Jamil al-Amin: The Former H. Rap Brown

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Gruen
CTR Vantage
Nov. 20, 2009

The criminal complaint against Luqman Abdullah and his associates states that when al-Ummah succeeds in establishing a “separate, sovereign Islamic state,” they intend for it to be led by Jamil al-Amin, who is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted of shooting two police officers.1 Further underscoring al-Amin’s importance to the movement, an al-Ummah mosque, Atlanta’s Community Masjid, still lists him as its leader despite his incarceration.2 This article explores al-Amin’s background, and how the framework for al-Ummah’s ideology was built.

Al-Amin, the former H. Rap Brown, made the transition from black nationalist firebrand to nationally prominent Sunni imam. In the 1960s, he issued scathing indictments of America and called for violent revolution. After his conversion to Islam, al-Amin adopted a more measured tone in his societal criticism, but remained attached to the idea of revolution. Though he focused on a more inward-looking revolution, one that would transform his community morally, al-Amin continued to believe that the system writ large was sick and broken. Some analysts have questioned how far al-Amin truly progressed from the violent ideals that he once openly proclaimed.

H. Rap Brown

Jamil al-Amin was born Hubert Gerold Brown in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Oct. 4, 1943, and was known during the late 1960s as H. Rap Brown. (He did not adopt the moniker of al-Amin until his jailhouse conversion to Islam in 1971). He has said that he took on the name Rap because of his “ability to talk,” and even claimed that rap music was named after him.3 We could not, however, find any credible sources to corroborate this claim. Prior to his conversion to Islam, al-Amin did rap (“signifyin”),4 often in a boisterous and sexually explicit tone:

I’m sweet peeter jeeter the womb beater
The baby maker the cradle shaker
The deerslayer the buckbinder the women finder…
I’m the bed tucker the cock plucker the motherfucker
The milkshaker the record breaker the population maker
The gun-slinger the baby bringer
The hum-dinger the pussy ringer
The man with the terrible middle finger
.5

In 1967, at age 23, H. Rap Brown became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was preceded in this position by Stokely Carmichael. Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.), who had once chaired SNCC, recalled: “Some people thought that Stokely was too moderate. But after they asked Rap, Stokely told me: ‘This is a bad cat. They’re going to wish they had me back.’”6

Brown, a towering figure at 6-foot-5 and a naturally gifted athlete, did indeed generate enormous controversy. He had a notable ability to package revolutionary slogans in a pithy, memorable way; his most famous such statement held that “violence … is as American as cherry pie.”

In July 1967, Brown delivered a fiery speech in Cambridge, Maryland, saying: “This town is ready to explode … if you don’t have guns, don’t be here … you have to be ready to die.”7 After a school and two city blocks burned the next morning, he was charged with incitement to riot. A supporter of Brown’s described the legal maneuvering that followed as “Kafkaesque,” writing: “It seemed like every few months he would be hauled into court in a new jurisdiction on a different charge and held under an oppressively large bond…. Rap would eventually come out and in a matter of days be reported somewhere else making even more ‘incendiary’ utterances and be back in custody, there to begin the dismal cycle all over again.”8

Brown’s militant orientation, though, was never in question. He was critical to SNCC’s decision to renounce non-violence and remove the word “Non-Violent” from its name, and its ill-fated attempt to merge with the Black Panther Party.9 Brown was named the Panthers’ Minister of Justice; and though he was only a Panther for five months or so, “it remains the tie for which he is best known.”10 In 1969 Brown published his political memoir, Die Nigger Die!

