Among the spooks, the spies, the special operators—not to mention among his fellow lawmakers, former rapper and congressman Andre Carson stands out.
“He’s the face of the franchise. Tall, handsome, smart, African American from a majority-[white] district, pushing to develop his skills at a lower level and rise,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a mentor to Carson.
Carson, who represents Indiana’s 7th congressional district, is one of the newest members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, a panel that provides oversight over the intelligence community. He sits on the subcommittees that investigate the CIA and emerging threats to the country, and he’s the second Muslim to be elected to the House, after Rep. Keith Ellison.
When he was first appointed to the panel this year, some of the nuttier corners of the Internet objected to the notion that a Muslim would be privy to national security information, prompting swift condemnation from the panel’s other Democrats.
“People who are making these statements—some of them know better,” Carson told The Daily Beast, in the first of two sit-down interviews. “Any true patriot that’s concerned about the safety of this country, and who heralds our legacy of being a melting pot, should know better than to demonize one group of people.”
It would not be a stretch to say that Carson is one of the most interesting members of Congress. The path that brought him to Capitol Hill is a unique one, and especially relevant with discussions about national security, police brutality, and the role of Muslims in American society dominating the political conversation.
“Parts of me present an opportunity … to speak about issues that concern me deeply: deep levels of racial discrimination, that are historical. Islamophobia. Police and prosecutorial misconduct,” he explained. Being an African American Muslim, he said, “creates a platform to speak about those issues.”
His interest in Islam was piqued in his teenage years. He was raised by his grandmother, the late congresswoman for the district he now represents in Indianapolis. Though he was raised Christian—and he himself attended Catholic school for seven years—his grandmother was “very universalist” and kept a Quran in the house, as well as different writings on Islam and other religions.
“For me, [Islam] spoke to me in a different kind of way. There was crime in my community, and I saw that Muslims were responding to crime in my community,” Carson told the Beast. “To see the sense of pride that Muslims had, the sense of protecting one’s community. And that drive was reinforced by the tenets of the faith.”
As a black teenager growing up in Indianapolis, he faced weekly harassment by law enforcement. At the age of 17, he was arrested, but never charged, for blocking a police officer from entering a mosque without probable cause.
But in later life, he became a cop himself, working as a state excise police officer before joining a Department of Homeland Security Fusion Center, where intelligence is shared between different agencies.
He’s been a city councilor and a cop, but what he’s apparently most proud of is his time as a rapper named “Juggernaut.”
“I had the microphone, man. I was an MC,” Carson said, using the old-school term for a rapper. “Back in my day, you couldn’t come to the cafeteria without being ready for warfare. You had to come with it.”
During his first congressional election run, his campaign manager Aranthan Jones told the Beast, he would go into clubs, get the DJ to stop playing music, and introduce himself to the crowd.
“Why not go to a DJ booth, when you’re used to being an MC, like myself?” Carson said.
In fact, he expounds on the golden age of hip-hop with the same literacy as he speaks about the NSA’s surveillance authorities. He wants the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to be closed, but for the adjoining naval base to remain open. And he felt compelled to fight injustice by the socially conscious rap of the early ’90s.
“I’m not traditional, man, you know?” he said. He is, at least, unusual for speaking with a genuine earnestness in a town where bullshit is king. Carson is laid back, conversational—“Socratic,” as he likes to put it. He wants to interview as much as he wants to be interviewed.
What do I think about a Muslim being on the House Intelligence Committee? He wants to know.
“Whenever you’re in political life, there are people who appreciate what you do, and there are people who are continually trying to impugn your motives,” Carson told the Beast. “I’m Muslim. There are misperceptions about Muslims. Maybe because I’m African-American, when you combine the two, this is what you get.”
Carson’s most vocal opponent is conservative talk show host Tony Katz, who hosts a top Indiana radio show and has called for the congressman’s resignation. Katz and others objected to a Muslim American conference that Carson spoke at in late 2014, alleging that an individual with terrorist ties attended the event and that the congressman should not have been in attendance.
“I question his intelligence for showing up to [the] event. I question whether someone like that should be attending the House Intelligence Committee,” Katz told The Daily Beast. The radio host stopped short of questioning the congressman’s patriotism, but said his attendance at the conference raises questions about the congressman’s “belief in law and justice” over the “vigilante violence” of terrorism.
The irony of questioning Carson’s personal commitment to justice is evident when one looks into his background as a law enforcement official. The congressman went undercover at Purdue University, going to classes to uncover illegality involving cigarettes, alcohol, gambling and prostitution. In various capacities, he collaborated with the FBI, the DEA and the Gary, Ind., police department on cases.
And through his work in the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence fusion centers, Carson worked on terrorism cases that involved combating Islamic extremism (though not undercover). Later, as a congressman, he served on the House subcommittee overseeing the U.S. Special Forces.
“There are terrorist attempts that are thwarted each and every day that you’ll never hear about in the news. And it’s largely because of the help of Muslims, who are working on these cases, who are providing information to law enforcement,” Carson said.
Unlike other members of Congress, Carson isn’t a too-slick charmer. He exudes an actual interest in what people have to say, and tries to relate the best he can to the conversation. Even conservative talk show host Katz called Carson kind and cordial in their sole interaction on the air. “He sent the station holiday cards,” Katz told the Beast (that is, before Katz called for Carson’s resignation).
For Carson, being Muslim is just one of the many things that make him who he is.
“Me being Muslim shouldn’t distract us from the greater issue at hand. Our Congress is supposed to reflect the diversity of our country. The Intel Committee should reflect that diversity as well,” he said.