Growing Up with A Tribe Called Quest
Before I could understand my own music taste, I knew I was a big fan of my dad’s. It was on his iPod classic that I was first introduced to A Tribe Called Quest, a hip-hop group from New York made up of four members: Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White. When guests came over, I began each gathering with their third album, “Midnight Marauders.” It was the first album I ever listened to in its entirety. I thought its smooth transitions and repetitive beats made for perfect background music to dinner conversations about the state of the world.
When Spotify replaced iPod classics, I revisited A Tribe Called Quest and listened to their discography. I paid closer attention to the lyrics and realized that addressing injustice and the state of the world was always at the forefront of their music. I felt proud to know that some of the members, namely Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, were Muslim and thought that Islam might have a part to play in the way they confronted systems of oppression in their art. From the first A Tribe Called Quest song I ever heard to their final album, their revolutionary rhymes have inspired contemplation and served as a call-to-action.
“Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” was named after a Black South African anti-Apartheid activist whose Black Consciousness Movement promoted racial solidarity among non-white people. Released more than a decade after Steve Biko’s murder by South African police in 1977, A Tribe Called Quest looked to the past to address present and future struggles for freedom. They kept Steve Biko’s legacy of uplifting the Black community alive in their lyrics.
Their last album, “We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service”was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2016 presidential election, and general political and social turmoil. The first song off the album, “The Space Program,” tackles gentrification and racism in the United States and paints a picture of a current and near future, where the wealthy leave the underprivileged behind to go to space. It draws a connection between how inequality has historically worked in the United States to how it will manifest in privatized space programs like Space X that aim to colonize Mars as the Earth rapidly deteriorates.
“We the People…,” a song from “We Got it From Here” was performed by A Tribe Called Quest at the 2017 Grammy Awards ceremony in response to Donald Trump’s first executive order as president, the so-called Muslim ban. To begin the performance, Q-Tip said, “To all of those people around the world, all of those people who are pushing people who are in power to represent them, tonight we represent you.” The group then introduced the song by kicking through a wall and repeating the line “We the people.” Towards the end of the performance, visible Muslims, along with people from various other backgrounds, joined A Tribe Called Quest on stage from the crowd. The performance ended with Black power fists and lyrics from Phife Dawg, who passed away in the process of making this final album.