Photo via Emsallam

Emsallam on resistance in music, mental health, and rap in the Arab world

As rap and hip-hop find their audience in the region, Msallam Hdaib is adding his own personal touch to the Arab music industry.

Hdaib, also known as Emsallam, started his music journey when he was 14 years old. Shortly after he began to write poetry and music, the Jordanian artist with Palestinian roots fell in love with hip-hop and rap—the music and its techniques drew him in and stuck.

Today, Emsallam writes, composes, raps, performs, and creates visual art. Different stages from his life are put up on display in his music, everything he learned and unlearned as time unfolded. His popular albums jump from pouring his heart out on The Last Step, then to criticizing oppressive Arab governments on Postcolonialism, and then addressing his mental health issues on Dyslexia.

“These three albums complement each other, with the same producer Ayman Salhi,” Emsallam told Beirut Today. “I call them the trilogy. You listen to The Last Step, then Postcolonialism, then Dyslexia to understand who I am as a rapper.”

Aside from his exceptionally catchy beats, Emsallam is known for genuine and relatable albums. His music has sometimes helped his fans ease their anxiety and channel their anger into healthier places.

“I feel there’s a bond or a connection between us,” said Emsallam about his fans. “Some fans even message me that they’ve stopped being suicidal because of my music. It’s a responsibility. Sometimes, I get scared because I don’t feel that important.”

During the holiday season, the artist performed in Lebanon for the first time. Beirut Today caught up with Emsallam to discuss his journey so far, hip-hop and rap in the Arab world, and resistance in art.

Beirut Today: Why did you decide to perform in Beirut and how do you feel about the performance?

Emsallam: To be honest, I am very late to perform in Beirut. I was supposed to perform in Beirut five years ago when I was offered to join a rap battle. That didn’t work out due to some conflicts. I then chose to go to Moscow to continue my education, forgetting about this. Some travel issues and depression also didn’t allow me to reach Beirut quickly. But, here we are in 2021. 

I was so amused during the performance. I like Beirut. I think it’s similar to Amman but it’s even smaller and more colorful. I even liked the electricity cuts during my stay in beirut, to be honest. I love these details. It was surreal.

All these feelings were expressed in the performance because this was the first time I visited Beirut and it was the first time I dealt with a new audience. In all my past performances, I am usually familiar with the audience. When you know the audience, you know their familiar faces, the songs they like, how many of them they are, and how often they attend my performances in Amman or Palestine. But, this wasn’t the case in Beirut. I felt like it was my first time performing and I was introducing myself to the audience. 

Is this why you said you were nervous on stage before you started performing?

I was testing the crowd—who they are, what they know about me, how much they know about my music, the songs they like, and what they want. I was surprised by the audience. Even during these conditions and an economic crisis, people attended the show and sang along to my songs.

About your own albums, do you have a favorite one or an album that resonates with you the most?

Honestly, no. This is a strange question. I love them all. But I think I like The Last Step album, considering it was the first statement that I wanted to make. Every album has a stage. For example, I produced The Last Step because I wanted to leave the country [Jordan] and I thought I didn’t want to make music afterward. So, I poured my heart and soul into this album. It’s my fingerprint and my craft. 

I did not want to talk politics in my first album. I was against taking the political direction from the beginning, which was very popular among other artists at that time. But, I wanted to improve the art form itself. So, my album turned out to be more personal and it represents a milestone.

After this album, I decided to be more critical. So I produced the album Postcolonialism, which is more political and it included concepts and ideologies. I released this while in Russia.

Shortly after, I had some struggles and did controversial moves in my career and this was when I started working on my third album, Dyslexia. I wrote it while dealing with myself, my mental health issues, anxiety, and PTSD. It’s a very personal album, yet strange and serious. It’s spiritual and made up of tracks tackling ego, and being broken and sad. I just wanted to express myself, which is why there were songs where I was just talking to myself.

These three albums complement each other, with the same producer Ayman Salhi. I call them the trilogy. You listen to The Last Step, then Postcolonialism, then Dyslexia to understand who I am as a rapper. 

Do you think that the purpose of your music is to create resistance and be revolutionary or is it more of a personal experience?

I don’t know to be honest. It’s a very deep question. Do I want resistance? No, I don’t think so. I don’t want to be perceived as the resistance artist. As an artist, I am more involved in art than resistance. Being resistant is natural to me as a Palestinian. My existence is resistance. I am Palestinian, therefore I exist, and you cannot cancel me.

I am not resisting on the ground but my music speaks about it. I like to express resistance in the form of art which then creates a certain wave reaching the world; this is what you see as resistance.

There’s also a lot of satire in your music. People usually comment about how natural, unrehearsed, and genuine your songs and stage performances are. Why’s that and do you think everyone understands this kind of satire? 

I am a genuine person. I don’t tackle topics that I am not interested in in the first place. I tackle any topic that intrigues me, be it  sexual, political, or social. It could be anything that I’m simply annoyed about. If my back hurts, I want to rap about how my back hurts.

