March 26th, 2011
07:00 AM ET

How Islam shaped one rap artist

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.

Why Muslims pray five times a day

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."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Islam • Music • Muslim

soundoff (874 Responses)
  1. DJ

    I'm a muslim, and I am shocked by the number of racist americans in America. All of these racists aren't true Americans and are just the faces of evil and hate and contempt. You just can't judge a muslim by what some ***hole terrosists comitted. I personally condemn them. By the way, I have the highest grades i my grade and am extremely popular despite my religion.

    March 26, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Joel Weymouth

      Islam is a religion not a race. Speaking of racism. Why is it that Arabs are higher in the "food chain" in Islam than everyone else. Why is it that the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims (Europeans) was essentially ignored by the Arab Muslims? Why is it that the Syrians and Arabs for the Palestinians to fight and die against the Israelis? I have talked to many Arabs and they refer to Palestinians as "trash" and worth of being the cannon fodder. I saw black slaves in Kuwait and Bahrain 10 years ago. Racism. Black Muslims say that Muhammed was African- that invokes quite a response from a Sunni or a Shia Muslim. Americans are Racists?

      Go suck on your thumb and let us adults run the world.

      March 26, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • bethe123

      DJ - I am an American, and am shocked that you, a fellow American, evidently received such a poor education that you do not understand that opposition to Islam is not racist.

      Islam is a religion, not a race.

      March 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  2. Elphaba

    I don't know Freeway's music, but I admire his committment to his faith as his first priority. I think that if the U.S. is going to waste our tax dollars on the hearings on the radicalization of Muslims just because the vast minority of Muslims world wide are radical, then we sould spend an equal amount of tax dollars on investigating the radicalization of Christians thanks to people like Fred Phelps

    March 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  3. Nat Turner

    Im a Christian,...and I belive in the bible. My bible says that Jesus is the son of God and there is NOONE else.
    Although I dont say negative things to those who dont belive that,...my bible says that Jesus daddy is jealous of any other
    fools claiming to be him. I belive him. He says if you dont belive in him or his word,..then you WILL goto HELL!!!! I belive that as well. With that being said,..what else is there to say
    Seriously may god bless those who dont belive in him and his word,...he is coming back!!!
    Love YALL

    March 26, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • (B)iraq Hussein Osama

      Your Bible says Jesus is the SON OF GOD, but the funny thing is that Jesus himself keeps calling himself the SON OF MAN in your very same Bible!!! Wherver he goes in public, he refers always to himself as the SON OF MAN, SON OF MAN, SON OF MAN!!! Open your eyes and READ YOUR BIBLE.

      March 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  4. Reason-Logic

    "...religion is the organization of spirituality which became the hand-maiden of conquerors...almost all religions were brought to the people who practice them by conquerors and used as a tool to control their thinking". How else can it be explained that the descendants of African slaves in the United States have come to embrace the religion of the Slave Masters? Christianity and Islam both have legacies of torture, genocide, mass manipulations of monetary systems and overall wickedness. People who think killing or hatred or intolerance in the name of God or a God are have been tricked. Further, your religion is mostly based on where you happen to be born on this planet. It's amazing how unintelligent we are when it comes to religion.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  5. make sense people

    People, it amazes me the hurtful comments that some of you make towards each other. ALL people need to understand that the changes going on in the world are not really about religion or color (peel the onion). the differences and obstacles are put in front of you to distract you from what is really happening. as the new world order unfolds – the tightening of civil rights/liberties will not be forced on society, you will ask for them, because this is what your fear and bigotry will breed and demand. understand the real issue is shrinking and eventually elimination of the class structure. what better way to distract you all "let's make the people fight over religion, and healthcare, and tell them how bad the economy is functioning (i.e. while many fortune 2000 companies have more liquid cash flow on hand than they had pre- 2008). Does anyone remember the Crusades? Fact – history does repeat itself – don't let your arrogance make you believe that christians can beat muslims or vice versa – matter of fact it's not the point. so i say to you all, while you continue to fight over who you believe is God and toss insults back and forth, don't forget to look down as your civil liberties slip away under your feet. Each one teach one and learn to love one another. it's not about race or religion – remember classism does not see any of these trivial items. Peace

    March 26, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • K.J.

