Nasser Kalaji: Beyond Documenting the Arab Hip-Hop Movement

Laith Majali and Nasser Kalaji are the creative forces behind Immortal, an enterprise devoted to documenting and supporting the Arab hip-hop movement through film and photography. They seek out projects that “deal with the realities of problems and issues in the Arab world,” a core theme expressed in Arab hip-hop music. They are doing much more than just documenting the movement these days, though—they’re becoming an integral part of the movement itself and affecting it in profound and positive ways. Here Nasser Kajali shares what it’s like to work with acclaimed hip-hop artists like Jay Electronica and other documentarians of the movement, like Mochilla, and world acclaimed musicians like Quantic. Immortal’s coverage of events in Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt reveals the raw quality and purity of this vibrant art form in its social and historical dimension.

Q: Of the Leica models you own, which ones are your favorites for shooting Arab hip-hop performances or street shots?

A: My overall favorite is the D-Lux4 and my favorite for low light is the X1 because of its excellent performance at high ISOs.

Q: With respect to your company Immortal, what is the separation of function between you and your mentor and partner Laith Majali?

A: In general, Laith covers the events and portraits and I mostly concentrate on the environment: the urban landscape in which the Arab hip-hop movement takes place; however, that’s not to say that Laith does not document this particular aspect as well, but personally I am more interested in capturing the realities that these rappers speak of more than I am interested in documenting shows; however, if Laith is not available, I shoot events as well.

On July 25th I covered one in Beirut and shot one in Amman five days later. Last Wednesday, on September 15th, there was an open mic night at a cool place called Ceasar’s—it’s located in my favorite part of Amman, an older section known as Jabal Alweideh. The DJ was a great guy who’s done 10-15 years of stuff in Jordan before people started noticing, DJ Sotosura, one of the founding figures of the Arab hip-hop movement. Open mic night was his idea, and the MC was a kid from Palestine—Boycott. He’s one of the best Arab MCs currently performing.

Q: What was the event like?

A: Well, Boycott—he’s about 24 years-old—is already one of the biggest names in the Arab hip-hop scene. He has special status because he’s from Palestine. It affects his flow, and his artistic expression is rooted in his life experiences in Palestine. He was in Denmark before Jordan; he’s been in Europe and North America. When he’s abroad he still raps in Arabic but crowds feel his vibe and energy even if they don’t understand the language. He works with two other well-known groups he’s part of and his shows are very, very visual—a lot of photography, current news from CNN, clips from old Arabic films.

The visual element of these shows helps to explain what it is they’re talking about to non-Arabic-speaking viewers. He and the groups he works with (Ramallah Underground and Tashweesh) project a tremendous amount of energy. At this open mic event, everybody stepped up—with the knowledge that they had a legend in the house. Some of it is improvisational and some guys recite from written or practiced texts. But a lot of them do it extemporaneously—on the spot.

Q: What do the lyrics speak to? What is their essential message?

A: Undoubtedly a lot of it is about the oppressive living conditions of young Arabs in the Middle East. Definitely the top guys—that’s what makes them so special—rap about these things in a very direct and emotionally compelling way. Some blame is, of course, directed at the West and at Israel, but it is equally clear that some of the messed up things in the Middle East are because of the people and their leadership. A lot of the guys in hip-hop talk about these things in their lyrics. Arab hip-hop is fearless and the Palestinian population and leadership are not off limits to criticism.

It’s important to realize that Arab hip-hop is not merely an Arabic version of a Western art form. A lot of guys don’t look at it as imported. We have a long literary tradition of poetic contests and battles in the Arab world going back hundreds of years. That’s why we look at hip-hop as something that has arisen from our own culture. Also, partly because of the desperate and dire situations in many parts of the region politics is part of everyday life. You’ll be engaged in a political discussion on practically any street corner. By nature Arabs are politically engaged and they always have opinions on everything. That’s the very foundation of the hip-hop movement—it’s a response to the conditions in which we live in.

Q: What kind of people are creating and performing Arab hip-hop? Are these middle-class guys educated in music or just street kids with talent?

A: It’s quite a mix, actually. A lot of these guys are well educated and articulate and others come from very poor backgrounds, but the best ones become more sophisticated and it can really change their lives. There has been a tendency, especially among newcomers, to assume: “If I say something negative about Israel and the West, no one will disagree with me so it’s good.” However, the more sophisticated ones get more respect, and that brings success in terms of touring, recognition, and money. A lot of American Arab hip-hop artists are into political issues as well and it always helps to have something with substance.

To give you an example of how Arab hip-hop can change someone’s life, I did a shoot with one guy from a refugee camp in Lebanon that I met 3 years ago. At the time, he was powering his studio with used car batteries. Now he’s studying music in Canada, got a lot of financial and emotional support in what he’s doing, and doors opened up for him. Other guys come from the other side of the equation—it’s a combination of both.

Hip-hop is one of the few remaining movements in this world that bypasses race, color, most of the social barriers found in society. You don’t have to be in the camps to speak of the conditions of the Arab world.

Q: A lot of Westerners perceive young Arabs in the Middle East as having one fairly uniform set of values, but you seem to be saying that Arab hip-hop is a true art form that transcends the differences between nationalities and ethnic groups and speaks to the commonality of the human experience.

