Former 'Hip-Hop Minister' Continues Evolution With City Council Run
BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — In the 1980s and 1990s, New Yorkers knew Conrad Muhammad as a young, up-and-coming member of the Nation of Islam, and a minister at Harlem's famous Mosque No. 7, where he was said to be the heir apparent to Louis Farrakhan.
Fast forward to 2013, and Conrad Muhammad is known by his birth name, Conrad Tillard. He's left the Nation, and ditched the company of world-famous rappers for a wife and five children in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Now Tillard — who became a Christian minister and left the public eye close to 15 years ago — hopes to continue that evolution, as one of five candidates vying to replace term-limited Al Vann in the 36th Council District.
"It's fascinating now, when I look back on it," Tillard said. "I was so precocious."
A Bed-Stuy resident for almost 10 years, Tillard is the head pastor at Nazarene Congregational Church. In a recent sit-down interview with DNAinfo.com New York, Tillard laid out a series of policy initiatives that he said were crucial to improving life in central Brooklyn.
That improvement starts with education, where Tillard said he would work to end mayoral control of schools and over-reliance on standardized testing.
"There are millions of young people in the New York City school system sentenced to learning by the numbers," Tillard said.
Tillard also said he would fight to end the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk practice rather than reform what he called an ineffective policy.
Acknowledging the shifting demographics of central Brooklyn, with young, white students and professionals being priced out of neighborhoods like Williamsburg and moving into Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, Tillard said he would fight to protect long-term homeowners in the area, as well as work to provide middle-class housing by incentivizing affordable housing development.
At the same time, Tillard said it was important to welcome new residents, whose presence he said could help bring a burgeoning new manufacturing economy to the area that exists in other parts of Brooklyn. Ideally, he said, the plan would be to create a bustling thoroughfare of small businesses.
"Change is coming to Bedford-Stuyvesant [and] we've got to manage that change," Tillard said. "To put our heads in the sand and pretend Bedford-Stuyvesant is the same it was 10 years ago, that's not intelligent."
In this way, Tillard's views on politics can be traced back to Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential run, and the civil rights leader's Rainbow Coalition, which sought to bring together voters from different backgrounds.
Tillard started out as a politically-curious student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked as a student coordinator. At the time, Tillard was also working to garner support for Jackson in Philadelphia, and toward the end of the campaign, worked in Jackson's national headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was there that he heard the reverend's concession speech.
"I was really spent after that," Tillard said. "In the context of an 18-year-old, 19-year-old college student, I felt that racism played a deep role into his not getting consideration, and it deeply affected me."
A few weeks later, he heard another man speak who would influence his life. Louis Farrakhan, speaking on the birthday of the late Marcus Garvey, was the the other prominent black voice in America at the time, and touched that part of Tillard that felt cheated in the election.
He joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Conrad Muhammad. There, he focused on what he saw as the Nation's mission of self-reliance and empowerment in the black community.
"It was just an exciting time," Tillard said of his decision. "I was deeply committed to the empowerment of my people."
Tillard served as the Nation's national youth minister, and moved to New York, where, at 25, he was put in charge of the legendary Mosque No. 7, where Malcolm X preached before him.
There, in the midst of the crack era, Tillard worked with young people in black neighborhoods across the city, worked with gang members and ex-convicts and acted as a mediator and mentor to young members of the hip-hop community.
The "Hip-Hop Minister," as he was dubbed at the time, often mediated rap feuds, including one beef between two local factions representing the groups A Tribe Called Quest and Wreckx-n-Effect, that Tillard said threatened to turn Harlem into a "war zone."
Throughout his years in the Nation, Tillard was a high-profile voice for black youth in the city and the country. He also often found himself reciting some of the more controversial and racially charged rhetoric of the Nation at the time. The pressure of the position ultimately became too much.
"Heady times," Tillard said. "You had the generational challenge, you had the inner Nation politics inside the organization, and it was tough."
In 1997, Tillard left the Nation of Islam and attended Harvard Divinity School. Reports from that time alleged that Tillard was ousted from the Nation after disagreements with Farrakhan, and that physical threats were made against him by Nation officials.
(Tillard has never confirmed these claims, though on a recent episode of Inside City Hall he acknowledged the speculation, while also describing his relationship with members of the Nation as "cordial.")
While at Harvard, Tillard said he underwent a "powerful conversion experience."
"I just one night became overwhelmed by the presence of God and Christ," Tillard said. "I encountered Christ in a very personal way."
In 2003, he moved back to Boston, and finally, in 2005, settled in Bed-Stuy.
After arriving, Tillard started to become active in the community, joining the board of Boys & Girls High School, and working on the community advisory board of Bedford Academy. He has hosted television and radio shows, and says he has largely moved on from his younger days as the "Hip-Hop Minister."
Now, Tillard hopes to continue his own evolution, while also helping central Brooklyn evolve into a post-Al Vann era.
"In the absence of an important figure like Al Vann, the tendency can be for a community to flounder," Tillard said. "You need to replace leadership and gravitas with leadership and gravitas."