The following is excerpted from Why I am a Five Percenter, available from Penguin Books.
DON'T GET ME WRONG — before my first trip to the Allah School, they
had me scared shitless. According to 50 Cent's old fence-man, there was a time
when Five Percenters owned the streets like the Bloods and Crips. According to
a State Senate subcommittee, Five Percenters were the ones who ran things
during the 1971 Attica prison rebellion. In newspapers from the 1960s, I found
references to the Five Percenters as terrorists who trained in martial arts with
ambitions to kill white people at random. "If the Nation of Islam is a religion
that finds converts in prison," Russell Simmons once remarked, "Five Percenters
find their converts under the prison.
That's how street it is." It all contributed to an image of Five Percenters as
half-gangster, half-revolutionary, quasi-Muslim cultists, maniacs with names
like Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah. It was said to be a convict's religion or a
rapper's religion or not even a religion, but they had their own wild mythology
of mad scientists blasting the moon from the Earth and believed that they were
all gods and spoke in a secret language that somehow incorporated numbers. How
does anyone work their way through that scene? In a tight situation, would this
white boy even have the vocabulary to plead for his neck?
I remembered these thoughts while
backstage after the Wu-Tang Clan show at Manhattan's Webster Hall, interviewing
Brand Nubian's Lord Jamar in his dressing room and choking on the smoke from a
passing blunt, Jamar telling me how he came into the knowledge. By that point,
I had been building with the gods for a few years; if the Five Percenters were
anything like their reputation, I should have been dead several times over.
Lord Jamar introduced me to other gods in the room, and it was all peace,
everyone smiling and shaking my hand, no one calling me a devil or putting
swords to my neck. "I like your shirt," said one, pointing to Elijah Muhammad's
portrait on my chest, rhinestones making the fez sparkle.
Searching the darkness backstage,
navigating between orange-robed Shaolin monks and groupie girls, I found the
Wu-Tang's "abbot," Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, better known as the RZA, and he
said that we could build outside. Following him down the crowded stairwell,
passing Masta Killa, I thought about art's intersection with spiritual
authority. If this was medieval Iran, I'd be hanging around Sufi orders,
chasing after poets. Sometimes the line between poet and prophet gets thin, and
sometimes it's not there at all. In the Qur'an, God tells Muhammad to remind
his people that these words aren't mere poetry — but with a battle-MC's bravado,
God also challenges poets to match the Qur'an's verses.
The RZA toes that line, but only
if you know what the hell he's talking about, and most don't. "The dumb are
mostly intrigued by the drum," says his cousin, the GZA (also known as the
Genius or Allah Justice). Encoded in the Wu-Tang's body of lyrics, buried deep
under layers of references to Mafia culture of kung fu flicks, is a metaphysical
matrix that never gets fully explained; you have to know before entering. At
one point during this Webster Hall show, the RZA stopped the music and told the
crowd that amidst hedonism and crime in the streets, one could also find
wisdom. He then launched into an a cappella version of his song "The Birth."
People didn't know how to take it. "Six is the limitation of the devil," the
RZA recited, "and the million square miles of land that he settles." Unless
you're in enough to get what that
means, it means nothing. So his fans threw up the Wu hand sign and waited for
I couldn't have been the only one
in the room to pick up on the verse, but it felt good to pretend that I was.
That's a common experience in both art and mystical orders: the desire to
search between the master's words, to know him better than any of the other
disciples or fanboys. We believe that through our heavy intellectual and
emotional investment, we earn greater intimacy with the poet or saint. Knowing
that not everyone was qualified for the wisdom, classical Sufi masters such as
Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240) would present their doctrines with deliberately
complex language and arcane symbolism, offering privileged knowledge only for
those who were willing and able to dig deep. In hip-hop, this approach also
provides balance between two audiences. The RZA's specialized code allows him
to address the initiated without alienating most of his fans.
