One of the most interesting aspects of hip-hop culture is its ability to filter the political issues of our time through a human lens. In the case of Iraqi-born rap crew Euphrates, the group's poignant, penetrating rhymes highlight the turmoil that America's War on Terror has caused Arab people both at home and abroad.
"Hip-hop is universal," front man the Narcicyst says, on the line from his home in Montreal. "If you go to the streets of Baghdad right now, they've got hip-hop over there. It's infiltrated every single scene and mind state in every single country that I've been to."
"I love hip-hop," he continues. "It has really been the saviour in my life. When I get on-stage, I tend to zone out. All the rage that I have in me from whatever span of weeks between two performances--it comes out in a positive way. It's definitely a means of expelling negativity."
Euphrates--at the Under the Volcano festival in Cates Park on Sunday (August 8)--consists of rapper the Narcicyst and producers Nofy Fannan and Habillis. The artists have been friends since their childhood in the United Arab Emirates, where they moved as kids. After their families immigrated to Canada in the late '80s, all three fell in love with hip-hop and eventually began making music together in the late '90s. Their 2003 debut album, A Bend in the River, is a powerful outing that merges eastern and western influences: Middle Eastern melodies mingle with break beats, English rhymes are followed by Arabic lines, and lyrics name-drop Edward Said while weaving in samples from Noam Chomsky speeches.
One of the disc's standout tracks, "Shalom Aleikum", features Jewish-Canadian rapper Rugged Intellect. "We got that all the way to Israel and Palestine," the Narcicyst says. "We got Palestinians writing us: 'Yo, it's incredible that you guys got together and did a song about peace.' " The collaboration has led to school workshops in which Euphrates and Rugged Intellect use hip-hop to teach kids about the historic conflict and advocate peace between Jews and Arabs.
Euphrates' sophomore album, Stereotypes Incorporated, is set to drop later this summer. It will include a song called "Creep Up" which is written from the perspective of an Arab-American who is broke, drinking too much, and having serious marital problems. He sees a draft call in the newspaper, signs up for the U.S. military, and is immediately shipped overseas, where he finds himself in the midst of a prison torture scandal. "It's a commentary on Abu Ghraib," the Narcicyst says. "I wrote it from a human perspective. As for the soldiers, I feel sorry for a few of them because a lot of them are younger than me and they're out there and they had no clue what they were getting into."
"And the Bush administration, they're looking at their money," he adds. "At the end of the day, this was all one corporate move. That's what's fucked up: that all these lives had to be lost because of four or five or 12 men's fat pockets."
Given the depressing nature of the times that we're living in, one has to wonder how the group manages to keep its positive attitude. "I get my hope from my sister, from my mother, from my girl--they are all Iraqi women," the Narcicyst answers. "My inspiration is my family and women worldwide. Us men are idiots. We blew everything up; we fucked everything up. So at the end of the day, I feel like the purest thing we've got, the realest thing we've got on earth, and the only reason we exist is women. That energy source really drives me--that's what gives me hope."