Conrad Muhammad: Hey, good brother, what's happening? What's going on, man?
Man on 125th St.: I'm alright, how you doin'?
CM: It's good to see you. How's your family doing? They good? How's Tony?
M125: He's great.
CM: You know I'm running for Congress, right?
CM: Did you hear about it?
M125: You wanna be a politician?
CM: I think it's time that a good strong brother gets into the process, you dig?
M125: It's all good.
CM: Now, you know me, I haven't changed.
M125: Don't get in there and sell out.
CM: I won't do that. I'll be the same man I've always been. And you know it. And I'm coming in smokin', just like that.
M125: Don't sell out, man, don't sell out. The devil is busy.
CM: If I sell out, you come and get me.
M125: I'm comin' to get you, yo.
Conrad Muhammad is the fastest walker in Harlem. The late-afternoon sidewalks are sweltering, but he's wearing a suit and tie, keeping a rush-hour pace. Everyone else is doing that unhurried summer shuffle, or else they're stationary, under trees in folding chairs. The former Nation of Islam minister greets them all?heartily, many by name. When someone replies with more than a greeting, he turns on his heel without breaking stride to face him. The new perspective might yield a view of someone else he wants to approach, in which case: zip. It's like trying to follow a bumblebee.
"This community needs someone with young legs, who can walk up and down the streets of this district and provide leadership to the people," is the first thing he tells me. He says he walks the streets of Harlem every day. I find out later that by "every day" he actually means every day he's not down in Baltimore?where he was until recently director of outreach for a church?or up in Mount Vernon, where he's employed as administrator of a $3 million grant for city youth programs. There was also some time at Harvard. He did a lot of walking and greeting as part of his old job, though. Today, the focus is on what he'd like to be his next?U.S. congressman from the 15th District?and it's clear enough that he's no carpetbagger.
He has a youthful face to go with his young legs. He's a natural speaker, with skills sharpened by a decade of preaching and a mini-career in radio, and he's not a bad listener, either. People in Harlem know who he is. To some, no doubt, he's just that fast-walking guy with the suit, but Muhammad wouldn't have conducted an interview while working Harlem's streets if the routine didn't make him appear widely respected. It does. The question is, Is he serious? His generational peer across the Hudson, Cory Booker, held political office and enjoyed outside as well as grassroots support, yet he failed to wrest power from Newark's Mayor Sharpe James. Conrad Muhammad may be down with the regular folks, and they might be tired of the old dandy in office, but a demonstration of that is not necessarily as impressive as a campaign plan, some experienced strategists and a volunteer team might have been. Those are not things he has to show, today at least.
Muhammad's most intense period of communication with the people of Harlem was plenty serious. He was a successor to Malcolm X, heading the Nation of Islam's mosque No. 7. Many people still address him as Minister, even though he doffed his bowtie five years ago. A phantom association with the Nation may be a boon to the candidate's popularity along Malcolm X Blvd., but it's also likely to be the main obstacle between Muhammad and his goal. That's because the easiest way to acquire funding to oppose Democrat Charles Rangel, who's held the House of Representatives' 15th District seat since 1970, would be as a Republican. And the local G.O.P. is cool on Conrad. The party has said the problem is that he's a registered Democrat. Muhammad doesn't buy it.
"My whole career has been talking about self-sufficiency, the African-American people taking their own destiny into their hands," he says. He points out that he's a free-marketer, that his message is strong on traditional values and that the local G.O.P. regularly endorses candidates far to the left of him. His post-N.O.I. work as "The Hiphop Minister" was undisguised conservative activism. Furthermore, he adds, the Republicans put Rangel on their line in several of his 16 successful races. Calling the issue of his party affiliation "a smokescreen, a red herring," he says he and the Republican leadership "shouldn't even be arguing over this. We should be focused on getting the seat."
Conrad Muhammad: Hey, brother, how are you? You know I'm running for Congress?
Jamaican Man on Lenox Ave.: Yes I do. I heard it.
CM: I need your help.
JM: You Democrat or Republican?
CM: Ah, I'm running as a Republican.
JM: That's not going to work.
CM: Listen to me: I am a Democrat, but I may have to run as a Republican.
