“You know, I was all set to go to Baghdad at the end of last year,” says Yassin Alsalman, the 37-year-old Iraqi-Canadian hip-hop MC known as Narcy. “I got asked to perform at a New Year’s Eve party, but then the revolution happened over there, and well...” he trails off. “I had to rethink things.”
It takes roughly five minutes to realise that Iraq is at the heart of pretty much everything that Alsalman does – and he does a lot. He’s been rapping since 2000, and in that time has also managed to write a couple of books, produce countless tracks, direct videos, act – he played Khalfan in Ali F Mostafa’s Emirati film, City of Lights in 2009 – and he also teaches a hip-hop course at Concordia University in Montreal.
But, yeah, Iraq (he calls it the motherland) is never far from his thoughts. Although his calling is the type that comes at distance. Alsalman’s parents left Basra in the 1970s, moving to Dubai, where he was born in 1982. Then, in 1987 the family moved again, this time to Montreal in Canada. For the next 13 years, Alsalman’s home would lie in the journey between Quebec and Abu Dhabi.
The fact that he was more intrigued about the homeland of his parents, despite not really being there, is something he’s seen plenty of times before, but it works both ways.
“I feel very attached to Iraq,” he explains on a call from Montreal. “My work is all about it and lots of my friends are still there. But for me, and Iraqis I know in Canada, the lack of stability in the country – and the lack of opportunity to travel there – is what made us want to know more about it. I think about this all the time, actually. I see some people in Iraq grasping onto western culture and ideals, like they want to be more western themselves. But as Arabs living in the west, we just want to be back home. It’s a constant split and we all inhabit this floating middle ground.”
The sense of place – or lack of it – is a source of intrigue to Alsalman. This is not your average hip-hop MC. You’re more likely to see him do a TED talk about community than rap about the club. His is a cultural mission, not a capitalist one.
“Displaced communities, that’s now the story of the world, right?” he says, mid-order at a Montreal coffee shop. “For so many of our recent generations, displacement just became home. I see my father and my mother and how they were just unable to stay in one place and feel content. It was like that ever since they left Iraq, even though they we’re definitively split when it came to opinions on the country (his father never wanted to return, his mother longed for it daily).
Hat, $460, turtleneck, $625, trousers, price on request, Shoes, $1020, Fendi
“I honestly believe that for us, for my generation, our nationality is internationality. We’re a borderless people.” But out of that muddled identity comes a light. Because perhaps when there are no borders, our other differences can disappear, too.
“I see that lack of belonging as the new homeland,” he concludes. “It means that when I travel the world I can fit in everywhere I go.”
Yet paradoxically, set against that genuine belief in the power of global community, burns a fierce identity and desire to revisit Iraq. “Hey, the further you are from your roots, the more you want to water them, right?” he says with a resigned laugh. “But every time I say I want to go back something happens over there, so I’m just going to stop saying it. But it’s a lifetime pilgrimage of mine and hopefully I can make it happen sooner rather than later.”
It can be easy to forget, in a conversation with Alsalman, that you’re talking to a rapper and not a politician. He’s been described as the ‘conscious voice of Arab hip-hop’ but he would probably label his work as politicised rather than political. One thing is for certain, he has no intention of using his bars for the
“I never, ever, want to become a politician,” he says. “I just feel that once you get into it... once you’re there, you have to throw away a lot of your humanity. You have to make moral decisions that you may, or may not, believe in. That’s just not something I’m interested in. I feel that my music is way more powerful than any political position.”
Alsalman got into hip-hop for the beats, plain and simple. Like any other kid aged 11 or 12, this was an aesthetic thing. NWA intrigued him, and while the initial attraction was the powerful baseline and verse, the group’s struggle is what made it stick.
“I can guarantee you that I really wasn’t thinking about the social and cultural ramifications of the culture when I first got into hip-hop,” he says. “But then as I got older, I started listening more to the lyrics. I started learning about the history of slavery and the destruction of indigenous people and then began correlating that to the powers that did the same to Iraq, Syria and Palestine.
