The enfant terrible of Arab music is without a doubt Arab hip hop. Enfant (child) is the appropriate term as Arab hip hop is still in its infancy stage, but it does count as one of the fastest growing genres in Arab music. Over the last year, the Arab hip hop community has evolved through a combination of technology, the internet and globalisation. The recent revolutions also play a role. The first beats were created in the mid 90s of the last century in the North African immigrant communities in France. French hip hop quickly became the mouth-piece for the discontented with bands such as Saïan Supa Crew and IAM. Not long after, comparable voices began to appear in Palestine, like DAM (DaArabMCs). Arab hip hop was quickly condemned to an underground status due to uninterested record labels and the strict censorship of autorities.
But by spreading their music online more and more Arab rap artists established a name for themselves. With the coming of MTV Arabia and western music channels, the genre experienced a breakthrough both locally and internationally. Hip hop has always been a music style to denounce society. Arab hip hop is no different in that respect. It is even called the music of the struggle. Many Arab states with tight government control made it extremely difficult for musicians to express themselves. This week only the Moroccan rapper El Haqed (Mouad Belghouat) went on a hunger strike in prison where he is serving a one year sentence for his music video Dogs Of The State, that insults the notorious and corrupt Moroccan police force.
al.arte.magazine spoke with the Canadian Iraqi MC Yassin Alsalman, AKA The Narcicyst, one of the passionate artists in the scene. He was in Belgium for a show in the Berchem (Antwerp) Cultural Centre that was organised by ‘Nuff Said, a monthly cultural concept.
According to The Narcicyst the reason for the present leading role of Arab hip hop is its independent character. “Hip hop is the art form par excellence that has a nearly free of charge scenario. It is accessible and uncensored. Nobody writes it down for you, you write it yourself.”
Hiphop is a way to spread social and cultural expression worldwide to people who do not want to listen to traditional musical genres, and to bring people together. During the Arab Spring, too, many MCs raised their voices to spread the revolutionary ideas faster. Arab hip hop strongly addresses the desire for dignity, human rights and a better future. “Because of the Arab Spring the media developed an interest in hip hop, but it had always been there. It is only shown on TV more often now.” Hip hop is close to Arab culture since it is based on poetry, and Arabs love poetry.
In contrast with mainstream rappers who talk about women and money, The Narcicyst raps about consciousness and important issues. With his master in media studies from Concordia University the rapper adds a critical perspective to the genre. His themes are revolution, religion, race and identity. Expressed in tracks like PHATWA (a study of the post-9/11 security apparatus), January 25 (a solidarity song to support the Egyptian revolution) and Fly Over Egypt (a homage to the Egyptian people and the struggle on the anniversary of their uprising).
With roots in Basra, Iraq, he grew up between Dubai and Montreal. His story as a young Arab and Muslim in a western country is easily recognisable by many. “When I was younger, I did not think about it. It was only when growing up that being Arab became an issue. Moving to the west ironically enough made us only more Arab. When people would attack us, we would dig into our heritage.”
Initially his music was extremely politically oriented. Later, he evolved to more personal subjects. “As I grew older, I accepted certain political situations. I decided to stop making music that pointed to causes, and focused more on how to solve the problem. We can’t change the world’s political system, but as artists we can influence it with our music. I moved to a more personal Yassin approach. It felt more real, more pure. Instead of saying: ‘Damn this country for bombing my country, I tell about a bomb that killed a mother who is the same age as your mother. How does that feel? It is rather the humanising of political topics, that’s what I am focusing on.”
He mainly sings in English and has an English stage name. “I talk about being an Arab, I look like an Arab, it is visible. But when I want to present myself in the public sphere I want to come across as an individual. Above all I’m a man, a human being, a believer. Arabic is a part of me. If I would use MC Ahmed or MC Jamal as a stage name I would not reach as many people.” That is why he chose his stage name deliberately. “The Narcicyst is offensive, in a way. Directed against the ego in society, every rapper of course has a big ego. We are all pretty individual-minded. Music is not about me, but my perspective on something.”
Alsalman is an artist with many talents. Apart from being a rapper, he is also a public speaker and a journalist. In this capacity he wrote, together with a number of artists, the book Diatribies of a Dying Tribe on Arab identity and hip op, and, among others, he wrote a piece for CNN about the aftermath of the war in Iraq. It all hurt his family and everybody else much more deeply than people think. “People are still traumatised, people are still suffering. A war is for life.”
Together with his wife Sundus Abdul Hadi, a painter and multimedia artist herself, he founded The Medium, a multimedia company. “Our mission is to promote Arab artists of all disciplines, primarily musicians, in the international arena, in the sphere of multimedia.” Through that label he will shortly release two albums. The first project is an album in English containing six tracks, Leap Of Faith, which he says is the most personal collection with themes like friendship, faith and Larry David (the co-creator of Seinfeld and the creator of the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, set up as a serial documentary on himself). “Larry David is a narcissist throughout the whole series. The episode in which a woman keeps saying LOL (Laughing Out Loud), but does not laugh. It is about those awkward moments between people.” The second is an album in Arabic that will be released coming December, a cooperation project with various artists for charity. “In this way we raise funds for an organisation that supports young children in Basra suffering from birth defects caused by the war.”
Picture an Arab man
Yassin Alsalman is also one of the faces of the series of portraits Picture An Arab Man. It is a part of a large oeuvre in which Arab men with differing backgrounds are recorded in all their purity, that was started by his sister-in-law Tamara Abdul Hadi in 2009.
The project aims at breaking through the image of Arab men we got used to in the mainstream media. It is the breaking down of the stereotypical depiction of Arabs in the West, but in the East, too. “Often, you will see a non-friendly picture in the media when it is about an Arab man. With these photos you see through the faces. An important project for me personally.”
The Narcicyst still has lots of plans for the future: “I like to enjoy expressing myself in a multifaceted way.” So watch out for his future work.
Pictures: The Narcicyst
Translated by Mark Eijkman
This post is also available in: Dutch