Hip-hop is not so much a music form as it is a culture.
And this sentiment will be on full display this weekend at Sole DXB. Back at Dubai Design District for another year, the festival will display the fundamental elements of the scene, from performances by genre pioneers to showcases by up-and-coming streetwear brands, with entertainment, exclusive sneaker launches and film screenings thrown in for good measure.
Taking part in this year's event is Narcy. The renowned Iraqi-Canadian rapper, born Yassin Alsalman, is one of the first major hip-hop artists to come from the Arab world. He says that his performance on Saturday night alongside his heroes, and headliners, Black Star and Wu-Tang Clan will close a wonderful chapter of his enduring relationship with the UAE.
Born in Dubai before moving to Montreal the age of 5, Narcy spent most of his youth shuttling between the cities. After finishing his high school education in the UAE, Narcy launched his career in the arts, with his work spanning both music and film – he appeared in the 2009 Emirati film City of Life, playing the role of conflicted teenager Khalfan.
"There is no doubt the UAE gave me my start in many ways, in both music and life," he says. "I made many friends here and when I return it always centres me spiritually and emotionally.
“To now perform at Sole DXB with all these great artists is amazing. You know, I bought Black Star’s album in Dubai before I even started rapping. To be back here and sharing the stage with them is me coming full circle. And that’s what hip-hop has given me throughout my life, a bunch of full circles.”
When Narcy says he "studied" Sole DXB headliners Wu-Tang Clan and Black Star, it is not a declaration of fandom. In addition to his touring and recording schedule, the rapper also teaches a class at Montreal's Concordia University, which is called Hip-Hop: Past, Present and Future. It all sounds unbelievably fun as Narcy spends each semester breaking down seminal albums including Black Star's Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star from 1998 and Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 classic debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
"It is really Black Star's album that inspires the ethos of my class. And by that I mean its themes of self-determination and redefinition," he says. "It's about the students putting away their phones and laptops and we discuss what is happening in the world and how they can navigate through that. At the end of the day, it is about knowledge of self."
Narcy uses that lens when approaching his own art. His hefty body of work is full of potent observations on the sociopolitical issues facing the region and life in the Arab diaspora. This is on display in his latest album, the soulful Space Time, and the fierce new track Bigger Than Baghdad. Released last month, the song is a salute to Iraqi protesters rallying against corruption and violence.
The song begins with a segment from a patriotic tune by singer Abdallah Jasim, in which he croons: "Oh, Iraq! I want to see and you are on my mind. I want to wipe your tears, my dear."
We then hear Narcy's voice on the track – in both Arabic and English – providing context to what's happening in his homeland. Over thumping oriental drums and looped oud riffs provided by Iraqi producer Sandhill, Narcy shouts out all the cities engulfed in protests while slamming the global response to the unrest. "I hear the international silence / they fear our science and history / and try to deny us more than a world's messiahs."
The song is accompanied by a video, directed by Narcy, that is from images of the protests. "The whole thing came together in four days. I wrote the lyrics in the studio and was editing the video before the song was even mixed," he says. "I added the English verse in there to address the media in the West who have been in silent in what is going on in Iraq. It is me telling them, 'I hear your silence because you have denied the richness of our history as you always have.'"
Narcy says the turbulent period parts of the Arab world are facing has spawned a new generation of potent artists, such as Lebanese rock band Mashrou' Leila and Egyptian group Cairokee. "A lot of it is down to a mix of the internet generation and a new approach to how we, as Arabs, are generally viewing the world," he says. "This will result in a lot of new, important voices and we are already seeing that today.
"They don't come from major labels. They are mostly independent and they have a deep relationship with the youth. These artists are using their own platforms to spread positive messages about the beauty of our people. This is important."
Narcy performs at Sole DXB on Saturday, December 7. The festival runs from Thursday, December 5 to Saturday, December 7. Doors open at 12pm, with the exception of Thursday which is from 6.30pm; tickets are Dh245 for a day pass and Dh375 for weekend pass; Dubai Design District, Dubai; www.soledxb.com