The hip-hop artist, poet, and peace activist, and regular supporter of Qatar Foundation International, speaks about music’s role as a learning tool and a connector, and why teachers can be like “rock stars”
Where does your inspiration for Arab poetry and music come from?
I am Syrian American and having emigrated to the Washington D.C. area when I was four, I attended an immersive Arabic school. It served to preserve the mother tongue for Arabic families who may be returning to their home countries in a few years. We had two hours of Arabic language education a day, and I was surrounded by students from across the Arabic- speaking world. It was at this school that I was introduced to poetry at this school.
Also, my mother studied Arabic literature at the University of Damascus. She combined the history of Arabic poetry with the modern poets she admired. In addition, I was growing up in America, where hip hop was spreading quickly. I would listen to it on my way to school and talk about it with my friends, and naturally I started to draw connections between the poetry I was learning about in school and the music I listened to with my friends. I say that music is a universal language, and so is poetry.
“The use of music and poetry to promote cross-cultural exchange is very poignant. I find that young people these days are adept at catching lyrics quickly.”
How do you believe music and poetry should be incorporated into students’ courses to promote cross-cultural exchange and reflection?
As I said, music is a universal language and poetry reminds us of that common thread. The use of music and poetry to promote cross-cultural exchange is very poignant. I find that young people these days are adept at catching lyrics quickly.
We listen to music and pay attention to media more than previous generations did. Young people are prone to learning this way, and it can be a very powerful tool to expose people to language and culture through music and poetry. Hip hop is so global now, and young people from Doha to Los Angeles have a similar ear when it comes to how they take in this lyricism and music. Because of that, there is already a bridge that has been built.
How do students usually react to your content? How do you feel they engage and relate to it?
I have been very fortunate to have positive reactions to my poetry and music. People see that I take my time when I craft something to articulate deeper concepts in a way that is entertaining to people. I also shuffle back and forth between music, storytelling and history. This caters to a classroom environment more easily.
Many teachers I have had were a lot like rock stars in how they were able to keep us engaged. I am fortunate to have developed the skill of keeping people's attention over the years, especially with the help of QFI in the classroom.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, music has been one of the main channels for connecting people. How do you feel your music and poetry does this?
I like to take my time with my lyrics and the way I draw inspiration from books, poets, musicians, and try to bring them all to this world I create with my work. This is a way to channel the things that I love in a way that allows people to appreciate the things that I do.
“We value our elders in Arab culture and understand there is an intergenerational story being written.”
To be able to harness the power of social media to touch people during these times is a blessing, and something I do not take lightly. I was never the kind of person who just churned out content; I always felt like taking time to reflect and draw inspiration from the past. We value our elders in Arab culture and understand there is an intergenerational story being written. I find myself in the middle ground: I am no longer the younger person I was when I first started but am not an elder. And, as a father, I find it important to be honest in my work.
“I have seen first-hand that exposing young people to Arab culture and language through hip hop music and language, a medium they are familiar with, can be much more relatable, familiar, and accessible than a textbook.”
How do you think virtual workshops can encourage students to appreciate music and the Arab culture?
In respect of the virtual workshop I held with QFI, and my broader work with them, I can be in classrooms throughout the country. I have seen first-hand that exposing young people to Arab culture and language through hip hop music and language, a medium they are familiar with, can be much more relatable, familiar, and accessible than a textbook.
In my position, even though I am Arab, I grew up in the US, so I can draw from pop culture they are familiar with. Though I've only done a few workshops, it is cool because there is the ability to perform and explain the intention behind songs. You can also create a virtual classroom setting by annotating lyrics. When I started seeing people annotate my song ‘Close My Eyes’ it was really overwhelming to see it firsthand - the visual aid you wish you had at a live show. To talk about the lyrics and expand it was a very powerful thing for me to do. It’s a great opportunity to engage in the music more than just listening, and to do it in person is very cool.
Why did you specifically choose the 'Close My Eyes' video for your workshop? Is there a particular message there?
It is a message that hits home for everyone. The concept of mortality, immigration, and – during this time - the idea that our elders are succumbing to COVID-19 makes the meaning even deeper. The song is meant to remind us of the cycle of life and our cultural values, such as respecting our elders and taking care of children – this song touches on all of that, and especially from the experience of an immigrant.
With this particular video, we went out of our way to film in a date palm farm in Coachella Valley. Date farms are so ‘Middle Eastern’ and very much a part of the southern California landscape. This connects the two places.
Kanoon is one of the most beautiful Arabic instruments, and I wanted to have that featured in the song to show the components of Arabic music. It is a different kind of experience; it is a short film. There is a voiceover where I reflect on losing my father at a young age and now on being a father myself All these ideas are personal to me, but they are also relatable to others, especially during this time.
Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will influence people's music and poetry in the future - either as a topic or because of the emotions that the lockdown has created?
It will influence music and poetry. Being in quarantine is bringing up a lot of issues for many people. Life was moving so fast; there was never time to reflect.
Being a poet and someone who is fond of history, it was pretty common practice for me to take time and reflect in this way. I am appreciating this moment as I am at home with my family. Usually I am on the road and I am grateful for this time and I feel fortunate to spend this time with them. This time is precious, and you don’t get it back. A lot of people are experiencing similar things, and some have it much harder than others.
This time is going to bring up a lot for people who were in the habit of moving at a fast pace. It’s like Mother Earth is giving us a reset button. Other musicians will begin to infuse their work with the ideas and feelings they are feeling right now. I am grateful that I have had a new album coming out and a new little Syriana project about the turn of the century that I think people will appreciate, because ironically, there was also a pandemic that happened around that time, in 1918. The difference today is that we have social media and we can stay connected. It is important for us to stay connected, and that is what I try to do with my work.
What would you say to families all around the world who are not sure about the value of their children learning about music and poetry? How do you believe music and poetry can enhance learning?
I think if they didn’t think it could enhance learning before, they are about to realize that was a mistake. When you have your children at home without teachers, you realize how challenging it can be. They might start to appreciate music and poetry to captivate their children and expand their imagination.
“When it comes to the heart and our wellbeing, that’s where music and poetry can help to keep people hopeful and their spirits up.”
Of course, it’s not the be-all and end-all; we still need math and science. But when it comes to the heart and our wellbeing, that’s where music and poetry can help to keep people hopeful and their spirits up. Hopefully people will be more open to incorporating this in their classrooms.
I am grateful for my relationship with QFI over the last decade and the ability to connect with young people. This has helped me connect with myself as an artist, and I look forward to the years to come.