Malcolm X was a towering figure within the black nationalist movement whose autobiography is regarded as a literary classic. A comparison of his book with Brown’s is interesting both for the commonalities they share, and the differences. One commonality that Brown’s book has with Malcolm X’s, in light of Brown’s later conversion to Islam, is its critique of Christianity as a tool of racial subjugation. In the book’s first chapter, Brown writes:

White nationalism divides history into two parts, B.C. and A.D.-before the white man’s religion and after it. And “progress,” of course, is considered to have taken place only after the white man’s religion came into being. The implication is evident: God is on the white man’s side, for white Jesus was the “son” of God.11

Brown also sarcastically refers to how whites try to “[c]ivilize the savage through Christianity,” and states that one of the problems a black child has is that “the big white world … forces a white God and a white Jesus on him and has him worshipping somebody that doesn’t even look like him.”12 Also like Malcolm X, Brown believes that the U.S. is flawed to its very core, beyond redemption. He writes that it “represents everything that humans have suffered from,” and the fact of its existence “appals [sic] most of mankind.” Brown continues: “This country is the world’s slop jar. America’s very existence offends me…. The animal that is america [sic] must be destroyed.”13

Despite these commonalities, Brown does not come across well in his own book. For one thing, there is his anti-intellectualism, something he did not abandon as an imam. Explaining his refusal to study Shakespeare, for example, he rattles off several bawdy verses from games of dozens (a competition that is part of the African-American oral tradition wherein two competitors go head-to-head in often coarse trash talk): “I fucked your mama / For a solid hour. / Baby came out / Screaming, Black Power.” After three such verses, he triumphantly concludes: “And the teacher expected me to sit up in class and study poetry after I could run down shit like that. If anybody needed to study poetry, she needed to study mine.”14

A more serious flaw is that Brown leaves his experiences with racism nebulous. This is different from Malcolm X’s book, the first sentence of which describes his mother being intimidated by hooded Ku Klux Klan riders while pregnant with Malcolm,15 and which provides enough richness of experience that the reader can empathize with how he was driven to extreme conclusions. In contrast, some of Brown’s examples of discrimination seem petty and contrived. He writes that he “began to see where ‘the man’ was at” while employed as a neighborhood worker with “the poverty program.” The program apparently sought to financially incentivize good performance; but to Brown, this exposed the sinister stratagems of “the man.” He wrote: “It was the whole trick of the stick and the carrot in front of the mule. If you do a better job than this other dude, then you get this carrot.”16

Despite the dubious nature of many of Brown’s complaints, the reality of racism-pervasive, often deadly racism-was undeniable during this period. Just as undeniable is the fact that Brown was personally stung by it. Yet his attitude in Die Nigger Die! seems to be that this justifies virtually anything on his part: Brown writes of his open insubordination toward every employer he had before SNCC, assuming the reader will side with him because they were his employers, rather than showing any kind of injustice or racism on their part. He feels justified in threatening whites physically, or lying about them to their managers; and he endorses the idea of collective racial guilt, stating that after some whites attacked a black man in Fort Deposit, Alabama, “I thought that we should at least jack up 10 or 12 crackers.”17 Even theft is justified under this worldview as an act of “liberat[ing] food.”18

Conversion to Islam

In March 1970, Brown skipped his trial date for the Cambridge riot and disappeared for about 17 months. During his time on the run, the FBI placed him on its Most Wanted List. He was apprehended in 1972 after robbing the Red Carpet Lounge, a bar in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Time reports that Brown and his three accomplices “ordered about 25 customers to lie on the floor, assaulted some of them, took their wallets and laid down a barrage of fire as they left.”19 After leaving the bar, the robbers were chased by six carloads of police. The ensuing “running gun battle” left two policemen injured, and resulted in Brown being wounded by two shots to the abdomen and ultimately captured.20 Though Brown’s standing declined after this because he “seemed to have crossed the line between militant political defiance and flat-out criminality,”21 some of his supporters have attempted to justify the episode by arguing that the bar was targeted for its exploitation of the local community.

Brown converted to Islam in 1971 while in prison, and adopted the new name Jamil al-Amin. He later explained that he found Islam through the Darul Islam movement: “I was in prison in New York. The Dar-ul-Islam movement had a prison program and brothers would come in to conduct juma and for dawah purposes.”22 Ihsan Bagby, who currently is an associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, told the Associated Press in 2000 that “the Dar-ul Islam movement appealed to Al-Amin and many other black militants because it blended the rhetoric of black power with a call for strict devotion to Islam.”23

