[Imc-germany-audio] EI: Interview / Music: The Arab Summit. Arab hip-hop forces unite for justice.
christoff at resist.ca
Do Okt 11 15:06:05 PDT 2007
Interview: Arab hip-hop forces unite for justice
Stefan Christoff, The Electronic Intifada, Oct 1, 2007
The Arab Summit is a musical project on the cultural front lines, uniting the
most innovative hip-hop artists within the growing Arab rap movement of North
America. The Arab Summit delivers inspirational beats that drive a musical
project highlighting a progressive Arab voice in North America, advocating for
the self-determination of people in the Middle East through hip-hop.
Comprised of artists with roots from throughout the Middle East -- from Syria
to Palestine to Iraq -- the Arab Summit is a powerful cultural snap-shot of the
Arab Diaspora in the West. Featuring the participation of the Narcicyst, a
Montreal-based artist originally from Basra, Iraq; to Excentrik, a
Palestinian-American producer/composer; to Omar Offendum of the Arab hip-hop
crew the N.O.M.A.D.S.; to Ragtop of the Palestinian-Filipino-American crew the
Philistines and executive producer of the underground hit, hip-hop Mixtape
called Free the P. EI contributor Stefan Christoff recently interviewed the
minds behind Arab Summit.
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: Multiple creative voices are represented within the Arab
Summit project, representing musical projects on the cutting edge of the
hip-hop scene and Middle Eastern arts in North America. What was the impetus
for bringing together this culturally ground-breaking project?
THE NARCYCIST: This project aims to illustrate that hip-hop has become an
important vehicle for the voice of reason in the context of global hate
mongering and war. We didn't really have an agenda more than to speak on the
issues that have touched us and affected our lives indirectly or directly. I
wanted to further investigate the study of Arab identity in the West vis-a-vis
hip-hop cultural belonging. So, really it was to finally put down the study in
a concrete format for the people, especially our people, to see it as a real
and progressive movement that is [about more than] music.
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: Through the experience of recording your first collaborative
album project have you set artistic or political goals toward expressing the
experience of Arab/Middle Eastern communities in North America?
RAGTOP: [Generally], I would say our music definitely expresses that
experience, because we are the product of that experience and have that
perspective, which is how we frame our music. It was also very much the purpose
of the thesis, I think, to sort of encapsulate the Arab Diaspora youth
experience, but on a song-by-song basis. I don't sit down and ask myself, "How
am I going to represent all the Arabs in North America?" I just write what I
feel and over time and a variety of beats, an overall picture, starts to
EXCENTRIK: Honestly, I agree with Ragtop -- It's an intrinsic value in the
music we create because of our interesting identity -- Arab. ... The messages
in the music are rarely deliberate, and that speaks volumes to the amount of
thought these issues stimulate; they are perennial, unavoidable -- even in
THE NARCICYST: Ditto. I would also like to add that it is our duty to use the
many opportunities that we were lucky enough to access living in North America
to use our voices ... the fact that our people are being oppressed and are
subject to so many injustices ... our experience is inextricably a reflection
of [that]. ... But as Ragtop said, there is no finite goal we are reaching
[towards.] The reason we recorded this thesis in a two-week span was to make
sure the pressure was on and we exerted that natural sense of communication and
bond. That social mediation, the recording process itself, is the identity we
were talking about -- the natural channel of internalization and further,
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: Clearly the name "Arab Summit" could be interpreted in
multiple ways, as summits have been a fixture of Middle East politics
throughout the past century. Currently the US is pushing a "peace summit",
which will host elite government representatives from Jordan, Israel, Egypt and
the Palestinian Authority, excluding the major Palestinian resistance movement
Hamas. Suppose the nature of your recent "summit" in California as Arab hip-hop
artists working in North America was of a strikingly different nature, talk
about your recent "summit" in the shadow of the continuous "peace" summits in
the Middle East, generally viewed with cynicism on the Arab street? Will
President Mubarak be appearing on your next album?
