The Rev. Conrad Tillard is both a charismatic religious leader and a man on a quest. As one of the central figures in the New York City branch of the Nation of Islam, in the 1990s he took the name Conrad Muhammad. He later broke with the leaders of the Nation of Islam and returned to his birth name and his Christian roots. Along the way, he plunged into the controversies that swirled around hip-hop music and its sometimes violent messages, became one of the early proponents of using hip-hop to organize young people politically, studied at the Harvard Divinity School, and tried to break into politics himself, flirting with the Republican Party in the process. Throughout his varied career, Tillard demonstrated a distinctive intelligence and curiosity even in the midst of activist controversies.
Conrad Tillard was born on September 15, 1964, in St. Louis, Missouri. From an early age he realized that the date of his birth fell exactly a year after the deaths of four young girls in the white terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he was marked as a child by the horror of that event. Tillard's father was a jazz musician who divorced his mother Jackie and remained only sporadically involved in his son's life—and not at all after Tillard became involved with the Nation of Islam. Tillard's family later moved to Washington, D.C., and he was skilled enough academically to win admission to competitive Middlebury College in Vermont.
Worked on Jackson Campaign
Tillard lasted only a semester at that geographically isolated school. "My skin is dark brown, and Middlebury is a very white campus, and I found that I was uncomfortable with my darkness," he told Esquire. "I would go for a long time without looking in the mirror, and when I finally did look, I thought, 'Oh, man, that does not look right.'" Tillard transferred to the equally rigorous University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and there he flourished. Fellow students remembered his leadership skills, and in 1984 he signed on to work for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign.
After encountering the Nation of Islam at a summer rally in Washington, D.C., that same year, Tillard joined the sect and changed his name first to Conrad X and then to Conrad Muhammad. He was disillusioned by the failure of Jackson's campaign and entranced by the rhetoric of the controversial New York Nation of Islam minister Khalid Muhammad. It wasn't long before the intelligent, well-educated young convert came to the attention of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. In 1988, the year Conrad Muhammad won admission to the prestigious Georgetown Law School, Farrakhan asked him to embark on a career in the ministry instead. Muhammad, newly married to a fellow Penn student and future doctor, agreed.
Muhammad rose quickly in the Nation of Islam hierarchy, and by 1991 he had become minister of the Nation's Mosque No. 7 in New York's Harlem neighborhood. His ascent was so rapid that some began to tout him as an eventual successor to Farrakhan, especially since the mosque had launched the careers of both Minister Farrakhan and Malcolm X himself. In his first years as minister, Muhammad revitalized Mosque No. 7, started a school there, and increased the contributions the congregation made to the Nation of Islam's central headquarters in Chicago. He ran into controversy when he called a Brooklyn state legislator a "snotty-nosed Jewish politician" during a radio interview that centered on a disputed housing project policing contract that had been withdrawn from a Nation-affiliated security force. In general, though, his rhetoric was milder than that of the confrontational Khalid Muhammad.
Organized "Day of Atonement" after Shakur Killing
Part of Conrad Muhammad's success came from his ability to expand the Nation's reach beyond the walls of the mosque and into the culture of young African-American New Yorkers. He plunged into the feuds that surrounded hip-hop music, organizing what he called (as quoted in the New York Post ) a "day of atonement" after the 1996 murder of rapper Tupac Shakur. Muhammad was often critical of hip-hop's violent themes, even after he left the Nation, and he entered into something of a feud of his own when hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons urged New Yorkers not to attend a 2001 meeting Muhammad organized to discuss ways of toning down hip-hop's incendiary qualities.
This clash, of course, raised Muhammad's profile still higher. Despite their religious differences, Muhammad closely studied the headline-grabbing ways of New York's activist Rev. Al Sharpton, who became a presidential candidate in 2004. At the same time, Muhammad cultivated his intellectually curious side, enrolling in the master's program at Harvard University's Divinity School.
