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Old-School Hip-Hop Meets New-World Messages: An Interview with Australian-Muslim Rappers The Brothahood
- Published on Thursday, 15 March 2012 18:05
- Category: Artist Profile
In a music industry where mainstream rap is dominated by lyrics bragging about drugs and “bling,” finding tunes that are driven by a relevant message is like looking for a four-leaf clover: rigorous and time-consuming. Once found, though, it is unlike any other in a monotonous field where one might as well pass as the next.
Melbourne-based social conscious hip-hop group The Brothahood is just such a clover. Previously featured in Hannah Magar’s “We are Egyptian” as part of Aslan Media’s #Jan25 in 25 Music Videos series, the group features four young and talented rappers- Moustafa, Timur, Hesh and Jehad- who came together in 2006 to “use hip-hop as a tool to smash down stereotypes and misconceptions” while still “maintaining hip-hop’s core essence: taught and intelligent rhythms.” The members’ backgrounds are diverse. Timur is of Turkish descent, Hesh is Burmese, and brothers Moustafa and Jehad come from a Lebanese family. But what brings them together is their love of their religion, their passion for social justice, and the fact that they see themselves just as much Australian as any other person in the land down under.
The Brothahood followed their 2008 debut album, Lyrics of Mass Construction, with their March 3 release of Mixtape 2.0, a musical mash-up that is just as varied as the four men who put it together, featuring solos from acclaimed rappers Flesh n Bone (Bone Thugs n Harmony), Young Noble (2pac’s Outlawz), Tyson (Remarkable Current) and Akil the MC (Jurassic 5). Its beats are smooth while the lyrics are honest, constantly aware of what it means to live in Australia post-September 11th and fully engaged with issues that affect everyday Muslims’ lives: the Arab Spring, attacks on Palestine, refugees of dictatorships, and what it means to stand proud for a faith that is so often misunderstood in mainstream music and media. Just 24 hours after hitting the Internet, the album amassed more than 200 downloads. One of its tracks, “The Silent Truth,” a testament to the struggles of everyday Muslims’ lives in Australia post-September 11th, topped the JJJ Unearthed Hip Hop Chart in 2007, and still hovers in the chart’s top ten list today.
Aslan Media arts and music editor Safa Samiezade’-Yazd got a chance to chat with group members Jehad and Moustafa over Skype about their socially conscious music, the role of social media for both activists and music artists and why hip-hop continues to flourish amongst Arab and Muslim youth worldwide.
Aslan Media: What motivated you to go into music? What inspired you to start The Brothahood?
Jehad: For me, I’ve always loved hip hop and R&B, and not even just that, also dance music, and our dad listened to a lot of Arabic music, so I think that influenced me to get into it. But I loved hip-hop growing up. I loved the lyrics, I loved the meanings, and I loved the way they used the wordplay and the poetry- it was just really inspiring. I’ve always been playing around with hip hop from a young age, like as a youngster, listening to Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre and all that, [they were] writing lyrics that had no relevance to my life, writing raps about girls and cars and drugs- a life I wasn’t living at all, especially as a 15-year-old kid living in Australia. When I started reading more about Islam, about plight of the refugees, about worldly issues, I started thinking I could probably start writing stuff that’s more relevant. As soon as I started doing that, we formed The Brothahood, and we found we had an audience- people were listening and relating to what we were saying.
We were very involved in the Muslim community growing up, and so they really helped us when we started. They were like a platform to really jump-start us. So we were performing a lot, back in 2003, 2004, mainly in the Muslim communities, a lot of benefit dinners, a lot of protests, a lot of Muslim youth camps, things like that. We were just recording our stuff really shoddily on the computer, uploading it to forums, things like that… After that came YouTube and Facebook and MySpace, and through that, those were really good platforms to get the wide exposure we really needed, so from there, even just off of MySpace and Facebook, we were offered performances in Abu Dhabi, in Malaysia, Indonesia, so social media really played a big part in our success.
AM: Besides the Muslim community involvement that got you started, what’s the significance of Islam in your music?
J: With our music starting off, it had a really big influence, and it still does. We used to call ourselves Muslim Hip Hop, and we don’t use that term anymore because we find it’s a little bit limiting to our audience. Through Muslim Hip Hop, we thought we’d be giving dawa to ourselves, but also too to the youth who are like us growing up, listening to Tupac and Easy E. We thought we’d give them an alternative to listen to, something that’s relevant to them, and us living as Muslims in Australia, it’s a unique viewpoint, and we found there’s a lot of interest in that from around the world.
Our first album, Lyrics of Mass Construction, is very Islamic-based: there’s a lot of Islamic lyrics in there because that’s what we were representing- that’s how we grew and that’s how we lived. For this new release, we really wanted to reach out to the wider community; we thought not everyone is going to see a Muslim hip-hop album and want to pick it up listen to it. No matter how good it may be, they’re not going to want to pick it up because it’s got that Muslim label attached to it- some people just have that stigma. We thought to reach out to a wider audience, we’re still going to keep our Islamic values and morals, but just put it straight out there with conscious messages with good meanings, but it’s a universal message.
AM: It’s an interesting trend now, the use of social media, especially amongst Arabs and Muslims, to provide alternative views to mainstream media.
J: That’s right. The revolution in Egypt was driven by social media. I remember when that revolution was happening, I was on Twitter looking at the hashtags, and I was seeing from the ground what was happening. The citizen journalism, what was happening on the ground, rather than getting it through Al Jazeera or the mainstream media, I was getting it from the people, pretty much seeing live pictures and video straight from Twitter. It’s fantastic, and now with music, it just adds a whole other dimension, and I think the record labels are a little bit scared now because they don’t know what to expect.
AM: Especially with music distribution ...
J: Exactly. We’ve seen that in full force because we started getting really serious about this in 2005, and that’s when social media really started to blow up all over. We’re getting the brunt of all that and really embracing it. One of the reasons why we’re releasing Mixtape 2.0 as a digital download instead of a physical CD is because we’re really trying to embrace that social media aspect of it and push it that way.
AM: Why do you think hip-hop has flourished so much amongst Arab and Muslim youth worldwide?
Moustafa: For myself, listening to the old gangster sort of rap, it had a meaning behind it that, the push and struggle that the black community had in America, sort of relates to us at the moment with the racism we feel around the world, the push against the Muslims. To be able to reach out with our music and express our views upon that and using that as a tool, it helps us release a tension.
J: That’s right. Hip-hop is a tool for those who want to speak out, for those who don’t have a voice. I think that’s why it’s got such relevance to the Muslim community and the Arab community, because there’s so much media these days which misrepresents us, and we just want to represent ourselves. We found the best way to do that for us was through hip-hop because we grew up on hip-hop, and hip hop is the perfect expression. So not only are we able to express ourselves, we’re also able to get people on board to listen to our message and to relate to our message as well.
AM: What was your motivation behind Mixtape 2.0?
M: It comes down to bringing hip-hop back to the essence of where it is, and that is bring it back to a message. A lot of the music that’s coming out now to Australia, a lot of the flows, is just simply happy-go-lucky and doesn’t really have anything behind it. There’s no message; there’s no story. There’s no real feeling behind it, I noticed. For us, we’re still trying to keep that essence of hip-hop alive.
J: And a lot of people might call it, oh you’re not moving with the times, you’re old school and this and that and whatever. For me, I don’t care. If you want to call it old school, call it old school, but as long as there’s some sort of message or some sort of benefit you’re getting out of the music, that’s what it’s all about for me.