Maurice White: Composer of the Soundtrack of my Youth

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?

Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?

Where Have All The Flowers Gone? (Composed by Pete Seeger)


One of the earliest memories I have of Earth, Wind & Fire was hearing its cover of Pete Seeger’s classic song on being conscious of your environment. The band released its cover of that song in 1972, many years before the environmentalist movement was at its height. Many of the group’s other songs — like Keep Your Head to the Sky, That’s The Way Of The World, Devotion and Evil — helped me navigate my adolescent and young adult years in Philadelphia.

The group’s spiritual message, the pride it displayed in the members’ African origins and the universality of its musical messages are in clear evidence in all its songs.

The group’s founder, Maurice White, who passed away February 4 in Los Angeles, was to me a modern-day Khalil Gibran: The message in his music transcends the limitations that man has placed on religion and teaches the importance of being your best self.

It’s a message not inconsistent with Islam. His music exhibits the essence of spirituality. Even the love songs highlight the spiritual essence of love, yet do not overly emphasize its physical aspect. I Think About Lovin’ You taught me how to look at love holistically and be relational. It emphasizes the importance of reciprocating the feelings of your loved one.

Think about lovin’ you, only you

I think about

The things that we must do

Hoping that love will give us

The strength to see it through

I Think About Loving You (Composed by Sherry Scott)

The music of Earth, Wind & Fire expresses an overall concern for mankind. I was born and raised in the housing projects of Chester Pennsylvania and came of age in the streets of West Philadelphia, and the music of White and his contemporaries spoke our language. It helped us cope with the loss of dynamic leaders and propagators of hope without lashing out in violence. When I used to go to Earth, Wind & Fire concerts at the old Spectrum arena in Philadelphia, one of the things that I would marvel at was the fact that there was rarely any gang-related violence whenever they performed.

We would leave the concert feeling as though we heard the most enlightened sermon, the music went directly to our soul.

Keep my head to the sky

For the clouds to tell me why.

— Keep Your Head to the Sky (Composed by Maurice White)

The music was particularly poignant in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the heroin epidemic. Young men feared going to war in a strange land to battle a strange man whom we did not feel obliged to fight or attack because he had not enslaved or oppressed us.

As cultural norms in African American society changed, so did the music.

One of the labels placed on the music of my teenage years was progressive soul. Groups like Earth, Wind & Fire helped to ease our transition into young adulthood. The music was progressive in nature with a political message, and a spiritual message tinged with the soulful sounds of the day.

Many of us were raised in the church and had an understanding of a higher power that transcended all things. However, we also witnessed a lot of hypocrisy and this alienated many of us from the church.

When groups like Earth, Wind & Fire came along with their spiritual message, there was a familiarity due to our experiences with gospel music, and a hipness that we could claim as our own.

We’ve come together on this special day

To sing our message loud and clear

Looking back we’ve touched on sorrowful days

Future pass, they disappear.

That’s the Way of the World (Composed by Maurice White, Charles Stepney and Verdine White)

Earth, Wind & Fire knew its congregation was worldwide, and its adherents would not necessarily go to a church, temple, mosque or synagogue, so it brought its spiritual message to the people. Spiritual lyrics, intricate jazzy instrumentations, fantastic showmanship and kindness permeated its entire persona.

John Coltrane once stated, “music has the power to change the thinking of a people.” The work of artists like White reflects this idea in many ways. I hope contemporary artists can internalize this concept and use their art to help better mankind.

The genius of White and Earth, Wind & Fire helped to write the soundtrack of my youth and put me on a path of spiritual knowledge that eventually led to me to Islam.

After hearing of White’s death, a friend shared with me his own experience with White and his band. My friend had been exposed to Islam while in prison. One of his first acts upon release was to go to an Earth, Wind & Fire concert. This was the power of the group’s music: It was not seen as entertainment, but enlightenment.

I know many Muslims frown on music (there are many opinions that music is forbidden), but for me — as a jazz announcer for almost 30 years and a person who was attracted to Islam through Muslim musicians such as Pharoah Sanders, Idris Muhammad, Doug Carn and many more — I take the position that the good of it is good and the bad of it is bad. Like White, these musicians felt a need to call people to their higher selves. Many use their craft to subtly expose others to Islam. I have even heard White’s lyrics used in Friday sermons as a means of making a point. His lyrics show that he was a student of religion, science and philosophy. He shared his quest for the meaning of life and our roles as guardians of creation. The music of Earth, Wind & Fire directs us to take introspective journeys to find a peace that is everlasting.

To my knowledge, White was not a Muslim. Still I have to thank him for composing the soundtrack of my youth and help lay a spiritual foundation that opened up my heart to Islam.

Thru devotion, blessed are the children

Praise the teacher, that brings true love to many

your devotion, opens all life’s treasures

and deliverance, from the fruits of evil.

So our mission, to bring a melody,

ringin’ voices sing sweet harmony

Devotion (Composed by Maurice White and Phillip Bailey)

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    Nadim Ali

    Imam Nadim Sulaiman Ali is the Imam of the Community Masjid of Atlanta, and the Co-Host of AM360’s Muslim Vibe.

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