By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In a move that may deal a severe blow to Louis Farrakhan's image among young blacks preparing for the controversial Million Youth March in Harlem, Conrad Muhammad, the "hip hop minister" once considered an heir to Farrakhan, has resigned from the Nation of Islam, the Voice has learned.
Conrad, 33, who also was regarded as Farrakhan's emissary to feared street gangs like the Bloods and Crips, has formed a group called A Movement for Change, which, a source said, will focus on "conscious hip hop activism necessary for the political and social empowerment" of black youth.
"He could no longer work within the strictures set by the Nation of Islam," the source declared. "He has resigned from the leadership, but will remain a Muslim. He believes in Allah."
Conrad was the minister of Harlem's historic Mosque No. 7 -- once headed by Malcolm X -- until Farrakhan removed him in 1997 following accusations that he spent too much time settling grievances among gangstas and rappers rather than trying to quell political infighting in his own mosque. But sources told the Voice that the circumstances surrounding Conrad's stormy tenure and eventual dismissal from the prestigious post go deeper than his alleged failed politics. Money has a lot to do with it.
"Local ministers are constantly under tremendous pressure to pay their own bills and at the same time satisfy Chicago's [NOI headquarter's] insatiable appetite for money," the source claimed.
Conrad's departure comes in the wake of efforts by Farrakhan to mount a challenge to the Million Youth March, scheduled for September 5 in Harlem. The march was called by Khallid Abdul Muhammad, his former national assistant and spokesman, whom he publicly rebuked and then fired four years ago for making a racist and anti-Semitic speech. Farrakhan is backing the rival Million Youth Movement, which is staging a rally in Atlanta on the same day. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has claimed that the Harlem event is "a hate march," and City Hall has refused to issue a permit for it. March organizers vow to defy the ban, setting the stage for a possible bloodbath, which Farrakhan predicted would occur if Khallid played into the hands of the notoriously brutal New York Police Department.
Worried that cops would touch off a wild melee at the rally, Conrad intervened in the dispute last week, hosting a well-attended town meeting in Harlem. Some at the rally, however, noticed a bolder and more worldly Conrad. The former minister rebuffed persistent Voice requests for an interview.
On February 26, 1997, Abdul Sharrieff Muhammad, supreme captain of the Nation of Islam, swooped down on Mosque No. 7 and charged Conrad's secretary, Jean Muhammad, with the unauthorized "spending of Saviour's Day money." Sharrieff alleged that Jean had used $15,000 in monthly "taxes" earmarked for the Nation's national treasury to pay the mosque's debts. "He paid the bills to keep the lights and gas on," the source said. Each of the Nation's 91 mosques is responsible for its own financial survival and collection of taxes, which go into Chicago's coffers.
In the years from 1991 to 1997, during which Conrad has been the chief minister at the mosque, he reportedly dumped more than $2 million into the treasury. "The mosque was a $300,000-to-$500,000-a-year operation," the source said. "Some years it gets up to $800,000, $900,000 in total revenues." The money is generated through competitive sales of The Final Call, the NOI's newspaper, and other fundraising activities.
"He sent a whole lot of money to Chicago and they bust him for $15,000?" the source added. Like many NOI ministers who work hard but receive little pay, Conrad "never made over $300 a week." He lived in the black middle-class suburb of Mount Vernon in a three-bedroom house owned by the Nation of Islam. Conrad and his wife, who is a doctor, have three small children. They paid $1200 monthly rent.
As head minister, Conrad bore final responsibility for the mosque's affairs; he and his entire command, including Jean Muhammad and Captain Dennis Muhammad, were removed, or as they say in the Nation, "sat down." According to the source, Conrad was "devastated" but remained loyal to Farrakhan. Then, about a month after he was fired, he was told by Chicago that he had to vacate the home he had lived in for four years. Unbowed, Conrad set off for the University of Pennsylvania to complete requirements for his bachelor's degree in Afro-American Studies. "During the whole ordeal he was disoriented," a friend told the Voice. "The removal. The false charges. Six months of people accusing him."
In September, at a rally at Friendship Baptist Church in Brooklyn, Farrakhan officially cleared Conrad of the charges. "There was never a charge of theft or misappropriation," the source said. At the rally, Farrakhan praised the disenchanted Conrad, saying he would one day take the Nation to its next level of development.
"Farrakhan dismissed all rumors that would cast doubts on the character of his minister," according to a report in the Amsterdam News by Yusuf Salaam. The reporter quoted Farrakhan as saying, "Minister Conrad is innocent of all the rumors, false charges and lies that have been spread about him."