ED GORDON, host:
Clarence 13 X was a Nation of Islam student minister rising fast in the group's ranks in the early 60s. In 1963, just a year before Malcolm X left the organization, Clarence split with the Nation because of disagreement over the nature of God.
Changing his name to Allah, he took his new philosophy to the streets, and founded a group called the Five Percent Nation. Four decades later, the Five Percenters continue to spread their beliefs around the world with a boost from rap music.
NPR's Christopher Johnson reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON reporting:
Eric B and Rakim were fast becoming a major hip-hop duo in the mid-80s. The video for their single, Move the Crowd, features Rakim lecturing from a podium. Behind him, there's a massive number seven, a crescent moon and a star, all set inside an eight-point stylized sun. It's the symbol of the Five Percent Nation.
(Soundbite of Move the Crowd)
RAKIM (Rapping): I'm the intelligent, wise, on the mike I will rise right in front of your eyes cause I am a surprise. So I'm a let my knowledge be born through a perfection. All praises due to Allah and that's a blessing…
JOHNSON: Rap music came along more than a decade after the Five Percent Nation got started, but they shared some of the same language, and they were both born in New York City.
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JOHNSON: The Allah School and Mecca is a small Harlem community center run by the Five Percenters. In the school's small front office hangs a large painting of the late Clarence Jowars Smith. His students call him Allah the Father, the man who created the Five Percent Nation.
Smith was born a few states south in Virginia in 1928. His mother called him Pudding. He fought in Korea and returned to New York where he joined the Nation of Islam and took the name Clarence 13 X.
Allah B directs the school, and was one of Clarence's earliest students.
Mr. ALLAH B (Director, The Allah School and Mecca): Malcolm X was the spark that got him interested in the teachings of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X had started student minister's class, so now he became a student minister.
JOHNSON: As Clarence learned more about the Nation, his own ideas diverged from the group's philosophies. The decisive rift was over the divinity of the group's founder, W.D. Farad Muhammed. The Nation said Muhammed was God. Clarence reasoned that only a pure black man could be God. And to him, there was nothing purely black about Muhammed, who was biracial. He also rejected the traditional Muslim belief that God is separate from man.
Instead, Clarence said man was God, and not just one black man, but the black man. Each black man could cultivate and eventually realize his Godliness through study, meditation, and spiritual and physical fitness.
To Clarence 13 X and a couple of his close friends these new ideas were a revelation. To the Nation of Islam, they were heretical. So Clarence 13 X split with the Nation in 1963, and changed his name to Allah the Father. He began spreading his message on Harlem city streets. That's where Allah B met the Father in 1964.
Mr. ALLAH B: I stole a hate from 125th Street and was being chased by the police. And he must've seen me coming down the street and stepped out and prevented the police from arresting me, or shooting me in the back, or whatever the case may be.
JOHNSON: This was the mid-1960s, and Harlem streets were hot with the talk of black revolution. The energy of the Civil Rights Movement pushed Christian ministers, Garveyites, Black Muslims and Allah the Father out onto the sidewalks where they demanded change.
At the same time, Allah B was a teenager, hungry for spiritual direction. He'd considered joining the Nation of Islam, but the group's codes of self-discipline were too strict for him. He found something different in Allah the Father's soapbox messages.
Mr. ALLAH B: I just was like amazed and fascinated in what he was saying. He was speaking about the greatness of the black man, that we had to begin to apply that greatness here in the wilderness of North America.
JOHNSON: To help his students reach those spiritual heights, Allah the Father taught them a complex system of divination that was used to interpret ordinary numbers and words as spiritual messages. He asked his students then to apply those lessons in real life.
Mr. ALLAH B: The father wanted the young to be responsible, get a education, don't go to jail, or if you have a baby, take care of them babies.
JOHNSON: The Five Percenters took responsibility for spreading Allah the Father's message across the U.S., even after he was murdered in a Harlem housing project in 1969. Before he died, he gave the nation's members a huge task: to enlighten humankind.
Allah the Father taught that 85 percent of the world lives in psychological and economic oppression. That's in part because they don't know that God is actually man, or how to lead a righteous life. Ten percent of the world knows the truth, and opts to keep the 85 in the dark and under their controlling thumb. What's left is the Five Percent Nation.
Today the group is also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, which claims thousands of followers internationally. Their ideas still endure in songs by some of hip-hop's best known musicians, including Busta Rhymes, most of the Wu Tang Clan, and Lord Jamar of the rap group Brand Nubian.
Jamar also played the Five Percenter Kevin Supreme Allah Ketchum on the HBO series Oz. Jamar says it's no surprise that he Five Percenters continue to impact popular culture.
LORD JAMAR (Five Percenter, Member, Brand Nubian): I don't know. It's just something about us as how we're respected on the street that enables us to do certain works in the community. We have so many people embedded in different communities that are leaders in their communities because they've been able to take the knowledge that they've got from us and almost be able to rise to the top.
JOHNSON: Through his music and through his children, Jamar is committed to passing on the life lessons he's learned from the Five Percenters.
LORD JAMAR: I'm going to teach the truth, what I know. I know there is no mystery God, you understand? That's the difference between a belief system and a faith-based system. This is not a belief. It's knowledge. Once you have knowledge, it takes away any fear.
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LORD JAMAR (Rapping): The same year Allah prepared his Five Percent Nation for the day he wouldn't be here. If I die, I don't want you to cry, if I could, I'd reach up and slap you in the eye. Besides, you can keep on teaching Allah forever…
JOHNSON: Allah B has also dedicated much of his life to teaching the youth. It's the way he keeps alive the memory of his mentor, Allah the Father.
Mr. ALLAH B: We could've been little hoodlums in the street of Harlem, but instead he showed us the love to say no, you're more than little hoodlums in the streets of Harlem. And he didn't only have the care to step up, but he had the knowledge to step up with, and which to empower us to actualize our fullest potential.
JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News.
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GORDON: You can read some of the Five Percent Nation's basic philosophies, and watch Lord Jamar's short film about the group on our website at npr.org.
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GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to our show, visit npr.org.
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GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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