Born in the mid-nineties, Hakeem grew up in an apartment complex on 75th and Essex in Chicago’s south side which is about ten minutes away from the Parkway garden housing projects where rapper Chief Keef would pioneer drill rap. After parkway garden housing projects, Essex became the next major street in Chicago where the sub-genre would reach.
Drill Rap was born out of the vicissitudes of the ghetto and, unfortunately, Essex was a street where many Black boys and men had embraced gang and street culture to the fullest. One of Chicago’s drill rappers G-Hebro in his song Nightmares on Essex raps about being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome from shootouts that would take on the notorious street. G-Hebro is from 79th and Essex and knows first-hand what it means to live with social-terror.
G-Hebro songs Nightmares on Essex and Hood Cycle provide some insights on what Hakeem faced growing up in Essex.
Dead or in jail you will be, that’s what the cop told the little me/
Shootouts for four weeks that’s because it was some real beef.
Hakeem Muhammad didn’t know Chief Keef, the founder of drill rap, personally knew some of the people he would diss in his songs because he went to school with them. Individuals like Joseph(JOJO) and Lil Jay(Jeff) were Keef’s targets. They put out a retaliatory song that dissed not only Chief Keef but the entire Gangster Disciples gang. Soon after Lil JoJo would be shot. This became characteristic of the Drill Rap scene in which the songs seemed to be a soundtrack to homicides.
Hakeem had a tangential relationship with Islam through the Nation of Islam. Hakeem’s father experienced incarceration, suffered many ills common in Black America, and the Nation of Islam aided his father in becoming a better person. Hakeem’s mother would also join for a period of time but would return to Christianity after divorcing Hakeem’s father. Hakeem’s father was adamant about Hakeem growing up with a strong identity as a Muslim and a black man. His father enrolled in F.O.I. classes and taught him black history.
Hakeem did not attend Muhammad University of Islam due to the tuition costs his parents were unable to afford. So, he attended public middle school. There he would be exposed to gang culture. In fifth grade a classmate approached him and bluntly asked: “What you is nigga?” He recalls “We both awkwardly looked at each other and only later did I realize he was later asking what gang I belong to.” It was during these years he became acutely aware of how his Nation of Islam upbringing and the gang culture that many embraced religiously confronted each other. These were two forces prominent in the hood competing for the hearts and minds of black people. Because Hakeem was raised to be pro-black he couldn’t wrap his head around a “culture” that promoted black people fighting and killing each other.
Hakeem’s intellectual capital was bestowed by his father. He had Hakeem read everything from The Message to the Black Man by Elijah Muhammad to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Hakeem’s exposure to the African-American literary tradition and black political thought led him to associate authentic blackness with righteousness and intelligence. Learning and upright behavior were revolutionary acts that were subversive in the white dominated society where blacks were kept ignorant and beholden to vice.
High school was a turning point in his journey. It was here that he felt called to the legal profession and a desire to make a significant difference in the lives of those who have historically been disempowered. He remembers wanting to be a human rights attorney who defended African-Americans in the inner-city. The decrepit conditions of his own apartment and subsequent challenges his mother faced trying to raise him and his brother after she and Hakeem’s father divorced. The water emitted sewer water. Hakeem’s mother told the landlord about the problem and he would but several weeks later the same problem emerged. Wanting to understand why the problem kept recurring they probed and discovered that the entire plumbing system was dated and needed to be replaced. The landlord could not or would not pay for the expense. The ceiling was crumbling also and this added to the precarity of their living conditions. There were parts of the building where they could not walk for fear that the ceiling would collapse on them.
Hakeem’s mother had fully returned to Christianity. Living with his mother and not having as much exposure to the members in the Nation of Islam which was through his father Hakeem became estranged from his Muslim identity. Hakeem’s neighborhood was deeply entrenched in gang life. There was one gang in particular, a faction of the Black Stones known as the “Black Mob.” They “controlled” the apartment complex on Essex and the neighboring complex.
