December 3, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The Big American

By |2018-03-21T18:17:35+01:00September 1st, 2004|Lifestyle Archive|
Reeves’ mother was a secretary to assassinated civil rights leader Malcolm X.

alimah Muhammad Reeves is big. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds (1.96 meters, 102 kilos), he’d be big in the United States. But in Milan, with its lithe men and fashionably slim women, he’s a battle cruiser. Strolling down a street off Corso Buenos Aires, the city’s bustling commercial thoroughfare, a can of Coke all but lost in one hand and a plastic plate of lamb kebab in the other, the man known to friends and acquaintances only as “Muhammad” gets some stares.

There are two key things to know about Muhammad, who was raised in the rough South Bronx section of New York City and gradually made his mark in Italy as a dancer and model. First, he runs a successful hip-hop-driven clothing goods store known as Uptown (in front, there’s a big orange New York Transit Authority D-Train logo that reads Bronx to Harlem). Soccer stars visit. Milan kids drop in to hang out with Muhammad, whose laugh is spontaneous and disarming. Hats and jerseys with the distinctive emblems of U.S. sports franchises line the shelves. “There are four other hip-hop stores in Milan,” he says, “it’s all part of the globalization of American street culture.”

The other thing to know is that “Muhammad” Reeves is a Sufi Muslim.

Being a Muslim, he says, has more daunting implications than running a hip-hop store in north Italy. “[It’s] really hard. Especially for someone like me” — Muhammad is both black and American, a volatile combination in the post-September 11 world. “In Italy, I’m neither here nor there. The Muslim community here doesn’t trust me because they see me first and foremost as an American, even though I speak Arabic and have lived a lot of my life in Muslim countries. I hear the gossip in the mosque: ‘Oh, watch out for Muhammad, he’s with the CIA or the FBI,’ or whatever. And most Americans just look at me as a potential terrorist. It’s not fair. I love my country, and I’ll always be American, no matter how long I live abroad.”

To some extent, the Milan store helps Muhammad put his religious difficulties on the back burner. Uptown stocks American brand names like Fubu and Ecko, selling them to kids who often wear them to the local Hip Hop concerts he organizes. He’s on a first-name basis with neighborhood merchants, mixes his English and his Italian greetings with ease, and soon expects to expand Uptown’s two-floor space to a bigger one down the street.

In a country that handles race relations gingerly — the Northern League is no fan of multiculturalism and its members have made racist remarks — Muhammad’s success makes him a square peg in a round hole.

He opened Uptown four years ago. Its clientele ranges between 13 and 25 years old with a heavy percentage of immigrants from African nations. But he also has plenty of Italian browsers. “Italian kids love hip-hop. To them it’s just too cool.”

To Henry and Lucenia Reeves, Muhammad’s parents, Islam was beloved. Lucenia Reeves was a personal secretary to Malcolm X, the fiery Nation of Islam civil rights advocate who was shot to death in New York in 1962. They believed strongly in the importance of a good Muslim education, and sent their son to Sudan. Until age 18, Muhammad was taught exclusively in Sudan and Egypt, where he learned Arabic. “It’s something a lot of young American Muslims did. I would run into other kids doing what I was doing a lot. There just weren’t any good Muslim schools in the U.S.”

Muhammad returned home often. “At least two or three times a year. Sometimes to see family, sometimes for work.” His big work break, it turned out, was break-dancing — the inner city urban dance craze that took the United States by storm in the early 1980s. It began in the 1970s, when the South Bronx, swept by violence and arson, put its talent on display on the streets outside charred tenements. “I started dancing when I was ten, before anybody outside the Bronx even knew about it. But then break dancing started to get big, and kids who knew the moves were in demand. Work came pouring in.”

His Islamic schooling over, teenager Muhammad turned fulltime to music. He was a founding member of the Bronx-based break dancing group Rock Steady Crew, created in 1977 and considered a forerunner of modern Hip Hop. Later, some of its members, including Muhammad, bolted to form Magnificent Force. “We danced in movies like ‘Beat Street,’ ‘Wild Style’ and ‘Moscow on the Hudson,’” he says. Magnificent Force performed in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and on French television with Madonna.

But as his career took off, so did his size. Suddenly, he’d outgrown the dance floor. “I couldn’t do the moves anymore. All I could do was pop,” he says, smiling and extending his long arms for emphasis. Then came another opportunity. “I had a friend back in New York who was working as a fashion photographer. He thought I was photogenic, and suggested I give modeling a try. He took a few shots and things took off from there.”

The handsome and affable Muhammad soon discovered that his “big” look represented a hot commodity among fashion designers. “Before long I was working for Armani, Ferr8E, ValentinoC9 I did everything from simple photo shoots to runways.” It was modeling that brought Muhammad to Italy for good. “

His music industry contacts helped him broaden his Italian base. “When I wasn’t working as a model, I helped clubs bring U.S. acts over to Italy. I became a kind of unofficial liaison between American Hip Hop artists and big Italian dancehalls. It was simple to do. I just knew everybody.” He helped bring Germaine Dupree and Afrika Baambaataa, considered by some as the Godfather of Hip Hop, to Italy.

At home in the Hip Hop milieu of his youth, the idea of selling clothes came from people who continually asked him where he got his. “It was simple intuition, really. All my clothing was from New York, and I noticed that wherever I went people were always asking me where I got this shirt or those pants. Whenever I returned from the U.S. I had to lug back an extra suitcase filled with other people’s requests. All I did was put two and two together, and the answer was ‘there’s a market.’ That’s when I decided to open Uptown.”

A year later in a club he met Nadia. “She knew more about black American culture than I did,” said Muhammad, shaking his head. “That impressed me.” In August 2002, the American Muslim and the Italian national were married in Alexandria, Egypt. “It was a big risk. I organized the whole thing in advance without telling her. She thought it was just a vacation. Then when we were there I took her to see a traditional Muslim wedding. When it was over, she told me she really enjoyed the ceremony. I said ‘Good, because if you’re willing we’re supposed to go to another wedding this afternoon.’ When she asked me who was getting married, I said ‘Me and you.’ I’d never seen her so happy.”

Muhammad had arranged for Sheik Gamel Sanhuri, a Sufi Muslim cleric he’d met as a teenager, to perform the ceremony. “That was really important for me. When I was studying in Egypt, he became like a father to me. Having him perform the ceremony had special meaning.” Last year, the couple had their first child, which they named Malcolm. “He’s amazing. Everything else just pales in comparison.”

Though Muhammad’s business life centers on Uptown and Milan, he still finds time to get home. “I love going back,” he says. “That’s home for me. My family is spread out all over the globe, but every Thanksgiving we all get together in the South Bronx. It’s like a reunion.”

About the Author:

Aaron Maines is a freelance writer, editor and translator based in Milan. He has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, including the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times and The Guardian. He wrote "Foodbox," the magazine's gourmet column, from September 2006 through December 2007.