Jason Perez dreamed he would die before he turned 21. His dream came true. A former drug dealer on the streets on New York, Perez says “Jason” died when he became Muslim. Now known as Hamza, the Nuyorican rapper and family man spreads the message of Islam through his music.
The movie New Muslim Cool documents Hamza’s journey: moving from New York to Pittsburgh, educating his family about his new-found faith and raising his children Muslim in post-9/11 America.
The following interview is taken from Islamicbulletin.com:
I personally went to see “The New Muslim Cool” screening in San Francisco, CA. Although I did not meet Brother Hamza Perez at this screening, I was honored to have met him previously at Latino Day in a San Francisco masjid – Masjid Al- Sabeel on Golden Gate Avenue. So naturally, I was very much looking forward to this awesome screening. I believe “The New Muslim Cool” is a first of its kind. Not only are we inspired by Brother Hamza’s spiritual journey to Islam, but with his life, his mission, and his music to reach Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
My personal favorite quote from the trailer of “The New Muslim Cool”, “You are a single dad, now you’re married, so you’re a married man, you’re Muslim, you’re American, you’re Puerto Rican, you’re from the hood, you’re an artist, you’re a rapper… sounds like America’s worst nightmare!” For many American Muslims around the country, he is the exact opposite – Brother Hamza is on a mission for our future.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself – where you were born and your background.
A: I was born in Brooklyn, NY. I grew up in a housing project across the street from a Masjid. My mother began to raise me there. After I got a little bit older, we moved to Puerto Rico, and thereafter we moved back and forth between Massachusetts and Puerto Rico.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your religious upbringing.
A: Yeah, my mom was Catholic. But, my grandmother in Puerto Rico was Baptist. During my 1st and 2nd grades, I was in Catholic school.
Q: Can you tell us about your conversion to Islam.
A: I had an Ecuadorian friend named Louie. We grew up together, and then we got involved in selling drugs together. I kept searching for happiness as a young person but I couldn’t find it. I tried the life of the streets and drugs but that just made me more depressed. Even though we made money, it did not give us the taste or satisfaction of happiness. So, you know, we came real like down. One day, he walked by the masjid, and he was sitting on the steps and began rolling up a joint, and a Muslim brother approached him and asked him what he was doing there and started talking to him about Islam. And he ended up becoming a Muslim. We knew this mosque because we grew up down the street, but, like I said, the Muslims never came out to our community, so the only thing we knew about them is that they killed goats. So, in the community, they were known as that’s the place where goats are killed. So we were familiar with the building but not really with what goes on inside. Louise ended up becoming Muslim and was missing for 40 days. He went with Tabligh Jama’a (the community of teachers of Islam). We were from the streets, you know. We were Latinos; we didn’t know anything about Tabligh Jama’a. All we heard was that some Pakistanis and Arabs had kidnapped him. What the heck was he doing with them anyways? We are all Latinos.
Sometime later, I saw this Muslim brother I went to school with. He was African-American. I saw him in the store, and it was like, “Yo Yo man, you know my friend Louie?” He said, “No man, I don’t know any Louie. I know a Luqman.” I started laughing at him. I thought he was talking about some Jamaican stuff. So I told him to tell Luqman that I’m looking for him. So one day, I was smoking and I was with the people sell drugs with, and Luqman came dressed all in white with a sheikh named Iqbal. We were playing dices, drinking, smoking. He was with a Pakistani brother from Tabligh Jama’a. And I saw that both of them had nur (light). They had like this spiritual light. I could see the transformation in him. I knew that something seriously had happened in his life. So I left the other people who were drinking and smoking and walked towards them. So, right there, the sheikh asked me if I believed that there was only one God. I said, “Yes.” And then he asked me if I believed in the Prophet Mohammad (Salla Lahu ‘alaihi Wa-Salaam – Peace on him) was His Messenger. I had heard of the Prophet Mohammad (Salla Lahu ‘alaihi Wa-Salaam), but I saw the light in the character and face of my friend Luqman, so I believed it. So I took Shahada (testament to faith/conversion to Islam) right there in the middle of the street. My brother then took the Shahada.
Q: How did your parents react to you accepting Islam?