Hakeem was faced with many of these same conditions and presented with the choice of going down the same road as many of his peers. The same year that Hakeem’s brother went to college he and his mother were evicted from their apartment on Essex. Fortunately, Hakeem was taken in by an elder black woman who lived in the neighborhood. The woman believed that Hakeem and his brother would be a positive influence on her grandson, Cedron, who would become a noted figure in the Chicago drill rap and gang scene.
His Conversion to Sunni Islam and calling as an Attorney
This was a tumultuous period fraught with uncertainty. Hakeem’s family is fractured; he is surrounded by warring gangs and consequently death and substance abuse. He recalls how the poetry of Tupac Shakur enlivened his spirits during these dark and depressing times. One song of his Life Goes On helped Hakeem pull himself back from the brink of despair. He would listened to this track every time there was a murder. The lyrics: “How many brothers fell victim to the streets? / Rest in peace, young nigga, there’s a heaven for a G / Be a lie If I told you that I never thought of death / My niggas, we the last ones left” gave him a sense that he was not alone in how he felt. That there was another soul that he connected with. This started Hakeem down the path of discovering Tupac. He went to Youtube and came across a video where Tupac was sharing his beliefs on God and religion:
I mean the Bible is telling us all these people did this because they suffered and that’s what makes them special people. I got shot five times, and I got crucified by the media. And I walked through with the thorns on…. I’m saying we go through that type of thing every day. We don’t part the Red Sea, but we walk through the hood without getting shot.
This is the value of art. It translates across time, space, and age. Even though Tupac was rapping in the nineties his words accurately depicted what was transpiring during Hakeem’s time in Chicago. When Tupac said “On my block it never fails to be gunshots can’t explain a mothers pain when her son drops” it resonated because Hakeem spoke with a mother who lost all four of her sons to gang violence before they reached the age of 21. A lot of people in these conditions turn to drugs but the messages that Hakeem’s father implanted in him acted as an internal voice that steered him in another direction.
At this point in his life, Hakeem was not really thinking about God or religion at all. The Nation of Islam had really just become a fading memory of his childhood. This would change his junior year of high school. He received a scholarship to an intercollegiate debate program. He was successful, winning a number of prestigious awards, scholarships, and even met the then future mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel. These scholarships brought him out of Chicago and broadened his horizons.
One intercollegiate program was during the summer where he found himself around a lot of pretentious and privileged kids. Hakeem was immediately struck by the stark difference in the socio-economic conditions of those who looked like him from those who didn’t. One day, while studying for the debate tournament, a Bosnian kid approached him and asked: “Hakeem Muhammad? You have an Islamic name. Are you a Muslim?” Hakeem says that he took a deep pause, not sure how to answer the question.
He was thirteen the last time he had involvement in the Nation of Islam and now at sixteen Islam seemed like a distant memory. So much had transpired in three years. Hakeem responded “My father was a Muslim. I was raised a Muslim but i’m not involved in it any more. I follow my own religion that’s based upon the teachings of Tupac Shakur.” In his teenage brain this made sense. Given what his exposure to Islam had been Tupac seemed more relevant to plight of black people than the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s.).
Instead of being repelled by this statement the Bosnian kid followed Hakeem around everywhere he went. Whether due to intrigue or pity he was determined to get to know Hakeem and his story. One day the Bosnian kid said something that caused Hakeem to reflect. He asked Hakeem how he came to leave Islam and follow the teachings of Tupac Shakur? Hakeem responded that a lot of his friends back home in Chicago were murdered and that he felt connected to Tupac’s “insights and lessons.” Then this kid from Bosnia without batting an eye told him that he grew up on a refugee camp and lost several of his family due the genocide against the Muslims in Bosnia but that it drew him closer to Islam rather than away from it. That statement had a profound impact on the teenage Hakeem. It caused him to realize that other people are dealing with loss too and that Islam could be a means of overcoming despair.