JM: It's not going to work.
CM: Remember Bloomberg was a Democrat all his life. He had to run as a Republican because the system?
JM: You don't want anything to do with that.
CM: You don't like the brother.
JM: Nah, I really don't.
CM: I have not liked him in the past, but sometimes?you see, we got too many people in one club. We got to be in both parties.
JM: They not gon' change, boss.
CM Let me ask you a question: Are you a betting man at all?
CM: Do you bet?are you a betting man?
CM: You ever go to the racetrack?
JM: Oh yes.
CM: When you go to the racetrack, how many?do you bet on one horse, or do you spread your money around?
JM: Sometimes three, because sometimes I play the trifecta.
CM: That's what I'm saying. In politics you gotta do the same thing. You can't have all Democrats. You gotta have some Democrats and some Republicans.
JM: You have to look at the constituency, you know what I'm saying? These people are not gon' change that easily. You have to come up with something real good for them to do that. I'm telling you. Get with the hiphop crowd and the old folks and stay right in the middle.
CM: I know what you're saying.
JM: And you will do it, trust me.
CM: And I can count on your vote?
JM: [Makes face indicating that he's not ready to vote Republican]
CM: [Laughing] Okay, okay.
Muhammad is 37, divorced, the father of three. His children reside primarily with their mother in Bethesda, MD, though Conrad shares custody. Despite his comfort in Harlem, his speaking voice is obviously that of a non-native New Yorker. He grew up in St. Louis and Washington, DC, middle-class and Christian. He came to politics and black nationalism simultaneously, while an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, working on Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign. "I became discouraged and almost bitter against the political process, because I felt that he was disrespected," he recalls, then adds, "but that was in my immaturity."
That same year, his 19th, Muhammad joined the Nation of Islam. "I had a lot of faith in the Nation, pretty much because of the message of self-reliance, family values, hard work, discipline and clean living," he says. Though Muhammad doesn't speak of it, his rise to the top of the local N.O.I. hierarchy suggests that in his 20s he was extremely effective at communicating the Nation's message?which, Nation detractors are quick to point out, has included anti-Jewish and anti-American rhetoric. He was 32 when he and the Nation parted ways.
"I just became frustrated with the direction of the movement," he says. "I believe that as African-Americans we can be critical of this country, but we have to embrace our American-ness, and we have to embrace the process. I've really grown to believe that we have the best political system in the world. I've grown to appreciate democracy. And I think the Nation is challenged to embrace those ideas. You may not like the way things are, but you have a right to say it, and in a lot of countries you don't."
One of the stops on Muhammad's greeting tour is Harlem Underground, a custom hat and t-shirt store off 125th St. Outside, we run into Carl Redding, proprietor and chef of the soul-food restaurant Amy Ruth's. Muhammad introduces us, and I ask Redding if he's ever voted Republican. He replies that he has, three times in fact?for Reagan, Pataki and Bloomberg. Muhammad is engaged in another conversation at the moment, so I follow Redding into Harlem Underground, and Muhammad soon enters as well, teasing me about "diving for the air conditioning."
The candidate, who had been more than an hour late for our interview, neglected to mention that it would be conducted while he worked the streets. Redding's suggestion that Muhammad purchase an embroidered "Conrad for Congress" cap at Harlem Underground is what allows an uninterrupted question-and-answer session to take place. While the hat is being embroidered, he's stuck. If keeping a reporter moving shows solid political instincts, Muhammad's performance when literally cornered in Harlem Underground indicated acumen extending still further beyond his ability to connect with a crowd. Which is to say, he was amiably evasive, saying things like, "I absolutely support the concept of gun control."
Here's the distilled version of Conrad Muhammad on the issues: He's for the war and "very supportive" of President Bush's handling of it so far. But he's "concerned" about Ashcroft "overreaching" on civil liberties. He's also with the President on welfare, particularly his approach to "talking about the importance of marriage with regard to welfare." He's against discrimination based on sexual orientation, but would vote "no" on a civil unions bill. He's pro-life except in cases of rape, incest or life-of-the-mother-at-stake. And he believes that the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. All of these he frames in terms of values. He says he wants a society ethical enough that abortions are rare and citizens feel safe without guns.
