I remember walking home from primary school to my grandmother’s house. As we walked through the front door I saw my family surround the television. What they were watching would change our lives in ways they probably knew little of, and a 9-year-old certainly had no idea. As the towers burned and fell in that ugly September, so did so much else. We are the boogeyman generation. Just as I would be learning more about the world, it happened and unleashed new fear, enemies and wars. I grew as wars grew, growing body counts with them. The chaos of those years was difficult to traverse for Muslims across the globe. It is still quite difficult to process the scale of what happened in the years that followed. The memory of George W. Bush as a president does for some reason seem surreal, like a comedy that’s supposed to make us cry instead of laugh.
In this era of fear and chaos, which coincidentally happened to be my formative teen years, I found artists who not only inspired my work as a writer and poet but those who would inform my own identity. Yassin was one of those who happened to be a Muslim. Like most in my generation, I discovered music mostly through the internet, and I came across Narcy’s video for ‘Hamdulillah’ in 2010. I just stared at it. Aside from a beautiful piece of music, the video remains to me an important piece of post 9/11 art. It also features a rare Jay Electronica sighting.
The “Muslim International”
The video speaks to what Sohail Daulatzai might call the ‘Muslim International’ which he has defined separately to the Islamic concept of the Ummah; as more of a political and racial idea particular to a time period as opposed to the timeless nature of Ummah. For me the video momentarily combined the two concepts. The conversations around Ummah can be deeply problematic as they often end up whitewashing the very real, pressing issues of anti-blackness, colourism, sectarianism and caste prejudice rife within Muslim communities. A Kashmiri friend of mine lamented recently that she could count on her fingers the number of Asians at the Black Lives Matter protest in London. When I joined her at another protest, the picture was largely the same. The real work to attempt to address these issues will not come through art alone. It entails community work, difficult conversations, education and host of other actions. However, art is important. Especially within hiphop music, an art form that has permeated global youth culture perhaps quicker than any other, I think the Hamdulillah video came at an important time and for a moment showed the community in all its beautiful differences. This isn’t to ignore the deep rooted fissures I just mentioned, but to give a glimpse of what we could be. I’m reminded of the line near the end of Annie Hall “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”. We have to keep trying in real life, and art can remind us of that imperative.
Personal and sincere
Narcy’s career is far more than just that one video and the music I discovered after that quickly made him one of my favourite MCs. His beat selection almost never missed the mark for me, which unfortunately isn’t always the case with MC’s who are put in the same restrictive ‘Political MC’ box as him. “I got sick of the gat clappin’ and backpackin’” he raps on the brilliant ‘Blame the Label (Ghida Fakhry)’. However restrictive that box is, I can’t discount the importance of those earlier more overtly political songs to me. Someone who rapped well was talking about things I was talking about in real life over good production; I couldn’t not like it. His more recent music has become more personal, but for someone like Yassin, the personal is deeply political and so even the latest album World War Free Now! as the title may suggest, is not free of an assessment of social pain. After all, what could you expect from the Muntadhar Al Zaidi of rap? Among those tracks on the new album there are beautiful odes to his young son Shams, and the nostalgic “Schoolyard” that tells of what sounds like a fatigue induced by the world’s horrors, and a longing for innocent, freer times. This is something even at my younger age I can empathise with, which brings me on to one of the key reasons of his art’s resonance.
For whatever reason, it is clear the man cares. The sincerity with which verses and songs are constructed is visceral, and it’s not new. As much as the world seems to tire him, be that through personal issues or the incessant violence of his homeland plastered on TV and smartphone screens, he keeps going.
We never die, Iraqi prime time news,
We gon’ survive, Iraqi prime time news
Never is anything done half-heartedly; he has been independent since before it was celebrated and has a media portfolio that would put many a signed artist to shame. The passion translates just as well on stage too. The only time I met Yassin was at a show at the London School of Economics. There was a miscommunication with the venue that meant a hundred people had to be turned away. Regardless of the venue being far from full and having travelled the atlantic to get there, the set was no different to the usual energy and vibrancy. The second show I saw was also in London, at Camden’s Jazz Café. Aside from another great set, I remember him making eye contact during ‘Colorblind’ with a look that said “How does this guy know the lyrics to this song, it only came out a few days ago”.
Being an international has very much been a theme in his music along with the notion of home. Born in Dubai and raised between Abu Dhabi and Canada, Yassin like many of us children of immigrants has had to wrestle with the idea of home; what it means and where it is. It would seem that for different reasons, Al Salman has been drawn to the concept of a global citizenship – an attempt to make a home out of the world after the lines drawn on it were found to be too limiting for both the soul and the heart.
Wonder if Bibi can ever see me,
and if I go back to Basra will it ever receive me
This is where Narcy’s work becomes so universal in appeal to an Ummah – much of which is settled away from the East whether by choice or by something more sinister. Part of what has made art so important is for the audience to see themselves somewhere within it. However Iraq is not Pakistan and Brooklyn is not Basra. Each has its own sorrow and joy and at times these emotions can be shared, but when they aren’t, if we are serious about an Ummah, (which we haven’t been), we should feel them like our own. Even if the cues come from a self-confessed Narcicyst. It’s hard to be humble when you’re stuntin’ on a government.