Akilah Nehanda Is The Best Muslim Rapper From Houston We've Ever Heard

The Houston rapper's lyrics are politically charged and she's hoping to make a dent in the mainstream, despite the fact that she will not twerk.

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Sep 15 2014, 6:45pm

On some nights, the party stretches so far into the evening that it's hard to remember when everything got kicked off. In the hip-hop mainstream of 2014, the party's been going so long it's hard to remember when it was anything other than a party. Flip on that hot radio and it's a steady stream of sex, drugs, and loads of cash. Party records are the rule.

That's oversimplifying it a bit, but it could be said that there is a perverse cycle at play in the most popular regions of hip-hop where the fans support an artist, that artist goes running around with their earnings, and then comes back with a new song to show his or her fans how they spent the money. The record companies love this because those pursuits (sex, drugs, wealth) are things for which folks have an endless thirst. Make an inferior product and it will need replacing overnight. You'll be chewing their bubblegum tomorrow just like you did today. Such is the marketplace at work. It's a remarkably efficient business model.

But it's become difficult to hear anything over the roar. There are countless artists out there with plenty something to say, but it's still the mainstream that reaches the majority, and they'll keep rolling out the same lyric sheet in a new color of ink for as long as it sells. The result is a public left unable to relate what is being sold to them, even if they do keep buying.

Houston native Akilah Nehanda was born in the early 90s, in the middle of Public Enemy's run in the mainstream, and even in this larval stage of her career, she longs for a time when a message like theirs was something you would hear on the radio. Nehanda grew up doing musical theater at a performing arts middle school and high school in Houston before going on to Howard University, where she majored in film production and minored in fashion. After she graduated in 2012, she went back to Texas to make music. As an extension of her Muslim faith, she elected to champion themes of self respect and modesty in rejection to how she sees women portrayed in mainstream hip-hop. "We Out Here" is her anthem to create awareness of that, and she's been taking it into schools around Houston, doing motivational talks with children, rapping to them a capella and wearing that message like a badge. Her motive isn't necessarily to knock other female artists out there, but to show young girls that they do have options.

By its very nature, hip-hop is always inviting in new voices. It has always been about inclusion. That's what gives the genre its complexity. The party records probably aren't going anywhere, but when folks aren't hearing what reflects their feelings, artists will make room for another lane. Nehanda is but one end of the spectrum in a genre that only continues to grow. There's still a chasm between the headscarf and the twerk.We spoke with her earlier this month, right after she got back to Houston from a performance in Philadelphia.

Nosiey: How was Philly?
Akilah Nehanda: Philly was good! I performed at a block party. That was nice. It was really nice. I enjoyed myself. That was actually my second time going, because I went like two weeks ago to perform for another sort of reunion, so that was cool.

What was this event like?
It was a reconciliation conference. Islamic reconciliation for the community at large. Just Islam in general.

Musically, were you a standout? Was there other rap music there?
I was the only rap artist! I just performed that song “We Out Here.” I noticed that because they had a live band, they were mostly singing kind of like old school music. There were young people there, but young people, you know, they were doing the other activities that they had available for them. But I noticed that when I started rapping—because I was the last performance—the younger crowd started gravitating towards where the performance was.

Y’all better hurry up. You only got one song.
Exactly! You have that age divide, so I think that’s why they wanted me to perform a hip-hop song, because they knew that there were going to be some young people there, and so they needed at least one. So I’m glad I was able to be that one person because afterwards this little girl was like, “Oh can I have your email address? What’s your website?” The younger crowd wanted my information. It’s really important to always try to get at least—at least one hip-hop artist. It’s necessary. You have to, because honestly, that’s the music of the younger generation. It’s gotta have some hip-hop in it because you think a little faster, and so you have to hear music that’s more even-tempo. It just has to be more upbeat. Everything has to be upbeat. That’s why pop is invading, too, because it’s upbeat. Upbeat music makes you move faster and do things and you’re inspired by it.

Do you think that the kids who came up to you afterwards were responding to the music or did they say anything about the message?
Well you know, younger people are not going to be like, “I love the message!” [laughs] Some of the parents were coming up to me afterwards and saying that they appreciated the message. This older lady was like, “I don’t listen to that type of music, but I like that message.” With older people, I notice that with a lot of them—they don’t necessarily like hip-hop, but if you put a message to it, then they’ll listen to you.

