Jae Deen, a convert to Islam and part of the popular Muslim hip-hop group Deen Squad, is no stranger to controversy. Converting to Islam while still attending his Catholic high school and navigating his way through the complicated world of balancing religion with hip-hop, Jae Deen recognizes the power in both being an influencer as well as staying grounded in humility. Speaking to The Muslim Vibe’s Chief Editor Salim Kassam on this week’s podcast, Jae Deen reflects on his personal journey through Islam and music, the role of Muslim influencers and their responsibility, and finally the inspiring Quran project that he undertook.
“I’m just trying to give hope through music.”
Listen to the interview in full below:
“Our mission is way beyond the music…it’s to change our youth. Muslims need to feel inspired, to have an alternative way to have faith.”
Launched in 2015, the Deen Squad is a hip-hop duo made up of Jae Deen and Karter Zaher, who try to combine their love and passion for hip-hop with their love for Islam. By connecting to Muslim youth, many of whom listen to hip-hop anyways, the Deen Squad hopes to inspire, connect, and spread appreciation for Islam. Based originally in Canada but now popular worldwide, some of their most popular self-called “halal hip-hop” songs include “Halal Lovin'”, “Allah Loves You”, and “Hands of Allah”.
“As a Muslim convert, I’m very passionate about my religion.”
Born Joshua Asare and raised in Ottawa, Canada of Ghanaian descent, Jae Deen converted to Islam at the young age of 15 from Christianity. The concept of tawhid, the empowering belief in the oneness of God, was one of the most inspiring aspects of the religion for Jae Deen. But balancing his love for music and hip-hop with his new-found faith was difficult however, and he admits that at the beginning, he tried to completely drop music because he had convinced himself that it was “haraam”. Ironically, it was after a conversation with a white, non-Muslim neighbor who inspired Jae Deen to give something back to his community that he re-found his passion for hip-hop and was able to connect it with his love for Islam. Now well over four years old, the Deen Squad was a product of Jae’s journey through Islam, his partnership with friend Karter Zaher, and his talent and love for music. In the hope of giving Muslim youth an alternative way to both listen to music and celebrate their faith, Jae Deen continues to break barriers and stereotypes through his music and faith.
“If you put too much weight on yourself you just end up falling.”
But with his powerful platform comes responsibility as well. Reflecting on the role of Muslim influencers today, Jae Deen admits that there is a problem of the competition or “battle” to look the most religious online. Living in a world of oversharing and overcompensating to promote a perfect online persona, Jae Deen admits that it can be difficult to keep his faith authentic while trying to promote the goodness of Islam to the general public. But by keeping certain things private, and remembering to still experience his love for Islam between himself and Allah, he feels he has stayed authentic with his faith. Admitting your mistakes, and asking for forgiveness as well, is one of the most important roles for Muslim influencers to spread awareness about as well according to Jae Deen. Everyone makes mistakes, he stresses, and it’s just about the bravery it takes to admit you have made them to be able to truly ask for forgiveness.
“Why should I be afriad to say I make mistakes? I’m not afraid to sin because I turn to Allah, the most forgiving…the most merciful.”
Part of his journey to understand his powerful role as a Muslim influencer has been to better understand and appreciate the Holy Quran. Putting in more than 300 hours in total over an intensive six-month period of self-studying Arabic, Jae Deen eventually was able to write out the entire Quran in Arabic as well as translate every single word of the Holy Quran into English. Learning Arabic grammar to understand the Quranic text was as if he was reading and understanding the Quran for the first time, according to Jae Deen.
“I can’t fully experience my religion until I connect with the Quran… with Allah’s words themselves.”
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This picture is a celebration of one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Reading the entire Holy Quran, in its original language, Arabic. Not only did I read it, but I wrote down the entire Book by hand and translated every word for myself, all 114 Surahs. This took me 6 months to do Alhamdulilah. In January I did not know much Arabic at all, I was struggling to even pronounce a few words. So I decided to learn the language all by myself studying grammar textbooks multiple hours a day, then began the Quran during Ramadan. There were times where I broke down mentally, cried and even contemplated quitting because it was really hard in the beginning. But with Allah’s help He allowed me to keep going. Now for the rest of my life I can finally understand Allah’s words, I can finally understand the Imam when he recites Quran in Prayer. I hope my journey can be a means of inspiration for all of you to do the same. I’m a convert to Islam with no background in Arabic, if i can learn the entire language and read the whole Quran, I know you can too. May the Quran be a companion for us all to be closer to Allah and His Messenger. Thank you all for supporting my journey ❤️ thank you @boulangerie.habib for this delicious amazing cake! #QuranCake #ConvertGoalz #DeenSquad
One particular story from the Quran that changed his perspective after understanding it through the context of Arabic grammar was the story of Prophet Yusef. According to the Arabic grammar of the text in the Quran, the wife of the Pharaoh was not the only one with passionate feelings. Prophet Yusef himself also had a passionate desire for her, but was able to suppress it for the love of Allah. He was able to stop himself from pursuing her because of the strength of his faith. Jae Deen stresses that this is a powerful lesson for all of us, that if even the prophets in the Quran had certain desires and had what some may call weaknesses, we too can learn to stay strong in our faith and love for Allah.
Remembering the importance in relating the Quranic stories to our everyday lives is extremely important, stresses Jae Deen, and wishes the Muslim community would put more emphasis in reading and understanding the Holy Quran. There would be no racism or misogyny if we actually read the Quran, he argues, and feels inspired to think that the Quran truly does provide solutions to every single problem the world faces today.
“To be a better ummah we simply have to turn to the Quran.”
Celebrating both his passion for creativity and music with his love for religion has provided Jae Deen with a unique purpose in life; to stand tall not only as a powerful Muslim influencer but simply as himself – a man who found the beauty of Islam so empowering that he cannot help but celebrate it through one of the most inspiring and thought-provoking forms of art: music.
Also published on Medium.