If the RZA founded his own Sufi
order, I'd probably join it. Over the years, he has cultivated an
authoritative, semimystical charisma, as though we should look to him for much
more than music. Not many other MCs could write books on the philosophical
underpinnings of their lyrics (there's no The
Tao of Lil Wayne coming out). I had once heard that the RZA was taking time
off from music to find a cure for brain cancer; for at least a few minutes, the
idea seemed reasonable. It wasn't hard to imagine him in the lab — not the lab
where he makes beats but an actual laboratory –
wearing a white coat and goggles, mixing smoking liquids between test tubes.
As we walked down the street, I
asked the RZA questions and jotted down his answers in my notepad. I was
writing a book on the Five Percenters, I told him; excerpts had already
appeared in the notes for Lord Jamar's new album. The RZA shared his thoughts
and we parted ways with "Peace" at the corner, in front of a giant tour bus
with Method Man's face splashed across the side. The East Village was quiet at
that hour, and I walked alone down Fourth Avenue reciting lyrics that most
failed to catch:
Understand the equality, God in the bodily form
Letting my knowledge be born
You have to know the code; in the
Five Percenters' system of Supreme Mathematics, "Understanding" corresponds to
the number 3; "Equality" corresponds to 6. "Born" corresponds to 9, so
Understanding your Equality (3+6) leads to your knowledge being Born (9). Also,
"Knowledge" corresponds to the number 1; to go from 1 to 9 or to make
"Knowledge Born" means to make your Knowledge manifest in the world. Thought it
doesn't factor into the number play here, "God" happens to be the attribute for
how it would read mathematically:
God in the bodily form
my 1 be 9
Hip-hop is filled with these
secret Five Percenter references, even from MCs who aren't Five Percenters.
Listing to Jay-Z's freestyle with Big L, I would geek out on the part where Jay
says, "Just like the gods, I start with Knowledge and follow with Wisdom, for
greater Understanding." Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding correspond to 1, 2,
and 3. In "Jigga my Nigga," when Jay-Z boasts, "The god, send you back to the
earth from which you came," there's a double meaning for Five Percenter ears,
since "Earth" represents woman.
Five Percenter code appears most
often with New York MCs of a particular generation, but even Lil Wayne uses it
in "Tha Heat," when he says, "I'ma shoot your Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head,"
playing on the Five Percenter understanding of A.L.L.A.H. I don't think the
gods liked that one.
The Knowledge was first
born in 1964 with Clarence Smith, a decorated Korean War veteran doing his best
Near the start of the 1960s,
Clarence's wife, Dora, joined the Nation of Islam and convinced him to follow
her. The Nation's mosque in Harlem was headed by Malcolm X. Registering as a
Muslim under Malcolm's instruction, Clarence Smith dropped his "slave name"; as
the thirteenth man named Clarence to do so, he became Clarence 13X. The Nation
of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad, presented himself as the Messenger of
Allah, but his Allah was not the unseen, unknowable Creator worshipped in
normative Islam. Such a being was only a "mystery god," a spook used by slave
masters to deceive and control the masses. All black men were gods, taught
Elijah; among them, the "best knower" was designated Allah. The Allah who
taught Elijah was a living man with a physical body, who had come to Detroit
from the holy city of Mecca on July 4, 1930. He was known by numerous names,
most commonly W. D. Fard and Master Fard Muhammad. Because there was no "mystery
god," Fard was not a "manifestation" or "incarnation" of a spiritual being's
essence; Allah was a mortal man. Before Fard, another man had been Allah; and
after him, someone else would take his place.
By 1964, Clarence 13X's intense
study of Nation of Islam doctrine had led him to a breakthrough: not only was
he a god, but he had every right to claim the name Allah for himself. The man
that Elijah called Allah had disappeared without a trace exactly thirty years
ago; at that point, Fard himself was only a mystery god, a ghost used to place
Elijah on the throne. Clarence recognized himself as Allah, with no need for
divine intervention by Fard or his Messenger.
Legend depicts Clarence as
proclaiming his newfound understanding in the mosque leading to his swift
exile, but it's hard to say exactly when and why he left the Nation of Islam.