If they can hear it above the music.
Right, because they’re just listening to the words. They’re like, “Okay, I’m gonna see if she gonna curse or do that ridiculous stuff that they do.”

What led you into music?
Really what made me actually take it more seriously was out of frustration with what I hear out. Everything that’s out is not representative of who I am. I can’t depend on the people on the radio to… I guess you could say represent how I feel. The only person who can do that is me. I have to be able to be the change that I wanna see. That’s what made me be like, “Okay, I need to take this serious because there’s a lot of people like me who aren’t bein’ represented.”

And when you started, was Islam a part of it or was it something where you started creating and then realized you'd opened up another outlet to talk about that?
I just started makin’ music, with the purpose of inspiration, and then, like you said, I just start realizing, “You know what? This can be bigger than what I’m makin’ it. I can make this bigger.” And I think—I try to think big, so I’m always like… the influence of Michael Jackson, that’s what we need, you know? [laughs] You know how big he was? This message deserves that type of impact on the world.

But then you gotta kind of reconcile that with wanting it to be big and compromising it to make it big.
And that all goes with the time of the world we live in. Like, if it wasn’t the time, then it wouldn’t work, but everyone’s so frustrated with what’s out right now that it’s a perfect time to do it, you know? It’s like if I were to decide to come out years ago, it might not have caught on as much as it is catching on now. It’s because the frustration level is as high as it is now. It’s like, “Do we have anybody that’s actually rapping or singing that’s not taking off their clothes?”

Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Thanks for the question! No I'm not. [laughs] I'm not dissing feminists, I'm just not one.

Were you born into Islam or did you find it as you were growing up?
Yeah, I was born in Islam, but even though you’re born in it, you have to choose it for yourself. I make sure that I take my Islam seriously, and I try in everything I do to have my head covered in some way, even if it’s like a hat or a scarf or something like that—there’s always going to be something on my head. Usually. And the principle of Islam is peace, so I make sure that the principles that I grew up with are in my music.

What would you say is the guiding principle of your faith that you put into your music?
The guiding principle is for me, and especially when it comes to women, is the principle of modesty. I always try to incorporate in my music something that I guess you could say deals with that aspect. Even if I’m rapping about a completely different topic that has nothing to do with it, I still try to incorporate it in some way, shape, or form. And so I really look up to people like Lauryn Hill, and… I was watching a documentary on Public Enemy last night, and they incorporate Islam into their music. There’s a lot of people who incorporate into their music in their lyrics, and so I kinda look at them for guidance sometimes, because just to see somebody that’s already done it before me.

Do you feel like what you’re doing is a movement? Do you feel alone in it?
The good thing is I feel like it’s a movement. I don’t feel alone. I make sure that I surround myself with like minds and I make sure that when I do look at things on the internet, I include looking at a lot of different Muslim women as inspiration just to see what they’re doing, what they’re wearing. You know how when you’re online and you can pick who you follow on Twitter, you can pick who you are friends with on Facebook and Instagram and all those things… I make sure I’m friends with and follow with like minds, so that whenever I log in on social networks, I don’t feel discouraged. [laughs]

It’s hard not to, right?
I know! That’s why I’m like, “Look I’m not gonna follow this person because I need to see positive images all the time.” And because I do that, it makes me almost feel like there’s way more like me than actually probably exist.

How refreshed do you stay on that sort of thing? Do you look at social media every day?
I try and take breaks from it. I told myself recently that from this point on that I—just for a month or two—didn’t want to watch any mainstream music videos or listen to any mainstream music on the radio. And that’s only to keep myself focused on what my mission is because I don’t want to be influenced by what’s out right now. That’s not something that I actually wanna… I guess you could say continue. I don’t want to reinforce what’s out, so right now I’m just telling myself, “Okay, I need to take a break, maybe a month or two, from mainstream music.”

