Beats and Breath continues to look at the Arab uprisings and the rise of Arab hip-hop, releasing uncensored interviews with key members of the Arab hip-hop massive -much of the material archived during the production of the 30-min Beats and Breath/Free Speech Radio News radio documentary Rhymes and Revolution that aired on July 4.
In this post, we’re proud to feature an interview with writer/actor/rapper, Iraqi-Canadian MC The Narcicyst – fresh off the release of his book Diatribes of a Dying Tribe (with writing by Suheir Hammad, Omar Offendum, Ragtop & Excentrik and exclusive Interviews with Cilvaringz, Malikah, Eslaam Jawaad, Members of AK, DAM and Soul Purpose). Narcy discusses the popularity of his co-creation, the song/video #jan25, the state of Arab hip-hop and provides Beats and Breath with a no-holds-barred appraisal of personal identity as an Arab artist living and working in the West. As with most of what Beats and Breath publishes on this site, this is a unique opportunity to view the true intersection of culture and politics that is helping to redefine how youth are interpreting their own phenomenal surroundings.
HOUSTON/BEIRUT – Yassin Alsalman’s rapper alter-ego The Narcicyst has managed to flip the script on the West’s depiction of Arabs for as long as I’ve known him (2009). He’s ill-fitted for simple government identity criteria, decries labeling, and manages to both scare (in a good way) and excite fans with his lyricism. The song “Vietnam” off of his self-titled debut solo LP manages to call up the horrors of war, interventionism, and the bellicose nature of the West’s foreign policy, while throwing in some ridiculously witty pop-cultural references to boot:
“They say Lebanon’s vietnam,
Iraq’s vietnam, Palestine’s Vietnam,
they wanna see us gone,
So far from home but I can feel the bombs
close to heart like the death of a being dawned.
War made us feel like being free is wrong
trying to be man with a child’s fear in song,
Lullabies when a brother dies,
No merit when a sister perish up
Drilling with loud toys mr.cowboy
Bullet riddle the middle east, belittled peace,
Giving in to the inner cheat, over dinner feasts
Like a winner you proud, oil endowed joy!
The same resource you drain,
Came from remains of deceased corpses maimed
All in plain view like Daniel Day Lewis- I knew it
You giving off that kill me buzz… There Will Be Blood“
Three other songs off of The Narcicyst’s first LP – “P.H.A.T.W.A.” “The Last Arabs” featuring an appearance by Syrian-American MC Omar Offendum, and “Hamdulillah” featuring UK-based Palestinian singer/MC Shadia Mansour – are testaments to his brand of cultural insight that has no real equivalent in hip-hop culture.
As an Iraqi (Basra) born in Dubai and settled in Montreal, Narcy is still hungry to define his place in hip-hop culture, and has spent the last near 10-years earning increasing respect from heads in the Middle East and the West. And as he has evolved so has his ability to distill issues of the human condition while also providing keen insight into his life as an Arab artist learning to be at peace with his own exile and sense of home – which he contends isn’t necessarily Basra, Iraq.
His personal website Iraqisthebomb(dot)com has a quote on his “lyrics” page which reads: “This is for the thriving cultures that we were. To the people that could’ve and eventually will.”
I see this as a maxim that describes his knowledge of Arab history and his realistic assessment of what is possible, indeed what he hopes will happen.
The so-called Arab Spring has simply given The Narcicyst and millions of other Arabs living in the Middle East, North Africa and the Diaspora a sense that massive systemic change is possible. I sat down with Narcy in a Skype conversation (Houston-Montreal) to talk about the Arab uprisings, his contribution to the viral video/song #jan25 (named after the trending topic on Twitter for the Egyptian revolution), and how technology is transforming both Arab hip-hop and the expectations of people all over the region.
BEATS AND BREATH: The song #an25 came to you through (Syrian-American MC/rapper) Omar Offendum after he met up with the Palestinian (American) producer Sami Matar?
