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Young Iraqis turn to rap after the war to express trauma, dissent and protest

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What's the most effective way to express trauma, dissent, protest, community organizing? Quite a few young Iraqis are choosing rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "P.H.A.T.W.A.")

NARCY NARCE: (Rapping) Some things I'm unsure of, like an Arab man at an airport, when you wonder what he's there for. Therefore, I stand up for lands stuck near war in tandem, passport control, where I'm picked at random. Damn son.

FADEL: That's Narcy Narce, a Canadian rapper of Iraqi descent, and he's just one of many people in the diaspora sharing his lived experience post the U.S. war in Iraq through hip-hop. And inside Iraq, many artists are also choosing rap to depict life in the aftermath of that war and occupation. A lot of them are in their 20s and don't even remember an Iraq before the U.S. invasion. Dalia Al-Dujaili is a British Iraqi writer, and she recently wrote about all this in The Guardian.

DALIA AL-DUJAILI: Iraqis, both in the region and in the diaspora, haven't had much time to even begin to heal from the scars of the war because we kind of lived with the aftereffects of the war. The way that we experienced the country, either in Iraq or from the diaspora, was defined by terror, by war, by bombs, by Bush, by Saddam, by Blair. And we knew that that was not the reality of us. We knew that that was not our identity, that war and terror did not define us and did not define our culture and our amazing legacy in history. So I think we are a very mobilized generation that are so determined to flip that narrative and to remove those kinds of associations with Iraqi identity.

FADEL: One example you cite is a song from an Iraqi New Zealander rapper who calls himself I-NZ. His song "This Is Iraq" - it's a take on the Childish Gambino song "This Is America."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS IRAQ")

I-NZ: (Rapping) Yeah. This is Iraq corruptin' the area, Farsi hysteria, sayin' we gon' take care o’ ya. Na, na, I might get shot for this. Na, na, you might get blocked from this. Na, na, I'ma go train a kid, na, na, wash off the innocence.

FADEL: And you called this, quote, "perhaps the most potent example of this" generation of artists. What stands out about this particular song?

AL-DUJAILI: Yeah. I love this song, and I love the video. So obviously, "This Is America" came out during a time when there were lots of protests and revolts against police brutality in the U.S. and a lot of corruption within the state. And this is something that occurs in many other countries such as Iraq. And I think it's so interesting, this mirroring of Iraq and America, because I guess a lot of Iraqis see America as the antithesis of Iraq. But to kind of directly compare the two through music I think is so biting and so direct.

FADEL: I mean, I do wonder why you think young Iraqis have taken on a very American art form - and an American art form that has its own history of pointing out repression and oppression, specifically of Black Americans in this country - why they've taken on that language, that genre, to talk about the corruption in their country, the aftermath of this war - the U.S. war - the occupation.

AL-DUJAILI: The thing about hip-hop is that organically it grew as a protest genre. And one of the most, I think, powerful ways to protest is through satire, because satire makes protest and political commentary so accessible, and it kind of uses language and imagery that we already use and know in our day to day, rather than kind of like adopting jargon or using institutional language, which kind of alienates a lot of audiences.

FADEL: So far we've talked about Narcy Narce, Canadian Iraqi rapper.

AL-DUJAILI: Yeah.

FADEL: We've talked about I-NZ, Iraqi New Zealander born in Scotland, now living in Dubai. When you talk about Iraqi rappers that are living in Iraq, is there a difference in the music and what they produce?

AL-DUJAILI: I think so. I think they talk about, you know, the daily kind of struggles of life there. They talk about the electricity not turning on, having no access to...

FADEL: Right.

AL-DUJAILI: ...Clean water. They talk about police patting them down and searching them and giving them a hard time. They talk about the school infrastructure not being put in place. They talk about, you know, specific politicians, or they make, like, vague remarks to these politicians. But if you look at diaspora Iraqis, I think not just rappers, but a lot of diaspora Iraqi creatives in general, our view is a lot more kind of sweeping and a lot more about how we see Iraq from a distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAPSY")

KHALIFA OG: (Rapping in non-English language).

FADEL: There's a rapper that you write about, Khalifa OG. I just want to play a little bit of his song "Tapsy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAPSY")

KHALIFA OG: (Rapping in non-English language).

FADEL: So what is he saying here?

AL-DUJAILI: Yeah. You've got me, like, jamming in the studio now.

FADEL: Yeah. Me too.

(LAUGHTER)

AL-DUJAILI: There's so much dark humor in his music. He basically says, "this is a democratic country, and we have the freedom to express. But don't you speak about them, my brother. Of course, that's not allowed." In this line about, you know, being a democratic country and we have the freedom to express, he's obviously being ironic here.

FADEL: Right.

AL-DUJAILI: And he says that we have - we're a democratic country, we have the freedom to express, but don't speak about them, and them being this like faceless, kind of, like, mass of leaders, because then you'll be in trouble.

FADEL: Yeah. And you quote Khalifa OG in your article. He was quoted in The National saying, you know, Iraqis don't want to talk about depressing things. They want to have fun. And that's why he puts satire in his music, right?

AL-DUJAILI: Yes, exactly. He said that as Iraqi people, we are upset. We're depressed all the time. We don't want to listen to sad things about our country. And I was there recently in March, and no one talks about the war. No one talks about the protests. No one talks about the political situation.

FADEL: Really?

AL-DUJAILI: Number one, because you get in trouble for talking about things like that quite directly, but also because people want to move on. They are sick and tired of being so depressed and always being the victims. You know, we are not victims, and we do have a lot of agency.

FADEL: But you also write about another Iraqi rapper named Vife. And he's very direct. His music is much darker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORY OF IRAQ")

VIFE: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: What is his message in the song "Story Of Iraq"?

AL-DUJAILI: With Vife, one of the lines is, "dead bodies like flower pots. In each corner, you'll find hundreds. Red blood colored the streets. And we became the victims." It's tricky because I wanted to include that to show the reality of what happened. And for so many Iraqis that are still processing and they're still healing, even the young generation, it is their realities. And to kind of ignore that is not doing any Iraqi justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORY OF IRAQ")

VIFE: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: That's journalist Dalia Al-Dujaili. She wrote a piece for The Guardian called "We Are A Forgotten People: How Rap Music Processed Trauma In Iraq."

Thanks for sharing this with us and taking the time to talk to us.

AL-DUJAILI: Thank you so much, Leila. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.