What you're doing isn't so distinct from the mainstream soundwise, though — you're aware of what's going on.
Exactly. I studied the people in the mainstream. So that’s why “We Out Here” sounds like it could be mainstream. I made sure that I studied what makes them successful, but I did make my own twist so that the message can be more clear. So the difference, really, is just the message. I stay up on the different news that’s goin’ on. I’ll check to see what’s happening in the hip-hop world or what’s happening in the music world, but still I’ve done that for so long that when it comes to the sound, I pretty much know what direction I need to continue to take but now without the noise of the words and the influence. Like you said, it’s very important to keep up with the news of what’s going on in that type of world, so that when I do come out with my next stuff, I’m not completely oblivious, not completely left field. You have to meet the people where they are and then take them to where you wanna go.

Where did you shoot the video for “We Out Here”?
In Houston. The block party thing where I was with the crowd in the gazebo was at the S.H.A.P.E. Community Center. That’s a place where I grew up.

In Third Ward.
They’re like a hub. I wanted to do it there because I grew up there and I worked there. It’s a family. I knew that that type of environment was the type of vibe I wanted anyway. The S.H.A.P.E. Community Center plays a huge part in the culture in Third Ward and the Houston community. A lot of us grew up going there and really learning about self-love and self-respect, and that’s another reason I wanted to do it there, because that’s a place that teaches that type of message.

There’s all these different forms of expression going on in the video, some folks even salsa dancing—did that just kind of happen or did you encourage it?
Yes. The girl dancing went to my high school, and I asked her, “Jill, I want you to do your salsa.” Because she’s a salsa dancer, and even though we were theater majors in school, something that she’s just mastered is dance, so I was like, “Oh, man I want you to do your salsa!” I wanted to incorporate a different culture to show that we’re all in unity, and really no matter if you do salsa or if you’re doing hip-hop, it’s still a certain spirit that’s in the dance that is the same. I wanted people to see that it still went even though it was a completely different genre of dance. I wanted people to be able to see that it tied in because the cultures are actually very similar. She was telling me how much of an African influence is in Cuban dance and Latin dance. She knows the history of all that kind of stuff, and I was like, “I want you to do that.”

How do you deal with instances of misogyny when they come up on you?
I haven’t dealt with too much of it because I’m just coming out. But this is why I feel so strongly about the message. What girls don’t understand is that when you respect yourself, and when you put yourself out there in a certain way you don’t get the same response—the same negative responses—that girls who put themselves out there in a compromising way get. What a lot of girls don’t understand is that your modesty is your protection a lot of times. So while another MC might be gettin’ a lot of misogynistic comments, personally I don’t, and I think it’s because of the way that I carry myself. I think that has a large part to do with it. Now, if I were to give someone advice as to what should you do? You’re getting these misogynistic type of responses and people callin’ me the b-word and all this kinda stuff… I would say question first how you treat yourself. Do you respond to the b-word when your friends call you that? What type of language do you use, and are you attracting that type of atmosphere by the way you treat yourself. The way you act. A lot of times it’s kind of like it’s a mirror. I’m completely against that whole misogynistic ideal that is out there right now in hip-hop. Of course any sane girl would be against being called out of her name. But unfortunately nowadays most people are insane.

I guess the root of my question was where to find strength in those situations, but you really pull from a lot of different places.
Well, I mean, first of all, I pull strength in every aspect by only depending on myself. That’s my number one strength. Even though that sounds cliché, it’s true. Any spiritual person is gonna pull from that strength. But when it comes to dealing with that type of mentality, at the end of the day you really have to know who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. Everybody who’s ever tried to do anything different or anything that consists of a message had to go through a lot of people bein’ negative just for no reason. So it’s a matter of, “How am I gonna stand strong? How am I gonna stand firm in that?” The only way I can is to truly understand my purpose, and it has to be a purpose that’s a vision of you. So for those girls trying to do music or trying to do anything, trying to step out and be entrepreneurs—when it comes to the negativity, they just have to realize that if what you’re doing is bigger than you, then that makes it five times easier to withstand all that negativity because you begin past their heads. You’re looking over their shoulders. You’re looking at your goal, so people like that can’t block you and they can’t really shake you up to the point where you don’t get back up.

Lance Scott Walker is the author of the books Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes. He grew up on a tiny island and later moved to a bigger one - @lanceswalker