A thoughtful, insider view of The Five Percenters-a deeply complex and misunderstood community whose ideas and symbols influenced the rise of hip-hop.
Misrepresented in the media as a black parallel to the Hell's Angels, portrayed as everything from a vicious street gang to quasi- Islamic revolutionaries, The Five Percenters are a movement that began as a breakaway sect from the Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1960s Harlem and went on to impact the formation of hip-hop. References to Five Percent language and ideas are found in the lyrics of wide-ranging artists, such as Nas, Rakim, the Wu-Tang Clan, and even Jay-Z.
The Five Percenters are denounced by white America as racists, and orthodox Islam as heretics, for teaching that the black man is Allah. Michael Muhammad Knight ("the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature" -The Guardian) has engaged this culture as both white and Muslim; and over the course of his relationship with The Five Percenters, his personal position changed from that of an outsider to an accepted participant with his own initiatory name (Azreal Wisdom). This has given him an intimate perch from which to understand and examine the controversial doctrines of this influential movement. In Why I Am a Five Percenter, Knight strips away years of sensationalism to offer a serious encounter with Five Percenter thought.
Encoded within Five Percent culture is a profound critique of organized religion, from which the movement derives its name: Only Five Percent can act as "poor righteous teachers" against the evil Ten Percent, the power structure which uses religion to deceive the Eighty- Five Percent, the "deaf, dumb, and blind" masses. Questioning his own relationship to the Five Percent, Knight directly confronts the community's most difficult teachings. In Why I Am a Five Percenter, Knight not only illuminates a thought system that must appear bizarre to outsiders, but he also brilliantly dissects the very issues of"insiders" and "outsiders," territory and ownership, as they relate to religion and privilege, and to our conditioned ideas about race.
When researching the Five Percent, I faced a problem of sources: what exactly did it mean to be a Five Percenter, and whose definition could I trust? To study a culture isn’t as simple as sitting in a pew with a notepad, writing down every word exactly as it comes from the unified voice of the choir. There’s no unified voice; it’s more like shoving your way through a dark and crowded party, catching snippets of conversations as you pass. Traditions are never coherent; they don’t hold themselves together as well as their loudest voices want you to think. As with other traditions, the Five Percent has its own dominant orthodoxies and marginalized heresies, major figures and minor figures. While most Five Percenters reject the religion of Islam, there are also self-identified “Muslim gods”; though most would not advocate equal godhood for black women, there are female gods. The community overwhelmingly opposes homosexuality, but I know queer gods; I build with gay men who are Five Percenters. When it comes to my understanding of the culture, these voices are also part of the equation. The challenge for anyone approaching a culture from the outside, whether as detached observer or new convert, is to remember that no one speaks for everyone. I can’t choose between the various schools of thought and speak on what an authentic “Five Percenterism” would teach, but only on which ideas appear to be more popular than others.
To investigate the Five Percent could have been politically complicated, as I come from more than one place of privilege with respect to the black god: a white man in America and a Muslim from the mainstream mosque (in terms of privilege, Sunnis are like the “white people” of Islam). Asking questions like “Can someone be both Five Percenter and Muslim?” or “Are white people really devils?” touched upon a serious danger: that an outsider writing on a culture could re-create that culture in her or his own image, offering a portrayal that’s only an act of ventriloquism.
I found my way through these concerns, and my research became a book, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York. After receiving my author copies from the publisher, I walked to the Allah School and gave one to its executive director, Allah B, thanking him for all that he had done to help the project, and I assumed that it was the last time I’d have anything to do with the Five Percenters.
It didn’t work out that way. As my book circulated through the community, and Five Percenters wrote to me to share their thoughts, I became even more immersed in the culture than I had been while doing formal interviews and research. We’d get to talking history and the lessons, and my responses often gave the impression that I had crossed the line between reporter and convert. Our dialogues would eventually turn from my writing project to my personal views. Based on your study of the lessons, how do you see yourself? I’ve been asked more than once. Are you the Devil? God? A Muslim? It hit me that I didn’t know the answer, and also that I cared.
Anthropologist Susan Friend Harding describes conversion as a “process of acquiring a specific religious language or dialect.” Recounting her fieldwork among Christian fundamentalists, she writes of one pastor’s “witnessing” to her as “so intense and strange, yet deceptively plain and familiar, full of complex nuances and pushes and pulls, that I had no time, no spare inner speech, to interpret him consciously, to rework what he said into my own words as he talked.” She also reports that growing comfortable with the fundamentalists’ unique parlance only made it more difficult for her to maintain outsider status. Intending to remain a noncommitted observer, simply researching the culture and collecting information, she instead found herself personally transformed: “I began to acquire the knowledge and vision and sensibilities, to share the experience, of a believer.” Though not a believing Christian, Harding gradually reached a state of unconscious belief” in which she would “respond to, interpret, and act in the world” as though she were.” Harding’s entry into the mind of Christian fundamentalism became so thorough that when narrowly escaping a car accident, she heard the voice of God speaking to her. To some extent, whether she wanted it or not, she had been born again.
Stepping into the Five Percent cipher, I drowned in specialized language. When I first began attending parliaments, even purchasing food or merchandise was difficult, as I’d pause to figure out how much I owed a vendor who asked for “wisdom cipher” dollars. Over time, I became familiar enough with the codes to converse and even dram in them and that’s when everything changed. With the learning of a new language, I stepped into another reality.
While my encounter with the Five Percenters influenced my thinking about race and religion, something else happened, something deeper than intellectual positions. I found myself contemplating these issues not only with Five Percenter influence, but in Five Percenter terms, using Five Percenter language. The stories and symbols through which the Five Percent gave its argument became as important as the argument itself; I was starting to view myself and society through a Five Percenter lens. It felt completely natural for me to reflect on the day’s date using Supreme Mathematics, or analyze the Qur’an’s stories of Moses through his depiction in the lessons. There were even times when I experienced a deeper emotional resonance with narratives of the former Clarence 13X and his teen gods than with those of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. As far removed as I could be from the lives of black men in 1960s Harlem, the history in which Five Percenter culture developed was at least more relatable to my world than the unimaginable setting of premodern Arabia. To stand in front of the Hotel Theresa, where Allah had been arrested, or visit Marcus Garvey Park where Allah held his first parliament, would affect me as no less than a pilgrimage, and gazing upon the Five Percenters’ emblem, the Universal Flag, I felt a strong pull on my heart. Reflecting on one element in the contested definition of religion crafted by anthropologist Clifford Geertz—“a system of symbols which act to produce powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations”—I could say that my religion came from Master Fard Muhammad’s lessons, the Wu Tang Clan, sacred algebra that I had learned at the Allah School, and my new righteous name, the name of my teacher. I was becoming Azreal Wisdom in a very real way.