I sit down with Kassem – who goes by the moniker Yeah-Seen – one-half of the politically charged rap group pioneering a small movement of rap artists emerging in the camps – who describes his trajectory in the hip-hop world since he first started rapping and making beats in 2002. Kassem, 20, and his partner Mohammed, who goes by the name TNT, taught themselves how to mix and record starting the group with a basic desire to voice the concerns of their generation. They raised money for equipment to record their first album, “Ella Mata Vol. 1″, through working various menial jobs and having friends in Australia sell and distribute their CDs. Signed on by a production company in Jordan for their second album, Kassem emphasizes how I-Voice’s songs are primarily inspired by daily life in the camps.
Hearing the themes he addresses and seeing the sights that inspire his writing, there is no shortage of material to keep his music flowing. And there is certainly no shying away from voicing disgust at the dire state of camp life in Lebanon. Aside from daily survival in the impoverished camps, recurring political clashes between Palestinian parties further complicate the difficult living conditions. Kassem expresses how the songs are relevant to youth on themes like Arab unity and inter-Palestinian politics that he feels have lost sight of the Palestinian cause, as in the song “Inkilaab” (Revolution), and it’s getting the youth charged up with “a voice that will not be silenced” that concerns him most.
I-Voice is gaining momentum internationally as hip-hop takes shape as a definitive voice for the Palestinian Cause. Other Arab rap-groups, such as DAM from the West Bank – most recently featured in the documentary, “Slingshot Hip-Hop” – emerge with their own “musical Intifada” for a generation in intangible exile. These groups stand to inspire youth like Kassem, who aspires for an authentically Arab and Palestinian voice and message in his own music. Nowadays, I-Voice is planning collaborations with DAM, although I-Voice can’t go to the Occupied Territories and DAM can’t travel to Lebanon. But Kassem asserts that they can exchange beats online, and collaborate on lyrics through modern technology.
Kassem pointedly suggests that the best hip-hop is born out of struggle, showing his deep interest in knowing the personal history that led his musical heroes to rapper stardom. Kassem relays, “In the beginning, I was scared of [hip-hop]. I didn’t want to talk about the ‘typical’ rapper stuff.” Presumably, the glamorized “bling, money and women” in today’s hip-hop evade the reality that Kassem wishes to portray in his music. “I discovered hip-hop through listening to artists like Tupac, Wu-Tang and had the songs translated for me. Once I knew more about it, I started feeling it…. Hip-hop really is about the hard life you live, and the artists that I like the most, all of their stories begin with something big”, he adds.
For the musical evolution of I-Voice – everything is about self-education. “I love hip-hop. And I need to be educated to be good at it,” he tells me how his love of reading history and politics has shaped the words that are often considered too sharp by his own community members who seem to have passed through the same phase of hesitation and acceptance with hip-hop. The duo’s sharp-worded criticisms of local politicians, the media and NGOs meant their music was once met with controversy resulting in warnings and threats against performing songs like Inkilaab that are most vocal on these issues. But Kassem says how more recently many people in the camps, including elders that once condemned the group, have expressed that the lyrics are real and something that speaks to them. This acceptance, he adds ” it gives us a type of power. Let’s us keep spreading the message”. “I see other guys…my friends, they all go into the same [university] Majors, do the same things. They become bored of life. But then they see me reading, they hear the political in our songs… I think I’ve inspired them to become educated on these things too”.
Even when their songs aren’t blasting blatant systemic injustices, the conveyance of the day-to-day nuance of growing up as refugees in Lebanon posits powerful delivery. “Everything around me inspires me. I can pick up a pen and write about the street in front of me,” referring to the eventful, cramped and poverty-stricken alleys around the camp. These sights are documented in his song “My Daily Life” which pens his journey from his doorstep to a friend’s house describing this route and observations in the camp succinctly in an uncensored flow.
The lyrics he chooses, and the depth with which he describes his music shows that Kassem’s found quite a way with words. Picking and choosing a theme, him and Turek assess how they can approach songs and lyrics with a different lens. Along with the ability to lyrically play, Kassem speaks of I-Voice’s 100% Arabic sound, an authentic brand they have labeled T-Rap (Tarab Rap). The idea is to mix rap music to live percussion – or the sounds of Dabke music – that has an authentically Arab feeling. They plan on recording with live musicians to give “everything an oriental” feel. And they blend in the sounds around them, recording the daily life in the camps and mixing them with their own beats to add another layer of closeness for the listener.
Kassem’s own ambitions are not only about igniting youth consciousness, but making the skill as accessible to anyone who wants it. Though he professes to be a self-taught amateur, he’s taking the opportunity to make the music available for youth that want to explore it. And so other groups spread like seeds thanks to Kassem, Turek and a handful of others who help produce and sample groups wanting to uncover hidden rapping skills. Only one rule applies – no copyrights are granted. Songs can be shared, sampled and used as freely as they are recorded in the home-built studio. He works with Studio Camps, an organization that promotes the use of collective visual works through experimental film on the side, as well as a production company in Egypt and hopes to continue his studies in Musical and Sound Engineering Production in Canada. While a second album is slated for release by year’s end, I ask whether he worries about losing touch with his musical collaborators from afar. “No” he responds assuredly. There’s technology to ease the connection between artists – although it would take a lot more than distance to silence this message.
You can watch this video on I-Voice and check-out their myspace page at www.myspace.com/ivoicee for more information about the group.