Arab Hip-Hop and Revolution: The Narcicyst on Music, Politics, and the Art of Resistance
Yassin Alsalman, aka hip-hop artist “The Narcicyst,” sits down with Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Koudous.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re joined here by Yassin Alsalman, better known as The Narcicyst, a member of the Arab hip-hop community, based in Montreal.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Thank you for having me. Thank you for always supporting my music.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you. So, tell us—talk about this Arab hip-hop community that has been growing over these last few years.
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Well, I started rhyming in—I mean officially hitting studios in about 2000. So it’s been a good 10 years, 11 years now that I’ve been recording. And, you know, as time grew and as the social media networks became more prominent in the life of the artist, we started bridging internationally. And I noticed that this was a phenomenon that was going on all over the world, be it in the Middle East, North America, Europe, Australia. You know, Arabs from everywhere that had immigrated, even the ones that had stayed home, were using hip-hop as a vocation and a social mediation, if you will, to translate their experience into music. And, you know, especially in the last five years with everything that has gone on, from the several war theaters that were projected upon the Middle East to the revolutions that are happening right now, hip-hop has been a prominent voice in all these things. So, you know, there’s MCs from everywhere, and I think only now is it time for us to be heard on a, quote-unquote, “pop” level, but more on a cultural level, where the significance of what we’re doing is very important for the movement.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And talk about your background. Your parents are from Iraq?
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Yeah, my parents are both Iraqi, originally from Basra, so in the south. They left there in the ’70s and moved to the Emirates, where I was born. And we moved out to Canada in the mid-’80s, and I’ve been there ever since. But I went back and forth between the UAE, for my education—the UAE and Montreal. And I’ve been back to Montreal since 2000, where I started recording. I went to Concordia University, did my BA there, and then did my master’s degree in hip-hop and identity in the Media Studies Department at Concordia.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And how did the U.S. invasion of Iraq affect you?
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Well, personally it affected me in a great way. You know, a lot of my family was still out there. A lot of my younger cousins were still living there. So we helped get them out of there to safety. You know, one pair of my grandparents was living there, and my grandmother passed away in 2005, 2004, due to cancer, and they say that was from the water, contamination there. So, you know, it affected me on a very personal level, where I saw the effects of the war upon my cousins in the way they dealt with regular things that we take for great, like watching action movies and hearing gunshots that—you know, my younger cousin would cover his ears when gunshots would go off in films. And the trauma was big, you know, but they still knew how to live and knew how to deal with things. I think if I had went through it, I’d probably be way more traumatized.
And on an artistic level, it obviously affected the content of my music, because I felt like there weren’t that many voices speaking out against it, be it in the hip-hop community, in the cultural community, in the artistic community. There was a lot of more visual stuff that was coming out, but not that much sonic or auditory stuff. So, you know, my first albums with Euphrates dealt very much with the war, you know, the march to war and then the march after the war. And then my solo record deals with, you know, the outcome of being a Westernized Arab that dealt with his motherland being stripped away from him through war theaters and several destructive wars upon our country, especially the effect on the youth.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, talk about that. Some of your lyrics take on how Arabs and Muslims are viewed in the West.
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Yeah, I mean, you know, in the beginning my music was extremely political. And I wouldn’t say “political” more than I would say “politicized.” You know, it was very much dealing with direct issues that politics had—how politics had affected our lives on the daily level, be it through profiling at airports or, you know, just the stereotypes that are engendered through Hollywood film, through regular pop culture, even through hip-hop music that I listen to, and how that isn’t helping, you know?
But as I became more involved in the art and presentation, and especially having studied communications and media studies, how can you turn that, you know, that message into the medium and the medium into the message, sort of, you know? How do you use that in a way where people who don’t care or people who don’t want to hear about our experience, how can you translate that into something that’s palatable to those people, without sacrificing the content? So, more recently it’s been about my personal life and personalizing the, quote-unquote, “struggle” or my personal struggle, and how that relates to somebody’s struggle in Brooklyn or somebody’s struggle in, you know, Los Angeles or somebody’s struggle in Denmark, or—you know, so—because at the end of the day we’re all human beings, and if you strip all these layers of conditioning that are put onto our identity, then you realize that, at the end of the day, we’re all fighting the same battle, which is against a destructive system of economic and political repression.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, let’s talk about some of your more recent work. There’s been uprisings now across the Middle East, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain. You have a song called “Hashtag January 25th” [“#Jan25”]. Let’s go to a clip of that song.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s “Hashtag January 25th” [“#Jan25”]. Talk about this song and why you participated in it.
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Well, you know, I first got contacted by somebody I call “my partner in rhyme,” Omar Offendum, who’s a Syrian American MC based out of Los Angeles. He wrote me and said, you know, “My friend Sami Matar,” who’s a Palestinian American producer, “produced a song, and he wants us to do it for Egypt.” He sent it over to me. I wrote a verse. And then we sent it over to an African American rapper called Freeway, who is very dominant in the hip-hop scene, very great individual as well as an artist. So he wrote a verse. And then we had Amir Sulaiman, who was a Def Poet, he wrote a verse.
And then we felt we needed a lady’s voice on the song. It was very important to incorporate the lady because, you know, ladies were a big part of the revolution, you know? And they’ve always been a very strong part of the Arab community, be it in the home or in society. So we contacted Ayah, who’s a Palestinian Canadian singer. And that’s how the song came together.
It came also together under the helm of an individual called Amir Abbassy, who’s a—he owns a company called Blamethelabel, and he’s a artist—you know, artists—he represents artists, and he’s actually Egyptian. So, it all came together under that.