Hakeem decided to stop following Tupac but was adamant about not following an “Arab religion.” Still tied to the Nation of Islam emotionally he saw Minister Farrakhan as the leader of Islam in America. He admits that he did not have much exposure to Sunni Islam. There was a faint memory of when he was younger when a Sunni Muslim uncle of his returned from prison. He promoted Sunni Islam heavily. He took him to the masjid on occasion but it was not significant or consistent enough for him to learn Al-Fatiha in Arabic or anything of the sort. His uncle moved out of Chicago to Atlanta, and they lost contact. However, he distinctly remembers his father telling that they followed the Arab’s version of Islam and Black people should not be dealing with that. Everything he observed seemed to confirm what his father said. The Arabs and Indians who owned corner stores that peddled vice and mistreated black people did not improve the image of orthodox Islam in his mind. Traditional Islam appeared to have nothing to offer the African-American community.
The turning point came when Hakeem met a man who taught that Islam did not teach black people to hate themselves. That the Prophet Muhammad (saws) taught that no racial or ethnic superiority. He also emphasized that Islam was about tawheed– “The absolute and unequivocal oneness of Allah.” All of this was in direct contradiction with what Hakeem assumed and observed but it prompted Hakeem to learn more. Hakeem was informed that he needed to learn what tawheed was. He got a hold of a book by Bilal Philips titled The Fundamentals of Tawheed. The book talked about how associating partners with Allah was a grave sin. What grabbed him about the book was a section discussing how African tribes practiced polytheism.
The passage in the book reminded him of another book he read before Philips’s: Great Rulers of the African Past. Hakeem already knew about the empires of Mali and Songhai. He knew about Mansa Musa. He distinctly recalls how there was a power struggle between Sunni Ali who was still attached to the polytheism of his ancestors and Askia Muhammad who was a devout Muslim and wanted the kingdom to be based on the worship of the one God.
In addition, Hakeem read about the companion of the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, Bilal Ibn Rabah(ra) who was an African who proclaimed the oneness of God. From here Hakeem would spend all of his free time at the debate program, reading about Islam, the Prophet (saws), his companions like Abu Bakr(ra), Umar Ibn Khattib(ra), Uthman Ibn Affan(ra), Ali Ibn Talib(ra), and the great scholars of Islam like Anas Ibn Malik(ra). He began to see traditional Islam through a different lens. Not the Arab and Indian corner store owners or culturally confused black people whose actions seemed to confirm that Islam was an Arab religion but Hakeem saw the Prophetic mission of Muhammad (saws) as something needed in the world especially in the neighborhood he grew up in.
In 2011 at the age of sixteen Hakeem converted to Islam by taking his shahadah. His new perspective on the Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) also gave him a new perspective on social justice. He could not wait to return to Chicago and give dawah (inviting people to Islam). Hakeem had been set on fire with the stories of how the Prophet Muhammad (saws) lifted his people out of degradation and Islam made them a global force to be reconned with. Hakeem was now convinced that moral tenets of Islam could produce the same miracle for black people in the inner-city.
Hakeem’s new mission would be more daunting than he anticipated. Idealism usually loses to pragmatism as one is forced to work around reality as they are unable to change it. The gang culture had worsened. The drill rap scene had begun to take off and this music of death exacerbated the destruction. It was eerily similar to the poetry of the pre-Islamic Arabs who boasted of how their tribe was the best and celebrated the killing of a rival tribe member. Hakeem was confronted with the African-American version of the ‘age of jahiliyyah.’ An age in which people in the hood disobeyed God and followed their vain and self-destructive desires.
Local rappers affiliated with gangs beefing with the BDS began putting out diss tracks against Chief Keef and his gang. A lot of them would end up dead. Around the time of Lil Jojo’s death, the name D-Rose blew up in the hood. He appeared in Chief Keef’s rap video ‘John Madden’ and the word of the street was that Chief Keef’s homie, D Rose was shooting and killing rappers who dissed Chief Keef. Chief Keef would seem to confirm this suspicion with his track ‘Love Sosa’ where he stated “Don’t make me call D-Rose boy, he a six double o boy.” In response, the GDS would put out a song titled Hate Sosa stating “Can’t wait to catch D-Rose boy, fuck a six double o boy.” Many believe this was the beginning of drill rap. Rappers affiliated with gangs making songs dissing their gang rivals, mocking the death of members of rival gangs, and paying homage to their gang’s shooters.
