Exclusive Interview with Naeem Muhammad

This month our content team sat down with Naeem Muhammad, IRUSA Engagement Manager and member of the Islamic music group Native Deen, for an exclusive interview. Enjoy!

Tell us about when you first joined Islamic Relief USA.

I was working at a tech firm at the time and had just seen [current IRUSA President] Anwar Khan after finishing a Native Deen concert in benefit of Islamic Relief in Grand Rapids, MI. And I kinda told him, “I could do what you do.”

I had already been an IR volunteer since they started in the US in 1993, and I had survived four rounds of layoffs at my current job and was looking for something else to do. When I was in high school and college, I was really interested in working with IR, but someone talked me out of it.

Four months later, Anwar asked me if I was serious, and I said yeah, I love Islamic Relief. So I started in summer of 2002. He hired me almost in Public Affairs capacity to attend different meetings in D.C. Slowly that changed into me working in a fundraising capacity…and the rest is history.

Where was your first field visit, and what was it like?

It was Bam, Iran, after an earthquake in the winter of December 2003. I was at a convention and Anwar called me and told me, “There’s an earthquake. Start fundraising. And you might be going.”

Three weeks later, I had my bags packed and was headed to the city of Bam. But it was a bit daunting because I was on my own on that trip and didn’t speak Farsi. I was told to just make my way to the city by asking for a ride from other aid groups. And when I initially I got there and talked to them, they said, “We said send relief items, not relief workers.” But people there petitioned and saw that I came all the way from America. They said, “He came to help us, he’s Muslim.” And then they said they would get me to Bam.

I was there working in an established IDP [internally displaced persons] camp – an established one and I also helped to establish a new one. The brother who was running it had to leave to go home. I was scheduled to leave too, but he said if I leave, the project will collapse. I told him I would only stay if it would be beneficial–and he said it would be very beneficial.

So he gave me a long list of things to do. I was ready to impress him with the progress update the next day, but when we went to the site, the workers weren’t there. We couldn’t find them for two days, and ended setting up tents on our own. The following day a sandstorm came and they all collapsed. It was a reminder that we plan, and Allah plans. But by the end of the trip, they were installing electricity and establishing a road, alhamdulillah. Still, it was a great reminder that it’s not just about me – it’s Allah’s plan.

Explain to us what you currently do for Islamic Relief USA?

My title is Engagement Manager—my team focuses on creating engaging social media content on Facebook and Instagram. We also focus on the younger demographic of future Islamic Relief supporters, and current donors/volunteers who are millennials and young professionals.

We also oversee charity challenges, where we go to worldwide locations to do some kind of physical challenge, like trekking, bike riding, or canyoning in order to raise funds for water projects in Africa. And finally, [on the engagement team] we also connect with influencers who can further our mission through their networks and spheres of influence.

How would you describe the evolution of yourself as an artist from when you first started in Native Deen, to today?

Performing, singing, and rapping was something I did as early as Islamic school. I’ve always had a passion for it. Even in college I was in a rap group. It’s always been something I’ve done. And being an activist and working with community was always important to me as well – growing up my mom always had us listen to lectures by important leaders in civil rights and African American history, and I had a feeling like I wanted to be like these people making a difference in their community. And I found that I could do that through ND and IR as well.

And just growing, because we’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve really come to an understanding of some of the likes and dislikes of the Muslim community when it comes to the arts. We’ve been able to really adapt to that change, where some artists may feel like they don’t want the audience to dictate what they do; our feel was always that we wanted to craft the message in a way that they accepted. So we could change up our style and instruments and still be true what we’re doing. I’ve also learned how to write better than when I first started, AbdulMalik used to tell me the rap album is almost done, if you don’t come to the studio you won’t make it …to doing my own solo album. That’s growth.

Do you have any advice for young artists just starting out?

The main thing is that you have to keep working on your craft. And it can’t just be about when there’s an audience or whatever. If it’s something that you love, you’ll know it, because you’ll be doing it even when no one’s watching and no one’s there.

It shouldn’t just be about show. So I would say keep working on it regardless of that. And then, take as many opportunities as you have to be on stage. Especially smaller ones—that’s where you learn what works and doesn’t work—so you can build up to bigger stages.

And now there’s such a lack of established talent, people will give a kid that’s singing in his mom’s kitchen a stage at a huge convention. But [in reality] you need to earn and learn that stage by performing at camp, at school, etc. You need to pay those dues. And we need people that have original content. We need people to keep writing more and more stories. We need more because you can’t just keep inviting Native Deen and Deen Squad to every show.

What project/fund at Islamic Relief USA is most inspiring to you?

One of the most recent things I worked on with IR when I worked in Programs was expansion of the IMAN clinic in the southside of Chicago. This was a major expansion they were doing to help to become an FQHC center – it was a major investment of IR: expanding behavioral health, dental, and general medicine facilities. It’s huge; it’s something that would carry them for many years to come, and inshallah will lead them to have one of the first, serious Muslim hospitals.

For the last year, in our first year of that program, they got FQHC look-alike status, which is just one step away from.

And I’ve worked with IMAN on other projects as well, and through IR we’ve brought a lot of benefit to them. And that work is in a place where there is a desperate need for support – some of the highest rates of gun violence in the country. Green re-entry and collaboration with Iman is some of the work I’m most proud of and was most involved in.

After that, refugee resettlement project in NC. I was involved with the development of it. The key person was brother Wasif and sister Jihan. Weekly I would sit with them and their cases and we’d decide how we could help families. And I would always be pushing, because I didn’t want us to just give rental assistance. I wanted them to tell me how we could set goals for those families to put them on the trajectory of self-sufficiency. [I’d say,] “What’s the plan? Tell me the plan. What plan do you have for them?” And they would dig deep and come back with stuff, and what they came back with was transformative in nature…and it ultimately changed lives.

One beneficiary was wheelchair-bound because of torture that happened to him while in Syria. They were working with him on his English to get him a job. What kind? Months and months later, he was one of the people that returned to work with us a volunteer and in fact now works at Jaguar stadium in North Carolina. And when he called to tell us the good news, I asked him who they were playing that weekend, and it was the Ravens. That’s my team!