“Eventually I began to see that hip-hop can be a tool of resistance. It came from the streets as a direct reaction to a policing of a people and a political structure that was trying to kill a culture. If a child is born in war, it’ll carry that with them for the majority of their life. Hip-hop was born out of that particular social setting, and it’ll carry it in its soul forever.”
A conversation with Alsalman can occasionally feel part chat, part public address, but it’s born out of passion and commitment to his cause, to his own betterment and an understanding of what the heck is going on in the world. As a result, you get the impression that his mind is rarely in off mode. That’s how his latest book Text Messages: How to Find Yourself When Time Travelling came to be.
Jacket (over), $1115, Dunhill. Jacket (under), price on request, hat, $120, Story Mfg. Turtleneck, $700, Boss by Hugo Boss. Trousers, $750, Loewe at Matchesfashion. Shoes, $140, Nike. Jewellery, Narcy’s own
“I spend a lot of my time on aeroplanes, shuttling between countries,” he says, “and that’s where I write my most personal and least ‘rap-py’ stuff. When I fly over borderless territories it gives me a different perspective on planet Earth, so this is basically an anthology of my writings that I haven’t really put out into the world.”
The book, written entirely on his phone, looks at where we are as a people and the struggles we now face moving forward together in 2020.
“Now that I’m raising kids, I often look back at my parent’s generation, when they were doing the same thing in the 1970s and ’80s,” he says. “They didn’t have smartphones, or the tech we have, and certainly had access to less information, but what they did have was time.
“I think our lack of time is what creates a lot of our modern-day anxieties. I don’t know if my book is a survival guide of how to deal with that, but it’s
certainly the story of how I survived.”
When it comes to surviving the rap game, things are a little clearer. To Alsalman, you have to be strong to deal with success if it comes your way. It can be all about timing and, sometimes, the game just overpowers you.
“I think it can depend on how early you achieve fame,” says Alsalman. “Some of these guys are millionaires and they’re just too young to deal with it. I look at Jay-Z, and see this guy, a hyper-capitalist, multiple businesses, but always puts money back into the black community. Then there’s Kanye. For me that’s a strange one. He was very influential on me, and was groundbreaking in the way he targeted his community in a very aesthetic way. The things he wore, his shows, the videos and the orchestral elements he was introducing to his work. But then, honestly, I just think America swallowed him up. For me, Kanye’s is the story of the phoenix rising and crashing, rising and crashing.”
Leather coat, $8030, trousers, $790, Dunhill. Sweater, $285, Hugo by Hugo Boss. Shoes, price on request, Nike
Who knows, maybe that commercial road is one Alsalman would have gone down, too, but then the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center happened, and everything changed.
“It’s important to say, first, that my experience certainly wasn’t the worst post-9/11 treatment people were having. But still, the change in attitude to me didn’t happen overnight – this s*** was same day! Mine became a story of profiling at airports, detained at borders, turned away from America, stopped by police.
“At the time I was reading works by Edward Said and Samuel Huntington... all these books that were setting up the world in different perspectives, and that really helped get me through it.
“There was a shooting at a mosque here about three years ago,” he says. “So you still have this constant level of, not fear, just anxiety about being yourself.
“The thing is, we still talk about 9/11, but there’s a 9/11 happening almost every day in the Middle East and it often gets ignored. Every day should be a turning point for humanity to look at itself and realise that we can’t keep doing this to each other.”
Really, it’s so very easy to see why Alsalman’s work has such purpose and such drive. It’s fuelled not by a reach towards fame or power, but by the desire to raise a consciousness and maybe, hopefully, wake some people up.
“Hip-hop helped me clear my heart and clear my mind,” he says. “I can share my story, and hopefully some people can relate.
“At the end of the day, I feel that the old order will pass. People have lived through multiple conflicts in the Middle East, and they just don’t want it any more. We need to embrace the diversity of our cultures because, very often, our differences are the only thing that we have in common. A celebration of culture, that’s something that could really bring the world together.”
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