OMAR OFFENDUM: The metaphor for the Arab Summit project is two-fold. The first
one pertains to our role as leaders of the Arab hip-hop movement, and how we
strive to actually create a productive summit of our own from the ground up,
where topics we wish could be addressed more sincerely [than] in the "summit
industry" ... The second metaphor relates to the annual hip-hop summits that
occur globally nowadays ... we strived to carry the ideals of such meetings to
an even higher level, as hip-hop itself has been overrun by similar hacks.
THE NARCICYST: I feel the same way, honestly. But more importantly, we want to
show that the next generation needs a new summit ... The "peace" summit that
you speak of no longer holds the same value it did historically. So no Hosni,
thank you very much; they can keep Mubarak ...
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: The Arab Summit song "Tomorrow's Justice" beings with a
sample from the Lebanese singer Fairuz, from one of her most famous songs "La
Fleur Des Cities," which meditates on the historical Arab city of Jerusalem, or
al-Quds. At the time of Fairuz's recording (as it is today) the city remains
under Israeli military occupation. Lebanon was engulfed in a civil war, the
West Bank and Gaza Strip were under Israeli occupation and the Iran-Iraq war
was just around the corner. Current and past generations in the Middle East
indeed feel that little justice has been served. "Ain't no justice, so get up
stand up," is a cut from one verse in your song, "Tomorrow's Justice." Do those
involved in the Arab Summit project consider themselves as part of a movement,
whether an artistic one or a political one?
RAGTOP: The inspiration to do what we do definitely came from a mixture of
personal and political feelings -- for me it was the backlash following 9/11,
both in the media and [against] our communities, that really drove me to try
and make my voice heard ... "Get up stand up" is of course a reference to the
classic Bob Marley line [that was] recorded before Fairuz and [which]
reinforces the idea that little has changed ...
EXCENTRIK: Speaking for myself here, I don't see anything that isn't
"political" in regards to being Palestinian and an artist. I think my way of
standing up is as simple as being proud of my Palestinian identity and culture,
in addition to the activism that all of us are involved with ... The message in
that song is not a specific call to get up and do something; from my
[perspective] I see it more as a somber tale of oppression and a yearning to
educate people to what we feel on a daily basis.
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: Various members of the Arab Summit have been involved in
ground-breaking hip-hop projects such as Euphrates in Montreal and the Free the
P album/initiative. Can you speak about the role that Arab hip-hop plays within
the larger global hip-hop movement, including that in the Middle East?
OMAR OFFENDUM: When set within the context of Middle Eastern hip-hop as a
whole, it becomes obvious that we are all in this together. It is for this
reason that I was able to link up with artists back home like DJ Lethal Skillz
of Lebanon, and feel like we already had so much in common. That being said,
the issues we address more specifically as part of the Arab-American experience
are unique to us ...
THE NARCICYST: ... Arab hip-hop is on its way. Although we do lack a certain
umbrella of representation in the industry, I also believe this is crucial for
the movement to blossom into a full self-reliant machine. As an infant, it is
still a bit naive, but we as the first generation of Western Arab enthusiasts,
specifically MCs, have a role that is extremely potent and meaningful. It is
the crossroads that we have built toward in our immigration, identity and
social space. I think that these MCs, including us, when we first started, were
not aware of the [impact of] our words. When certain things come from an Arab
boy's mouth, it's not taken lightly. So as we are growing we are also learning
how to present this without sacrificing our dignity and art form ...
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: Can you speak about your experiences as Arab youth and
cultural performers in North America?
RAGTOP: I've been performing pretty regularly with Omar and my crew the
Philistines in Los Angeles for a good three years now. We've traveled all over
and performed in front of diverse crowds, and I have to say the response is
overwhelmingly positive. Underground hip-hop heads show a lot of love when
you're coming from an honest place and you got dope beats courtesy [of] cats
like Excentrik, Offendum, and my co-Philistines Cookie Jar and DJ Cole Minor.