In summary, Muhammad gives a statement that wouldn't sound off-key at a Republican National Convention: "I'm a religious man. I think values are important. I've worked in the community a long time. And I know that no amount of government money can change this community if we don't have a strong family value." The only hitch is he refuses to indicate from which religion he's currently drawing his values. "We got 'em all here, and I intend to serve all constituencies," he demurs. "I'm a man of faith, and we'll leave it at that."
The New York Sun reported in its July 5-7 issue that Muhammad plans to convert back to Christianity. According to the Sun's Errol Louis, on a Sunday near the end of June, Muhammad stood alongside Rev. Calvin Butts at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church and told the assembled that "at some point in the future" he will retake his birth name, Conrad Tillard.
New York Post columnist Robert A. George is someone who thinks Muhammad could, with Republican Party support, unseat Rangel. In a scathing June 3 editorial (headlined "The Grand Old Stupid Party?"), he chided Assemblyman John Ravitz, Manhattan Republican Party chairman, for giving Muhammad the brush-off. George quoted Ravitz saying that the former minister should start on the path to G.O.P. acceptance by campaigning in Harlem for Gov. Pataki's reelection.
Muhammad tells me he'd be happy to do just that. "I've endorsed him," he says. "More has happened in this community under George Pataki and Secretary of State Randy Daniels than had happened for a long time." Also, he adds, "I think [Pataki] has done a good deal to help repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which hurt a lot of African-American young people. Young people's lives have been thrown away, and Cuomo didn't do anything about it."
A more likely scenario involves Muhammad devoting the summer of 2002 to campaigning for himself. That's the case even though the local G.O.P.?even before George's Post editorial saw print?endorsed Independence Party candidate Jessie Fields for Congress from the 15th. (Fields might be as unlikely a Republican endorsee as Muhammad, or Rangel for that matter. She's a Harlem doctor who runs single-issue campaigns about healthcare.) Only hours before our interview, Assemblyman Ravitz rescheduled a meeting with Muhammad that had been planned for the following day. The candidate said he was taking steps to enact Plan B: challenging Rangel in the Democratic primary instead. That would be a David-vs.-Goliath struggle, to say the least?fighting within a party against its 32-year incumbent?but, regardless, his Democratic petition drive is already under way. His only hope to get on the Republican line is to convince Ravitz and the other G.O.P. leaders to make a second endorsement and force a G.O.P. primary against Fields.
Assemblyman Ravitz says that's not going to happen. Reached via telephone, he said a primary would "defeat the purpose" of the Fields endorsement, and that "?our number-one goal should be to support one candidate against an entrenched incumbent like Congressman Rangel." He refuted the notion that Fields is less likely than Muhammad to win, calling it "a self-fulfilling prophecy." Then he lauded the Independence Party candidate and her fellow endorsees in a way that rather pointedly echoed Muhammad's portrayal of himself. "What I'm doing," said Ravitz, "is finding candidates to run for assembly, for the state Senate and for Congress in Harlem, who really have a community resume, that aren't just people who we decided, Hey, it'd be a great idea for you to run for office. These are people who have invested their life, their time and energy into so many different parts of their community that they want to take things to the next level and run for office."
Ravitz said there are reasons why the G.O.P. is wary of Muhammad, and none of them are secret. Directing me to the Anti-Defamation League's website for specifics, he says, "Conrad knows about the problems with some of the things that he's said in the past? I believe he's going to have to address and deal with [them]. I think that all of us who are in public life have to be held accountable for our words, and there are a lot of things that Conrad still needs to work with?people who are still feeling very hurt about some of those comments." It's possible that some of those people have Conrad Muhammad confused with the late Khalid Muhammad, however. A 1996 ADL press release quotes Conrad Muhammad calling Jews "bloodsuckers" and Christianity "a dirty religion," but his search hits don't compare to those of the controversy-seeking Khalid, who was fired from his N.O.I. leadership job in 1994 and picked a fight with NYPD cops at the Million Youth March four years later.
Whether as Conrad Muhammad (R) or as Conrad Tillard (D), or vice versa, he plans to go for it. He believes that enough of Harlem wants to send him to Washington.