In February of 1997, Muhammad's world came crashing down: he was summoned to Mosque No. 7 and stripped of his ministry, according to an order delivered by one of Farrakhan's lieutenants. Allegations of financial improprieties were raised against the notably frugal Muhammad, but the Nation's tendency toward internecine feuding may also have played a role. "I am a minister without a ministry," Muhammad told Esquire after his removal. "I have learned some hard lessons. I am out of the only job I was ever prepared for.… I am broke—bankrupt, in fact. My wife has informed me that we cannot eat press clippings. My marriage is in trouble. I cannot afford my Harvard tuition."
Hosted Talk Show
Muhammad's marriage soon ended in divorce, but he remained close to his wife and three children. Though his position in the Nation of Islam was gone, he retained a strong following in Harlem. For a time he explored the possibility of converting to orthodox Islam, as Malcolm X had done at the end of his life. He hosted a talk show on radio station WBLS, founded a group called the Movement for CHHANGE (Conscious Hip-Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), and began to bill himself as the hip-hop minister. In 2000, Muhammad suggested the formation of a slate of political candidates drawn from the hip-hop community.
At a Glance …
Born Conrad Tillard on September 15, 1964, in St. Louis, MO; married Michele, 1988 (divorced); children: Amir, Najmah Muhammad, Conrad Muhammad II. Education: Attended Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT; University of Pennsylvania, bachelor's degree; attended Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA. Religion: Baptist; formerly Nation of Islam.
Career: Jesse Jackson for President campaign, campaign worker, 1984; became Nation of Islam minister, 1988; Nation of Islam Mosque No. 7, New York, minister, 1991-97; radio station WBLS, talk show host; Eliot Church of Roxbury, MA, interim pastor, 2004–.
Memberships: Movement for CHHANGE (Conscious Hip-Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), founder.
Addresses: Office —Eliot Church of Roxbury, 56 Dale Street, Roxbury, MA 02119.
All the while, Muhammad was spiritually restless. He spent time in Brooklyn and then in Baltimore, Maryland, where he attended an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church. In 2002 he announced his intention to challenge Harlem's entrenched Democratic congressional representative, Charles Rangel. Offering a platform based on strong adherence to traditional morality, Muhammad proclaimed his support for President George W. Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq and hoped to run as a Republican. Although he garnered support from the conservative New York Post, Muhammad was rebuffed by Republicans leery of his past controversial statements and his personal Democratic voter registration. He then attempted to gather signatures to challenge Rangel in the 2002 Democratic primary, but that effort failed.
Finally, he began to question whether he was really drawn to the tenets of Islam or simply to the Nation's message of black empowerment. By 2003 Muhammad had returned to the name Conrad Tillard and converted back to Christianity. Something of a mentor was the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of Harlem's famed Abyssianian Baptist Church. Tillard began giving sermons at Christian churches in Harlem and considered the idea of becoming a pastor. Tillard refused to criticize his former Nation of Islam associates, and he found that Harlem audiences were sympathetic to his spiritual searches. "I have departed from the notion of judging people exclusively by their race.… I have grown and seen a lot," Tillard told the New York Times. "A number of my views have changed." Though just entering middle age, Tillard is a charismatic leader and thinker whose most influential days might well lie ahead of him. Perhaps the first step in the next stage of his career came when he was named interim pastor of the Eliot Church of Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, June 16, 2000, p. 87.
Esquire, November 1998, p. 118.
New York Post, May 8, 2001, p. 55; June 3, 2002, p. 27.
New York Times, March 5, 1994, sec. 1, p. 8; September 22, 1996, sec. 1, p. 42; August 5, 2002, p. B4; August 17, 2002, p. B4; June 16, 2003, p. B1.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), September 23, 1996, p. 3.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), July 4, 2003, Metro section, p. 1.
Heimlich, Adam, "A Great Race in Harlem: Will 'Hiphop Minister' Conrad Muhammad Go from N.O.I. to G.O.P?," New York Press, www.nypress.com/15/29/news&columns/feature.cfm (August 2, 2004).
—James M. Manheim