You're Gonna Serve Somebody

Rapper Mos Def says we all devote our lives to something. He's chosen Allah.

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It wasn't for another six years, when he was 19, that he took his shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. He'd gotten there by reading and personal reflection and after getting to know other Muslim rappers, like Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip of the group A Tribe Called Quest.

Since then, Islam has been the cornerstone of Mos' life and of his socially and spiritually themed music. "You're not gonna get through life without being worshipful or devoted to something," says Mos. "You're either devoted to your job, or to your desires. So the best way to spend your life is to try to be devoted to prayer, to Allah."

Tackling a broad swath of issues that include water rights, African American self-esteem, and the destiny of humankind, Mos enlightens the listener as well as entertains. Taking on such issues, he says, is an Islamic mandate. "If Islam's sole interest is the welfare of mankind, then Islam is the strongest advocate of human rights anywhere on Earth," says Mos.

 

He puts special emphasis on the "anywhere." "It's about speaking out against oppression wherever you can," he continues. "If that's gonna be in Bosnia or Kosovo or Chechnya or places where Muslims are being persecuted; or if it's gonna be in Sierra Leone or Colombia--you know, if people's basic human rights are being abused and violated, then Islam has an interest in speaking out against it, because we're charged to be the leaders of humanity."

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Mos' vehemence is somewhat rare in a hip-hop culture dominated by superficiality. Lyrics these days bet heavily on the financially successful triumvirate of sex, violence, and materialism. Mos Def credits his parents with guiding him away from such negative content. His father has been advising him on professional decisions for several years now. "My parents have been vocal and influential in all the decisions I made in my life," says Mos. "It made sense to me to include [my father] officially and to include my mother officially cause she'd been there from the beginning. You need to have that synergy--because who really cares the most about you?"

This family-oriented approach is most evident in Mos' choices about his management. His mother, Sheron, and father, Abdul Rahman--whom he refers to affectionately as Umi and Abi--handle everything, from media calls to general management and corporate strategy. Mos' brother tackles technical matters in the studio, and when it's time to hit the road, the entire clan travels together. "I just try to stay around the right people," says Mos. "I try to stay around family...[try] to stay around people who believe what I believe and [beg] Allah to help me."

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