While living in Essex, Hakeem’s apartment would become a major site for the Chicago drill rap scene and Hakeem would try his best to tell people in his neighborhood about Islam.
The Founding of Black Dawah Network
Once Hakeem left Chicago in 2012 and went to college his life began to change dramatically. Hakeem Muhammad became an attorney that focuses on protecting the human rights of African-Americans within inner-city ghettos. He has done legal work for People’s Law Office in Chicago challenging police misconduct and brutality against African-Americans and he has partook in initiatives to pioneer arguments to combat the impact of racism against African-Americans in criminal trials.
In 2017, Hakeem was selected to lecture in the area of African-American legal studies at Harvard University’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There he received a text that Cedron aka Shootashellz had been shot. Remember, Cedron was the grandson of the woman who had taken Hakeem in after he was rejected by the homeless shelter. Despite living with Cedron for a period of time and giving him dawah for a bit, when Hakeem moved out of Chicago he did not talk to him as much as he wanted. The rival gang who shot him actually took a picture of his dead body with taunts like “Hahah, got that nigga.” He had been shot over 40 times.
Despite his own participation in this cycle of violence what Hakeem remembers about Cedron was his act of kindness and compassion towards him. This glimer of humanity indicates the intrinsic righteousness of every human being that makes someone like Cedron receptive to Islam. Hakeem recalls listening to one of his rap songs after his death called the Price of The Streets in which he said:
Had a connection with Allah then we lost touch
Without a crib, sleeping in abandoned buildings
When I aint have shit, I was real then
Bouncing from house to house aint have nowhere to live then
Was really starving going hard for a building.
Hakeem used to tell Cedron all the time about how we needed to regain our connection with Allah. Hakeem was one of the influences of that line. When you listen to some of the drill rappers, if you get past all of the violence and people trying to act overly hard, what you really hear are people enduring inhumane conditions. Cedron highlighted how he felt life in prison is inevitable if he is not murdered: “Can’t live my life in a cell, I rather get wacked. Support is only temporary… you gonna be trynna get appeals tryna run it back.” This is the plight of so many like Cedron.
Cedron’s death gave Hakeem the urge speak to as many of my Black boys and men caught up in the street life about Islam as possible. Hakeem saw the need for an organized effort to promote Islamic values within inner-city Black America. Cedron and others like him propelled Hakeem to become a criminal defense attorney and to establish the Black Dawah Network which aims to promote Islamic values within inner-city Black America.
After Cedron’s death, Hakeem decided he would speak to Chief Keef, the founder of Chicago drill rap, right hand man, D-Rose about Islam. Hakeem would soon learn that the Muslim brothers Stateville prison got to D-rose before he did. D-Rose explained to Hakeem:
When I first got locked up for this murder, it was just pleasing to my eyesight just how Muslims are. I saw the Muslims teachings and being steadfast in their salaat. I saw the Muslims speaking with the best of intellect. I was just attracted to it. Just hearing stories in the Qu’ran and anything in the Hadith, everything I have learned in the Qu’ran and in the Hadith it just does something to the mind, the body, and the soul.
This would be the beginning of Hakeem’s friendship with D-Rose now known as Ahbir. Today, He and Ahbir have such a deep friendship rooted in Islam that its just this overwhelming feeling that this was just meant to be. D-Rose stated “Hakeem I love you. I do. C’mon man, you think this happened for nothing. I love you Hakeem on everything.”
Ahbir introduced Hakeem to several Imams and Muslims of Stateville prison. The Imam of Stateville explained how Ahbir was teaching the new Muslim class in Stateville teaching new Muslims how to pray. Hakeem would have a new audience. Incarcerated and without many of the distractions of the outside he could take his message from his teen years and minister to the people who were more receptive. This would be the beginning of the Uplift Your Brother program.
The Uplift Your Brother works with young African-Americans who were sentenced to serve life sentences for gang related murders as teenagers but who later took their shahada during their period of incarceration. Through the Uplift Your Brother Initiative will seek to develop them into becoming leaders that will challenge the gang mentality within inner-city Black communities as well as the conditions of poverty and structural racism that results in many entering gang life.