11/08/2014 05:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Best of Abu Dhabi: Learning the Games People Play Through The Narcicyst's Rise


Director Ali F. Mostafa with Yassin Alsalman AKA The Narcicyst (center), on the set of Rise

The talented, charismatic, popular Iraqi-Canadian rapper named The Narcicyst first appeared on my cultural radar in 2009 when I watched Ali F. Mostafa's iconic Emirati feature City of Life. The Narcicyst, AKA Yassin Alsalman revealed through his portrayal of Khalfan, the hopes, realities and fears of the citizens of Dubai, a city that's moving mega fast on the modern metropolis super-highway, yet continues to strive to respect and uphold the important traditions of its past. In some ways, Alsalman is a similarly, wonderfully complex combination of these opposites, having one foot deeply planted in his Iraqi heritage, and UAE upbringing, and one equally strong foothold within his Canadian life. As most of us do who have left our homelands to begin a life, and try our fortunes, in another country, Alsalman continues to travel back and forth between his new home and his cultural home, having even tried to move back to the Emirates, for good, last year.

In his latest short film, a senses-overload experience titled Rise, Alsalman explores his roots and his ability to step away to comment on them. It's a great thing, watching films by multi-cultural human beings and artists, because these always help explain a part of myself that remains puzzling at best. Am I truly a first world citizen, or do I remain part of the old world, in my ways, says and likes? I'll never really know the answer, but each viewing of a film like Rise, and the conversation that followed with the film's amazing creator during the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, does bring me closer to the truth.

So here is a portrait of the artist and the entrepreneur (Alsalman recently set up his own multi-media company, The Medium) that is The Narcicyst. For a short interview with Alsalman, part of my "Selfies Interviews", check out the YouTube video at the end of this piece.

You came onto my radar with City of Life, and immediately hit a chord with me. Also you have this prosperous music career and now you've combined the two with Rise. Was it the first time you've blended your arts?

Yassin Alsalman: Not really, I've always approached my visual element of work in a film fashion. The first video I put out as a solo artist was P.H.A.T.W.A., the one about the airport. We have an eleven minute version of that which did the festival circuit as well, and a music video version. Very much in the Michael Jackson vein of inspiration when it comes to my work, especially my visual work. I like to have a narrative that speaks to the entire record but in a video format. Since then I've released a lot of videos but this is the first one that I helmed and wrote, produced and acted. There is one song in there that isn't by me, all the rest is produced by me, musically, not just the lyrics. This is the first project where I have many hats on.

Can you talk about your roots in the Arab world?

Alsalman: I was born in Dubai, I left when I was five, moved back when I was thirteen to Abu Dhabi, left when I was eighteen back to Canada, and then about two years ago, I tried to move out here. So me and my wife packed our stuff up and decided to move to the Emirates, to start a record label here, but then when I got a feel of the scene, I realized I had to make a decision. I can't be an independent artist here and survive, raise my family, there's no real infrastructure, musically. Especially for my music, there is a low ceiling, there's only so many times you can perform in the cities, and even when you get approached by the big music entities here, as a local artist, they treat you as such. They don't pay you accordingly to what you should make to survive in this country. Just to record the music to be on stage costs money. To pay the producers, the engineers, so if you can't sustain that end of your career you can't really keep going. I did the math and it didn't make sense. At that point I felt defeated, but I didn't want to leave here without something that represented the sort of internal clash I felt.

Is that the mood Rise rose out of then?

Alsalman: Definitely. It was based on a dream I had, but then obviously expanded it into something that was a visual representation of many divisions in my life which are the modern and the ancient. So the Ferrari vs. the horse, the Babylonian Ziggurat vs. the modern buildings. There's a lot of imagery, even the star that is on the horse's head is one of the Babylonian stars which represent prosperity. It's very layered. My own background is Iraqi. In the film there's that scene in the business meeting, and he starts seeing the swirls. That's work by a Tunisian graffiti artist called eL Seed, part of our artists' collective The Medium. But the words that are in that are "Love, Prosperity, Equality, Art Culture," all the positive things that you want to come out. Things that you appreciate when you're a child, because none of the real life stresses exist. It was also a subtle message for my son's generation to come, that you can't buy culture, you can't buy art, you can't create a cultural scene without fostering it. They are doing it with film here, in Dubai, in Abu Dhabi, but it's not really being done with music. A lot of the music that comes into the country or into the region is the stuff that's on the top-forty that will pull the masses in to fill up the venue. And they'll have somebody local open, but I guarantee you that if you speak to that opener they are being treated as a second class artist.


