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Muhammad grew up as Jamal Elliot in the working-class neighborhoods of Panama City, Gamboa and Paraiso, Panama, the youngest of six children. His Panamanian father, who supervised deckhands working on ships passing through the Panama Canal, put in long hours and was rarely home with the children or their mother, whom Jamal describes as "a good Christian lady." But it was from his father that Muhammad learned his outspoken ways. "Dad spoke up--that's where he says I got it from," he says. "He wouldn't go for it, this whole system of whites being over blacks."
As a young boy, the future agitator was a budding capitalist. He recalls stealing fruit from the tree of a neighbor and, with a friend, selling it around the block. "I thought I was an entrepreneur," he says. "I got the worst whupping of my life. I had to read the whole book of Proverbs."
Jamal continued to rebel as he got older, skipping school and ultimately flunking out of the seventh grade. That prompted his father to ship him off to America in 1975, when he was fifteen. The family had plenty of relatives in the States, especially in Brooklyn and Queens, but Jamal settled with his sister Sheila in California.
Muhammad says he had little contact with white people while growing up in Panama. His view of the whites he saw in America was marked by both admiration and a strong distrust. "I'd never seen that many [white] people in my life," he says. "I couldn't tell their ages, they all looked alike."
He also began reading philosophy, immersing himself in the intellectual traditions of Europeans and soaking up books like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason as a teen. "I've read so much Western philosophy," he says. "The German thinkers were my favorite. They were more aggressive, more motivated. I read a lot of Nietzsche."
And like Nietzsche, who disavowed racism and nationalism while promulgating theories about "little men" and great leaders that were ultimately embraced by the Nazis, Muhammad began to think about society in sweeping terms.
"I've always admired whites for being go-getters," he says matter-of-factly. "They don't sit around and wait for anything. You have to respect people who were in caves for 2,000 years and now rule the world...They're world-class people."
Albert Einstein, he adds, is "one of my heroes. He's an icon for intelligence. Who is that man with that hair? I love physics, man."
But Muhammad's reading list also led him to draw more ominous conclusions. Despite the great intellectual tradition of whites, he says, "they have an innate need to rule the weak. Part of it is greed, part of it is that entrepreneurial spirit."
Muhammad says whites have historically tried to justify racial oppression through appeals to God, theories about blacks' inherent inferiority and, mostly recently, through the book The Bell Curve. "They're saying they came up with everything," he says, "and that has to be questioned."
And sometimes the questions lead to pretty black-and-white answers. "Some white people I hate," he says. "Some black people I have serious problems with. But I don't hate white people. I don't hate Jewish people."
Though Muhammad was never one to back away from a verbal joust, his first real passion wasn't politics, but music. As he moved around California by himself during the late 1970s and early '80s, he took up guitar and bass. He played with friends in garage bands, influenced by such young black guitarists as Vernon Reid, who'd later go on to fame in the rock group Living Colour, and James "Blood" Ulmer, who recorded with free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. He also took inspiration from the spiritual leanings of reggae, bebopper Charlie Parker and the perpetually permutating Miles Davis.
Muhammad took music seriously, moving from jazz-oriented groups to R&B groups and even dabbling in hardcore punk. "We sounded like buzzsaws in trash cans," he says with a laugh. "We were singing about revolutionary stuff, bringing down Babylon. You know, youth are restless, determinism, just a bunch of stuff. Sex, drugs, rock-and-roll...every song lasted about twenty seconds."
The largely white world of punk was a strange breeding ground for a budding black nationalist. But Muhammad says several white musicians were among his favorites--that is, until they messed up by making what he viewed as politically incorrect comments. He was a huge Lou Reed fan, for instance, until Reed came out in recent years against the message preached by Farrakhan. "That's too bad, Lou," he says callously. "You don't know what you're missing." Muhammad says he was also an Eddie Van Halen fan until Van Halen professed to have been more influenced by Eric Clapton than by Jimi Hendrix. "It's kind of weird to be in the Nation now," he admits, having once had a taste for groups like the Velvet Underground and speed-metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteem.
Muhammad says the highlight of his musical career was a battle-of-the-bands contest in L.A. several years ago. His group came in second. "We were the youngest band, with the raggiest instruments," he says. "I'd rather be in the background. I enjoyed being on stage, but not all the crazy stuff."