      Great points! My favorite professor taught me that war is always about money. The government and media propogandizes religious and race as reasons for conflicts in order to justify that 40% of our tax dollars go to the military. The use of religion helps to blind our citizens to the fact that war benefits the business interest of a few rich white men. Race and religion stirs up people's emotions, therefore they neither spend the time to really understand the truth or how these actions truly affect their lives.

      March 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  6. Marcus

    Most of you people are ridiculous! A lot of you all are putting down this rapper for practicing his belief and I'm sure more than some of you doing so, don't even have a spiritual belief other yourself. AND the other ones most likely believe in what I "Fictional Reality" to form your beliefs. Probably haven't ever heard Freeway's music and think every rapper talk about disrespecting women and drugs... What small minded people! lol

    March 26, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  7. Trill


    March 26, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  8. 10MP14

    Muslims who do not support the violence taught in the koran are Muslims who are not devout enough to study and understand their own faith. This is same for Christians who do not study, understand, believe and practice certain doctrines of the bible such as Jesus being the only way to salvation and "love your enemy"... these Christians and Muslims will self proclaim their faith based off of their upbringing and or culture... completely ignorant and closed off. I dare you to ask most of them to explain their faith in detail and break it down for you.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • (B)iraq Hussein Osama

      your argument is self-defeating. since 99% of the muslims are not "devout enough" to practice the "violence in the Qur'an", that means Islam works!!!! The fruits are what matter, not the shapes of the branches. The crooked tree of Islam produces nice juicy fruit (peaceful people) who are not "devout enough" to practice violence!

      March 26, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  9. ben


    March 26, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  10. JustSaying

    So, what is the deal lately with these "random" one-off articles about someone of a predominately mid-eastern religion being the "good" neighbor and the "icon" of civility and peace? Social engineering in practice!

    March 26, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  11. Ja Bilal

    Great job Bro...awaken the non-believers in America.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  12. paul

    Yeah, black rapper...muslim man with a weird beard saying what a peaceful and beautiful religion he has. Islam is violent and warlike. I wonder how could some one that has a slavery background would go for a religion that turns him into a slave. I also wonder if he's read the passage that states that only white people are going to get into their heaven. But the dangerous part is that he presents to impressionable little kids as a rapper turned muslim looking for converts. Bad news.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • LoveFREE

      Stfu! Yu know absolutely nothing about rap or islam by the the looks of your post. Idiots man I swear! The negativity is crazy and a damn shame!

      March 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Sarah Palin

      whats violent is bashing each other for religious views. weather you're religious or not, you should realize that advances of the human race will always be stymied by hate, because hate leads to war and war sets us all back.

      March 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • (B)iraq Hussein Osama

      @ paul
      what an appropriate username! the irony, the irony!

      Muslims do not enslave people. Muslims only buy slaves. It is haram (a sin) to enslave a free human being in Islam.
      Islam only encourages the buying of slaves (subtle but important difference), because buying an existing slave allows for the possibility of the slave eventually being freed due to the kind treatment of slaves hard-coded in the Islamic religion. Freeing a slave is an act of charity for instance in Islam. It is understood that if the slave stays with his/her non-Muslim master, he would be treated worst and never be freed.

