There is nothing typical about Jorge Pabon. He may be a hip-hop D.J. and dancer from the mean streets of Spanish Harlem, but he keeps the lyrics clean and women dancers at arm’s length.
As a teenager he emerged on the scene as PopMaster Fabel. But today he prefers to be called Shukriy, “the thankful one” — the name he took 20 years ago when he converted to Islam.
Now he is part of an “Islam and Hip-Hop” movement in the United States that is reaching out to Muslim young people via the hip-hop beat.
At a recent “Islam and Hip-Hop” concert in Harlem, young men in wide trousers and women in head scarves made waves in the air, trying to simulate Shukriy’s robotic movements. They did not touch each other unless they were a married couple.
Shukriy, 43, has come under fire from conservative Muslims who accuse him of sinning by dancing on stage with women or acting as D.J. for a mixed audience. Some argue that even listening to music is a taboo in Islam.
He dismisses such critics as the “haram police,” using the Arabic word for sin or taboo.
“I think it is absurd that some of the ultra-orthodox Muslims don’t see the chance of using hip-hop to extend the religion,” he said. “Hip-hop is the voice of the youth.”
He added: “I think, if you don’t like to see these things, then don’t come to the show. Allah will judge me.”
Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Intercity Muslim Action Network, a nonprofit community organization in Chicago, said hip-hop of the kind practiced by Shukriy was becoming a global phenomenon among young Muslims, despite the critics.
“Hip-hop has become a space where young Muslims can express themselves and not feel like an alien, but feel respected,” said Mr. Nashashibi, who has taught courses on hip-hop and Islam at the University of Chicago. People like Shukriy “are the reason Muslims have been so respected within hip-hop.”
He added: “He was part of the hip-hop movement from the beginning. He is a very proud Muslim and a proud Puerto Rican.”
Shukriy turned to Islam after a career odyssey that took him from street corners around Times Square, where he danced for coins as a youth, to dazzling cities around the world as a professional dancer and hip-hop choreographer.
His résumé includes prizes like the Bessie Award for choreography in 1991 and the VH1 Hip Hop Honors in 2004. But with fame, he experienced misfortune.
“One day you walk on the Champs-Élysées,” he mused, “and the next day you find yourself on 123rd Street in Spanish Harlem with junkies.”
He said he has faced discrimination in his career, both because of his Puerto Rican background and as a Muslim.
Still, he said, “I am thankful for lots of things, but especially that Allah has showed me the right way for my life — and therefore my name is Shukriy.”
But at first his name was Jorge. He was born into a Catholic family in Spanish Harlem. His father left when he was 4 years old and his mother worked three jobs to support the family.
Like most Puerto Rican families then, they were quite religious. He went to Catholic school and to church every Sunday. But music and dance were also part of the culture, especially salsa.
“My twin brother, our two older sisters and I listened to music day and night, and we would all dance together,” he said. “It is in our blood, you know.”
As a teenager he lost the family’s passion for religion but not for music. “I started to hang out with other people from Spanish Harlem — it was a gang environment,” he said. They danced on the streets, tried new moves and had small competitions.
Then in 1980, he and a couple of his friends choose the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway as their stage. Large groups would gather to watch them perform. “Then some club owners came and asked us to dance in their places for money. And this was the start.”
He danced in the 1984 movie “Beat Street,” now a hip-hop classic. That led him to the stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington. In 1986 he was the first American hip-hop dancer to perform in Cuba. “The career developed so fast that I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
With other hip-hop dancers, he performed around the United States and in Berlin and Paris. But in the late 1980s, the film and music industries lost interest in hip-hop. The international assignments stopped and he fell into a depression. “From 1988 until 1989 I worked in galleries and a bicycle shop,” he said. He drank a lot, fought and nearly lost his bearings.
Two friends, also dancers, warned him that he risked throwing his life away. They started telling him about Islam, but he was not interested in religion. Still, when one of them gave him the Koran, Shukriy promised to read it.
“My plan was to prove them wrong, but actually the words touched my heart,” he said. Within a couple of days he became a Muslim. It was 1989.
When his family learned that he had converted, their reaction was “not good,” he said. His oldest sister broke off contact with him. His mother “thought I had stopped believing in God,” he said, until he bought her a Koran in Spanish and she read it.
He started to question many of the things he had done in his life. He stopped drinking alcohol and eating pork. But though he altered his behavior, he never changed his look: a long ponytail and a trimmed beard.
His focus today is teaching as an adjunct professor at New York University and in the Muslim community.
“I like to teach kids of all faiths as a tool for self-empowerment, cultural consciousness and an emotional and physical outlet,” he said. Lots of younger Muslims are fed up with politics and were especially troubled by the Israeli assault on Gaza. He sees dancing as a way for them to express their frustration.
He still performs at concerts and festivals, some of which he organizes with his wife, Aziza, who also converted to Islam.
“There are different ways of making a move in a dance,” he said. “And sometimes it is the same with religion. People have different interpretations and different ways to call people to Islam. I chose music.”