Self-described as lyrically “abrasive,” 29-year-old rapper and Minnesota native Muja Messiah has verbally accosted his way into the national spotlight. “Since forever” is how long he dates his rapping career, but it wasn’t until recently by way of his underground hit “Patriot Act” that Muja earned national notoriety.
The song’s brazen critique of President Bush and American foreign and domestic policies — “I’m supposed to be threatened by al Qaeda when I was always afraid of America first, the birthplace of some of the worst terrorists on this earth… Should I blame FEMA or blame Halliburton? I’m’a push the envelope like Bush did the votes, like Bush sniffing coke, but hey, nobody’s perfect” — are what landed him a coveted endorsement in December’s VIBE Magazine as one of the “51 Best MySpace Rappers,” a part of their first-annual nationwide survey.
Muja’s subsequent groundswell of success has kept him working, motivating his already stringent work ethic as he vies for his next big break. Relevant, cathartic and poignant lyrics are what attract receptive audiences to his live shows night after night . And, in hip hop’s currently distressed/lethargic condition, a dose of Muja’s shock therapy may be just what the industry needs to revive itself.
“We could make up a fake government name. Call me Cecil…Cecil Whittaker.”
Early in his career, as an adolescent member of Minneapolis-based rap group the Five Percent Nation, Mr. Whittaker (or more accurately Bobby, one of the few nicknames his family so affectionately calls him) inherited the name Muja. (Mujahideen is translated as “soldier” in Arabic.)
Now, Muja (adopting other random aliases throughout the afternoon) is the foremost member of his current five-man affiliation Raw Villa, debuting a solo mix-tape titled Minneapolis Massacre due out March 20 and recording The Adventures of a B-Boy/D-Boy slated for release in April.
“No, Tony Chao… [Call me] Mr. Tony Chao…because people respect Chinese culture a lot more than mulatto culture.”
As stated, Mr. Chao, aka Muja, is of half European and half African American decent, though admittedly raised a bit unconventionally: “I was raised by my mother and my Black stepfather. I was mixed with two Black parents. My White dad neglects me, like how Black dads are supposed to.”
Ironically on this February 8 Friday night, the crowd bopping along monolithically to Muja’s opening set at First Avenue nightclub can be charged with the opposite offense — the venue appeared to be majority White. The stark contrast between Muja, dubbed as a rugged street rapper, and his pale hippy/ghetto/avant garde patrons had to have seemed odd to Muja, too. Right?
“No, the M.anifest show was almost all Black, wasn’t it?” He looks to the right at his friend, fellow Raw Villa MC Rico seated nearby, for resolution. “Well, if it’s half all-Black, then it’s all-Black,” Muja said.
The crowd’s demographics fluctuate relative to the venue, but what ultimately determines a good show for him is the vibe he receives from the audience. And, while he thoroughly exhausts his crowds in other cities (of the approximate eight he’s been to, Chicago and Toronto are easy favorites), Minnesota hasn’t been nearly as nice.
“Home is where the hate is,” Muja says. And sadly, that sentiment is overwhelmingly echoed throughout the local underground community and also evident to Rico, who nods his head at the next table over.
Unlike the South, where grassroots support fostered the overnight ascension of Southern rap, Minnesota imposes handicaps on its local artists. Success has to come from outside before an artist is acknowledged locally: Call it the Minnesota Delay.
“Minnesota is not a trendsetting city,” Muja explained. Eventually, “Whatever the United States likes, Minnesota will accept.”
So, to endure Midwest skepticism takes a bit of perseverance. A lifetime later of fighting for his dream, “Soldier” Messiah is comfortably positioned as “a staple as far as Minnesota hip hop,” he said, stepping out from amongst the 20-odd Minnesota rappers and into the ranks of local heavy-hitters like “Brother Ali, Cancer and Doomtree.”
But perseverance is only half of the story. The real catalyst behind Muja’s recent thrust into success is the buoyant springboard of social networking website MySpace.
Developed back in July of 2003, MySpace has remained a major prop for aspiring artists of all walks. MySpace’s DIY approach is credited for irreversibly crippling the recording industry and sinking music conglomerates like Sony BMG, Virgin, EMI, and Capitol, which were forced to lay off hundreds of their employees. But the industry’s travails work to the advantage of the once-starving artists who now have unlimited access to international exposure.
“I don’t know how [VIBE] heard about it, but they seen it on MySpace. That’s a good question because it helped a lot. I’ve done songs with my guy in Memphis. I got cats in Cincinnati, I got this cat in Romania that I’ll be working with… The feedback was massive.”
MySpace has a profound position in the global culture of consumerism. It has created a necessary lifeline to artists from outside the rap “hot zones” in American hip hop, which is notoriously polarized. So, for artists eyeing the elusive prize, MySpace levels the playing field.
Privy to this knowledge, Muja is adjusting his strategy accordingly. “This year I’m going platinum, a million MySpace friends,” he says in his song “Get Fresh” due out in April.
Stylistically, however, Muja’s music has no strategy; meaning he is multidimensional in who or what he chooses to rap about. “We are political playboy-gangsters” he said of Raw Villa. “We have political agendas, hustler agendas, people agendas, children agendas. We have agendas.”
This blend of interests is what he describes as “the B-boy/D-boy effect.” By abandoning rap genres like conscious or hard-core, Muja’s music instead offers an eclectic and well-rounded perspective on who he is as a person: “I know how to hustle. I know how to survive in the streets.
“This life is real. But guess what — I’m paying attention. I watch the news, I read the papers, I know what’s going on overseas. I know who’s [f***ing] up, I know how it all started. I know all of that. And that’s what people gotta know, more than just I’m a hustler.”
That’s why a quick sampling of his work (available at www.myspace.com/mujamessiah) shows off a delightful mix of wit versus politics versus reflection. On the politically charged “Patriot Act” Muja sounds off on the state of American affairs, while only a quick fast-forward later on a track entitled “Divine Intervention” he proclaims to “love hip hop the way ballplayers love White women.”
“I’m like a mix between Malcolm X, Rick James and George Bush. Malcolm Bush. Put that as my name — Malcolm Bush.”
Malcolm Bush is finishing up the last of his lunch, a plate of Somali food, as the noon hour winds down from inside the International Market Square. Watching him field phone calls and fiddle around on his laptop, I get the distinct impression that his days of anonymity are numbered.
“I’m going on the road…probably this summer. I’m in the process of setting that up.” Presumably, Cecil Whittaker, Bobby, Mr. Tony Chao, and Malcolm Bush will all be in attendance. But among the myriad of pseudo-personalities, the main attraction will undoubtedly be Muja Messiah.
Caroline Joseph is a student at Hamline University. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.