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The long reach of the Philly beard

The styles on display on the streets of Philadelphia point to a rich cultural past

January 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Dec. 30, Philadelphia-based hip-hop artist Freeway launched his own line of facial hair cream called Best Beard. Made from shea and mango butters, beeswax and organic oils, the cream comes in different scents, including blueberry and nutmeg. Freeway, who achieved fame in the early 2000s recording with Jay-Z and Beanie Segal on Roc-a-Fella Records, is synonymous with the long, scraggly Philly beard that is now popular in the hip-hop world and beyond. Freeway is aware of his role as a trendsetter and authority in global beard culture.

“It’s taken me years to master the art of facial hair,” he says in a hilarious promotional video for his “man beard” lotion. Dabbing kiwi fruit pulp on his whiskered chin, he explains, “I’ve traveled to the farthest corners of the earth, and I’ve spoken to and mentored some of the most renowned, respected bearded legends of our time, [and] I’ve harnessed all of my wisdom into this little bottle.” The rapper, a Muslim, says he wears his beard for religious reasons but is delighted to see how the Sunnah — as the beard is called in Philly — has caught on even among non-Muslims.

Freeway is now cashing in on the trend he started. Unsurprisingly, his beard cream — endorsed by rappers Snoop Dogg and Rick Ross — is already selling worldwide, in the United Kingdom, Nigeria and elsewhere.

But overseas the moustacheless, bushy beard is not so identifiably hip-hop and has caused considerable controversy, with security officials in Europe and the Middle East mistaking the Philly for a jihadi beard. In February 2014, for instance, Lebanese police arrested Hussein Sharaffedine (aka Double A the Preacherman), 32, a Shia rapper and frontman for a local funk band. Internal Security Forces mistook him for a Salafi militant and handcuffed and detained him for 24 hours. In Europe hip-hop heads such as French rapper Médine — a Black Powerite who wears a fierce beard that he calls “the Afro beneath my jaw” — complain of police harassment. French fashion magazines joke now crudely about "hipsterrorisme." European journalists are descending on Philadelphia to trace the roots of what they call la barbe sunnah and Salafi hipsterism.

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.”

‘Young Muslims in Philadelphia have always been photogenic. For some reason the world is only now noticing.’

Imam Asim Abdur-Rashid

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.

Urban renewal

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.”

As part of his urban renewal project, Luqman is aiming to make South Philadelphia the center of R&B — similar to what Memphis is for the blues. A few years ago he persuaded the New York–based Rhythm & Blues Foundation to move to his hometown and purchased a plot of land where he plans to build a national center for R&B.

Still, not everyone is pleased with the mixing of Islam and music. The early 1990s saw the rise of a conservative Salafi movement in Philadelphia and other urban centers. Spearheaded by young Americans who had studied in Saudi Arabia, Salafi preachers spoke out against Sufi practice and music in general, calling hip-hop jaheeliya poetry — a reference to the “days of ignorance,” before the advent of Islam. The young non-Muslims sporting beards and kufis were called out as "assalama-faykers," a play on the Muslim greeting asalamu-aleykum. That rhetoric has died down, and the music goes on.

The musical references to Islam continue as well. If in the last decade it was Malik B of the Roots rapping about salaat and zakat and the non-Muslim Jill Scott evoking Quranic suras, today representing Philly is Kindred the Family Soul, a Muslim neosoul duo as comfortable performing at national music award shows as at Muslim festivals around the country.

In short, the styles on display on the streets of Philadelphia today point to a rich cultural past — bowties and skullcaps, rolled-up calf-length pants, niqabs (face veils), izaars (kiltlike garments) worn over jeans, long T-shirts doubling as thobes and, of course, the beards. As Imam Asim Abdur-Rashid, the emir of the city’s Majlis Al-Shura, recently quipped, “Young Muslims in Philadelphia have always been photogenic. For some reason the world is only now noticing.”

Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of “Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture,” a study of black internationalism and global youth culture.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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