The life of Zaynab bint Ali remains a relevant narrative even today, and in places you’d probably least expect it, despite nearly 1300 years between the events of her life and our life today. Annual commemoration in the form of poetry of lamentation has become a part of the religious tradition of many Muslims, some Middle Eastern Christians and a small group of South Asian Hindus and continues to be a growing practice in many parts of the world through immigration and conversion to this religious practice.
Zaynab’s story is clearly couched in a religious narrative, one of subjugation and martyrdom, where an oppressor strikes out against those cloaked in divine practice. However there is another thread of inspiration that connects back to Zaynab bint Ali that remains relevant today and that is her influence on oral histories and subsequent poetry in Northern Africa, to West Africa and through the Middle Passage onto the West in the form of poetry and musical traditions.
This is the story that Professor A.L.I. begins the journey with, in the “XFactor” a curricular album, which explores the connection of Makkah to Mecca (aka New York), in the development of narrative traditions and the emergence of Hip-Hop as a form of cultural expression in the inner city. In an “Ode to Zaynab” he states “The daughter of a martyr, the mother of slaughter, the daughter of a Prophet, a leader of hardship and inspiration for artists…” a reference to Zaynab’s robust impact, a thread stretching all the way to the modern day helping to weave into the culture known as Hip-Hop.
Hip-Hop, though lyrical is often a controversial subject matter and Professor A.L.I. does not pull any punches and instead digs into themes of misogyny and racism, while elucidating the difference between real “Hip-Hop”, i.e. intelligent movement, from the popular construction of a musical genre, which objectifies women and engages in coarse language. It is the former that falls in line with the lyrical narrative and the traditions influenced by Zaynab bint Ali.
The X in “XFactor” pays homage to the influence on this narrative to Malcolm X, and also invokes the idea of what the variable X represents as far as the unknown threads of influence upon a cultural form like Hip-Hop. He states on the titular song, “He’s placenta to Hip-Hop’s birth so discarded, yet his knowledge provided nutrition for these artists.”
The album is intertwined with a robust curriculum that starts with the story of Zaynab and continues forward through time, ending with the narrative of the late Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of Malcolm X, who for a brief time studied at a howza near the shrine of Zaynab in Damascus.
Finally the robust historical curriculum woven into this album did not go unnoticed by the University of California Regents, which rewarded the course being taught by Professor A.L.I., in which his album is an integral component A-G History credit. In addition, the course has become so popular it will be taught at five elite Bay Area college prep schools.
The course, as with the album, begins with the story of Zaynab.
Peace & Blessings.