"Arab will be the new cool. When I tweet ‘Arab women are the future’, I mean that in every way," says Iraqi-Canadian musician The Narcicyst in this interview with Megan Bénéat-Donald.
Iraq is the bomb – or so thinks the Iraqi-Canadian musician The Narcicyst. While this ironic play on words well illustrates his unique brand of politically-conscious dark humour, behind the witty façade lies an artist with heavy emotional baggage. Since an early age, his life has been spent in exile, first in the UAE, and later in Canada. These experiences of displacement and migration clearly shaped the direction of his music, and as a child of the Iraqi diaspora, he forged his identity with the spirit of a visionary, tracing a hitherto unexplored path. Self-produced and fiercely independent, his music and lyrics are mirrors of his inimitable persona.
For me, listening to The Narcicyst is like riding a long and winding rollercoaster; every turn leaves me winded, and even though I can’t catch my breath, I never quite want it to end. Some songs have left me feeling elated, others pensive and melancholic, and some have made me laugh out loud. In spite of the many different styles he employs, however, all of his lyrics exude a multilayered complexity that is not easy to grasp initially. It can take more than a few rewinds to understand ‘Narcy-talk’; however, once you catch on to his lyrical magic, it becomes an enlightening experience.
From my many conversations with this incredibly talented artist, I have discovered new ways of appreciating hip-hop and questioning the world. Uncensored, unrestricted, and unbelievable as ever, this is the man in his own words.
How would you introduce yourself to someone who has never heard of you or your work?
Wow. You stumped me with the first question! I would say to people that I am one of the growing numbers of international citizens who communicate through the arts. I am one of the echoes of our ancestors’ past coming back to be heard from the East to the West. I am a representative of the world, of peace, of coexistence, of life, and of love. I am a musician and a writer. I am a vision, and a devout believer in visionaries. I am a follower of no man, and a person of the people. I am Yassin, but most (people) know me as The Narcicyst.
What key episodes in your life led up to this moment in your career as a musician?
I think I became a musician out of the need to express the jumbled experience of travelling back and forth between continents, countries, and realities. As a young man, it was hard to really understand the political and social situations my parents were escaping, and the sacrifices they were making for us to ‘live’. That confusion led me to hip-hop, one of the most ‘mashed-up’ musical forms of our generation. I think the beautiful thing about hip-hop is that it is truly a mix-and-match of inspirations from all over the art world, from fashion, samples, and drums, to words; it is the world in a nutshell. Discovering hip-hop led me to start writing things out in rhyme, first and foremost.
I think realising that I didn’t need to define success or define a specific goal is what led me to be content, and where I am now. When we first started making music in the early 2000s, our main goal was get a deal or rhyme trying. But, as the industry slowly unshackled itself out of the old way of thinking and its distribution model, I started realising that many of us Arab artists were setting our own paths and roads that hadn’t even been dug up yet. So, I started looking at independence and having this dual existence – living half of the year in Canada and spending the other half travelling – as success. I am blessed to be able to eat, survive, and continue what I love doing – and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I also believe that seeing the ‘behind the scenes’ of the music industry made me realise who I am, who raised me, and what my values are. It truly is a test at times, to see your favourite people disappoint you, or having to walk away from the temptations that surround you without letting them destroy your life. It’s been a journey that I’ve controlled from top to bottom, and no person can take this autonomy away from me.
Many of your songs use humour as an approach to highly sensitive and political subjects, such as Larry David and Phatwa. Is humour something you feel is necessary in tackling the issues you write and sing about?
Humour is a big part of my personality. I’ve learned to really be myself on the microphone, as opposed to a persona of some sort. If you meet me, you will see I am the same person on and off stage. I have no filter. I can be awkward, I can be sarcastic, and I can be serious. The general perception when we started making music was that I was a political rapper who hated the world for what is was. I realised early on that I was not as ‘dark’ as people perceived me to be, so I started shifting, shedding layers, and slowly presenting myself as who I was.
Your multilayered identity as an Iraqi / Arab / Canadian musician makes your perspective unique in contrast to those of other artists in the mainstream hip-hop industry. How would you say you differ from other similar artists in this respect?
I think not being from America is one thing that differentiates me. As much as Canada and the US are similar, I am able to look down (pun intended) and see the realities that we share, as well as the injustices projected eastwards from this side of the world. I am critical of both sides of my identity, because I feel accepted and rejected by both. I am able to grow. The one conversation that keeps coming up – whether it be with my wife, my musical comrades, or visual artists like El Seed – is that our story is being written as we go. We don’t have a template, we don’t have a plan, and we don’t have an idea of what our identity will be in 10 – 20 years. Whereas African-American MCs have an experience they can reference, we are in that initial phase as MCs trying to find our voice.
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My personal viewpoint also differs because of my Iraqi heritage, experience, and what has happened to my country. I am not as mythological about the possibility of so-called ‘freedom’ or ‘change’, as they have been didactically presented to us in the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ in the last couple of years. A lot of the other Arab rappers found solace in making music about the ‘now’, and how freedom could be achieved through standing up to the ‘old ways’, whereas in Iraq, people were not even given the opportunity for that to happen. Whether that would have really made a difference to where Iraq is now is not what I am questioning, but I hold a certain skepticism that most other rappers don’t present. If you listen to my verses on any of the so-called ‘revolutionary’ songs that were recorded during the Arab Spring, I am never too hopeful – I am always on the fence. I am there to support you, but also to ask the important questions we want to ignore. Look at the children of Iraq, how they have suffered, and how the world has forgotten them. Who is to say the world won’t do the same to Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc.? We turn a blind eye really quickly, and tend to not even see ourselves anymore in the process.