And then we tried to spread it out to as many mediums as we could. So we got it out to like Vibe magazine and several publications that wouldn’t necessarily deal with political issues. But because this was such an important humanitarian issue, I think a lot of people felt the need to cover it. And it reached a lot of places we didn’t think it would reach. And Omar was actually in Doha when we released it, so he did a couple of interviews on Al Jazeera about it.
The importance of the song was to show solidarity with the Egyptian people. Being that we’re here, and they’re there, and, you know, voices get lost in between, we wanted to just say, “Look, we’re watching you 24 hours a day. We really appreciate your integrity and the way that you’ve been dealing with this, and that showing the world that it’s possible to knock down a 30-year, you know, oppressive regime in 18 days, which was—you know, five years ago we would have never even thought about it. And you guys showed us the will and the way and the want for change, and I think that’s the most important thing.”
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And hip-hop is viewed, as you said, in many places around the world as an art form of resistance.
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Mm-hmm.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Can you talk about that? Why do you think that is?
YASSIN ALSALMAN: I mean, you know, hip-hop was born out of a situation of trying to bring people together outside of violence. And not to say that that’s all hip-hop was. Hip-hop was a jam where people came together and let go of all the negativity that was surrounding them and holding them down, and just had a good time together. And I think that translated, because all societies that are under oppressive situations, or even being subjugated to racism or profiling or any form of oppression, have used hip-hop to facilitate their voice and be able to create a space for them to navigate in that the regular media, or the media that does engender people or racialize people, have no control over. Within the span of 45 seconds, I can share with you an entire experience, uncut, unedited, that wouldn’t be able to be shared on a news network that is—or, you know, a regular print media or whatever. It’s unedited. It’s straight from me to the listener.
So, I think this is what translates the most in hip-hop is that ability, and also the permeability of the creative process, or the facilitating of the creative process. All you really need is a microphone and a pair of headphones to record, and then a good engineer to mix it. So, it doesn’t really take much to create it, as well. It’s not like a rock song, where you have to record a whole band. So I think these are the two things that facilitate the music being such a strong force for the youth in the Middle East, is that it’s so immediate, it can be put out immediately.
And, you know, brothers out in Egypt put out songs while the revolution was going on. You know, Arabian Knightz put out a song with Shadia Mansour, days within the revolution. So, even in Tunisia, an MC called El General was one of the reasons the whole thing started. He put out a song against the government, and then Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself alive. [in Arabic]. And these are the things that sparked the revolution. So youth culture is very much in the forefront of what’s going on.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I want to play a clip from your latest track. It’s called “Hamdulilah.”
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s a clip from the latest track by The Narcicyst, “Hamdulilah.” Explain what we see in the video, a lot of different faces of Arab people, and what the song is about.
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Well, you know, during Ramadan, I had reached out to my brother, Ridwan Adhami, out here. He’s a Syrian American—well, Syrian, but raised in America, photographer. RidzDesign is his company. And his style is very much, you know, raw, human. And that’s what attracted me to his work. And I told him, “I want to put out a video to show the diverse faces that are within our culture.” And when I say “our culture,” it could be Islam, it could be Arab culture, but it could also be this youth culture that we speak of, this diverse community that is an international group of immigrants that share one common thing, which is an identity struggle.
So we put a call out on Twitter and Facebook to videographers all around the world, saying, “If you want to partake in this video, here are the guidelines that you have to follow.” And next thing you know, we had people’s faces from Australia, London, New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, Dubai, Jeddah. People from all over the world started sending us footage. And that was a telltale of how powerful the music can be if you involve the people. You know, without the fans or without the people that listen to the music, we, as artists, don’t have much, you know? We don’t have ears to be heard. And we put the video out, and then it got posted on Facebook like 30,000 times. So, this video was really about the power of the people.
You know, a lot of the time our faces are painted on television the way, you know, the media want to represent us. In this case, we wanted to show our faces ourselves and have that power within our hands. And I put that power in the hands of the people, and they showed us how powerful they can be. So, that was the meaning of the video. The meaning of the song was really about my family and the importance of friends and the personal things in life.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what’s your upcoming project that you’re working on now?
YASSIN ALSALMAN: I’m about to release a book, a limited run of my book, called The Diatribes of a Dying Tribe, which is a book about the creation of the Arab Summit album, as well as the—you know, the first couple of years of the birth of this Arab hip-hop movement that we’re a part of now. It includes a bit of writing by Suheir Hammad, Omar Offendum, Nizar Wattad and Tarik Kazaleh, as well as myself, and all the lyrics from the album, The Arab Summit: Fear of an Arab Planet, which will come with the book. It’s been out for five years now, so this is like the five-year anniversary. It’s really about the experience of releasing an album in North America and the juxtaposing worlds of, you know, politics and music and how confusing it can be sometimes and how disenchanting it can be sometimes.
And then I’m also working on my next record, my next solo record, right now. It’s still in its infantile phases, but those are the things I’m working on, shooting videos and staying on the grind, if you will.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And any final words to our listeners and viewers? You know, we broadcast on 950 stations around the United States, but also around the world.
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Well, you know, if you get a chance to listen to the music, please visit iraqisthebomb.com. That’s my website. You know, follow all the wonderful artists, from Shadia Mansour to Omar Offendum, to Lowkey, to Freeway, to myself, to Ayah, to anybody that is in this hip-hop community. And, you know, we were out here in New York doing a show with Existence is Resistance, so if you can look up Existence is Resistance and support causes like that, they send people to Palestine to educate them on what goes on in Philistine.
So, you know, just look up the movement and realize that it’s a multifaceted movement and that we don’t—we aren’t propaganda. We just speak our experience, that is very important to be heard. And I think in the next 10 years or so, this will be a regular part of everyday culture, and people will accept us within the larger community of humanity, if you will.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yassin Alsalman, better known as The Narcicyst, thank you very much.
YASSIN ALSALMAN: Thank you, brother.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thanks.