A number of media stories have raised the possibility that certain clues indicate a connection between arrested sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo and an African-American Islamic group calling itself the Nation of Gods and Earths but commonly known as the Five Percenters. These clues are also said to suggest the influence of hip-hop artists affiliated with the Five Percenters, like Method Man of Wu Tang Clan, on Muhammad and Malvo. Police reportedly found various rap cassettes in the suspects’ car when they were apprehended. The clues in question are the messages seemingly left by the snipers stating that “I am God” and “word is bond,” as well as their request that Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose say before the cameras, “We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.”

Putative connections between hip-hop lyrics and gang violence, and dangerous and radical Islamic tendencies in the African-American community, are repeatedly rehearsed and revived by the US media. Since September 11, 2001, these familiar specters have been combined with speculation that a “fifth column” of radical Muslims in US minority communities may have ties to al-Qaeda. Given the nature of the clues, the Five Percenters, with their hip-hop and Islamic affiliations, appear to be strong candidates for chief ideological instigators of violent anti-American mayhem.

The Nation of Islam has acknowledged Muhammad’s membership in the organization, and pledged to expel him if he is found guilty of the sniping murders in the Washington, DC area in October. But there is no indication that religious beliefs played any part in motivating the crimes that Muhammad and Malvo are alleged to have committed. Reports which assert an association between the Nation of Gods and Earths and the snipers are simplistic and unnecessarily inflammatory: they ignore the social origins of the Nation and the complex nature of Five Percent hip-hop commentary on US racial politics.

Nation of Gods and Earths

The Nation of Gods and Earths was founded by Clarence 13X, a member of Nation of Islam (NOI) Temple No. 7 in Harlem. Clarence 13X was expelled from the NOI in 1964 for teaching that the black man collectively is God, whereas the NOI taught that God had appeared in Detroit in 1930 in the person of Master Fard Muhammad and given the word to his messenger, Elijah Muhammad, the NOI founder. After changing his name to Allah, along with a few followers Clarence 13X began preaching to youth on the streets of Harlem. Allah or “The Father,” as his followers called him, taught that black men who studied Master Fard’s lessons properly and came to have “knowledge of self”—to know their divinity—constitute five percent of the population. Eighty-five percent of the population, who lack this knowledge, are the mentally blind, deaf and dumb, who are ripe for exploitation by the remaining ten percent of humanity. Bloodsuckers of the poor, the ten percent know the truth as do the five percent, but they use it to mystify and control the masses with their teaching that God is a “spook,” a “mystery god” who exists in heaven and not on earth. The five percent preach the divinity of black men, the Gods who are “manifest” and not an unseen celestial being. “Poor righteous teachers,” the five percent are the ones who will save the 85 percent from self-destruction.

Orthodox Muslims take umbrage at the Nation’s claims about the divinity of the black man, labeling it “shirk” (the Arabic word meaning polytheism). There are indications, however, of subterranean connections between the Nation’s racialist gnosticism and gnostic trends in early Christianity and certain heterodox Middle Eastern Islamic sects, such as the Isma’ilis and the Druze. But the Nation’s beliefs about black gods are more usefully understood not as a deviation from mainstream Islam but as a kind of heretical critique of white supremacy and of hegemonic Christian images of Jesus, the son of God, that depict him as a white man.

Allah also brought to the street the secret teachings of Master Fard Muhammad, known as the 120 Degrees, which the NOI Temple hierarchy had monopolized and kept from the rank and file. He developed his own system of teachings, known as the Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet, sets of principles attached to numerals and the letters of the alphabet, which serve as the keys to the workings of the universe. Having recruited many youth in Harlem to his organization, Allah began to branch out to other East Coast cities before being gunned down in 1969 by unknown assassins. The movement he founded has lived on.

Five Percent Hip-Hop

Although street preaching continued to be an important means by which the Nation of Gods and Earths gained adherents, it is rap music that has brought the teachings of the movement to the awareness of large numbers of people. Beginning with rap giant Rakim Allah of the group Eric B and Rakim, respected and commercially successful rap artists like Big Daddy Kane, Poor Righteous Teachers, Digable Planets, Brand Nubian, Gang Starr, Busta Rhymes and the Wu Tang Clan have disseminated Five Percent lessons to a wide audience.