Some have speculated that Clarence, a known lover of gambling, women, and
marijuana, had a hard time with the Nation's strict moral codes. Akbar
Muhammad, a high-ranking official in the contemporary Nation of Islam, has
alleged that Clarence had been suspended for domestic violence. One of the
Muslims who ditched the mosque with Clarence has said that they left to pursue
The year 1964 was a chaotic one
for Elijah Muhammad's followers, especially in Harlem, with Malcolm X's exodus
from the Nation and rebirth as a Sunni Muslim in Mecca. The FBI, which had been
monitoring the Nation, initially believed Clarence 13X to have followed Malcolm
after the split. In the summer of 1964, however, Clarence appears to have
drifted between his former minister and the Messenger, hanging around Malcolm's
organizations and also attending Nation of Islam rallies. Caught between sides
in Harlem's Muslim Civil War, Clarence had no place to go. Dropping his X, he
was back to living "in the grave" as far as the Nation was concerned; but he
couldn't get into the Islam that Malcolm had found overseas, the old Islam in
which God was back to being a spirit, not the black man. Hanging around
Harlem's basement pool halls, Clarence continued to study the "Supreme Wisdom
Lessons," a series of transcribed question-answer exams between Master Fard and
Elijah Muhammad. Though the Nation guarded the lessons, allowing access only
gradually to new converts, Clarence shared them with non-Muslims, the young
hustlers and dropouts who might appreciate the main gist of Elijah's religion
but weren't likely to wear bow ties and abstain from music or girls. Clarence added
his own flavor, interpreting the lessons through his unique algebra, "Supreme
Mathematics," upon which he'd expound while shooting dice on the corner.
He told the kids that there was
no god in the sky; the only god who could save them was waiting to be found in
the mirror. "Islam" as he gave it to them was not merely the name of a religion
but an acronym for "I Self Lord and Master;" the powder to change their world
could be found within them. The black man is God, always has been, always will
be. As the man who unlocked the secret for New York's runaways and throwaways,
Clarence had proven himself as the best knower; the kids called him "Allah."
The new Allah and his cluster of
teen disciples emerged in the local underworld as a growing sect, named for a
breakdown of society in the Supreme Wisdom Lessons: as 85 percent of the
population remained deaf, dumb, and blind to the truth, having been deceived by
10 percent, the "slavemakers of the poor," the remaining 5 percent consisted of
"poor righteous teachers" who would liberate the masses from "mental death."
Allah told his young gods that they were these messianic "Five Percenters" who
would bring knowledge of self to "all human families of the planet earth,"
destroying religion and racism.
In December 1964, Allah was shot
at one of his usual gambling haunts. For many of Harlem's fatherless kids in
search of a black superhero, his survival bolstered his claim to be Allah.
After a disciple named Bilal made the hijra
from Harlem (which Allah referred to as Mecca) to Brooklyn (which he called
Medina) to teach his friends, the movement spread like wildfire through Fort
Greene and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Five Percenters had not yet fully
distinguished themselves from their Nation of Islam heritage; in that early
period, they would greet each other as Muslims with as-salmu alaikum ("peace be
upon you"). One day, Allah asked Bilal what it meant, making the youth repeat
his answer three times. Allah then asked him, "Why don't you say it in a
language that you understand?" From that moment on, Five Percenters greeted
each other with a simple "Peace."
As the Five Percenters began to
set themselves apart from the Nation of Islam and Sunnis, Harlem's Muslim civil
war was still raging. On February 21, 1965, as Allah was still recovering from
his wounds, Malcolm X was assassinated just two miles uptown. With a can of
gasoline, unknown arsonists then brought down Mosque No 7. In May, Elijah
Muhammad named Louis X (Farrakhan) to Malcolm's former post. Allah led a
handful of Five Percenters on a march from the mosque's remains to the Hotel
Theresa, former home to Malcolm's Organization of Afro-American Unity and
Muslim Mosque, Inc. Along the way, they allegedly smashed windows and assaulted
a man. Taken into police custody and brought before a judge, Allah identified
himself only as Allah, and declared that no one could put Allah on trial.
