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Native Deen Uses Rap to Combat Stereotypes About Islam

Native Deen, a Washington, D.C., based rap group celebrates the Islamic-American experience using a fusion of hip hop and R&B.
From left, Joshua Salaam, Abdul-Malik Ahmad and Naeem Muhammad of Native Deen pose in 2010.
From left, Joshua Salaam, Abdul-Malik Ahmad and Naeem Muhammad of Native Deen pose in 2010.Native Deen

Summer camp may seem like an unlikely place to create a successful, internationally-acclaimed rap group.

But in the early 90s, during an era when the mix of rap and musical activism was at its prime, three amateur, Muslim-American artists saw an opportunity to blend the Islamic faith and hip-hop culture.

Roughly a decade later — the same year as the Sept. 11 attacks — the trio formed Native Deen, a Washington, D.C., based rap group,which celebrates the Islamic-American experience using a fusion of hip-hop and R&B flavor.

Native Deen meet with students during a trip with members of the U.S. State Department to a school in the Palestinian territories in 2006.Native Deen

“We grew up during the golden ages of hip-hop. This was the music and the language of young people,” group member Naeem Muhammad told NBC News.

Their mission? “To spread an uplifting message of Islam” to combat the misunderstanding of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, said group member Abdul-Malik Ahmad.

The group now boasts sold out performances internationally and in 2006 won an Al-Mahabba Award, which celebrates Muslim achievements in the arts, in Dubai.

“Our music came at a time where a lot of young Muslims were having issues with identity,” Muhammad said, adding that Muslim youth often struggle with merging “their Muslim identity with all of their American identity” while growing up in a country that misunderstands their faith.

Native Deen performs at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2003 for a show called the "Night of Remembrance."Native Deen

Their songs, the artists said, help answer a lot of questions for young Muslims and their parents.

“These are the kinds of identity issues that we try to resolve in (our) music,” Muhammad said. “Showing this kind of merging of these two things — a very American style of music and culture, but (also) a definite strong Islamic message."

The group’s performances are particularly relevant this year with anti-Muslim rhetoric playing a large role in U.S. presidential election politics. Republican nominee Donald Trump has often conflated the Muslim faith with the violence of terrorism and Islamic extremism, while also advocating a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S.

“These kinds of things don’t slow us down, it propels us,” Muhammad said.

The group says it's using the anti-Muslim rhetoric as an opportunity to give another side to the story for those “looking for truth.”

Group member Joshua Salaam believes that everyone should be working together to take action.

"If they are hearing something that does not fit their values, does not fit the values of America, we cannot just sit and watch,” Salaam said.

For example, in the song “My Faith, My Voice," lyrics such as, “Giving you the right facts, We keep repeating that Islam has been hijacked, We ain't like that,” refer to the societal misrepresentation associated with Muslim men and women.

"This way of life, this democracy process is not a spectator sport. People have to get involved and get off their couches," Salaam said.

Salaam, Muhammad and fellow group member Abdul-Malik Ahmad say they are creating a cultural bridge by shining a positive light on the Islamic faith for a Western audience.

The group has also established the first online channel Digital Education Entertainment Network, DeenTV, which streams Muslim-friendly entertainment 24/7 via computer tablet or mobile phone.

“There isn’t a huge industry for Islamic music like there is for gospel,” Ahmad said.

Through this platform, the trio wanted to create an outlet for Muslims to see themselves positively reflected.

"We want people in America to realize that this is a free country with freedom of religion and we have to respect all things, all cultures, all races, and that is what we are really trying to promote and trying to establish," Ahmad said.

After releasing four albums and winning the Mahabba Award, Native Deen is now working on solo projects, preparing to release their latest album and continuing to expand the DeenTV brand.

But most importantly, they say, they just want to “take their time and put out timeless music.”

Salaam recalled a conversation he had with legendary songwriter, Kenneth Gamble, who wrote "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me", a soul song performed by such icons like Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations. Their chat helped the group realize the impact of their music.

“[Our] music is going to reach further than we ever thought we could and probably live longer than we could ever live,” Salaam said. “So keep in mind that this gift that you are leaving with humanity.”