      March 26, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  13. Andy

    I thought Muslim butt-licking for the votes was only part of Indian Politics. These EVERYDAY "FRONT PAGE" articles are clearly paid for.. these are advertisements.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  14. Uncle Fester

    So, why would dude be worried about "street cred" anyway? I don't think that's in the Koran.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  15. Wow

    Wow is all I can say, most of you people are flipping ridiculous! Haters! haha *welcomes all* p.s. where's the mention of Brother Ali, think that'd be a more captivating story, white muslim rapper =0) just saying.. less common

    March 26, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  16. GatorBait

    Very interesting article and video... definitely worth a watch. I would also like to comment on some of the posts here – while there are definitely some small elements in Islam that do wish harm for Americans, there are no less than many of the White Extremist groups that also exist in this country. Furthermore, at least where I live in Florida, many of the Muslims are doctors and are very well respected in the community.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  17. Joe Mahma



    Adults with imaginary friends are stupid. Just sayin'.


    March 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • rory


      March 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Joel Weymouth

      Adults who are atheists are just potential genocidal mass murderers.
      1. Pol Pot – atheist
      2. Mao – atheist
      3. Stalin – Atheist
      4. Lenin – Atheist
      5. Castro – Atheist –
      6, Robespierre – Atheist
      And don't invoke Hitler as a Christian. He was not. He was a follower of what would be called "New Age" religion. He was a vegan that followed the tenets of Pagan German folk Religion – Odinism – putting deities in Nature – kind of like what most liberals believe today.

      The point is – the above mentioned Atheist murdered in the hundreds of millions.

      It seems the "imaginary friend" we call God and you mock has a purpose that restrains those who believe in him from killing those who don't. The atheist do not follow such restraint. Furthermore, name me one charitable organization that that feeds the hungry and heals the sick in the name of atheism. And don't cite the ACLU or the Red Cross or Doctors without borders. The Red Cross was started by a evangelicals, Doctors without borders are simply secular, and the ACLU is just a Marxist organization intent on destroy the US (Check the man who started it). Did you know every hospital in Communist China has roots to a missionary hospital? Did you know the same for every university? Anything the commies did was based on what had already done.

      The point is – atheists are a drain on society and are only intent on converting others or forcing atheism down others throats. Seems you want someone to go to hell with you, you don't want to be alone.

      March 26, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  18. Anthony

    This is a non-story! Who cares about a Rapper's faith! This is one of those stupid stories that CNN post to stir up religious stupidity and racism. There are Christians everyday who molest kids, cheat on their spouses, rob banks, embezzle money and other sins. In GOD's eyes, sin is sin and therefore for those who profess Allah who perform "Jihad", they are no different. Again, I have stopped watching CNN and hardly come on this website since they find the most nonessential things to report on.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  19. Grow up

    Once again Obama's policy of appeasing the Muslims has brought about failure, anyways I'm happy to see an improvement of life, though the Vatican sure can do the same thing, they've got the funding for it, anyways as long as the US govt. ignores the african american population they shall always bow to the ones that help them out, so the govt. should start introducing program mes that shall get them jobs and all sorts of amenities to be part of the society and not part of a drug and street life.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Don't worry about it

      Let me preface this statement by saying I have no religious affliation but, specifically what policies has Obama put in place to appease Muslims?

      March 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • bluecrabz

      There is already a job program in place. It's called "public education."

      March 26, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Sandy Lewis

      This is heart breaking! So many people deceived. Allah is the ruler of this world. Christians are to be in the world, but not fo the world. The fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion of the world in these last days does not surprise me. I believe that Islam is the vehicle that the spirit of the Antichrist will use to establish his dominance of the world in the final days before the return of Jesus Christ. Pray fervently for the people deceived by Islam to have thier eyes opened, turn away from their sin, and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Time grows short. I love you all with the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

      March 26, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • (B)iraq Hussein Osama

      >> Christians are to be in the world, but not fo the world. <<

      odd, that the most materialistic nations on earth are all christian majority nations! and you are claiming Islam is the anti-christ. I would argue christians are the anti-christ. Boozing, fornicating, war mongering, weapons peddling, usury, which are the nations at the fore front of this? Muslim or Christian?

      March 26, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  20. ViiRaL

    Love Freeway's music, I have all of his albums....this is a good article.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.