BY JANIAH ADAMS
Over a million people heard those lyrics when Neelam Hakeem took the BET cypher by storm. With a camouflage jacket, long skirt and headwrap, she showed the world what a proud Muslim woman looks like. But how did Nation of Islam member Neelam Hakeem get to such a point? It had a lot to do with modesty, social media, and simply being herself.
“I was honestly really nervous at first,” Ms. Hakeem told The Final Call. “Then I said a prayer and just let go.”
Standing on the stage with rappers Sharaya J., Chika, and Bri Steves, with Erykah Badu as their DJ, Ms. Hakeem spit rhymes about unity, justice, children in Flint and the power of her name during the Oct. 16 broadcast, and hip hop took notice.
Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Ms. Hakeem was nurtured in a Christian household. One day, her father brought home the book “Message to the Blackman” and “changed our lives and our slave names.” In 2001, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, California. After graduating high school, Ms. Hakeem read “Message to the Blackman” and “How to Eat to Live,” books written by the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The books inspired her to look for an FOI (Fruit of Islam, the men of the Nation of Islam) on Slauson Avenue to find out where a mosque was located. She joined the movement in 2007.
As she grew into adulthood, Ms. Hakeem didn’t have a solid direction. She definitely didn’t see herself in the position she’s in today— a modest fashion mogul and rapper. In fact, her fame on Instagram came about by accident. She was moved and inspired by Muslim women she saw on the social media platform.
“I just made a decision one day on Muslim Women’s Day after going through the hashtag (#Muslimwomensday) and seeing tons of beautiful Muslim women and girls representing themselves modestly online,” she said. “That day, I made a decision to do the same.”
Ms. Hakeem said she wasn’t trying to promote herself to gain a following, but that’s what began to happen almost instantly.
“It was my husband who had more of the marketing mindset. When I noticed my audience getting bigger, I said if I could be an example the way those girls were for me, that would be beautiful,” she said. “Then companies started to hit me for collaborations and campaigns and the rest is history.”
Dressing modestly was never a struggle for Ms. Hakeem. Covering her hair? That’s where the difficulty ensued.
“I absolutely love my hair and the styles that I wear, and I felt like it was a clutch for me—I felt like I couldn’t be beautiful without showing it,” she said. “My perception didn’t change until I saw so many women [covering their hair] on Muslim Women’s Day. I actually thought they looked better than girls in the best hairstyles. I had to grow to love it for myself, then I was ready to do it.”
Ms. Hakeem began posting short videos on Instagram of her rapping to well-known beats. Many people began to repost her songs, including influencers such as Will Smith, Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs and The Shade Room. She later posted a picture of herself meeting with P. Diddy.
This is what catapulted her to be noticed by BET.
“After Eryka Badu, Will Smith, Diddy and so many people posted my rap video for ‘Ghost’, BET reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be a part of the 2018 Hip-Hop Awards Cypher. I accepted with excitement and nervousness,” she said. “I had no idea that Eryka Badu was going to be our DJ, so that was crazy, and she ended up giving a surprise beat change which made it insane, but it was super dope. I also met some amazing women that I’ve been following online so that was cool!”
Ms. Hakeem has been featured in major publications such as Essence Magazine, Forbes and Vogue Arabia. She also released a full-length music video for her song “I’ll Be The King,” which Ms. Badu made an appearance in.
Many young women and girls have flocked to Ms. Hakeem’s example and Instagram account, putting her at more than 320,000 followers. She’s not just turning heads in the U.S., but all over the world. Many women from the Muslim world have commented on her videos, her Instagram posts, sent videos of themselves listening and dancing to “I’ll Be The King” and more.
“I always say that representation matters and based off the tons of DMs (direct messages) and emails of women and girls telling me, yes I do believe [I’m making an impact]. It’s important for us to be able to see ourselves in as many places as possible,” she said.
With all that she does, Ms. Hakeem has to manage her time wisely to make sure she has enough time to cater to her children and husband, Marquis Henry.
“My husband and I are a team and my close family knows the goal and helps as much as they can in any aspect they can,” she said. “My family is my first post, so honestly, we get a lot done at bed time and [during] school hours. I have to admit that we don’t sleep as much as we should.”
Recently, Ms. Hakeem was signed to Roc Nation Management, which is owned by Jay-Z, and a modeling agency.
She gives much of the credit to where she is today to the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. She said those that call him a misogynist are simply looking for things to say about him.
“To call the Minister misogynistic is actually laughable,” she said. “I learned ‘a nation can rise no higher than a woman’ from him. I never had a Black man or any man open a door for me until I came across men that were taught and trained by him. I’ve met men that came out of the worst gang lifestyle that are now peaceful, prosperous and taking care of a wife and children solely based off of his teaching. I have personally been trained by women who are true leaders based off of what he taught them and I am me for the same reason.”
For any young Muslim women who wish to create a platform similar to Ms. Hakeem’s, she says, “Be your authentic self regardless of what’s ‘trending’ or who likes it. Be consistent and have fun. Remember that we have the boldest leadership and examples in the world, so we truly have nothing to fear.”
Follow Neelam Hakeem on YouTube, on Instagram @neelam_ and Twitter @Official_Neelam