Interview: Professor A.L.I.’s Islamic Eco-Rap Sends Environment Lessons To Muslims

A humanities instructor by day and social activist by night, Californian based hip-hop artist ‘Professor A.L.I.’ is behind a cool new era o...

muslim rapper environmental islam ali california
A humanities instructor by day and social activist by night, Californian based hip-hop artist ‘Professor A.L.I.’ is behind a cool new era of enviro-activism. We’re talking Islamic Eco-Rap. In an interview for Green Prophet and Illume Magazine, I ask eco-Muslim A.L.I. why his environmental message should be on our iTunes playlist.

TEM: Firstly, who is behind ‘Professor A.L.I?’

Professor A.L.I.: I’m a hip-hop poet, artist and activist based out of the Bay Area in California. I identify myself as a human being. I try to define myself through my actions, clarify myself through my intentions, and strive to be a Muslim.

Outside of rap music, I am both a writer and an educator. I am working on several writing projects with the poetry compilation entitled ’72 Martyr Series’ coming out the soonest. I also teach courses in African-American Literature and poetry at U.C. Berkeley as well as in the Humanities department at a prestigious college preparatory school in the Bay Area.

TEM: When did you start the “Eco-Rap” concept?

Professor A.L.I.: I’ve been rapping since high school, but over time what I rapped about and communicated through hip-hop changed. It was fueled by my observations and life lessons. Hip-hop to me is a method of communication to a specific audience, one that is capable of understanding coded language and acting upon a message.
“The overwhelming message in my short life has been that this planet is dying and we are the murderers. Once the lesson was imparted, that this pristine planet is now polluted, the natural has become artificial and that life itself has become unbearable… I made this my predominant message. I called it “the real green movement” but a radio show host at KPFA called it ‘Eco-Rap’ on the air, ‘Islamic Eco-Rap’ at that, and it stuck.”
I didn’t set out to promote a specific theme, I was just trying to tell a story to inspire my fellow Muslims to save our planet – not just from Global Warming or pollution but all forms of epidemics and oppression.

TEM I love creative environmentalists and my fans would be very interested in the background to your eco-messages. So, what exactly do you rap about?

Professor A.L.I.: Hip-hop is an intelligent movement in which rap plays a role of delivering… [a] message. The message here is that the ‘Mother’ Earth is in fact dying; slowly murdered by the children she once suckled. Eco-Rap is bringing awareness to this global issue. And Islamic Eco-Rap is putting it in the Muslim context of the ultimate goal in life: to please Allah Almighty (God).

I believe that we will be judged by God for our contribution to the destruction of this planet. I also believe that the foretold revolutions by prophets in the past will come to pass as ecological disasters that we are creating and have created. I hope that using the art of hip-hop and rap music to deliver a message will be heard by the only group that has the energy, incentive and hope to change things: the youth.

TEM: That is a fantastic aim and I hope the youth will be part of the movement. What drives you to spread this ecological message to others?

Professor A.L.I.: My mother died from Lymphoma in 2007. Her last words to me still echo in my mind ‘Grab the Mic’. She wanted me to continue with hip-hop and rap which I had almost given up on at that point. In her life she was an accomplished musician, singer and vocalist. She encouraged me to use my voice. After she passed I embarked on using my voice to tell a story.

I firmly believe that my mother, who died young, died because of what we as human beings have done to the environment. Cancer is a by-product, and my mother a casualty of human neglect. I do this to honor her and to help inspire people to make the world a better place for my daughter to grow up in.

TEM: Have you collaborated with any other singers or activists?

The ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’ LP was a project that was constructed just to tell that story. There was something in it that resonated with established artists in the music industry and so I was first joined by the iconic figures: E-40, then Killah Priest, Raekwon, Canibus, Brand Nubian and Hussein Fatal of the Outlawz. Many other artists also collaborated with me in this solo debut, helping to bring this [eco] message to the people.

TEM: Rap artists are generally associated with the mainstream music industry – songs are about living the fast life, cars, women, women in cars. How and why are you different with your eco principles?

