Louis Farrakhan: The music man

Louis Farrakhan

As we noted last week, Louis Farrakhan, the longtime head of the Nation of Islam and one of the most notorious white-haters and anti-Semites in America during the last few decades, began his career as a calypso musician. He quit music on orders from Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed, but decades later he returned to it, reportedly after being encouraged to do so by yet another one of his high-placed and apparently shame-free friends – Sylvia Olden Lee, a vocal coach who was the first African-American employee of the Metropolitan Opera and who performed at the White House for the first inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Farrakan gave the first performance in his newly resumed career as part of a three-day Winston-Salem, North Carolina, event devoted to black musicians and classical music. It was reviewed in the New York Times on April 9, 1993, by Bernard Holland, who wrote:

He plays the violin.

Can Louis Farrakhan play the violin? God bless us, he can. He makes a lot of mistakes, not surprising for a man who had virtually abandoned the instrument for 40 years and has only owned one since 1974. Yet Mr. Farrakhan’s sound is that of the authentic player. It is wide, deep and full of the energy that makes the violin gleam. His thrusting sense of phrase has musical power to it….

“God bless us”? Holy cow.

That was only the beginning. In February 2002, in Cerritos, California, Farrakhan gave a violin recital entitled “A Night of Beethoven.” The years went by. Every now and then, when he wasn’t busy delivering venomous sermons or hanging out with the likes of Barack Obama and Keith Ellison, Farrakhan would return to the musical stage, apparently to the great enjoyment of many, who either shared his vile views or who were somehow willing to overlook them.

Snoop Dogg

Now his career as a performing artist has reached a new chapter. On March 15, both Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward reported that he’d just dropped a new seven-CD set. Artists like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Barbra Streisand have had big hits with albums of duets on which they perform with other big-name stars. Farrakhan’s new release, Let’s Change the World, follows the same formula. Among the entertainers who appear with him on the set, which sells for $260 and “features 45 songs in a variety of genres, including classical, gospel, jazz, folk, opera, rap, reggae and calypso,” are Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, Chaka Khan, Rick Ross, Damian Marley, Stephanie Mills, and Common. Snoop Dogg, as it happens, is not only a musical collaborator of Farrakhan’s but a sometime member of the Nation of Islam, which he joined in 2009.

Well, as they say, music is the universal language. It transcends place and time and culture. And, sometimes, simple moral decency.

Farrakhan: from “Calypso Gene” to Saddam crony

Louis Farrakhan

We’ve devoted a lot of our attention on this website to famous Western entertainers – from Hilary Swank and Sharon Stone to Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn – who’ve performed for various Asian or African dictators in exchange for hefty paychecks. Pretty sleazy stuff, of course, especially given that the entertainers in question were hardly strapped for cash. No, it’s called selling out. 

There are, of course, other ways for celebrities to sell out.

An album of Farrakhan’s calypso cuts

Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1933, Louis Eugene Walcott began his career as a calypso singer and violinist, using the stage names “The Charmer” and “Calypso Gene.” But apparently music wasn’t doing it for him. He needed more. In 1955 he attended a Nation of Islam event at a mosque in Chicago. It changed his life. Not long after, he joined the Nation of Islam and became Louis X, the use of “X” in place of a last name being a Nation of Islam practice based on the premise that black Americans’ last names were slave names and that their original African names were unknown. Later, Elijah Muhammed, the Nation of Islam leader, gave Louis the Arabic last name of Farrakhan, which means “The Criterion.”

Malcolm X (left) and Louis Farrakhan (right) at a Harlem rally

It was not long before Farrakhan was named a minister, serving first as the assistant to Malcolm X in Boston, then becoming head minister there. But Farrakhan proved himself to be a more loyal member of the cult than even Malcolm X. When the famous activist, who for most white Americans was the very face of the Nation of Islam, called out the cult’s leader, Elijah Muhammed, for sexually abusing teenage girls, Farrakhan publicly defended Elijah Muhammed to the hilt and declared Malcolm X to be “worthy of death.” A few weeks later, Malcolm X was murdered by three men with links to the Nation of Islam.

Warith Al-Deen Mohammed

After Elijah Muhammed died, Farrakhan served as a Sunni imam under the late leader’s son, Warith Al-Deen Mohammed,who gave him the name Abdul-Haleem. Leaving Mohammed’s movement in 1978, Farrakhan established a new Nation of Islam. At its head, he routinely made headlines by calling caucasians “white devils,” calling Jews “bloodsuckers” and Judaism “a gutter religion,” and calling Hitler “very great.” Speaking of the Jews in a 1985 speech at Madison Square Garden, Farrakhan exclaimed: “Don’t you forget, when it’s God who puts you in the ovens, it’s forever!” Repeatedly, Farrkahan proclaimed that God had decreed the death of America, which he described as the most evil nation in human history. He pinned 9/11 on “the Jews.”

Farrakhan with Qaddafi

He was friendly with Muammar Qaddafi, who donated a billion dollars to Farrakhan’s political work, and who, speaking at a Nation of Islam convention in Chicago, said that he hoped to fund a black revolution in America. Farrakhan, for his part, called Qaddafi his “friend” and “brother.” He also befriended the leaders of Iran, Iraq, and other countries listed by the U.S. as state sponsors of terrorism.

He exchanged letters of support with Saddam Hussein, whom he praised as a “visionary.” Years later, he met with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A pretty appalling record. And yet it hasn’t kept a number of high-profile showbiz  figures from gladly collaborating with him. More on Thursday.