Since the early days, hip-hop has been a form of expression for the oppressed. Artists from across different backgrounds wove together strong lyrics about life in a particular neighborhood or city. These lyrics were hard hitting and painted a clear picture of the ins and outs of life on the other side of the tracks.
Media coverage of the Middle East, and Muslims in general, has led to the rise of hip-hop artists who seek to tell their story through their art. Yassin “Narcy” Alsalman is an Iraqi-Canadian journalist and hip-hop MC who has used his lyrical talent to spread awareness of Iraq to communities across the world. At 32, Alsalman has written a book called The Diatribes of a Dying Tribe and has produced six albums.
His journey as a Muslim and an Iraqi artist has not been easy. “I think it’s been an uphill battle, but something that has kept us moving forward,” Alsalman explains. When asked about his message, he replies: “I share the story of a son of an immigrant who grew up to live out his dreams. I don’t assume that I have a message besides that we should be tolerant and accepting of each other’s differences, because at the end of the day, that is what we have in common.”
Alsalman believes there needs to be a push and pull when it comes to art, but it should all be balanced. “I think, if you don’t have people that are detracting you from your path musically, then you aren’t doing the right thing. You have to have both spectrums of reaction to grow as an artist.” Alsalman sticks to the roots of hip-hop and creates lyrics that reflect many of the issues faced by Arabs living in the West.
Somethings I’m unsure of
Like an Arab man at an airport
When you wonder what he’s there for, therefore
I stand up for lands stuck, near war in tandem,
Passport control, where I’m picked at random, DAMN SON!
His controversial lyrics have not stopped him from having a far-reaching audience. Rather than hide who he is and work under the guise of an alter ego, Alsalman embraces every aspect of his person, which, in and of itself, enables him to touch many people through his music. “Being so public about my background and political leanings has actually helped me. It put me on the map,” Alsalman explains. “My early days in Euphrates formed who I am as a person and a musician. I would never assume it held me back. I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
It was through speaking his mind and openly expressing himself that Alsalman created his fan base. “I just speak my mind as it comes, don’t censor yourself. Seek to plug into humanity in all people, and let the rest of the energy do its work,” he says. “My audience is very diverse, and that is a reflection of modern hip-hop culture. I don’t have to cater to one ethnicity of crowd, they come together naturally under the culture of hip-hop.” The underground roots of this kind of music brings people from all walks of life together because it is so expressive, and the audience can relate to the lyrics in their own way.
Coming into the music scene with such lyrics and mentality wasn’t easy. Artists are generally asked to conform to certain parameters to sell records and gain fame; those who stay true to their roots are sometimes shunned by the industry. Alsalman did not let this deter him: “There were moments when I was advised not to do certain things, but I didn’t listen. There are times where I have stopped myself from doing or saying something, but that is my own choice. I don’t do all the shows that come my way. Where the money comes from, or what the ethos of the people that are hiring me is very important.” This has enabled him to stay true to his art, and has allowed him to be free to express himself lyrically.
Hip-hop is an art form that encourages artists to stay true to themselves. Listeners can feel what the artist is saying through the lyric’s carefully chosen words. It also helps if you aren’t part of a major label and instead create your own. “Nowadays, the Internet is wide open. The goal shouldn’t be attention, it should be successful moves and a growing core fan base. I am achieving my goals bit by bit,” Alsalman says. “This visibility a label would offer would help, but I’m not sweating that anymore. I am doing what I love and it’s sustainable as a career. That’s all that matters.”
His advice to up-and-coming Arab artists in North America: “Independence is the way to go. In the next decade, I don’t think the need to be on a label or a major corporate force is necessary. So many have paved their own way into the market and so can you. Don’t fall for that old dream of ‘making it.’ Define success before challenging yourself towards it. Be yourself.”