Muhammad says the energy and creativity of his campaign will resonate with the hiphop generation, with which he has a lot of experience. After he left the Nation, Muhammad founded A Movement for C.H.H.A.N.G.E. ("Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment") and started calling himself "The Hiphop Minister." He decried the mid-90s flood of lyrics portraying black communities as nests of degeneracy, and publicly shamed the businessmen who grew from rich to richer off them. That earned Muhammad the ire of Def Jam's founding executive, Russell Simmons, but no artists went on record lashing out at him. Some of them, perhaps, really were shamed.
Today, Muhammad characterizes C.H.H.A.N.G.E.'s "Campaign for Dignity" as more of an esthetics campaign than a political one. "I think my challenge to [rappers] was a critical challenge," he says. "We used to talk about white men in Hollywood that put out images of people in our community as pimps and prostitutes. Now I'm trying to show these young people: Now you are in the position that you control the imagery and you have to be sensitive to that. You are in power now?what are you going to do with it?? You can't say you love the 'hood, and see the kids in the 'hood listening to your music and going to jail or dying, and not feel some responsibility."
He says he achieved the authority to preach to hiphop artists by being there when they needed him. Men who grew up in communities where the Nation was a stable presence generally perceive it to be righteous, and when he was a minister Muhammad mediated between warring rap factions more than once. He settled a dispute between A Tribe Called Quest and Wrecks-N-Effect with one meeting. He also intervened in the East-West coastal feud?less successfully, sadly. "I saw Puffy shed tears up here when Suge Knight was coming down on him," he recalls. Muhammad says he didn't feel a need to speak up when artists with underworld experience started rapping about it, but "I knew that some of the guys who were doing it were not from a criminal background? I've seen these men offstage, and said to them, 'I know you. You may project a certain image, but this is your brother saying to you it's gone too far?stop it.'"
It's difficult to think of another link, besides the Nation of Islam and its offshoots, between conservative ethics and rap's gangsta subculture. An inner-city Republican who brings to the table the N.O.I.'s success at instilling a sense of responsibility in antisocial young men without the organization's negative baggage would seem, at least on paper, to be a strong candidate. After all, the hiphop generation is bound to elect someone somewhere, eventually. Theoretically, Muhammad's youth angle could give the G.O.P. an edge on issues that are of perennial concern to black New Yorkers, such as education and crime. The Republicans already win on taxes and the war. How close is the reality of Conrad Muhammad to this idealized ghetto-G.O.P. candidate? Maybe it makes more sense to ask how close the G.O.P. has ever gotten to Conrad Muhammad.
After our mano-a-mano session, still in Harlem Underground, Muhammad rejoins Carl Redding, the Reagan-supporting restaurateur. He tells me Redding used to work with Rev. Al Sharpton. We discuss national politics, and Redding, by way of explaining how the Clinton years changed his view of the Republican Party for the worse, recounts a run-in with the current president. "Bush came to Harlem and I took a picture with him. They were courting me to work on his campaign?handling the African-American clergy. This was in January . I thought hard about it. They offered me six figures. I couldn't do it," he says.
"Now," offers Muhammad, "as George W. Bush and Gov. Pataki are talking about inclusion, it's time for a paradigm shift to take place." He says that Democratic candidates receiving up to and beyond 90 percent of the African-American vote is not in African-American people's interest. To Muhammad, it's realistic to aim for a 70-30 split. He explains, "It's not about why we should vote for Republicans. The question is, Why shouldn't we place ourselves in that party and leverage our influence in both parties? Fifty-fifty is not realistic. But 70-30 is, I think, a winning formula for the African-American community. Because it makes our 70 percent in the Democratic Party a stronger 70 percent, [because] the fact of 30 percent of us leaving and going to the Republican Party would make Democrats work harder for the numbers they do have, and that critical 30 percent in the Republican Party would let them know that we're a force they have to reckon with."
