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Jamal Muhammad has a good falsetto. It's not quite on the level of Earth, Wind and Fire frontman Philip Bailey, but it's solid, and this is really unexpected. Because the last time Jamal Muhammad opened his mouth, there was nothing sweet in his voice. That was four years ago, when, as local pointman and proselytizer for the Nation of Islam, he gained notoriety by telling kids at public schools that long ago, white folks ate their dead. Not exactly the message middle-brow Denver was used to.
But today, at a small recording studio in Aurora, all that seems far away, and Muhammad's simply a laid-back music producer guiding a young singer, Diedra Walker, through the chorus of a hip-hop tune called "Can't Get Away" -- a tale of a gangbanger who can't escape a violent past. He's in the middle of producing a second album for Denver rapper Mecca Machete. Their first collaboration, Can I Touch Somethin'?, is already in local record stores.
It would seem that the 38-year-old Muhammad has escaped his past -- the recent one, anyway. There was something severe about him then. The sharp suits and bow ties of the Nation of Islam; the tense, unyielding carriage. Like the brother was some cold-eyed intellectual assassin, ready to bury his opponents with deadly verbal volleys. To get him to consent to an interview was like facing the Inquisition.
It was February 1996 when, as Jamal X, Muhammad vaulted into the Denver consciousness with a speech at Montbello High School during which he told students that, way back in the day, black people were building pyramids while whites ate their dead and slept with animals in caves. More controversial speeches followed, and then came the media barrage: More than seventy articles were written about him in local newspapers, including scathing editorials that questioned why the public schools would grant such a provocateur access to impressionable teenagers. X caught hell from the press and his superiors, who wanted to know why he kept riling everybody up. (The plan for Denver's branch of the Nation of Islam had been for members to be non-confrontational.) X wondered what he'd gotten himself into.
"Folks look at you like their savior or the devil," he says now. "The reaction was so violent. Who wants to be the bogeyman for the white man in the middle of some racist controversy?"
Muhammad admits he played into the hype, or what he now refers to as "tantrum politics," and eventually he stopped going to press conferences. "I didn't want to lend my voice or image to nonsense," he says. And some of that hardass act had always been pure theater; after his speeches, Muhammad would go home and critique tapes of them and "cringe at certain parts."
But just as quickly as he'd shown up, he disappeared. People thought he'd left town, when all he'd really left was the spotlight. (Muhammad thought of getting involved in Mayor Webb's re-election campaign last spring but figured he might do more damage than good.) During an interview at the downtown library, there's still something serious about him. But now he wears jeans and sneakers and a bright yellow shirt with the word "Colorado" on it. These clothes are much more relaxed than the suits and ties of the past, and so is he.
Muhammad is still a practicing Muslim, but he's not active in the Nation of Islam. "The Nation can't talk black or white. It's a myopic vision of the world," he says, adding that even the Final Call, the newspaper of the Nation, has its share of propaganda. "That doesn't sit too well with me," says Muhammad. "It can look like a cult of personality." He says that while some local Nation members have given him the cold shoulder for his abrupt departure from politics -- they think he lost his nerve and sold out -- most of his old colleagues are cool with his decision.
As he moves toward a more open and inclusive philosophical worldview, Muhammad has returned to his first love: music.
Jamal Muhammad used to be Jamal Eliot, the Panamanian-born son of a deckhand supervisor. In the late '70s he moved to Southern California, took up the guitar and bass and started garage bands with his friends. His influences ranged from guitarist Vernon Reid, who later gained famed with Living Colour, to James "Blood" Ulmer, who recorded with free-jazz legend Ornette Coleman, to a whole range of jazz pioneers. He also took to the aggressive spirit of punk, playing in groups like J. and the Strays and the Screaming Cadavers. (Muhammad once described one of his bands as sounding like "buzzsaws in trash cans.")
Punk and hip-hop are merely two sides of the same process, according to Muhammad, one that involves young kids, white and black, refracting the inputs of a convoluted world, breaking it down and kicking it back out again. He says he's always fed from both streams, tuning in to rap stalwart Public Enemy as well as Bad Brains, an all-black hardcore punk outfit from the early '80s. His teenage son now has him hooked on the rap-metal hybrids of Limp Bizkit.