s came to Islam through the Ahmadiyya movement, a heterodox Islamic movement that emerged in 19th century India and developed a significant presence in Philadelphia. As the Nation of Islam gained followers, it cast its cultural influence on the music scene. Sun Ra, who lived in Germantown for 25 years, for instance, was not Muslim. But he claimed to be a distant cousin of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad and was inspired by the movement’s teachings. Sun Ra traveled to Cairo and collaborated with Egyptian drummer Salah Ragab, recording numbers such as “Ramadan in Space Time.”
As members of soul and R&B groups such as the Delfonics, the Five Stairsteps, the Moments, Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire embraced Islam in the 1960s, the dialogue and tensions between Sunni Islam and the Nation of Islam found expression in music in various cities. In Philadelphia old heads recall Kool & the Gang’s visiting from New Jersey in the early 1970s to perform songs such as “Whiting H&G” (a reference to the frozen fish that the Nation of Islam was selling) and “Fruitman,” both tracks praising the Nation of Islam’s economic initiatives and dietary rules. Even non-Muslim artists paid homage to what they saw as a positive movement that taught self-reliance. Philly native and Grammy-winning crooner Billy Paul never embraced Islam, but he recorded an album called “Going East” in 1971 and gave a shout-out to Muhammad and Malcolm X in his 1976 track “Let ’Em In” — perhaps the first popular song to sample a speech by Malcolm X (“You’ve been misled/ You’ve been had/ You’ve been took …”), years before hip-hop artists began doing so.
At the heart of these decades-old attempts to use faith and art for community building stands Luqman Abdul Haqq, a real-estate developer who has harnessed the energies of diverse Muslim groups to revitalize Philadelphia’s southeast area. Better known as Kenny Gamble, he is the founder of Philadelphia International Records and is considered one of the fathers of disco and R&B — specifically, a subgenre called the Philadelphia sound. In the 1970s, with longtime partner Leon Huff, he recorded dozens of hits for artists such as the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and Patti Labelle, producing almost 200 gold and platinum records.
In the early 1990s, Luqman moved back to Philly and established Universal Companies, a nonprofit that includes a housing-development initiative, a charter school and a social services agency. Universal has since refurbished more than 1,000 homes and created enclaves where Muslims own businesses and live near mosques. “We are continuing the cultural revolution that began among African-Americans in the 1960s, a cultural revolution based on Islam,” he says. “The Nation of Islam was a vehicle that came to the need of African-Americans, teaching do for self.”