I wouldn’t say that I am a mainstream artist. I do collaborate with mainstream artists as I mentioned earlier but I think what I am doing is what true hip-hop artists have always done which is communicate to the masses about real issues. I think where I differ is that I keep both a human focus, but an overall global feel. The earth is at the heart of the question; it is after-all why I call my solo debut the ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’.

TEM: Muslims are increasingly raising awareness about food waste and pollution. What are your biggest concerns as an eco-Muslim and which areas of the world do you feel are most affected by similar issues?

Professor A.L.I.: Let me tackle part two first. I have travelled all over the world extensively and spend a great length of time in the Middle East and Asia. I would say that nations developing now and trying the bridge the gap between themselves and ‘The West’ are the areas of the world I am most concerned with. The reason is that these nations are using the same methods used by the U.S. and Europe which we are now paying for as ecological disasters and as Global Warming. They are using these methods because in many instances they are cheap and quick; often times the climate issues are exacerbated by geography and pre-existing weather patterns as well.

One of the most polluted placed I have been in recently is Tehran and it goes beyond the fossil fuels burned for millions of unregulated vehicles. Tehran and much of Iran is on a plateau, pollution just sits there and is visible as you fly in and out of the city as a thick brown layer.

As an Eco-Muslim my biggest concern is that my fellow Muslims lose sight of the fact that the earth is a trust, and destroy it in hopes of being more like other nations. I fear we will lose ourselves in the process.

TEM: Now that you mention the Middle Eastern regions affected by human neglect, more of its otherwise traditionally Muslim countries are welcoming rap artists and their entourages. Where have you performed and what has the reaction been from different communities?

Professor A.L.I.: I have performed in Canada and the United States and I hope to perform in Turkey, Arab Nations, and Iran now that ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’ is out. I get a mixed reaction. Many Muslims are under the false assumption that only traditional language [spoken] music is permissible or that Western influenced music or instrumentation is problematic. At the end of the day I find the greatest support amongst those who listen to the message conveyed which is one which resonates within Muslim culture.

TEM: With that in mind, what advice would you give to aspiring Muslim eco-rap artists and other environmentally aware Muslims (who cannot sing!)?

Professor A.L.I.: I have young Muslims connecting with me now who aspire to be rap artists. My question is always ‘Why?’ Most recently I had someone tell me that they wanted to rap so they can be like Jay-Z. In other instances I have people only paying attention to my music because of the big names attached to my project. At the end of the day I’ll tell all of them the same thing, don’t embrace rap and hip-hop because you want to be rich. Get involved if you have a message and a passion to effectuate change. Be creative yet stay true to your voice and experiences. At the end of the day if you want to copy someone copy the Prophet Muhammad in Islam.

To my environmentally conscious Muslims, I say we need to educate the communities at large of how ‘Haraam’ (unlawful) our wasteful lifestyle is.

I have never been to an Islamic center that regularly recycles and composts; I have been to many that use Styrofoam and waste copious amounts of power, food and water. These may seem like little things but they contribute greatly to the worldwide epidemic. Each one, teach one and let’s keep the movement growing!

TEM Amen to that! So, lastly, what contribution do you hope to make towards Muslim environmentalists?”

Professor A.L.I.: The Arts need to play a significant role from music to painting, to plays and animation. My greatest hope is to network with so-called ‘green sheikhs’ and eco-Muslimas like Kristiane Backer, to help bring light to environment issues in our own communities. We need to stop thinking in terms of being Carbon Neutral and start thinking in terms of being Carbon regenerative.

We need to be the stewards of this ‘Real Green Movement’ and help create a global awareness starting in the Middle East. Music and hip-hop can be powerful tools in energizing our future leaders into becoming environmental stewards themselves.

The Eco Muslim: Thank you kindly A.L.I. for sharing your environmental words of wisdom and I hope that everyone reading is inspired and takes a leaf out of your unique activism.

+ Professor Ali's Official site (Also, Black Steven)
+ Buy Ali's album ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’ on iTunes.

+ My interview was originally posted on Green Prophet and ILLUME.


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