As for the rabid anti-Republicanism of supposedly nonpartisan African-American leaders, Muhammad says, "It's immoral in a sense, because our leaders have betrayed us. Our political leaders have, essentially, a vested interest in delivering black bodies to the Democratic Party. Almost like a slave trade. And, so, what it has done is, it has not allowed our community to engage in the free market of politics. If there's only one drycleaners on 125th St., chances are you're going to get bad service [there]. It's a captive market?you don't have anywhere else to go. But let two or three drycleaners open up. Competition is good in business, it's also good in politics."
Conrad Muhammad: How are you ladies today?
Ladies One and Two outside of Pentecostal Church: Fine.
CM: Did you know I'm running for Congress?
L1 and L2: [Smile and nod]
CM: I sure could use your help. I'm running against a great man but he's just been there too long. I think it's time for him to let a young man go forward, don't you think so?
Adam Heimlich: What do you think of Charlie Rangel?
L1: He's a wonderful man.
L2: He's a wonderful person. He's done an extensive job. And continues to do an extensive job. However, as you say, for a young man to put forth his efforts?
CM: I told this gentleman right here?in this community we respect our elders. I would never disrespect Congressman Rangel.
L2: Oh no, never.
CM: You don't disrespect a bridge?
L2: ?that brought you over.
CM: That's what my grandmother taught me. But it's time for a new generation of leadership to step forward.
Leaving Harlem Underground, Conrad Muhammad leads me to the Harlem U.S.A. retail complex, which opened two years ago and is the keystone of Upper Manhattan's participation in the federal "empowerment zone" revitalization plan. We stand across 125th St. from the Disney Store, the HMV record store and the Magic Johnson movie theater, while Muhammad points out another record store, Record Shack, on the next block east of the shopping center.
"That's a business that's been in this community for 30 years," says Muhammad of Record Shack. "A small business, and of course Republicans support small businesses, right? Why would an empowerment zone not give moneys to that store owner, who's been here through good times and bad, and then open up an HMV a few doors down, to drive this man out of business? What kind of community development and leadership is that? It couldn't possibly have been thought through! There's no clearer metaphor for why I'm running than this right here. This man has committed 30 years to this community."
The man Muhammad refers to is Record Shack owner Sikhulu Shange. He and his store have an interesting history. They were the linchpin of the 1995 controversy that got out of control and ended with the massacre at Freddie's Fashion Mart. It started when Record Shack faced eviction, and ended when a man presumed to be a former street vendor who'd been forced out by revitalization efforts (a development that Shange, reportedly, had supported) entered Freddie's with a gun and a bottle of lighter fluid and committed mass murder.
Muhammad doesn't mention the incident. Instead, he asks me to interview Shange. The deep-voiced man makes an eloquent complaint about the local government's failure to involve him in the changes on 125th St. He seems to be against the empowerment zone as a matter of anticorporate principle, but allows that "Even if they brought these companies into the community, they should have empowered us to compete."
The encounter with Shange rings a little contradictory, coming so closely on the heels of Muhammad's allegory about competition in drycleaning. Similarly, some hot air is let out of his grand statement about the limitations of what government money can do for the African-American community when he tells a young mother that he supports reparations for slavery. On Rangel, too, Muhammad's efforts to be the word on the street made flesh have him occasionally spinning in two directions at once.
Walking past the 125th St. building that houses Bill Clinton's office, Muhammad tells me that rent on the buildings across the street doubled or tripled the day the former president moved in. He said, "And Rangel invited him in! Now what kind of leadership is that? You've got to have a view of what the economic consequences are. It got the Congressman good media, but it really wasn't a good thing for the district. At the end of the day, that's exploitation. I believe in the free market, but the political leadership shouldn't speed up the process of people being dispossessed, people being priced out. That's not leadership."
In Newark earlier this year, four-term incumbent Sharpe James portrayed Cory Booker as an infiltrator, representing interests antithetical to those of the city's working poor. The Mayor seemed to have some success at making this characterization stick, even though at the time of the election Booker resided in a Newark housing project, as he did throughout his term as city councilman. The tactics Democratic incumbents tend to use in tight contests against upstarts (Jesse Jackson, for whom Booker volunteered in '88, stopped by Newark to call the challenger "a wolf in sheep's clothing") is something Muhammad has been paying attention to. "They brought in all kinds of Democratic leaders," he says of James' campaign. "But even with all they said about [Booker], he still got almost 50 percent of the vote. So what that says to me is that the people are ready for a change. The leadership, obviously, isn't, because they have a vested interest," he says.
