The song is called "Hellfire," and it begins with synthesized thumps -- a haunting, street-spawned sound that could open any number of raps about racial discontent or violence. But listen to the lyrics, and an unexpected message emerges:
Slip to the bathroom, find an empty classroom,
Don't wanna miss a prayer here at school or even at home
Man, it was a struggle, trying to be a Muslim and staying out of trouble,
The stress seemed double.
It's a typical theme for local group Native Deen, which puts a twist on the notion of "Muslim rap." The group's beat may sound heavy or angry, but the three young band members are all about choosing virtue over vice. Their songs encourage fasting during Ramadan, avoiding sex and violence, and being a good Muslim in school to avoid going to hell -- traditional Islamic messages but with a hip-hop beat.
These days, their voices are tingling the ears of Muslims in the Washington area and beyond. Today, the group will perform at 2 p.m. at the regionwide Eid al-Adha, one of the two most important Islamic holidays of the year. Organizers of the celebration, which is expected to attract close to 15,000 people at the D.C. Armory, said that it is the first time a Muslim rap band will be featured in this area on such a large stage.
In January, the region's only Muslim radio station, WWTL (700 AM), gave Native Deen an hour-long show in its most coveted time slot of Friday night. The band also has gigs in California and Great Britain in coming weeks.
The mixing of rap and religion is not surprising to Islamic experts, who note that one-third of all Muslims in the United States are black converts who bring their culture into the religion. The emergence of Native Deen -- deen is Arabic for religion -- is not unlike the rise, in the early 1990s, of Christian rock, which preached the importance of following Christ to millions of youths while giving them something hip they could pop into their stereos.
Muslim rap is similarly youth-oriented but on a smaller scale. Joshua Salaam, 28, the leader of Native Deen, puts it this way: "It's the kind of music that a young Muslim can listen to and feel proud to be Muslim . . . and still feel like a normal person."
There are restrictions, however, unique to modern Islamic music: Women generally cannot sing in public, and dancing is not allowed. Many Muslims find the use of wind and string instruments offensive, citing passages in Islamic texts, so Native Deen uses only drums and sings a cappella during performances. The band also dresses conservatively, wearing plain Islamic shirts, long pants and kufis (or skullcaps) when they rap.
Their brand of music is a far cry from what music critics have called Muslim rap in the past. That label had been slapped onto bands such as Public Enemy and Brand Nubian, who sold hundreds of thousands of albums by giving voice to disenchanted blacks and by rapping sociopolitical, sometimes racially charged messages. Most of those groups were musical offshoots of militant Muslim African American movements, such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, said Kim Osorio, music editor for the Source, a New York-based hip-hop magazine.
The music of Native Deen emerges out of a different struggle: growing up Muslim in a world that doesn't seem to understand the faith.
When Salaam was in high school, for instance, he believed that it was wrong to show his bare legs when running track, so he wore sweat pants instead of shorts. Some students poked fun at him. "I think we were misunderstood for adhering to a morality in high school, trying to stay away from girls, dressing modestly," said Salaam, who lives in Germantown.
It is a message that speaks to 19-year-old Omar Altalib, of Sterling, an Iraqi immigrant and a longtime fan of hip-hop. He said that most of the rap on the radio these days is too sexual or violent for his liking.
"I think when I was growing up, the only thing I had was tapes of the Koran," said Altalib, who graduated from Potomac Falls High School in 2000. "I wanted something that taps into my rhythmic nature, you know, something that everyone else listens to, but agrees with my values. . . . Without Native Deen, there'd be a huge hole in my music."
Putting Islamic mores to a cool beat has proved to be a winning combination for WWTL, the Islamic Broadcasting Network, as well. The band's show, "On the Scene with Native Deen," is one of the station's most popular broadcasts, program director Hana Baba said.
And perhaps more importantly, it helps draw people in their teens and early twenties to Islam, said Rizwan Jaka, chief organizer of today's Eid celebration.
"There are so many temptations out there -- drinking and parties in school," said Jaka, who invited Salaam and his band mates -- Abdul-Malik Ahmad, 26, of Reston and Naeem Muhammad, 26, of Baltimore -- to perform today. "Having these guys adds a little flavor. It's fun, and a lot of people think Muslims can't have fun."
Native Deen is debunking that myth. Sunday, the group performed at an Islamic baby dedication ceremony in Silver Spring. Most of the 60 people at the party had not heard them before; most hailed from the Middle East or Southeast Asia.
But by the middle of the first song, Native Deen had the group on its feet and clapping. Wearing their traditional Islamic dress, they broke out into straight rap, a song called "Intentions":
"Waking up in the morning, morning, gotta make my prayer,
Am I really gonna make it, make it, when there is no one there . . .
Gonna get me the knowledge, knowledge, gonna study Islam
Am I going just to build my ego so they call me the Man?"