Interview: Arab hip-hop forces unite for justice

The Arab Summit crew. (Image courtesy of Arab Summit)

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 emerge.

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 subjective mediums.

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, re-appropriation.

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 anyone.

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 Hollywood posturing.

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.

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