NARCY: Yeah. We had had the discussion prior to recording the song. And you know the developments in Egypt inspired it. Omar Offendum had been working with Sami for a while. He got in touch and sent me this song and his verse on the song where he said everything that could have been said already (laughing). So I spit a short verse right after it…
B&B: Let’s talk about the residual affects. Clearly this song has brought you a lot of media attention. But did this song expose you to a new audience-base?
NARCY: This isn’t the first time that I release or am part of a release of a song about something going on in the Middle East. When the Israeli Operation Cast Lead was going down in Gaza, I was in Lebanon for New Year’s 2009, and I recorded a remix for my song “Humdulillah” with Shadia Mansour in solidarity with Gazans. We did the hook again where we substituted the name Basra in the original and we put in the word Gaza. And then we put that out. That was like my first time I put out something free for the people that was related to something that was happening. It had a very positive reaction. That was the first one we gauged it with.
I think with Jan25 the difference was the Egyptian experience was being reported internationally as a…well it wasn’t really about Egypt. It was about a people standing up to a government and ultimately overthrowing that government. So we would see it on all of the news networks but also you would see it on websites that wouldn’t necessarily cover things in the Middle East usually. So the beautiful thing about Jan25 was that when we reached out to Vibe magazine and these hip-hop blogs and websites that had nothing to do with politics or the Middle East, they still picked it up.
Part of it had to do with the fact that we had an American artist on it. The other part of it was that it was happening in Egypt and that being that central civilization in that part of the world that people know about – the archetype about what a civilization is. That’s why people actually listened. It definitely added to our impact with social networking followers and it definitely added to our visibility in the world and people in Egypt started hitting us up more and more. It was important to show the people that we were standing with them even though we were halfway across the world.
B&B: I don’t think that you pulled any punches lyrically with hashTagJan25. It could be said that the song opened you up to western audiences in a way that hadn’t happened before. Talk to me about that.
NARCY: It was weird because I had an issue as to what I was going to say on the song. Do I say, “Down down government.” Was I going to write about issues that were going down in Egypt? Was I going spit a 16-bar about freedom? Or was I just going to share my reaction to what was going on?
I think that’s what we decided in the end – that everybody was going to have a different reaction to what was going. I was a bit pessimistic and I saw it as a sign of the times. Possibly a representation of the greater narrative in theology of the end of things and the beginning of things. And finally our people were standing up for things but they were getting killed for standing up.
I was a bit sad. I wasn’t very happy. But also to see that engage a Western audience and to eventually start a dialog with them, I think that was the purpose of that song. Besides that show our people in Egypt that we were watching what was happening like 24/7 on television and we applaud them for their bravery.
I think at the same time it was an example to the West that you know Arab’s could do it on their own. They don’t need the help of the West. I think that was the most important point we made with the song, even when we did interviews about it.
B&B: Do you think that was a message that somehow needed to get out there? That Arabs somehow were perceived in the West of being incapable of orchestrating such uprisings peacefully?
NARCY: No. I think with the example of what happened in Iraq, as a so-called revolution, or a change in the government structure of the country – the way the Western world went about viewing it was that the only way we can free Iraqis from the grip of their dictatorship is by assaulting the dictatorship until it falls.
B&B: And then de-Baathifying everything…
NARCY: Absolutely. And then trying to remove the building blocks and everything that was related to it by bombing the shit out of it, and thinking that was the only way Arabs could go about changing the system. Or creating a so-called democracy in the East. But then as they saw, it was not the solution that they expected it to be.
So I think with Egypt the lesson was that if the people are fed up with the way things are going, they can take it into their own hands. Of course, the people that stood up, and their were secret forces throwing money at things in the background. We don’t know all of those details, but it was a prime example of people power that hasn’t even been exercised in North America – at least I don’t think it has – to the point where it has changed government. It hasn’t.
I think it was a first step for humankind.
B&B: Before the Palestinian cause was a de facto uniting element for Arab hip-hop, but do you think that spirit of these revolutions is able to form an even more solid sense of community – a rallying cry or a more Nasser-esque nationalism for Arab hip-hop?
NARCY: You know people refer to these golden oldies days in the past – where we reference Nasser and the Arab movements coming up as one big Umma – I don’t believe in them because it never occurred. It was nice on paper, but it never happened.