A: Yes, it’s about humanity. Humans want the same thing. They want to have a certain amount of freedom. One thing that promotes freedom of speech is the Internet. That’s how we met most of the people we work with and document. Imagine a collaborative effort between a producer from Morocco and an MC from Lebanon who are now touring together.

Q: You mentioned that obviously the Internet and social networking sites also help the movement in getting exposure outside the region. Can you expand on that?

A: Jay Electronica came here to Jordan and then went with us and Mochilla to Egypt…that’s how we got to know him. He’s really the most sought-after rapper right now, and we got connected to him through Twitter. He had posted a question about the technical aspects of his camera, and we responded and within a matter of days he was on his way to Amman. That would never have happened back in the old days when you had to Telex each other!

In terms of getting exposure, we recently shot a video for Omar Offendum. Without 21st century electronic digital media how would we have released this video? Electronic media also improves the movement because we don’t have to deal with record companies. Artists now deal directly with fans—it’s raw and truthful without corporate involvement.

Q: How do you see your role and the role of Laith and Immortal changing going forward?

A: There’s no one else really doing what Laith and I are doing as far as I know.  One of the reasons why we’re doing okay is that there’s a demand for these things; however, we’re shifting from documenting to being a part of the movement—and I think we earned the trust of the rappers and producers through the early work of Laith; these guys have never been photographed nor has the essence of their message been captured by photographers so accurately prior to Laith. In January of last year we did our first shows in Amman and Beirut and it was an enormous success. We did a further series of shows in July in Beirut, Amman and Cairo; these shows, along with our photographic and music video capabilities and our connections with respected players in the game such as Mochilla and their base out in L.A., has sort of put us in the position where we are the go-to guys when it comes to certain projects. When a lot of rappers in the Arab world think of music videos, shows, collaborations, etc., Immortal is an integral part of what they are thinking.

Q: How have you been working with acclaimed hip-hop and musical groups such as Mochilla, Quantic, and Jay Electronica, and can you say something about them? Also, evidently the level of cooperation you experienced was based on mutual respect. Typically when a group of photographers cover an event it’s quite competitive, whereas you guys were respectful. Is that it?

A: Mochilla is based out of L.A. They are THE hip-hop photographers—they’ve shot almost 200 album covers—like Erica Badu, The Roots and Jurassic 5. They started out as photographers and now produce documentaries, organize shows, produce records, et cetera, et cetera. Laith approached them (through our good friend Jackson Allers) and got to meet them, and invited them to a show this past January. That particular visit was of paramount importance. I mean, these are the guys who have photographed Biggie, Nas, Damian Marley, Wu-Tang…to have them out here, documenting Arab hip-hop artists was certainly a very important development in the Arab hip-hop movement. Arab hip-hop is shaping the collective archive of the hip-hop movement.  I think that visit also had a profound impact on them as well.

Anyway, they’re two of the coolest, most down-to-earth guys and they really helped us develop and are an inspiration for us. After the success of the first show, they suggested that they bring out one of their friends, Quantic, an English musician based in Columbia who plays something like 7 or 9 instruments, so we invited him along too. We added another element to the show—Omar Offendum, who had just released his debut album and has a solid fan base in the region, and then the Twitter thing happened and Jay Electronica got on board. The next thing we knew, hip-hop heads from Ghana, L.A., Jordan, Detroit, London, New Orleans, Ireland and Cairo were talking about hip-hop, politics, history, music, football (soccer), religion and most importantly: the future. It was surreal to say the least, and I hope this will translate itself into something much bigger. It was a really important event for hip-hop music.

We really look up to Mochilla, two of the greatest hip-hop photographers, and we hope that we will one day accomplish what they have done. There was a respect all around at the show—we were capturing one of the best rappers in the world exploring a society that’s been marginalized, stereotyped and misunderstood for so long. There was an unspoken understanding of who was going to do what among the 4 photographers. We all trust one another. We were also respecting the moment and the integrity of the actual event.

It was awesome to be with Mochilla, Jay Electronica and Quantic. Above everything else it was simply a great time—the sightseeing, the jokes, the partying. It was one of the coolest things I ever shot.  We will be releasing a 7 minute video of that soon and I am proud to say it is ridiculously good.

A rapper called Brother Ali, a huge figure in the underground hip-hop scene in the U.S., says the next big hip-hop star will come out of the Middle East or Africa. When guys like him and Jay Electronica, who are destined to be major players in the game, see that, then it’s only a matter of time before a Middle Eastern or an African hip-hop artist blows up on the scene, and it would be a blessing to be a part of that in whatever capacity.

Q: How did you make the Leica connection, and what else have you and Laith been working on?

A: We launched our blog on February 28th and by the 10th of March Leica contacted us. The Internet has been a blessing…people are curious about what goes on in Middle Eastern streets. There’s no coverage of that; at least not by Arabs themselves;  however, now that we have the chance to showcase almost everything we shoot through Leica and get that sort of exposure, it has added a whole different element to our photography. Laith and I have a lot coming your way from hard-hitting documentaries to feature films to breakthrough photography projects. Stay tuned.

Thank you Nasser Kalaji!

-Leica Internet Team

For more information, please visit Nasser Kalaji’s website www.immortal-ent.com.