Unfamiliar with the complexities of Nation of Islam doctrine and what the term
"Allah" would have meant in this context, the judge suspected Allah of having
delusions of grandeur and sent him to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric
While Allah waited for his trial,
the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to take an interest in his movement.
Allah's name was added to J. Edgar Hoover's Security Index, meaning that in the
event of a national emergency, he could be transferred to a special prison camp
without regard for the Constitution. After five months in Bellevue, Allah was
found mentally unable to comprehend the charges against him, and sent to
Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane — New York State's darkest
pit of institutional torture, a "hospital" used to train prison guards, where
inmates/patients were routinely beaten, raped, and murdered. Allah's classification
as insane was better for the authorities than a guilty verdict; without a fixed
sentence, he could be held at Matteawan "for his own good" until the end of
Prior to his incarceration,
Allah's views on race had followed the Nation of Islam's doctrine: white people
were devils, wicked by nature and beyond redemption, having been created by an
evil scientist named Yakub to take over the world. At Matteawan, however, Allah
took pity upon a white teenager who had been beaten and drugged into a coma by
the guards. When the youth regained consciousness, Allah revealed himself as
Allah, proclaimed the kid to be a "righteous man," and taught him the Supreme
Wisdom Lessons and Supreme Mathematics. Allah named him Azreal, after the
Islamic angel of death, and told him that his duty was to get the "wrongdoers,"
Back in New York City, officials
expected the Five Percenters to wither away without their Allah, but Allah's
message was so brilliantly packaged that it could thrive on its own. The
lessons traveled from basketball courts to housing projects to city parks to
school yards and street corners, with every new convert pledging to teach ten
others younger than himself. The Five Percenter message was at once simple
enough to be easily digested by anyone — the
black man is the God of the universe — and complex enough, through its call
to rigorous study of the lessons and Supreme Mathematics, to promise a
challenging life of study and inner growth. It offered both freedom and
discipline, politics and spirituality, salvific manhood and then more salvific
manhood. By the time of Allah's release after more than twenty months at
Matteawan, there were thousands of young gods waiting to welcome him home. They
were willing to put the whole solar system on his shoulders, but Allah refused;
he told the kids that hey were not Muslims or Christians but true and living gods, each of them entitled to his name.
"Sun," he told a youth who would
later be called Allah B, "Know you are Allah, never deny yourself of being Allah.
Even if the whole world denies you, never deny yourself, because it's your own
doubt that can stop you from being Allah."
This was around the time that
Mayor John Lindsay sought alliances with informal neighborhood leaders, local
figures apart from elected officials and clergymen, who could help him prevent
riots and improve relations in the worst parts of the city. Lindsay's generals
reached out to Allah, at the time the most feared militant in New York. Allah
told them that he'd work with City Hall in exchange for his Five Percenters
getting free bus trips to the beach, plane rides above the city and their own
Through the Urban League Street
Academy program, a Five Percenter storefront school was opened on Seventh
Avenue and 125th Street, and Allah became one of Lindsay's most
important street ambassadors. After the assassination of Martin Luther King,
Jr., Allah and Lindsay marched arm in arm through Harlem to keep the peace.
Afterward, a life-size photo of them hung in the school's front window, signed
by each man to the other: "To Mayor Lindsay, the greatest Mayor we've got"; "To
Allah, thanks a lot."
Lindsay felt a real affection for
Allah, the mayor's former aides told me, but Allah had more than enough
enemies: the Nation of Islam hated him for putting their secret lessons on the
streets and elevating himself above Elijah, the Sunnis hated him for calling
himself Allah, the Black Power scene hated him for working with City Hall, the
drug dealers hated him for preaching against drugs, the gangs hated him for
preaching against gangs, the NYPD hated both Allah and Lindsay, J. Edgar Hoover
viewed the Civil Rights movement as a communist conspiracy; and there were
always gambling beefs. When Allah was shot again, this time in an elevator shaft,
one could pick from a crowd of suspects. The assassination was never solved.
Teaser image by Acizane, courtesy of Creative Commons license.