Islamic Activism and Ideology

After leaving prison, al-Amin went on hajj to Mecca, then moved to Atlanta. In a 1995 profile of him, the Atlanta Journal Constitution explained that in his first year in Atlanta al-Amin “opened a one-room store across from West End Park, and in that neighborhood of danger and drugs became an imam.”24 Indeed, he helped clean up the neighborhood where he made his new home, something that both Muslim and non-Muslim residents deeply appreciated. As West End resident Barbara Jordan told the Atlanta Journal Constitution five years later, al-Amin’s followers “laid the law down” when they confronted drug dealers and other undesirable elements that were then ubiquitous in the neighborhood.25

Al-Amin became the leader of Darul Islam/al-Ummah, and multiple sources estimate that “approximately thirty branches in America and the Caribbean” fell under his leadership.26 Muslim journalist Steven Barboza stated in 1994 that al-Amin’s “followers are said to number around 10,000 Muslims.”27 Al-Amin also cultivated relationships with a variety of nationally prominent Muslim organizations. He was elected Vice President of the American Muslim Council in 1990, and became a member of the Bosnia Task Force, USA in 1992. He was later elected chairman of the Islamic Shura Council, an umbrella group that also included the secretary generals of the Islamic Society North America (ISNA) and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).

The most comprehensive expression of al-Amin’s Islamic thought is his 1994 book Revolution by the Book. The first five chapters are themed around the five pillars of Islam-tawheed, prayer, zakat, fasting, and hajj. They make clear that al-Amin is theologically situated within the Sunni tradition, and is not part of one of the quasi-Islamic movements that is more black nationalist than it is Muslim (such as the Nation of Islam).

Al-Amin makes clear that he continues to embrace revolutionary struggle, that his conversion to Islam was “a continuation of a lifestyle” rather than a 180-degree transformation. “See,” he explains, “most people don’t have a true picture of what Islam is. Islam is not nonviolent. There is a right to self-defense, and there is [a] right to defend your faith. Allah says that fighting is prescribed for you.”28 He argues that success in revolutionary struggle “requires a spiritual consciousness,”29 and that the problem with social movements in the 1990s was that they had been reduced to sloganeering:

It is criminal that, in the 1990′s, we still approach struggle on the basis of sloganeering, saying, “by any means necessary,” as if that’s a program. Or, “we shall overcome,” as if that’s a program. Slogans are not programs.30

What did al-Amin want to overthrow? Though his tone was far more measured, he continued to see the entire system as overrun by sickness. The cause of the malady seemed to be secularism, “the distance from the Word of God that keeps an individual in darkness.”31 This is manifested in a polluted and degraded natural environment, and citizens who pollute and degrade themselves. This occurs even in the diet, wherein preservatives and the hormones we give to animals disrupt the digestive process. Moreover, al-Amin claims that when males eat these hormones, “the male begins to take on feminine characteristics. He takes on an affinity for feminine things. He wants to pierce his ears, he wants to get manicures.”32

“If a person takes LSD, he might hallucinate,” al-Amin writes.33 But noting the artificiality of Tang, al-Amin likens the breakfast drink to LSD:

I often think of Tang, the breakfast drink that they have out there for you to buy. Tang does not have even one natural ingredient in it. Not even one. It is a totally chemical drink that is flavored with a chemical orange flavor, that is sweetened by processed sugar. And when you consume it, there has to be some effect on you. You may be totally “out-of-pocket” in terms of what you see or perceive after you drink chemicals.34

To al-Amin, the U.S. Constitution is a part of the problem by reinforcing secular culture, being “diametrically opposed to what Allah has commanded upon us.” Its concept of freedom is “unique,” blinding us to “our relationship with our Creator” and thus blinding us “to true freedom.”35

Past revolutionary movements in the United States failed because their understanding was limited. Al-Amin is particularly critical of the movements of the 1960s, of which he was a part. Though 1960s era social movements “rebelled against the unnatural way human beings were being treated,” the revolution “was defused because it was not based on a Divine program. In many ways, it was itself artificial, based on man-made solutions and personal agendas, devoid of truth and sincerity.”36

