Feeding the fire
Queer Arab hip-hop duo NaR represent for an invisible community.
By Marke B.
Whenever I've told folks they have to check out "this queer Arab hip-hop crew NaR, performing at the STD clinic in the Castro," they look at me like they're expecting a punch line. And I guess it is pretty damn funny it's taken so long for a queer Arab anything to take the stage in the Castro, let alone a male-female hip-hop duo of Lebanese HIV activists. (The fact that Magnet, the STD clinic in question, offers one of the two live performance spaces left in that obscenely rent-inflated gay neighborhood Harvey's restaurant is the other is pretty "funny," too, but that's another issue.)
Yes, Virginia, queer Arab MCs actually do exist and are finally spiking the mic in the Bay Area. The Arab (and Arab American) hip-hop scene in general is blowing up, with acts like the N.O.M.A.D.S. (Notoriously Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Shit), mad-cute rapper Iron Sheik, Israeli-Palestinian collective MWR, female Arab MC Invincible out of Detroit, and east Tennessean Palestinian American crew the Phillistines giving voice to such issues as Palestinian liberation, economic exploitation, cultural invisibility and, hey, even the fact that everyone automatically thinks they're terrorists.
Taking it one step further, queer Arab outfits like the Palestinian-Hawaiian group Juha have started addressing the same-sex question as well and built a solid queer base in the States for their message. But Bay Area appearances of these crews are rare, so NaR's upcoming concert is quite an event for those of us still hungry for some representation on the stage.
"The mere fact that people are so surprised that we are a queer Arab hip-hop crew goes to show how much people like to live in closets," Tru Bloo (a.k.a. Nyla Moujaes), NaR's female half, says. "Hip-hop tells the stories of marginalized people to a broader audience. Queer Arab Americans and Arabs exist and experience racism and xenophobia in addition to the homophobia and misogyny that queers in the US face generally. In the hip-hop community, we hope to transcend that and be respected as artists who just happen to be queer and Arab."
That may sound awfully optimistic to those of us queer Arab American rap fans who've often found the prevalent homophobia of commercial hip-hop hard to stomach, but it's inspiring to see that some folks still dream the underground hip-hop unity dream. And, even better, that those folks look like us this time around.
A first-gen Syrian-Lebanese who came up in Vegas, Tru Bloo now makes her home in the Bay Area, where she is studying to become a lawyer. She met her performance partner, MC Zen (Mazen Nassar), a Lebanese native, in Beirut a year ago at a benefit for Lebanese LGBTIQ center HELEM. They hit it off immediately "like brother and sister" and joined forces as NaR ("fire" in Arabic). They both found their way back to the Bay and were soon penning lyrics like "Images on TV describe me as a terrorist / because my people resist imperialist / attacks on our homes. In fact / what would you do if your home's attacked? / You'd fight back," from their track "Meen Ana Meen Inti." NaR debuted live this summer at PeaceOut 2005, the giant homo-hop fest in Oakland. "The response during and after the show was amazing," Tru Bloo says of their debut. "People wanted to talk, network, collaborate on music, and have us perform at other events. Many Middle Eastern queers approached us and thanked us profusely for giving them a voice. One even came with tears of gratitude in her eyes. It touched us deeply."
In the past few months, NaR have performed in the Bay Area at 21 Grand, Counterpulse, Medjool, the Noodle Factory, and the East Bay Arts Alliance center. In the process, they say, they've built a fanbase that "crosses racial, religious, geographical, gender, and sexual lines. "
The NaR sound combines influences like Arab music acts Fairuz and Umm Kulthoum with socially conscious hip-hop along the lines of Spearhead, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Fugees. The bilingual duo currently has four songs including the rousing "Meen Ana, Meen Inti" available on the Internet, produced by Bay Area hip-hop impresario Galen (you can download the tracks at www.myspace.com/hotnar), and is now at work on a full-length set to drop early next year. In the meantime, collaborations with Invincible, the Philistines, the Mamas (Aima and Persia), and the Bay Area's bedrock homo-hop crew Deep Dickollective are in the works, while Tru Bloo pursues her legal studies and MC Zen organizes an HIV medication distribution network in Lebanon. Their appearance at Magnet, as part of promoters Kirk Read and Larry Bob's open mic Smack Dab monthly there, is a rare chance for their fans to catch them in SF as they work to complete these projects.
"As Arabs we are often seen as terrorists and threats to the state, even when we talk about humanity and social change," Tru Bloo says. "But music is a universal language that helps bring change. Kids don't listen to teachers in school the way they listen to MCs spittin' their flows. We try to send strong messages that will inspire people to research the issues we address, while getting them to shake their booties a bit."
NaR perform Wed/21, 8 p.m., as part of the monthly Smack Dab open mic night every third Wednesday at Magnet, 4122 18th St., SF. Free. All ages. (415) 581-1600. www.magnetsf.org. For details on Smack Dab, go to www.sfqueer.com.
For more information on NaR, go to www.myspace.com/hotnar.