And that's pretty much happening all over the world, with homegrown talent.

Alsalman: As soon as I said "I'm leaving" that's when people started knocking on my door.

Because you're no longer...

Alsalman: Accessible. I had sacrificed and lost a lot coming here, but then my wife got pregnant, we had a baby, our first. We had him in Canada, but she got pregnant here, he's in the film in her womb. She's the secretary in the film. It was really a blessing and a curse, the experience I had here. I love this place but, when it comes to being an artist, I felt the business come first. There's nothing wrong with that, but there has to be a balance. Back in Canada, we were basement rapping and recording in really bad studios and then eventually moved up to better studios, but it's still really a bedroom recording situation sometimes and sometimes we get access to big studios. We performed at little clubs and really great venues and festivals. So we had that spectrum. There are rehearsal spaces for bands to go and rehearse, but there's really no access here for young musicians. It's not promoted as a possibility of being a successful career.

What's the message behind Rise?

Alsalman: The film is very widely open to interpretation but if you watch it several times you see the layers of meaning in it. There's a clear message which is saying don't lose your soul searching for financial success because that will come if you just put in the time and effort of being yourself and expressing yourself clearly.

There is one sentence in one of the songs that I loved and it's "I wonder how many know it's a game?" And it is, life really is a game. And a puzzle. Plus a power struggle.

Alsalman: It's called "Schoolyard" and the song itself is about learning the power dynamics between man and man, and man and woman, and then self and the manifestation of self which is the ego. That song is basically about when I was a kid there were bullies in the schoolyard that used to pick on me and I learned that my teachers had more power over me because they were teaching me, and I learned the power of structure in life. As I grew up I realized it became more of a game because adults try to act as though they have things in control but they don't. Life will take over you at any time, you know?!

Of course, one would never ask this of a US or UK rapper. But do you feel, because of your Arab background, a responsibility to represent your culture, your Iraqi roots, your people?

Alsalman: I don't feel a responsibility, it's a very natural conversation that I'm having with myself. I have to do it, it's just who I am. An identity crisis but also an identity realization. People used to call me a political artist but I'm not a political artist. Politics divide people, music brings people together. So that's a bit of a clash for me. I'm a politicized person, when I walk in a place, even when I walk in a place like this and I look the way I look, people are like immediately, "who's that guy, why does he wear that, what does he stand for?" Then when I go back home, and I walk in with my beard at the airport or somewhere I'm an Arab guy. There's always a political view. I'm never comfortable.

So how do you deal with that, artistically?

Alsalman: With my next album it is very much a story of my life kind of record. Being a young boy and the realizations I had when I was a kid, to the realizations I had when I was a man, to being a son, to all the realizations that made me Yassin, who I really am. It's more about the human element of being an Arab man growing up in the West, than it is about being an Arab man. Also being from Iraq, it's a nation that has been forgotten. Because of the history of violence and war and misappropriation of power held over the population. People tend to forget it, even when you watch the films that are playing here, besides the Iraqi films, Iraq isn't mentioned, Syria is mentioned, Egypt is mentioned, Palestine is mentioned sometimes, but Iraq is like a lost thought. And that's partly for us to be blamed, because we disassociated during Saddam and after Saddam, and we also got bamboozled. We got lied to and look at what is happening now, it's even worse than it's ever been. But more than anything, the kids of Iraq I feel a responsibility towards. Because I'm a young Iraqi kid, I have an Iraqi kid and the opportunities that I've been blessed with, if I were to squander them I'd be a fool!

Do you think that negativity, unfortunately, sells?

Alsalman: Yeah, if I was talking about "shoot-them-up-bang-bang" I don't know what it would do for my career because I don't look like a "shoot-em-up-bang-bang" kind of guy but it would definitely be something labels would be more happy to send out to people. At the same time I think being an Arab artist in the West, labels don't know how to sell that, because in the West the main representation of Arabs is really, a show like Homeland. Which I go at on Twitter all the time! I shoot at them and Bill Maher all the time.

What are three words you would use to describe yourself?

Alsalman: I teach a class at Concordia University [in Montreal], about what is happening in world around Hip Hop culture. I ask people for five words, in my class. But I'm being put on the spot right here. I would say grateful, humbled, not humble but humbled, and I think big. Too big sometimes.

All images courtesy of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, used with permission.