Al-Amin sees Islam a methodology for revolution, and the Prophet Muhammad’s life as “a clear blueprint for changing a society, for bringing about revolutionary change even under the most difficult conditions.”37 Much of what he advocates is inner struggle designed to remove ignorance, to help Muslims curb their appetite. “The Qur’an,” he writes, “is either an argument for you or against you. Islam is a cutting force; it is a vanguard movement that sets a standard for people.”38

Conclusion

Throughout the 1990s, al-Amin was seen by many who knew him as having changed from violent to non-violent revolutionary, from focusing on the outward struggle to the inward one. As Nation of Islam spokesman Wendell Muhammad told the local press: “He did a 180-degree turn on that. He was the epitome of the peace of Islam.”39 However, there were clues that this was not the entire picture of Jamil al-Amin. Some of these clues came from his followers. In the criminal complaint filed in the Luqman Abdullah case, for example, Mohammad Abdul Bassir told an FBI source that “he learned from Jamil Al-Amin that one does not have to appear angry in order to let somebody know that you would kill them.”40

The biggest clue, of course, is his 2002 conviction for shooting two police officers in Georgia, one of whom died. Following the shooting, al-Amin was again on the run, again placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and eventually arrested in White Hall, Alabama. He is now serving a life sentence at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

His supporters maintain his innocence to this day, and there are web sites dedicated to freeing Jamil al-Amin. He will continue to be regarded as a leader within al-Ummah, and his imprisonment one of the perceived injustices around which its members rally.

…………………………………

1Gary Leone, Criminal Complaint, United States v. Abdullah, No. 2:09-MJ-30436 (E.D. Mich., Oct. 27, 2009), ¶ 5.return

2This statement can be found at http://communitymasjid.org/home.html (accessed Nov. 18, 2009).return

3Quoted in Steven Barboza, American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1994), p. 49.return

4“Signifyin occurs when one makes an indirect statement about a situation or another person; the meaning is often allusive and, in some cases, indeterminate.” Cheryl L. Keyes, Rap Music and Street Consciousness (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002), p. 24. “[S]torytelling, ritualized games” like signifyin and the dozens “provided a foundation for rap.” Ibid.return

5H. Rap Brown, Die Nigger Die! (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1969), p. 27.return

6Richard Lezin Jones, “Conflicting Images of a Former Panther,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 22, 2000.return

7Quoted in Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, “Foreword,” in Die Nigger Die! (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2002), p. xx.return

8Ibid., p. xxi.return

9R. Robin McDonald, “Spiritual Ministry Replaces Rhetoric from Earlier Era,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, Aug. 9, 1995.return

10Jones, “Conflicting Images of a Former Panther.”return

11Brown, Die Nigger Die!, p. 4.return

12Ibid., pp. 14, 47.return

13Ibid., p. 135.return

14Ibid., p. 26.return

15Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964), p. 1.return

16Brown, Die Nigger Die!, p. 75.return

17Ibid., p. 93.return

18Ibid.return

19“Cherry Pie,” Time, Oct. 25, 1971.return

20Ibid.return

21Thelwell, “Foreword,” p. xxiv.return

22Barboza, American Jihad, p. 49return

23Justin Bachman, “Who is Al-Amin?,” Associated Press, May 12, 2000. return

24David Kindred, “Imam Jamil Al-Amin Has No Regrets,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, Aug. 16, 1995.return

25John Blake, “Mosque a Stabilizing Influence,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, Mar. 17, 2000.return

26E.g., Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2nd ed. 2003), p. 233.return

27Steven Barboza, American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 48.return

28Jamil al-Amin, Revolution by the Book: The Rap is Live (Beltsville, MD: Writers’ Inc., 1994), p. xvi.return

29Ibid., p. 6.return

30Ibid., p. 119.return

31Ibid., p. 103.return

32Ibid., p. 47.return

33Ibid., p. 56.return

34Ibid.return

35Ibid., p. 126.return

36Ibid., p. 153.return

37Ibid., p. 10.return

38Ibid., p. 144. return

39Blake, “Mosque a Stabilizing Influence.”return

40Leone, Criminal Complaint, United States v. Abdullah, ¶ return

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