March 26th, 2011
07:00 AM ET
Editor’s Note: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over the construction of a mosque in the heart of the Bible belt. “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” airing at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. E.T. April 2 on CNN.
By Sarah Hoye, CNN
Philadelphia (CNN) — It’s noon on a Friday, and the parking lot at Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in North Philadelphia is quickly filling up.
One of Philadelphia's best-known rap artists, Freeway, jumps out of a black sport utility vehicle and dashes through the pouring rain to the prayer hall inside.
Islam has been a part of his life since he was a teenager. Yet it wasn’t until adulthood that his faith changed who he was an artist.
“My faith means everything to me; it’s the thing that keeps me going every day,” the father of two said. “It’s my core, it’s my soul.”
When he was 14, Freeway – aka Leslie Pridgen – took Shahada, the Muslim confession to faith.
Since then, he's had to balance his Muslim faith and his credibility as a hip-hop artist.
Freeway jump-started his career a decade ago at Roc-A-Fella Records under the tutelage of hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. Today, the independent artist has collaborated with the likes of Mariah Carey, producer extraordinaire Jake One and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon.
When Freeway first hit the music scene, his pithy lyrics were laced with rhymes about hustling drugs and other aspects of ghetto life. But his approach to music has changed as he evolved as an emcee and matured as a man.
“The fans can get more out of my music now because I have more of a message,” he said. “I’m more conscious about what I say now because in Islam we believe that you’re going to be held accountable for everything that comes out your mouth.”
Misogyny and the perils of street life have been a part of hip-hop since its inception, and Freeway is no stranger to the urban grind.
He lost a cousin and close friend to gun violence and had his own run-ins with the law, having served jail time for drug possession.
The life experiences the self-described “reality-rapper” so adamantly declares over heavy beats are what have shaped Freeway into the man, the father, the artist and the Muslim he is today, he said.
“I’m definitely not in the same situation I was in when I first started, when I was still in the streets running around doing a bunch of crazy stuff,” he said. “Every day is a temptation, every day is work.”
He's not the only rapper balancing a devotion to Islam and trying to maintain a hard edge on his music, said Amir Abbassy, Freeway’s manager.
“Lupe Fiasco, Q-Tip, Mos Def – they’re all openly Muslim,” he said. “In the music culture, anybody who has a little bit of fame fits that rock 'n' roll persona.”
Freeway was speaking at a Philadelphia school’s bullying workshop on the same day the controversial congressional hearings on the radicalization of Muslim Americans led by U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, were taking place in Washington.
Freeway said he felt the hearings unfairly targeted Muslims.
“It’s foolishness, it’s nonsense,” he said of the recent hearings conducted by the New York Republican. “You can’t judge a whole group of people for a few people making mistakes.”
Freeway got up that day at dawn for his first prayer of the day. In total, he will take time to pray five times throughout the day, a practice called salat, performed daily by many of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.
When Freeway is done rapping, his faith will be there, his manager said.
“His faith – that is his life,” Abbassy said. “ He doesn’t wake up with a microphone in his hand. He wakes up and prays."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.