"Hip-hop was really formative for me," says UC Irvine professor Sohail Daulatzai, who remembers listening to seminal acts such as the Sugarhill Gang and Run-D.M.C. while growing up in Los Angeles' Pico-Union district. But it wasn't until hearing Rakim's "Move the Crowd" that he began walking the path that led him to become a much-cited scholar whose books and articles make waves in African-American studies, history, Islamic and music circles.
In the song, the legendary rapper rhymed, "All praise due to Allah, and that's a blessing."
The line served as validation for Daulatzai, the son of refugees who fled Peshawar in the 1970s. He had already devoured The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a teen, and Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were household icons for their sick moves and Islamic faith. But Rakim's shoutout drove Daulatzai closer to his faith while expanding his thirst for political and musical knowledge.
"I learned a lot from the music," Daulatzai says. "When I heard Chuck D say, 'Joanne Chesimard,' I come to find out she's [onetime Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member] Assata Shakur."
Rakim's "Casualties of War," in which he assumes the persona of a Muslim U.S. soldier fighting in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, was also influential. "I felt that there was something about that relationship between blackness, Islam and the arts that was important to tell," Daulatzai says.
That intellectual curiosity guided him as a student through UCLA and USC before bringing him to UC Irvine in 2005, where he has taught a hip-hop course ever since. With a neatly trimmed beard, collared black shirt buttoned to the top and Islamic three-row bracelet, he casts an imposing figure, but he peppers heavy intellectual insights with an occasional "Yaknowwaddamean?"
"It's a huge class, as you can imagine," Daulatzai says. "Most people think it's going to be fun and easy, but I hit 'em hard with the reading." His students come from all walks of life, some whose sense of hip-hop and society gets totally remixed. Course materials include Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness and songs such as KRS-One's "Sound of da Police."
The professor takes his lessons outside the classroom, too, curating "Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop" last year at the William Grant Still Arts Center in Los Angeles. And a friendship with Rage Against the Machine lead man Zack de la Rocha led to him writing the liner notes for the 20th-anniversary box set of the band's self-titled debut.
As for what he's bumping nowadays, Daulatzai laughs and says, "Who's on the front [burner] right now? That J. Cole record is kinda nice."