I was nine years old on September 11, 2001. I was sitting in second period at Hillside School in New Jersey when throngs of parents began pouring into our school to bring their kids home. When we asked what happened, our teachers–shock causing cracks in their facade–turned to us in disbelief: “Someone flew a plane into the Twin Towers.”
My mother worked in New York City at the time (and thankfully made it out alive), so my father scooped me up from fourth grade and my sister from first. He didn’t dwell on what happened, but as we sped up the hill to our house, the skyline told me everything I needed to know. There was a perfect view of the Twin Towers that I had never noticed until that day, smoke and fire billowing down their respective frames.
Between planes hitting both The Twin Towers and The Pentagon and a fourth plane crashing in Shanksville, PA, 2,996 people lost their lives that day. Al-Qaeda took credit for the attacks and the United States saw a sharp increase in hate crimes against Muslims and Arab Americans, with 481 being reported by the end of that year. That day, “terrorist” officially became a coded word. My family and I are not Muslim, so my nine-year-old self was processing what was just a tragic day. However, Lupe Fiasco gave me the context I sorely needed five years later with “American Terrorist.”
Before “Gold Watch,” before “Adoration Of The Magi,” even before “Happy Industries,” I came to his debut album Food & Liquor (which turns 10 today) for the skateboards, video game references, and Neptunes production; but I stayed for the heady lessons of songs like “American Terrorist.” Prolyfic flipped a Thelma Houston sample into a gorgeous soundscape for Fiasco and Matthew Santos to wax poetic together. This was the start of the magic that led to “Superstar” from The Cool, an even bigger hit in 2007.
However devout he may have been, Fiasco never really fit into America’s skewed perceptions of Muslims at the time. “I don’t have a kufi or a long beard or anything like that,” he told Joe Mace in an interview from 2006. “It’s in my music, and not even overtly or directly where I’m talking about a particular thing in Islam in any of my songs. It’s more the overall motivation, which is to pass on knowledge or not put out the negative imagery.” Especially since Islamophobia and generalizations against Arab-Americans who might not even be Muslim were still at a fevered pitch, Fiasco tried to take the weight off of Islam’s shoulders by proving that all religions weren’t just capable of terrorism, but actively participating in it.
This shines through in the second verse of “American Terrorist,” when Fiasco asks us to judge a “American-based Christian organization planning to poison water supplies to bring the second coming quicker” as harshly as we would a Muslim and/or Arab woman with a bomb strapped to her chest. I had been told all my life that knowledge is power but it really began to crystalize the moment he laid out how people of color were subjugated in the United States: “Don’t give the Black man food, give red man liquor/Red man, fool; black man, nigga/Give yellow man tool make him pull railroad builder/Also give him pan make him pull gold from river/Give Black man crack, glocks and things/Give red man craps, slot machines.” The knowledge bug was sparked.
Ignorance leading people to automatically blame dumpster IEDs going off in New York on “terrorists” is all the proof I need that America still has a problem with Muslims, Arab and Indian Americans. It can be seen in the egregious profiling of Ahmad Khan Rahami yet fuckheads like Dylann Roof being called “loners” and “misunderstood” instead of T E R R O R I S T S. It can be seen when Muslim women are beaten and set on fire in the streets for expressing their faith.
Rappers across that diaspora have been coping with it any way they can. It can be seen in the paranoid airport hallways and D.C. disparities of Oddisee’s “Lifting Shadows.” It can be seen in Brother Ali’s “Uncle Sam Goddamn” losing him a spot on a tour sponsored by Verizon. It can be seen in Freeway’s resolve before and after his bout with kidney cancer. It can be seen in albums like Heems’ Eat Pray Thug or the singles from he and Riz MC’s joint Swet Shop Boys project Cashmere. Persecution is still America’s favorite currency, and projects like these close the gap between already persecuted groups of people even further.
I went to see Fiasco on his “Tour For The Fans” earlier this year and secretly hoped he’d play this song. That or “I Gotcha” would’ve hyped me up for a million lifetimes. I was lucky enough to be at the front of B.B. King’s when the song dropped and I rapped the whole joint with him face-to-face, even after he told every journalist, writer, blogger, and reporter in B.B. King’s to kill themselves. He even attempted to explain Food & Liquor in his own words in a 76-minute podcast from earlier this weekend. I may be mad at his pretentious and confusing public image sometimes, but I still can’t thank him enough for helping open my eyes to a glimpse of what Muslim-Americans deal with. Even if he doesn’t love my profession very much, I’ll always hold onto his teachings.