Dictators got put into power. Certain money got into certain governments and certain countries from Western powers. And it became a very almost like thievery of the masses looking back on it and when you read up on what was happening in the Arab world in the 1940s through 1970s.
Between our parents generation and our generation, the biggest shift that could have changed the criticism of the systems that we lived in was technology. Back in our parents day they only had phones, letters and so on. And then faxes in the 1980s. But with this day and age, it is really like information is permeable. You can put out information anywhere and it can soak into any magazine or newspaper as fact. Be read on the radio.
You know I could Tweet something really silly. Like say someone died and that would spread like wildfire. So the power of media became a game changer when it came to power structure within society over there.
I think because the Arab hip-hop community uses new technology as its chief means of production – our means of production is very much a laptop or a computer and a microphone, and a sound board to mix. That translated into the way that we have projected our independent careers online. The way we use the internet, and then eventually the way we disseminate our music online.
The song hasHTagJan25 was a prime example of what we’re trying to do with all of our music. Except, all of our music is not as accessible as Jan25 because it’s not about something that everybody is paying attention to. I think that’s the only difference.
I think the Arab hip-hop movement is a great example of this unity, but then you also have the examples of personal issues within the community. It’s still a very fractured experience.
B&B: Discussions of technology – you’re breaking down borders that have come up since colonialism. Technology as an equalizer against physical borders.
NARCY: Let’s not kid ourselves in this respect. While what you’re saying is true, the internet is also a way of tracking everything. If we were living in a borderless Middle East it wouldn’t be a trackable thing. But everything we do now is trackable.
You can find my IP address and find out anything and everything. What shoes I was looking at? If I have a fetish for something they could find out. It’s a thin line – a gift and curse. I think it’s helped but also it separated us because it’s created this sense of voyeurism. We all watch each other’s moves and know what this or that person is doing…which is already creating like strategic alliances.
B&B: I don’t want to romanticize it. I want to acknowledge that it’s a rarified group of people online. It’s not everybody. I think it’s the mobile-phone technology and not the internet that’s changed the game. Even the poorest dudes have mobile-phones. And do you ever expect the Arab Diaspora rappers to get on those Shabi download sites that get the music into the Micro-buses in the Arab world?
NARCY: We’re working on it! (laughter) Our experience in the West as Arab rappers is unique and new. We’re the first to utilize media in a certain way to communicate our experience to the rest of the world. But at the same time it’s an experience that doesn’t have a history. It’s not like something you’re ingesting for like ten years and they’ve done research on and know how it’s going to affect your body
Our experience is brand new. We can look at the African-American experience as an example, but that had political and social relationships that were birthed out of a completely different situation than ours. Whereas we weren’t moved from our home unwillingly, many Diasporic Arabs moved willingly out of their homes. Our latch on to what home is is as prevalent as the search for Africa in the African-American community. That’s the only thing that could be considered a crutch preventing us from that kind of individual that you’re talking about and being able to disseminate our music like that.
Our experience is relative, so we have to find a way to describing things in human terms as opposed to describing things as Arab-American or Arab-Canadian, Arab-European – whatever. It has to be a human element that everybody can relate to in our music that we can speak about.
And I think we’re getting old enough to reach that level of artistic acceptance.
B&B: Do you think it’s a level of sophistication in language and experience? How do you think you’re getting better at what you do?
NARCY: It’s a level of acceptance. When I was 18 I ran strictly off of emotions. And then September 11th happened. Shit is all crazy with heightened fear all around, so you’re internally and externally doing the same kind of thing. But then as you get older you start accepting the fact that maybe I will never go back “home” where my mother and father are from. Maybe I’ll never belong there again. And perhaps that’s fine. Maybe I don’t need to.
Whereas when I was younger I really had this romanticized vision of my motherland, which really isn’t what it is. Even Iraqis that leave there will tell you that’s not what it is. Where have you gotten this romantic vision from?
It’s not what it used to be, and once I came to accept that it deeply affected my art. It became more free.
It’s funny. You get shackled by nationalism but you also get shackled by wanting nationality. You’re really the freest when you don’t need any of them at all.