Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa: Revolution Rap

Rola Harmouche (RH): Thanks for letting me know about the show.
Prasun Lala (PL): Well I needed someone to understand the Arabic….so my pleasure. What does “Tadamon” mean?
RH: Ummm…“to stick together”….um…“to join forces” [Googles]….“solidarity!”

On June 9th, 2011 – Tadamon! presented a concert at La Sala Rosa for Artists Against Apartheid XVI as part of the Suoni Per Il Popolo Music Festival. Shadia Mansour headlined with openers Samian and the Narcicyst “for an evening of rhymes and resistance from Turtle Island to Palestine”.
Samian was first up. He’s an Algonquin hip-hop artist who raps about life on First Nations Reserves in Quebec. He has collaborated with Sans Pression on Premières Nations, Anodajay and Loco Locass, and has performed in various corners of the world, including the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver.

PL: I’d never heard of Samian before this. And I was blown away.
RH: Yeah. I found his performance to be a surprising debut for the evening. I went to the show with the expectation of watching performances relating to Palestinian and other Arab struggles. It was chilling to be faced with Samian’s portrayal of the difficult living conditions of the First Nations right here in Canada.
PL: I was under the impression that South African Apartheid policy was actually based on our system of Native Reserves here in Canada….
RH: But in the end you found out you were wrong.
PL: Yeah – I don’t know where I’d originally heard that years ago – but people still make analogies between the two. Either way – I found him very compelling. I’m partial to rapping in French – something about the smoothness of it all making everyone sound like they’ve taken a dose of Q-Tip, and he was good. Also the first time I’d heard rapping in Algonquin. I liked his DJ too (I think it was DJ Horg). Samian wasn’t big on lyrical gimmickry but more on a smooth delivery of the content – in French he was obviously directing his message to those outside his community.
RH: And it seems to me that the message was strongly received – both during songs and in-between as he spoke of issues facing his people. In “Le rap pour moi”, he describes his motivation for rapping: “Le rap pour moi c’est beaucoup plus qu’un beat je m’en sers pour dénoncer les injustices de mon pays”. Maybe it is because I am not normally a huge fan of rap, but I really appreciated his straight-forward-no-hype-almost-polite-yet-still-in-your-face delivery.
PL: That’s one long hyphenated description buddy.
RH: What I mean, buddy, is it’s as though he didn’t need a whole song and dance show in order to deliver his message; the lyrics did that on their own. The issues he touched on ranged from the community’s difficulties with satisfying basic needs, to his own problems with drugs and the law. I really liked his Algonquin rap too; he mentions his reason for doing so in “Le rap pur moi”: “quand j’le fais en Algonquien c’est pour que mon peuple puisse comprendre et je le ferai jusqu’a ma mort pour que mon peuple se souvienne”.

Next Up was The Narcicyst (Yassin Alsalman). Now a Montrealer, he is originally from Basra, Iraq and was raised in Dubai. He has collaborated with Shadia Mansour [Hamdulillah] in a song about his home town of Basra as well as with Omar Offendum [#JAN25] in a song about the recent Egyptian uprising – both tracks are getting a lot of press. He has shared stages in the past with the likes of Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Dead Prez and co-Montrealer – A-Trak.

PL: The Narcicyst seemed to have a huge hometown following. He’s obviously a good (outrageous) showman with killer support from I Am Black Girl and Meduza (both from local Montreal hip hop act Nomadic Massive) as well as DJ BuddaBlaze. His forte is satire and irony (in lyrics, attitude, and attire) and I’d like to see him again in another context. The other artists on the bill were a little more direct in their message but I think I get his send-up of pop culture in general and rap culture in particular while doing his version of political commentary. For example – his song (P.H.A.T.W.A.) and accompanying video use a mix of humour and rap culture references to portray an unpleasant border interrogation he had en route to NYC.