A: My family was initially upset. But it has been tempered by gratitude that my brother and my new faith has gotten us off drugs and away from other dangerous pursuits. They loved it – I mean, my family loved it. My mom loved it. She thought it was very positive. I immediately begin to take care of her. I would help her out in the house. I would go out and do stuff for her. I wasn’t like that when I wasn’t a Muslim. And then, after I became Muslim, my brother became Muslim. Then one of my friends became Muslim. Over 55 people that we knew became Muslim. We went back to the same places we used to sell drugs and put up a sign that says, “Heroin kills you and Allah saves you!” So, you know, a lot of them were impacted by Luqman’s Shahada and the wave of Shahadas that took place.
Q: Did you ever encounter any problems with your acceptance of Islam?
A: At first, since I was a brand new Muslim, I thought I should listen to any Muslim and what they told me. I really had no direction. Some people taught me to look at other Muslims and to criticize other Muslims by the length of their beards and by the length of their pants. And then my criticizing of people became long, and my remembrance of God became short. I started to lose the sweetness that I had when I first became Muslim and a year of listening to certain Muslims examining the faults of other Muslims, and I had to go through, like, a big transformation. And it wasn’t ’til I started sitting with traditional scholars that I began to spiritually heal myself from the disease of looking at people’s faults.
Q: Do you see any similarities between Islam and the other religions in your background?
A: Yeah, of course. It’s all connected. The thing about my religion before is that it was really blind following. I knew who Jesus was, I saw images that were attributed to him, but I didn’t really know about Jesus besides Christmas, and the verses that we read were directed to us by the priests and the pastors. I became a way better follower of Christ when I became Muslim.
Q: What impact has Islam had on your life?
A: Islam has opened up my eyes to my own faults. Before, I had this thing called nafs. I didn’t know about nafs. Islam made me realize that, in the streets, you’re always looking for enemies who are out to get you. And Islam taught me that, in order to find my enemy, all I had to do was look in the mirror. I also began to reach out to prisoners, using my faith and struggles to inspire them. My work also leads me into surprising alliances with ministries of other religions that, like my own, seek to build a road to redemption from the nation’s jails.
Q: What was the most difficult thing to change and how long did it take you?
A: The most difficult thing to change… I think it would have been the whole woman issue. Yeah, because I went straight cold turkey – women, you know, marijuana, everything right overnight. Right after the Shahada, I went and took a shower, everything was cold turkey. I had a lot of girlfriends, and the next thing you know my girlfriends saw me walking down the street in a white dress. I was a good guy to them before becoming Muslim, and they just could not understand why they couldn’t touch me, why I could not talk to them anymore. I wish I could have been more educated back so that I could have maybe explained stuff better. But, Allah is The Best of Planners, you know. A lot of them respect it. The people I went to school with, I stay in contact with them on Facebook. I have like this daily class that I do with all of my non-Muslim acquaintances that I grew up with.
Q: Did any of your friends or family members become Muslim?
A: Over 55 people that we know became Muslim. My grandmother and my aunt took Shahada. My brother took Shahada. My cousin took Shahada. Then my aunt took Shahada on a Sunday and then she died on a Tuesday. My whole street crew that I rode with became Muslim, except for one person.
Q: How did your mother react to your acceptance of Islam?
A: My mother brought us up in Catholic schools. She worked two jobs to do that. …It was kind of confusing for her, but she accepted it. They would ask her, why is your son wearing that dress? She would say, “I don’t know, but just leave him alone. My kids are all drug free now, they don’t drink and they don’t smoke!” They changed their life and they are doing good.
Q: How are your holidays with your non-Muslim family?
A: Of course, I don’t celebrate them. Certain holidays I choose to stay away, like Christmas. I give my family their respect for their holidays, and they really respect my holidays. So, my mother does not get my kids gifts for Christmas, she gets them gifts for ‘Eid. On holidays like Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, I know they are not from the Sunna, but I look at it as … for my family, so I go to their houses, but I don’t get too caught up in the moment. I make sure I treat my mother good all year round. So, every day I see her, I treat her like it is Mother’s Day. My brother and I have learned to make traditional Puerto Rican halal food like arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) with halal chicken. There is a store in Pittsburg where we can get halal meat. I think we’ve figured out to make lots of traditional boricua dishes halal-style, even mofongo (fried green plantain mashed in a mortar and shaped into a ball. Traditionally it was seasoned with fresh garlic and pork cracklings. New versions are stuffed with seafood, chicken, or vegetables).
Q: Has she seen a change in your way of dealing with her and your life?