EXCENTRIK: Man! It's ups and downs for me. If I'm playing with my free jazz
group then peeps are all, "What the hell is that?" If I'm playing my 'oud, some
old Berkeley lady wants to take my picture, talking about my "exotic" culture
... Performing with the Arab Summit is almost always pure love -- everyone
seems to throw us some dope vibes. And that's a far cry from when I first
started years ago -- I had a dude attack me with a crowbar after I spat a poem
about racism towards Arabs in America! And that was way before 9/11 ...
THE NARCICYST: Don't expect everyone to love what we do, but the general
consensus at shows is a positive vibe. Although I'm sure a lot of what we say
flies over people's heads, some people do hijack our words and attempt to add
their own perceptions to it ... [When] words like "Islam" or even "Pentagon"
come out of an Arab man's mouth [it] can be taken the wrong way. It's relative,
but the greatest thing that I believe is coming out of this music is dialogue.
As long as we can talk and build, then it's a beautiful thing ...
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: Can you speak about your own personal experiences with the
"home-front" of the War on Terror, certainly crossing back and forth between
Canada and the US?
RAGTOP: Actually, Mr. Offendum and I have performed in Vancouver twice, and
each time experienced harassment at the border. I have become very familiar
with airport security procedures, especially the special side room where they
give your bags that extra-special [search]. In Tel Aviv they assigned me my own
special security agent to just follow me all around the airport and make sure I
got on the plane. But I will say that things have gotten better in the last
year or so, between me and airport security.
EXCENTRIK: I got stripped searched once ... I'm not kidding, just don't tell
THE NARCICYST: Let's just say, there are three copies of my fingerprints
somewhere in the nether world of racial profiling and border searches. I have
been questioned CSIS-style for several hours on end, while I have been denied
entry into the US a couple of times. And somehow, I'm always the "random
search" at airport, god dammit! In a government office near you, someone is
listening to either me or my music. But so be it, there is nothing negative to
our music; we do this for love and understanding in the long run ...
OMAR OFFENDUM: It's been hard ... but I won't turn this into one of those
clichéd responses about how many times I have personally been detained at an
airport; knowing that some innocent brothers and sisters still haven't been
released is way more upsetting. So is the fact that most of my fellow US
citizens can't really say they feel any safer six years later. The situations
in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon continue to spiral out of control and there are
no signs of a light at the end of the tunnel. Recognizing that we have certain
opportunities (rights) our families back home don't have, we make it a point to
address all these issues in our music with a sense of responsibility.
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: What's your take on hip-hop's origins and their relationship
to the current role that hip-hop plays on a global level today, from the Middle
East to Africa and Latin America?
RAGTOP: I think hip-hop is alive and thriving, globally speaking. It took a
while for its popularity to spread enough to the point that ... people abroad
grew up listening to hip-hop, and I think that's the main reason for the recent
boom. ... Commercialization [is] rapidly making it the most popular music in
the world, but at the expense of much knowledge, which is one of the original
five pillars of the art form. What's interesting to see is how cats like our
boys the [Palestinian MCs] DAM -- though initially influenced by more popular,
less [socially-]conscious rappers -- when they began producing their music it
emerged [as] an honest expression of their lives without any of the fake
OMAR OFFENDUM: I see hip-hop as an extension of the same movements that brought
about jazz, reggae, rock, and the blues. I also see it as an extension of the
ancient aural traditions of Africa and the Middle East. It's no surprise that a
soulful place like New York City could birth this most recent incarnation; nor
is it surprising that similar urban experiences around the globe could latch on
to it so rapidly. However, as is the case with all the aforementioned musical
trends, there is a point [at which] something can get too big, too famous, and
begin to lose its sense of origin. I believe this is what led to Nas to name
his most recent release Hip-Hop is Dead. Yet the Internet has given our
generation an opportunity to look past what is available commercially and plant
new seeds. I am optimistic.
Stefan Christoff is an independent journalist based in Montreal and regular
contributor to the Electronic Intifada and Electronic Lebanon.