American Muslim rapper “Freeway” UK tour causes controversy

Freeway has been a Muslim for longer than 10 years

US rapper “Freeway” has been slammed by some in the Muslim community during his recent tour of the UK for not being a good role model for the youth.  

The tour entitled “Philly to Freeway” was organised by Ismael Lea South of Salam Project, and sponsored by Muslim charities Penny Appeal, and Ulfa Aid which was set up by Sheikh Babikir Ahmad al-Sudani.

5Pillarz was inundated with emails and Facebook messages from concerned Muslims, including parents, who said that Freeway was not a role model to be promoted to the youth because he still lived the hip-hop life of “sex, drugs and gangsterism”.

YouTube videos as recent as September and October this year shows Freeway smoking cannabis, and using profane langue.

Freeway (Leslie Edward Pridgen) is best known for his tenure on Roc-A-Fella Records and his affiliation with Jay-Z and Beanie Siegel. He reverted to Islam around 15 years ago. Freeway was a member of the rap group Ice City, and is a member of the rap group State Property and was briefly signed to Cash Money Records. Freeway is currently independent.

A number of Muslims also told 5Pillarz that their comments were deleted and were subsequently banned when they raised their concerns to Penny Appeal via Facebook.

Deputy editor of 5Pillarz, Dilly Hussain spoke to Penny Appeal and Ismael Lea South regarding the decision-making process of choosing Freeway, financial logistics behind the tour and their thoughts on the rapper’s recent videos.

Penny Appeal

Head of marketing and communications for Penny Appeal, Zahid Rehman said: “The ‘Philly to Freeway’ tour looks at the harsh reality of gang crime in our communities today, with a glance at Freeway’s journey from the “gang cultured” streets of Philadelphia. He will also talk about his life as a Hip-Hop artist and his battle from temptation to salvation.

pennyappeal“Freeway comes recommended from an Islamic Scholar, Sheikh Babikir, who is very well respected from the UK and international Muslim community. Sheikh Babikir will also talk at the events with supporting messages of benevolence.”

Penny Appeal confirmed that they sponsored Freeway’s tour along with Ulfa Aid but had no role in choosing or vetting speakers. Salam Project were paid by Penny Appeal for the fundraising rights but said they did not get involved with logistics.

 

Additionally, Penny Appeal said they deleted comments and banned users from their Facebook page for using foul language.

Ulfa Aid  

Sheikh Babikir Ahmad al-Sudani of Ulfa Aid said: “Muslim youths of today in the inner cities are following the gang crime culture of urban America. Many parents, teachers, youth workers and Imams are not aware of the realities of our youths. None of us are perfect and our brother Freeway is a new Muslim. Yes he has faults, who doesn’t, don’t we all have faults?”

Sheikh Babikir Ahmad al-Sudani
Sheikh Babikir Ahmad al-Sudani

“He will share the harsh realities of living in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Philadelphia. The aim is to connect with the Muslim youths, community workers nationwide but we are using this opportunity to connect with young people and who don’t normally come to Muslim events. A lot of people who are going around talking about gang crime – do not fully understand the situation with our young people today. This young man knows the realities of gangs, drugs, crime. We are all making a journey to be better – so is he. We pray we all meet some inspiring people in the UK to help him and to help us in our work. This tour is out of the box and we would really like to thank Penny Appeal for sponsoring this unique tour.”

This comment was forwarded to 5Pillarz by Penny Appeal, not directly from Sheikh Babikir or Ulfa Aid.

Salam Project

Ismael Lea South who is the founder of Salam Project and a member of nasheed group Mecca2Medina, told Dilly Hussain that he takes full responsibility for choosing Freeway, and acknowledged that he should have been aware of the rapper’s unIslamic material that is easily accessible online. The north London community youth worker insisted that Penny Appeal and Ulfa Aid had absolutely nothing to do with the vetting of speakers and should not be held responsible.

“This project was initiated and instigated by me. I would be grateful if you do not implicate Penny Appeal and Ulfa Aid as their intention was to support our community work. My aim was to do this project to raise funds for my projects. Ulfa Aid and Penny Appeal decided to sponsor the initiative as I was very passionate about it.

Ismael Lea South
Ismael Lea South

“Yes Freeway has done very naughty material. Through a contact I have been told that he is working on more positive material. With more clean new videos because he is independent now. The aim of the tour was to outreach to Muslim ex-offenders, at risk, marginalised and disengaged young people then to have Shaykh Babikir Ahmad to come with the reasoning and Islam. I also wanted Freeway to meet learned Shaykhs and Imams from the UK to hopefully encourage and inspire him – Freeway has recently made Hajj and appeared on the Deen Show – I was inspired by his community work in the inner city and so I know he’s trying but like all of us he has faults.

“Someone explained to me in the Rap industry everyone plays bad. Like I said before I hope you do not implicate Penny Appeal and Ulfa Aid as they are good people who offered to help me with a project. Please attack me and please leave Penny Appeal and Ulfa Aid alone as they are innocent.”

 

Salam Project currently runs a monthly ex-offenders programme which includes sporting masterclasses with young people in London.

Prevent funding

There were suspicions that the “Philly to Freeway” tour was funded by the government’s counter-terrorism Prevent team. In light of Humza Arshad’s (Diary of a Bad Man) recent Prevent funded video “Think for Yourself”, many within the Muslim community are questioning whether the government has applied a new strategy by using young questionable Muslim “street” figures to counter extremism.

Both Penny Appeal and Mr South unequivocally rejected claims that the Freeway tour was funded or linked to Prevent. Ulfa Aid has not responded to any of the questions forwarded to them regarding the Freeway tour.

British Muslims are targeted under the government's anti-terror PREVENT strategy.
British Muslims are targeted under the government’s anti-terror PREVENT strategy.

However, Mr South admitted that he has previously taken Prevent funding for youth projects, and would regularly be contacted by counter-terrorism officers regarding speakers.

He also confirmed that he was in touch with a Muslim Prevent officer who used to attend events organised by Salam Project and offered him access to funding. Mr South won a Prevent community award in 2011.

According to Mr South, Penny Appeal and Ulfa Aid paid for Freeway’s flights, accommodation, transport, hall rental and fees.

However, Penny Appeal said they only sponsored the tour, paid Salam Project for fundraising rights and had no involvement in the logistics of the events.

The “Philly to Freeway” tour includes two more events in Bradford (Carlisle Business Centre) and University of Leeds (organised by Leeds ISOC).

The British Muslim Heritage Centre (BM HC) in Manchester has cancelled Saturday’s “Philly to Freeway” event.

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