A: Yeah, big time. Before I did not have patience with her. I read a book about the rights mothers have over their children and I became really scared that Allah might Punish me if I don’t treat my mother right. There is a story of a Sahaba that he was dying and he could not take his Shahada and the Prophet Mohammad (Salla Lahu ‘alaihi Wa-Salaam) asked him, you know, say it, say it. Then the Prophet Mohammad (Salla Lahu ‘alaihi Wa-Salaam) said, is there a problem between you and your mother. So, the Prophet Mohammad (Salla Lahu ‘alaihi Wa-Salaam) called for his mom, and they reconciled and then he was able to say the Shahada. So I fear that if I don’t treat my mother good and my grandmother good, and the woman in my family good, that Allah might block my tongue from saying the Shahada.
Q: What do you think is the most important aspect Islam has to offer Americans and Latinos.
A: The most important aspect Islam has to offer is the true connection with Jesus Christ and the conquest of self. Once you begin to recognize spiritual diseases, there are ways Islam provides for you to fix yourself. You can become a better father, and become a better person. And that is really big in Latino culture…family.
Q: Exactly. Could you tell us a few things about your new movie and your plans for the future?
A: “The New Muslim Cool” is a documentary about my life, after I made hijra from Massachusetts to Pittsburg. I learned to have a lot more respect and understanding for people who choose to follow organized religion, whether it’s Islam or Christianity or Judaism (or another path). And we all definitely changed by working so closely together for three years, learning to accept more and more that we can all be so different and yet have so much in common. All of us on the crew and production team – Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist, Latino, black, white, South Asian – gained new friendships and deep new levels of trust for each other. Maybe that can be on some microcosmic level what we could do as a society or even a world, if we could just be able to see each other as fully and completely human despite coming from different religions or cultures or economic classes.
It is about the work that I do in the community with the young members and the work that I do in the jails. Our mosque was raided by the FBI. They never really gave an excuse why they raided it. Since we had given lots of Dawa in our neighborhood and treated our non-Muslim neighbors, good we did not even have to speak. Our neighbors came outside and spoke to the media on our behalf. So, it was very positive. We feel like the raid from the FBI was really from Allah.
Q: And your visits here in California, I heard that you had a great success on your visit to the school in Pacifica, could you talk about that?
A: Oh, yeah, that was amazing. I have never experienced youth so open to change and so open to Islam. We just connected on a humanity level. That’s something that Islam has broken me out of the chains of. Latinos – we give lots of labels…If someone’s fat, we call them gordso, if someone is skinny, we call them flaco; if they’re black, we call them negro. We always have these titles and labels for people. Islam has allowed me to look past people’s skin and the physical and look at them as souls and opportunities to get closer to God. So we just connected on a humanity tip, on a young people level…from one young person to another young person, and it was an excellent vibe.
Q: How about singing your music, how about your music career…could you tell us a little bit about it?
A: Yeah, we got two new albums about to come out and one just came out in February. It’s available on iTunes. And, you know, we have nice non-Muslim fan base and a Muslim fan base. We try to do the music to address certain issues that we face as people, so our music has a positive message to it. I am trying to take my message of faith to other young people through hard-hitting hip-hop music. In Islam there are diseases of the heart like conceit, jealousy, envy, arrogance, hate, our pride. So, I wanted to explain this to the people who I grew up with in the streets. I knew these people in the streets, so instead of me saying their names, I put it in a poem; I said the diseases of their hearts. So, this is a story about them without saying their names but saying their diseases. So, it goes:
There was this kid named Jealousy
Who had gun weaponry
Whoever lived life better than him, He was his enemy
He walked the street like a centipede.
Frustrated with his destiny
Living life like a dark legacy
He had a brother named Envy
Whose pockets were empty
He had a forty caliber with a clip that hold twenty
They made a plan to rob a drug slanger
They ran into a drug dealer named Anger
Known for his short temper by gangbangers
And new cars and new clothes on the hangers
They shot anger and left him dead in the street
They left a witness Anger’s girlfriend conceit
Conceit picked up the phone and talked as she cried
She called up a big drug dealer named Pride
She told him that Anger had died
And that she had seen Jealousy and Envy with her own 2 eyes
Pride picked up the phone and called his main man Hate
They looked for Jealousy and Envy ‘Til the night got late
The found Jealousy and Envy coming out the liquor store
They shot ’em dead and left them bleeding on the floor
These are the diseases of the spiritual poor
And the Deen of Allah be the only true cure
Q: Jaka-lahu Khair, Brother. Thank you for your time. May Allah Reward you. As-Salaamu ‘Alaikum.
A: Wa ‘alaikum Salaam.