Arab MC-turned-scholar keeps it real (and brief)

March 8, 2012

The average master's thesis does not rework the 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet by legendary US hip hop group Public Enemy into a modern version about discrimination against Arabs.

But for Yassin Alsalman, better known as the Iraqi-Canadian rapper The Narcicyst, making Fear of an Arab Planet in 2007 was the natural way to enter academia.

The subject of growing acclaim in North America and the Middle East, he has written songs about the Arab Spring, racial discrimination and God, and is now a lecturer at Montreal's Concordia University, teaching a hip hop course after completing his master's degree in hip hop and identity studies.

For him, there is no conflict between two worlds that traditionally do not mix, although speaking last week after a University of East London seminar on hip hop and the Arab Spring, he accepted that with rap, "you have to be a bit more concise".

Mr Alsalman's parents were originally from Basra and moved to Montreal after he was born in the United Arab Emirates. He grew up in Canada, although he spent some of his school days in the UAE.

Since he began recording at the beginning of the millennium, Mr Alsalman has rapped about the invasion of Iraq and how Arabs have become "public enemy number one" in the West.

The Arab Spring inspired him to release a song titled Fly Over Egypt in January, exactly a year after Egyptians first took to the streets to protest against their government. In it, Mr Alsalman raps about the "winds of change".

"More Power to the People/Point out your brothers' evils/Give your sister a hand, although she doesn't need you," he raps.

He explained that the song also aimed to "share a different view of Egypt, to show that light-hearted human side...of people I know".

Since moving into academia, he said, he had become "very aware of the signifier and the signified" and words' different meanings.

But despite the content of his music, Mr Alsalman said he hated politics.

"I'm a politicised artist. The process [of politics] is a distraction from the real problems," he said, giving the example of a system where voters can vote for only three parties.

"We tend to find short-term solutions to long-term problems," he added.

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