Escape from the Nation of Islam
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."
Farrakhan said Conrad would be pursuing a double masters in theology and public administration at Harvard and that he would get him a scholarship to Al-Azhar University in Egypt.
In October, Conrad had showed up in Boston, where Farrakhan was speaking. It was there, the source said, that Farrakhan humiliated Conrad by asking that he follow him to New York to participate in the installation of Benjamin F. Muhammad as the NOI's new eastern regional minister and Farrakhan's New York representative overseeing Mosque No. 7. Benjamin is the former Ben Chavis, who was fired as executive director of the NAACP in 1994 after using $332,400 of the organization's money to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit.
At a rally in November to announce a shakeup in the NOI's leadership, Farrakhan announced that Conrad would assume the post of national youth minister. Friends say Conrad felt insulted. Despite the high-flown title, it was a low-level position -- a slight grade above the post of national student representative that Conrad had held before he was appointed minister at Mosque No 7. "He never really left that job," the source says. "He earned the title of hip hop minister because he had been dealing with the nation's black youth."
In the ensuing months, Chicago reportedly shunned Conrad. Farrakhan did not return his calls. "It became clear that the Nation didn't want to have anything more to do with Brother Conrad," the source said. "People had moved on Brother Conrad, shaping Minister Farrakhan's view of him. They decided they were not going to let him rise. They were going to hold him back. That's what it boils down to. Conrad Muhammad is a victim of his own success."
After 10 months of Benjamin Muhammad's leadership, Mosque No. 7 continues to founder. The Nation still does not own the building on West 127th Street, and the mosque is still heavily in debt. Conrad's administration, according to a source knowledgeable about the deal with the Masonic lodge that owns the property, "was slow in completing the process of purchasing it." The Masons are asking for $350,000, and officials at the mosque are about $40,000 short of paying off on the initial down payment of $120,000. (Minister Benjamin did not return Voice phone calls.)
Conrad's supporters at the mosque leap to his defense. "There was only 40 grand remaining when he left," one maintained. "Brother Conrad led us from a loft on Fifth Avenue and 125th Street to a new building, completed most of the payment, and at the same time was a major contributor to Chicago." Another supporter was more open about Chicago's treatment of Conrad, claiming that for three years, while Conrad was trying to close on the mosque, the "hip hop minister" showed up at Saviour's Day celebrations to promote other massive fundraising drives launched by Farrakhan.
"They put pressure on us to help them," the supporter says. "In the middle of trying to raise a Saviour's Day gift for Minister Farrakhan, we were expected to give the biggest amount." One of the saddest chapters in the mosque's history is the closing of Muhammad University of Islam, the Muslim school Conrad started during the campaign.
Conrad Muhammad represented the lone star beside the crescent moon -- the Muslim symbol that stands for justice, freedom, and equality, as well as Islam. Even as a militant student leader at Wellesley College in Connecticut during the 1980s, the former Conrad Tillard seemed to have it all.
"I remember we went to Connecticut with Minister Farrakhan some years ago, and there was a young brother there . . . who told me about a brother named Conrad, who was kickin', slam-butt, up there at Wellesley College," Eric Muhammad, executive director of the Black African Holocaust Council, recalled in a 1994 speech. "And they wanted to expel him... because of his anti-Semitic -- his pro-black stand. He supported Brother Jackson's Rainbow Coalition -- a whole litany of stuff."
Conrad studied under men like Khallid Muhammad. "Brother Khallid is... one of my teachers," he would later acknowledge. "He was one of the first brothers to teach me into the knowledge of Islam. I was one of those students right by Brother Khallid's side... because I saw in him... a man that loves black people."
Eric remembers that he and Conrad toured the nation's college campuses together. Conrad, delivering fiery speeches in his bootlegged Farrakhan accent, recruited young black radicals who saw no future at their "institutions of lower learning." In 1985, the team helped organize Farrakhan's controversial appearance at Madison Square Garden. Conrad then went to the University of Pennsylvania, but left shortly after and joined Temple No. 7, where he became national student representative.
In 1990, Farrakhan passed over Conrad and appointed Khallid as minister of Mosque No. 7. Both Conrad and Kevin Muhammad, who was the interim minister, had campaigned for the post.
"This is not a demotion for Brother Kevin, and it is not a demotion for Brother Conrad," Farrakhan said as he introduced the new leader. "It gives to them a more mature, experienced guide to speed up their development."
In 1991, when Khallid was promoted to national assistant to Farrakhan, Conrad replaced him as head of Mosque No. 7. Finally in the seat he'd long coveted, Conrad reached out to Harlem's black elected officials, who admired the always-polite NOI official dressed in the dark suit, crisp white shirt, and signature bow tie. When Conrad persuaded two Harlem Democrats to support an NOI fundraiser, it laid the groundwork for the formation of black political empowerment groups such as the influential African-American Leadership Conference.
After Khallid was shot in an assassination attempt in May 1994, the Voice broke the story that a year and a half previously, he had accused Conrad and other ministers in the mosque of setting him up to be killed. At an August fundraiser for Khallid at Friendship Baptist Church, two days after the Voice story appeared, Conrad vehemently denied he was involved in a plot and professed his love for Khallid. But his public stand failed to impress Conrad's old friend, Eric Muhammad, who attacked Conrad about a month later at a rally at the Slave Theatre in Brooklyn.
"If you remember, at Friendship Baptist Church there was a pledge made by Minister Conrad," Eric claimed. "He pledged $500 to support Brother Khallid. It was a beautiful show of unity... because you were stung by what you saw, what you read in the Village Voice. The point is that the pledge was made but it was never delivered."
At the time, Conrad was under suspension for alleged insubordination. In his remarks at the Slave Theatre, Eric alluded to this. "Ask them what happened to Minister Conrad," he urged the audience. "How come he's been removed from the city? How come there's a petition orchestrated to ask Minister Farrakhan not to allow him to resume the post? If there is no discord... where is Minister Conrad?... You better think. Better think."
Upon his return, Conrad's leadership style continued to infuriate his critics in the mosque. It is NOI tradition for the captains and lieutenants to attempt to wrest control of the mosque from the minister. The Harvard-educated lawyer H. Nasif Mahmoud, who became a member of the Nation in the 1970s, was confronted by "these jealous paper captains and these lieutenants trying to get some kind of position in the temple to have some kind of social stature." In the book American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X, Mahmoud writes of "these goons who came down from Boston" and promised to teach the Muslim who "spoke correct English" a lesson after their attempt to psychologically abuse him failed.
"I said, 'Bring a dozen of you motherfuckers when you come -- because I ain't got that much time!'" Mahmoud writes. "'I got civil procedure and property and contracts and international trade to study! So I'm going to whop all your motherfucking asses in one swoop to get rid of you! Now, keep fucking with me, hear!'"
"After Malcolm left Temple No. 7, the captains were determined not to have any minister become as strong as he was," according to Alfred Muhammad, a former minister in the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad. "In New York, we had Captain Joseph, who never wanted to let Farrakhan take over the leadership of Temple No. 7: He tried to get Farrakhan busted and Farrakhan tried to get him busted. There were always power struggles going on. Ministers come and go, but captains always remain."
When Farrakhan reshuffled his government last winter, Captain Dennis Muhammad, who frequently opposed Conrad, also was removed but was reassigned to Farrakhan's personal security detail. Muhammad Abdul Aziz, who spent 19 years behind bars for killing Malcolm X, was appointed captain earlier this year to help run the mosque. If indeed ministers come and go, the "hip hop minister" is back -- on the streets.
Research: W. Michelle Beckles and Vicki Shiah
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.