PL: You got into the Syrian rapper who came on with him.
RH: I personally loved Omar A. Chakaki (stage name Omar Offendum)’s performance.
Syrian-American Omar Offendum was born in Saudi Arabia and lives in the United States. He raps in both English and Arabic. His songs include a translation of a poem on Damascus by famous Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani into English. He was also behind the #JAN25, the song about the Egyptian uprising that included many collaborators, such as The Narcicyst.
RH: I liked his style and his flow. I saw an interview of his on Aljazeera English where he discussed the #JAN25 song. He is very well spoken. I also loved his T-shirt that said: ‘zaatar, breafkast of champions’.
PL: I liked him too – and he referenced Gil Scott Heron (who’d died a few days before) in his lyrics on the song about the Egyptian uprising: “I heard ‘em say ‘the revolution won’t be televised’/ Al Jazeera proved ‘em wrong/ Twitter has him paralyzed”.

We came up with some questions and Omar Offendum was kind enough to answer Rola by email:

I loved your take on Nizar Qabbani’s poem on Damascus. My own visits there have been limited to the shopping districts – very vibrant but also overwhelming at times. Your song invokes a very positive and peaceful impression of the city, and your lyrics seem like a personal account. How much of your own experiences did you incorporate into this translation? Did you have to make many changes in order to modernize the lyrics for rapping?
Omar: My song ‘Damascus‘ is a translation of Nizar Qabbani’s ‘Al-Qaseeda Al-Dimashqiya’ (The Damascene Poem) … I tried to do justice to the poem and capture the essence of his words / themes as best I could. The lyrics are completely inspired by his original verses, and there were only a few small instances where I had to add a line to complete the traditional 16-bar Hip-Hop structure. I’ve always felt that his poetry was timeless, and the reason why I chose to translate this particular piece was that I felt it would resonate with a wider audience. Quite often I’ve found that people are surprised it is even a translation of an Arabic poem … This tells me that I’ve done my job!

You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that your goal is not to be necessarily labelled as an exclusively political artist. However, we are curious – how did your involvement, along with other artists, come about in collaborations such as Artists Against Apartheid and the #Jan25 song about the Egyptian uprising? Your songs still seem to have a socially conscious aspect to them even if they are not overtly political.
Omar: I’ve always maintained that the universal struggles for peace, justice and equality are something that all people of conscience share regardless of their ethnic / religious / political background. That said, being from Syria and having family and friends from all over the Arab world – including Palestine & Egypt – made collaborative efforts like ‘Artists Against Apartheid’ & #JAN25 quite natural for me … At the end of the day, my main goal when making music is for it be what I consider all good art to be – an honest form of self-expression. For a Hip-Hop artist this essentially translates as ‘keepin it real’ … The songs I write are simply reflections of my state of mind and the concerns of my community – which happens to be a global one given my life experiences of immigration and travel. They stem from a desire to show solidarity with my sisters & brothers back home while raising awareness amongst my neighbors & friends here in North America. However, this doesn’t mean they need to be overtly political. The fact that I am a young Syrian/Arab/Muslim bilingual male who can perform comfortably on any stage – and in the process is able to directly relate to ‘Western’ audiences through the language of Hip-Hop – is in itself a statement … The medium is the message!

Q3: In the same interview, you also talk about the notion of hip hop bridging borders, especially amongst the Arab nations. Do you consciously try to write music that attempts to bridge borders between Arabs and non-Arabs, particularly in North America? If so, what do you think is the greatest challenge?
Omar: I’ve found that building bridges across cultures – especially those that are often portrayed as being ‘at war’ with one another – is one of the most gratifying aspects of being an artist. I’ve done this quite literally with the translations of classical Arabic poetry and ancient stories into English, and vice versa. I also go out of my way to perform entire verses / poems in Arabic to a non-Arab audience as I feel it can help demystify the language for people who are only accustomed to hearing it from extremists or dictators in the mainstream media. Celebrating the common elements of humanity we all share is the best way to move past our differences and towards a greater sense of unity across borders … We are One Human Family!