Many MCs talk about a divide between ‘Old-school hip-hop’ and ‘hip-pop’. What is your vision of Old-school Arabic hip-hop as a platform for critical discourse and cultural innovation, as compared to a commercial notion of Arabic hip-pop?
Arabic hip-pop skipped a lot in its infancy. We went from making really raw underground political music to seeing hip-hop cultural typography, dance, production, and lyrics in major brand advertisements in the Middle East. You saw a breaker in a Pepsi ad and rappers on talent shows, and it all happened within the first ten years of the movement. Whereas with the birth and implosion of hip-hop in American, it took a while to reach that mainstream appeal, with us, it just went straight to the mockery of the realities we were singing about. On one hand, it’s a gift that can be exploited if we play our cards right. On the other, the commodification of hip-hop culture helps further stigmatise the importance of this burgeoning youth culture into a ‘box’ that our parents’ generation can see as a fad. It had lost its power before it could even gain it in the region, so I am a bit worried about where it might be going. Hip-hop is a chameleon culture, so anything can happen…
What is your take on the various hip-hop movements throughout the MENA region as opposed to those in North America?
I think it’s beautiful. As you might know, the ‘Arab’ voice, or the North African one, to be more specific, has been present in France and Europe for a very long time. Musically, (North Africans) represented us way before the representative forces from within the Arab world really took a stance, musically. Most of the output from (the Middle East) was pop-centric until the last five years or so. Lebanon has one of the most diverse scenes, but it suffers from the same sort of strife the country itself does. There is a lack of opportunity to go around, so you feel like people are scrambling, but the music is solid and diverse, the voices are awesome, and the production is different. Jordan, with Immortal Entertainment and the crew around them, is bringing out some of the most poignant and solid music, art, and cultural ‘products’ I’ve seen. Once again, it’s a small scene and it’s hard to create a regional buzz and growing economy from it. Palestine probably has the fastest-growing hip-hop scene – they’ve brought us DAM and Ramallah Underground, for example. There, again, you see the same problems that plague the country. Most of the time, you feel as though the promoters don’t know how to market the music as anything other than Palestinian hip-hop, which in the long run might hurt the scene, and more personally, the artists. The Gulf’s hip-hop scene is diverse in DJs and representatives, and the talent is slowly emerging, but it’s still in its infancy, in my opinion. Out of Iraq and Syria you see factions of groups and MCs coming out, but nothing has really ‘penetrated’ the scene. It’s growing, to put it briefly.
The similarity is that Arabic hip-hop is like (North-American) hip-hop was in the late 80s. We are slowly finding our voice out here, and bridging the gap. The differences are the fact that we have censors in the Arab world, and that the culture is imported, as opposed to exported, so we have to develop our own version (of hip-hop) before it becomes ‘credible’. Our visual artists and beat-makers are miles ahead of us because although words can hold us back, visuals and sonic work speak volumes to the soul and the mind. We have to catch up.
What would you say are the new and emerging themes in your current work, and why are they important to you now?
Life, love, hope, growth, change, and oneself. My music touches on issues that are more about how to break the shell or box of who we were, and who we are becoming is more of a story now. I am a strong believer in narratives, and it is up to us to create our own narratives as opposed to counter-narratives for those who exist around us. It is important to me, because I think it’s very much where we are as adults and new citizens of the world. It is our time as Arabs. We are the next cultural byproducts of war to be realised as a part of society. People will have no choice but to see our achievements and contributions to humanity, society, and civilisation. Arab will be the new cool. When I tweet ‘Arab women are the future’, I mean that in every way. You will start seeing more Arab writers, models, artists, singers, and actors. I really believe that it’s bigger than just being Arab – it’s about being the new citizen of the world – something that is evolving in many societies all over the world. How many children of immigrants do you know who have lived in several cities across the world, and don’t identify with only one place?
Your latest album, Leap of Faith touches on many different topics, such as the commercialisation of creativity, racism, stereotyping, and belief in oneself. Did your recent move back to Dubai inspire some of these themes?
Very much so. I moved out here with my lady to start a new life. I took a leap of faith in a way, and moved everything with us. Things didn’t turn out as I wanted them to, and it was a test of my faith and patience. I did this project not only to unload my feelings of doubt, but also to create a clear idea of where I was, and where I was going as an artist. I sang, recorded, and wrote (the album), and mixed it all at my parents’ house, where I first started making music. It was not only a homecoming, but also a way to ‘break’ my nest and shell and find a new voice. Life is grand.
What is your vision for the future? Are there any specific themes or subjects you would like to tackle that haven’t yet been explored in your work thus far?
I’m working on some film concepts. I really like the visual medium. I am hoping to establish my company with all the artists I know in Canada and the Arab world to create collaborative projects like Arab Winter. It is my passion to bring people together and create a sense of community and idea building beyond music. I am also working on my new album, trying to reach new creative heights with the same producers I’ve always worked with. Up and up!
Megan Bénéat-Donald is a writer, researcher, and policy advisor specialising in immigration and models of integration, along with British and Canadian foreign policy toward the MENA region.
This article was republished with permission from REORIENT.