Sometimes, the audience even surprises me in how they understand my songs. Some of them add another dimension to the meaning. I also think my songs give space for different interpretations considering my lyrics tend to be abstract.

Sometimes, I like to do storytelling to show off my storytelling capabilities. But, I never repeat the same pattern because I always want to bring something new and creative to the table. So, maybe that’s what’s strange about my music. You can listen to five of my songs but they are all different, falling under one identity. That is how I feel about it. But, in general, you think your audience gets what you want and the emotions you are trying to convey. 

I even have fans who have done tattoos of me. And I feel there’s a bond or a connection between us. I click with them on a personal level. Some fans even message me that they’ve stopped being suicidal because of my music. It’s a responsibility. Sometimes, I get scared because I don’t feel that important.

And that’s probably because there’s a lot of depth to your music. 

I acknowledge that I have depth and I have high technicalities in my songs which can even overshadow the depth of the lyrics. The beats and rhythms can make you forget about the lyrics. 

Going back to your audience, what would you want people to take away from your music and performances?

I don’t want them to take anything. I just want them to be better people. It is important to be more forgiving and not give up. Don’t hurt anyone, don’t take things too seriously, don’t be too harsh on yourself, have fun with your time, and try to be a better person every morning.

These are the messages that I try to tell myself. The audience is free to take away whatever they want from my music, but I want them to at least enjoy themselves while listening to it.

Are you planning any future collaborations, in the Arab world specifically?

Let’s focus more on Lebanon. I’d like to collaborate with El Rass, Hamed Sinno, Khansa, Blu Fiefer, Chyno—anyone that I love and believe has something to add.  

How would you describe the hip-hop/rap scene in the Arab world?

I am growing in a very scary way. Now is when the industry is starting to prosper. We’re currently witnessing the impact of the work done in the past 20 years.

Why do you think that’s happening?

Because the young generation has grown. That’s the first reason. The second reason is related to classism, which is my theory.

It started after Mahragan music, which includes some hip-hop elements, became popular in Egypt. The reaction to this kind of music was that some people wanted something “cooler” to resonate with them. So, they started listening to rap. But, rap existed all along. 

We’re still the same rappers with the same attitude, tackling the same topics. The only difference is that people started accepting it more. So, now the audience is divided between Mahrajan on one side and rap on the other side. Since this started in Egypt, it’s been perpetuated in the rest of the Arab world—because Egypt is the “Mother of the World.” 

Many successful artists have found inspiration to create art in their toxic environments and through hardships. With the risk of sounding like I’m romanticizing tragedy, do you think that this applies to you as well?

First, you’re assuming that I’m super successful, which I hope I am.  

Yes, creating music and art is my comfort zone. Everyone has passed through many experiences. I don’t think anyone is empty.

When it comes to my own life, I’ve faced difficulties in my house, my school, and the where I lived—like bullying, mental health issues, toxic fans, negative evaluations, bad artwork, and heartbreaks. Things that everybody might deal with. It depends on how you deal with these experiences.

Everybody copes with their problems differently and that is why we are different. I started young and I projected all my hardships and problems, whether mature or not, into art.

Something could be so silly but I make a huge deal out of it. For example, I like to draw toilets. I’ve never sold a painting of a toilet though. As an artist, this makes me confused because how come people don’t understand that toilets are amazing. This is why I wrote in one of my songs that “art comes from the toilet.”

Everyone has his/her own experiences and it depends on how they perceive them. I don’t know, did I answer your question?

You did. Moving on, what are some of the things that you learned or unlearned throughout your career?

I unlearned many things, and I learned many things. And this shows in my journey.

For example, I used to swear a lot in my songs when I first started. I am not proud of it. But, I was anti-religion, anti-spirituality, anti-anything.

Then, I started to be more interested in spirituality and finding this feeling of comfort within. I also learned to calm myself down and learned that things take time. I learned to enjoy the journey because I tend to never enjoy the process and just wait for the results. 

And did you ever look back and feel like you needed to change something?

I never look back. If it’s a trauma, I am going to solve it. If it is PTSD, I am going to try unfolding it and channeling it. I learned from the past, and I learned not to repeat certain actions. But, I don’t regret anything. 

What are your future plans, is there an album you’re working on?

No, I’m not and I won’t be working on albums anytime soon. I’m tired from making albums. They’re time and effort consuming. But, I am doing my first solo art exhibition this year and it’s going to be crazy. 

Where will it be?

In Amman, hopefully. 

I’m also expanding my music tours. I’ve reached Lebanon, Egypt, and I want to reach Europe. I’d rather not spoil it. But we’re expanding and looking into other markets, and that makes me happy.

At the same time, I’m working on art pieces and developing my own tech startup. I also want to hit the gym and smoke less, which are big steps and as important to me as my albums and tours. I want to take care of my health and my mind.

You can buy or listen to Dyslexia, Emsallam’s latest album, on your platform of choice here.