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Sometime in the 1950s, Clarence Smith, an African-American originally from Danville, Va., returned to Harlem from fighting in the Korean War. He found that his wife, Dora, had joined the North American Lost-Found Nation of Islam — that is, the Black Muslims.
Led by Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslims centered their theology around the teachings of a mysterious, light-skinned man of purported Middle Eastern extraction who, posing as a silk peddler in Detroit in the early 1930s, had taught Muhammad and a chosen few others the true religion of the black man. Wallace D. Fard (he had many aliases, as his FBI file attests) revealed to Elijah Muhammad that he was in fact God incarnate, and bestowed upon him an array of occult, pseudo-Islamic teachings that held whites to be a man-made race of devils who bore no remnant of Allah’s touch.
The Nation of Islam’s black supremacist attitude, while off-putting to many, imbued the organization with an almost militant commitment to black self-sufficiency. It successfully rehabilitated hundreds of prisoners and street hustlers from a life of crime and drugs, most famously Malcolm X, who in 1954 became Minister of Harlem’s Temple Seven.
Around this time, Clarence Smith became Clarence 13X and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Nation of Islam’s military training unit, the Fruit of Islam. Aside from his formidable physical skills (he supposedly learned karate while overseas), Clarence 13X had a hypnotic speaking style that quickly enabled him to become the student minister of Temple Seven.
But the Nation of Islam soon entered a period of turmoil during which Malcolm X was suspended and rumors of Muhammad’s extramarital dalliances began to spread. Clarence 13X’s own teachings began to stray from doctrine, and he and the Nation parted ways in 1963. Less than a year later, Clarence 13X reemerged and began teaching a revised Black Muslim theology.
“Allah,” as Clarence 13X now called himself, reinterpreted the Nation of Islam’s set of Lost-Found Lessons, a catechism that resulted from Fard’s purported conversations with Elijah Muhammad. These Lessons, which every Black Muslim had to memorize, asserted that 85 percent of humanity is mentally dead and ignorantly destroys itself through vice and immorality, while another 10 percent possess the truth but oppress the first 85 percent by convincing them to believe in a “mystery god” who cannot be seen in this lifetime. The remaining five percent constitute the “poor righteous teachers” who also possess the truth — namely, that the “Living God is the Son of Man, the Supreme Being, or the Black Man of Asia.”
Elijah Muhammad had used this lesson to prove that Fard was God. But Allah used it to prove that all men possess the potential to become gods themselves. Gykee Allah, a Five Percenter who first met Allah in 1965, explains that “the percentages represent three categories of people — not races of people. Regardless of what skin you are in, God is a level of consciousness.”
To spread his message, Clarence devised peculiar systems reminiscent of the Kabbalah and other mystical traditions, which he called the Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet. (See sidebar.) For Five Percenters, Islam is less a religion than a science that can “break down” ordinary words through linguistic gymnastics. For instance, in the Supreme Alphabet A stands for Allah, which, broken down, stands for Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head, thereby proving that the divinity of Allah is physically present in humankind.
Under Five Percenter doctrine, a member does not become fully divine until he or she has memorized every word of the Lost-Found Lessons and every serpentine twist of the divine sciences. Once this is achieved, then men take the name Allah and become Gods, and women take the name Earth — hence the group’s name.
The group’s connection with hip-hop culture goes back to its early days, when Allah “rapped” the Supreme Mathematics on New York street corners. Gone was the Black Muslim approach of gradually initiating proselytes into the mysteries of the Nation of Islam; rather, Five Percenters aimed to “show and prove,” or to immediately mesmerize listeners with their rap. “The nature of the teaching and the learning process lends itself to making really good rap poetry,” says Ted Swedenburg, a professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who testified on behalf of Intelligent Allah this past summer.
Indeed, many staples of hip-hop slang may possess forgotten origins in Five Percenter terminology. For example, the greeting, “‘Sup, G?” is said to represent “What’s up, God?” as opposed to the more popularly accepted etymology, “What’s up, Gangster?” And Five Percenters may be the source for the standard hip-hop greeting “Peace.”
Busta Rhymes, Brand Nubian, Big Daddy Kane, Mobb Deep, Poor Righteous Teachers, Rakim Allah of the critically renowned tandem Eric B. and Rakim, and many in the Wu-Tang Clan are said to be members of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Snippets of the divine sciences have also surfaced in the lyrics of Erykah Badu, Ice Cube, The Fugees, and The Roots. When Pete Rock and CL Smooth identify libraries as the places where “lies are buried,” and television as “`tell a lie’ vision,” they are echoing the Divine Alphabet. Libraries and TV conceal the truth from what Method Man of the Wu-Tang calls “the 85 who ain’t got a clue.”
- Source: The Five-Percent rap, The Boston Globe, USA, Dec. 21, 2003
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