"But they can't say that about me in Harlem," Muhammad continues. "Because this is where I cut my teeth. They saw me out here. I'd like to see Congressman Rangel say that I'm an outsider."
And what if he plays dirtier than that, and uses Muhammad's N.O.I. background to paint a media portrait of him as a hatemongering, anti-American radical?
"He's not a bad guy," Muhammad replies. "But I think his style of leadership has served its purpose, and the district needs new energy.
For Muhammad to challenge Rangel and not expect the Congressman to play hardball smacks of naivete. If he doesn't drag you into the mud, I suggest, it means you're not a threat.
"No," counters Muhammad, "I think what it means is he knows he couldn't get away with it, politically, in this community. If he did that, I'd go straight to Washington on a first-class ticket. The people in this district will not let the media tell them who their leaders should be. And if he tries to paint me as a negative character, people will rally to my side."
Conrad Muhammad: How you doing?, how's it going? Is it your brother that shoots for the Amsterdam News?
Man 1 at Vendor's Table: Nah nah, you're talking about [name deleted].
CM: You look just like him! That's not your brother?
M1: Nah, that's not my brother. We're good friends.
CM: Well how you doin'?
M1: I'm fine.
CM: Good to see you. You know I'm running, right?
Man 2 at Vendor's Table: You running against Charlie? You gonna bang Charlie in the head?
CM: Don't you think?
M2: Man, Charlie been rolling too long. Too long.
Man 3 at Vendor's Table: Sipping on too many cocktails. Sold out the empowerment zone! C'mon.
CM [to reporter]: You see? The only things I'm telling you are what the people are saying to me. I have never met this man. And he just told you exactly what I was just?
M3: Well, you know Charlie's experienced. You better be ready!
Adam Heimlich: Are you ready to pull that "Republican" lever to get this man in and Charlie out?
M3: Well, he gotta walk the walk, and then he gotta go straight up with Charlie. I want to see some verbal uppercuts, left-crosses and all that.
M1: The Republicans endorse him every time, anyway.
CM [to reporter]: What did I just tell you? See, don't ask me why I'm running as a Republican. He ran as a Republican for 30 years!
M2: That's right. And he kicks people off the ballot.
M3: Which you gon' learn real well!
CM: Believe me, we're ready for it.
Conrad Muhammad got into Harvard to pursue two master's degrees?one at the School of Divinity, and another at the Kennedy School, in public administration. It was in a class for the latter that he read Bernard Crick's In Defense of Politics, which argues that the democratic process, disappointing as it tends to be, represents the most pragmatic alternative to government by force. Muhammad says Crick's book helped him complete his break with the Nation of Islam's opinion of what it means to work within the American system. Crick's utilitarian perspective seems to have also influenced his somewhat unorthodox view of the Republican Party.
He's currently on hiatus from both Harvard programs. When he applied, he says, Rangel wrote him a recommendation. "A very strong letter," says Muhammad. Another connection between the Congressman and his challenger-to-be, according to Muhammad, is that Rangel is a major shareholder in WBLS, the radio station that broadcast the Hiphop Minister's hour-long Sunday Night Live community-issues program for five years, ending in February.
When I called the Congressman's office to get a quote about the brewing race, his assistant put me straight through to him. But Rangel said little of Conrad Muhammad beyond, "I don't know him." After some prodding, he allowed, "When he was with the mosque I saw him around, but since he left, I haven't," and "I helped him try to get a job once, but that was by telephone." The Congressman concluded our awkward call by saying, "There's no indication that he's going to run against me or anyone else. So it would be premature for me to make any comments about non-candidates."
I relayed the conversation to Muhammad, who was shocked.
"Are you serious?" he asked. "It's somewhat baffling? If he doesn't know me he's not doing his job in the district. But he does know me, and he's being dishonest with the voters. It's insincere and disingenuous. The community of Harlem will not buy that. It's the wrong approach to a race that the district wants to see.
"This is Harlem," Muhammad concluded, "and we let the chips fall where they may."