This is one hip-hop group that puts the prophet before profit.
Native Deen, named after the Arabic word for "religion" or "way of life," is a trio of young Muslim men who sing only about their faith.
They strive to be role models for music fans who might otherwise be drawn to gangsta rap and hope to educate Americans about Islam.
"Islam is our daily life," said 29-year-old Native Deen member Joshua Salaam. "It forms what you do, who you are, what you eat, when you sleep, how you pray, everything. We just sing about what we know, and who we are."
Native Deen has its origins in an annual Islamic youth conference in Minnesota. On the last day of each conference, participants would sing or rap on a stage for their peers. Salaam, Abdul-Malik Ahmad and Naeem Muhammad all met at these conferences, struck up a friendship and formed the group two years ago.
Since then, the three have released many singles and cassettes independently and over the Internet — enough to gain a following for steady gigs at mosques, weddings and conferences.
The three friends, who describe their beliefs as mainstream Islam, charge $600 per show, and won't perform with mixed dancing or alcohol since both are forbidden under Islam. They recently performed before 400 teens at the Muslim Youth Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Their lyrics address topics including tensions between Islamic and secular lifestyles, pride in Islamic culture, and fulfilling religious obligations. The chorus of their signature song is, "M-U-S-L-I-M, I'm so blessed to be with them."
Another track, "Hellfire," describes the worldly struggles of a half-hearted Muslim who drifted away from his faith and into materialism and drugs, before realizing the error of his ways and begging forgiveness from Allah.
The group uses only percussion and voices, since some Muslims believe using wind and stringed instruments violates religious teaching. Given the self-imposed limitations, the trio's music is surprisingly rich, with layers of tonal beats driven by electronic rhythms and multi-tiered vocal tracks.
"The kids want something to listen to. If you don't give them something that conforms to Muslim guidelines, they'll find something else," said Yaser El-Menshawy, chairman of Majlis Ash-Shura of New Jersey, a Muslim religious council.
The group hosts a Friday afternoon Internet broadcast on the Islamic Broadcasting Network that has a global audience.
"They're being received quite well, especially by the youth," said Hana Baba, the Virginia-based network's program director. "I get e-mails from people saying how glad they are that finally the Muslim community is able to produce something that's entertaining as well as informative."
Native Deen's fan base is almost exclusively Muslim, although they say they would like someday to have a greater reach. The group is working on its first album, and is seeking a record contract.
The Recording Industry Association of America has no statistics on Muslim artists. The $918 million in sales by religious performers last year were mainly Christian groups, the association said.
The Native Deen members still have their day jobs. Salaam has a degree in criminal justice and works in the civil rights division of the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group in Washington. Ahmad lives in the Washington area and works as a web designer. Muhammad is a lifelong Baltimore resident, where he works as a project manager for a technical company.
Salaam said Native Deen wants to be an alternative to groups who make millions rapping about killing and chilling.
"You hear them talking about taking your clothes off, or some girl doing something," he said. "There's not a lot of substance there. You have to realize the power of music. You have 5-year-olds memorizing your songs and maybe acting on that."
On the Net: www.nativedeen.com