No doubt Muhammad and Malvo were fans of rap artists connected to the Nation of Gods and Earths. Suggestions that the elliptical clues left by the snipers indicate a connection between the killings and Nation beliefs are misguided, however. The statement “I am God” has little to do with Nation teachings about the divinity of the black man. A true Nation member would be more likely to assert, “I am a God,” since the Nation is a community of Gods. The sniper’s statement, “I am God” suggests an exercise of power over lesser, mortal beings. Nation beliefs in black man’s divinity by contrast are about self-realization of the divine capacity within. Divinity is not about exerting control over others but about self-control. Being a God in the belief system of the Nation means adopting positive behaviors and giving up negative behaviors. One of the negative behaviors to be abandoned is violence, a behavior that is destructive of self and community. The publications of the Nation, such as its monthly newspaper The Five Percenter, are full of messages about the necessity of education, self-improvement and peace in the community. From the perspective of the Nation of Gods and Earths, the sniping attacks could only be regarded as negative and decidedly non-Godlike actions.

‘Sup, G?

It is also misleading to assert any close connection between rap music produced by artists with ties to the Nation of Gods and Earths and the accused snipers. The phrase “word is bond” has gained wide circulation due to its frequent use in rap songs by artists affiliated with the Nation of Gods and Earths. Five Percent Rappers have contributed a number of expressions to the world of hip-hop, expressions that are used so commonly that their original provenance has been forgotten. For instance, the expression, “‘sup G?” was originally a greeting between Gods, with “G” standing for God. Now it is widely assumed that “G” stands for “gangsta.” Similarly, the expression, “Word!” is an exclamation affirming that a statement by another God is true and incisive. This too has become common currency in hip-hop, its Five Percenter origins lost to memory. “Word is bond,” for the Nation, means that when one gives one’s word, one is bound to it. Although it is an important tenet for Nation members, the statement is also present in Nation of Islam teachings, specifically in the 120 Degrees.

As for the phrase, “We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose,” several media accounts have asserted that “duck in a noose” is taken from a Method Man song, “Next Up.” The song in fact appears on the Sunz of Man album, “The Last Shall Be First” (1998). Sunz of Man has strong links to the Wu Tang Clan, and Wu Tang member and solo artist Method Man makes a guest appearance on “Next Up.” But the relevant lyrics, “Duck duck goose tie him in a noose / What’s the use of havin’ your troops if you don’t put them to use?” are in fact uttered not by Method Man but by Sunz of Man member, Hell Razah. It is true that the members of Sunz of Man and Wu Tang Clan belong to the Nation of Gods and Earths, but it is stretching things considerably to make a connection between the actions of the snipers and these lyrics. The verse in question appears in the context of a song where the various rappers are competing with each other, slinging rhymes to show off their creative skills.

Nihilism or Cautionary Tales?

Media accounts have used facile terms like “nihilistic,” “anti-social” and “violent” to describe the hip-hop that Muhammad and Malvo reportedly listened to. The hip-hop produced by Five Percent rappers, however, constitutes a complex and extensive body of artwork. Their songs contain assertions of black pride, calls for positive behavior and coded references to the beliefs of the Nation. Complicated word play competes with boasting about verbal prowess and rhetorical slaying of rival rap artists. Hip-hop masters like the Wu Tang Clan weave graphic and often horrific stories of crime and violence, and some rappers indulge in what could be termed “revenge fantasies” about the destruction of the white power structure and racist whites. Many Five Percent rappers are not orthodox Nation followers, and therefore deviate from Nation teachings about the harmfulness of drugs and alcohol.

But if some Nation-affiliated rappers do advocate drinking and smoking weed, at the same time they are critical of gang-related behavior, such as dealing drugs and drive-by shootings. On the whole, Five Percenter rappers assert positive messages, as well as provide vivid and frightening cautionary tales about everyday life in poor urban neighborhoods.

In the post-September 11 atmosphere, where “experts” can be found to unearth roots in (Islamist) terrorism for nearly every unexplained occurrence, the supposed links between the sniper suspects and the Five Percenters are likely to garner sensationalist coverage. An October 29 op-ed in USA Today, for instance, classified the Five Percenters as a “virulently racist black group” calling for a “race war.” Such claims appear misguided on a number of counts. If Muhammad and Malvo were motivated by ideologies of black supremacy, why did their targets include African-Americans, like 53 year-old businessman Ken Bridges, whom the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, The Final Call, has termed a social activist? Asserted ties between the Nation of Gods and Earths and random violence like the sniper attacks are difficult to square with Five Percenter teachings that encourage positive behaviors, promote taking personal responsibility and attempt to foster peace and harmony within the black community. Ultimately, Five Percent hip-hop is a commentary on homegrown pathologies of US society—racism, inequality and the alienation of urban youth. The glare of cameras looking for causes of violence in the US is better directed at all these themes than at either Islam or rap music.

How to cite this article:

Ted Swedenburg "Snipers and the Panic Over Five Percent Islamic Hip-Hop," Middle East Report Online, November 10, 2002.

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