Obviously lyrics are quite important to you, but you also put a lot of attention into the production and musicality of your songs (for example the Beatles sample in “Majnoun Layla”). This brings us to the last and clichéd question: What type of music did you listen to growing up and do you listen to now?
Omar: I was exposed to a wide range of music in my childhood, and for that I am grateful. My mother listened to classic Arab singers like Fairouz, Um Kalthom, Abdel-Halim Hafez, & Fareed Al-Atrash. My friends and I would keep up with the latest Hip-Hop releases, many of whom still inspire me to this day: Rakim / Public Enemy / A Tribe Called Quest / De La Soul / Nas / Tupac / Biggie / Wu-Tang / The Roots / Outkast / Mos Def / Talib Kweli / Common (I could keep going but I should probably stop there haha) … I was also influenced by the musicality and conscious lyricism of many Reggae artists, including: Bob Marley / Peter Tosh / Dennis Brown / Gregory Isaacs / Steel Pulse (again, I could go on!) … Nowadays, things have come full circle and I often find myself listening to my peers, like: The Narcicyst / Lowkey / Shadia Mansour / DAM, etc … I am proud to have shared many stages with them over the years and look forward to future collaborations!

Finally, Shadia Mansour came on the stage. A British-born Palestinian, she started singing at the age of 5 years old. Dubbed as “the first lady of Arabic hip hop”, she raps and sings in Arabic about Middle East issues. She has recently performed and was well received in various cities in the United Stated and the West Bank. She also opened the Annual Black August Benefit for Political Prisoners along with [hip hop legends] Q-Tip, EPMD, Bilal, Blackmoon and Immortal Technique.
PL: Pretty electric when Shadia Mansour came on no?
RH: Yup – the crowd loved her.
PL: I couldn’t understand a word when she was singing – but I still got goosebumps. She was very intense – and would pick people out in the audience to focus her words – not for theatrics – but to get her message across.
RH: Yeh she was very intense. The lyrics were very arresting, made more powerful by her Palestinian accent (which I now find very suitable for rap), in contrast to her simple and elegant look and traditional Palestinian dress. I don’t know why that struck me.
PL: I also found her rapping voice appropriate and strident – I think that’s what gripped me. But then she’d seamlessly switch into singing melodies.
RH: I found her voice beautiful.
PL: It was – and although it is very much in the nature of R&B and hip hop to mix the two (rapping and singing) – for me it was novel to here these Arabic melodies in that context. You said her voice is quite authentic?
RH: Yeah – I read that as a child she sang traditional Arabic songs with her mother.
PL: What was her song about the scarf?
RH: “El keffiyeh arabeyye”, meaning the keffiyeh is Arabic, is a song about the headdress traditionally worn by Arabs. She describes how the Kiffiyeh, which has become a symbol of the Palestinian Intifada, is being commercialised as Israeli wear. I first thought the keffiyeh was a metaphor for Palestinian land being stolen, as she rapped (in Arabic): “Stealin’ something that ain’t theirs, I can’t allow it–”.

PL: I recently heard a BBC story about the keffiyeh – how there is only one producer left in the Palestinian territories – and that producer is having trouble competing with cheaper Chinese imports.
RH: Her song “Killon Indon Dabbabat” (they all have tanks) is an original yet somewhat disturbing take on an Arabic nursery rhyme. The original song is about a child describing how everyone has cars but his grandpa has a donkey. It’s cute, referring to an older simpler time, how grandpa doesn’t care what others think. When she started singing the original, a lot of people knew it and were singing along (including me). She then transitioned into her own song, about the “others” (Israelis) having tanks and “us” (Palestinians) having rocks. I felt the mood suddenly change to a grim one. It hit home for me, as I saw it also as a comparison between a peaceful childhood described by the nursery rhyme and one stolen by war and violence. You see I sing the original song to my nephew all the time – now I’ll think of her every time I do so.

PL: I liked it when she was singing directly to the kid – a preteen – who was in the audience with his dad – both wearing keffiyehs. She was good at engaging the audience in general and having people comment back. She’s a very charismatic performer.
Anyways, a highlight of the evening was everyone coming on stage for the finale. It capped off a great show.

For info, and great music

Artists Against Apartheid XVI co-presented by

  • 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy
  • Art Threat CKUT radio
  • Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), McGill University
  • Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University
  • Suoni Per Il Popolo Music Festival
  • Tadamon! Montréal
  • Wired on Words

Rola Harmouche is a Canadian of Lebanese origin. She moved to Montreal with her family in 1989 during the civil war. She is now a PhD candidate in Computer Engineering at l’ École Polytechnique de Montréal.

Prasun Lala is a Montrealer always keen on checking out the local music scene as well as artists passing through town. He speaks a few languages – but alas neither Arabic nor Algonquin.