Iron Men 

Hometown Palestinian emcees sacrifice freshness for fervor.

On Christmas Eve, Bishara Costandi sits smoking apple tobacco and Red Kamel cigarettes at Al-Omda, an Egyptian shisha bar he patronizes on East 18th Street in Oakland. Wedged behind a check-cashing joint and a pizza parlor, and flanked by a parking lot roamed by cars worth less than their booming sound systems, Al-Omda juts up from the asphalt like a Vegas-style mirage. Above the checkered Formica floor and diner-style tables hang tatami mats, Arabic lamps, and a garish circus-red awning strung with bright plastic pennants. Cars roll up blasting teeth-chattering bass beats from their stereos, and the 54-year-old Costandi wrinkles his dark-gray mustache in contempt.

"I've come to understand that there are two types of hip-hop: One is the underground, and the other is commercial," he says, dangling a half-smoked cigarette and nodding toward the blaring cars. "They are all playing the same song, and I don't know what it is, but I'm sure they are not playing the underground."

Costandi, who gives private Arabic lessons and runs a coffee concession called the Wholly Rhost ("It's not godly, but it's heavenly"), is popular among the assortment of young guys who come to this bar to play dominoes while eating baba ghanoush or Egyptian fava beans. They're immigrants of all nationalities: Arab, Albanian, Eritrean, Bosnian, Iranian, Afghan, Senegalese, Somali, African-American. "I don't know all of these guys individually," Costandi says, "but I can tell you they're all working class, and most of them work in grocery stores."

The idea to throw hip-hop shows at Al-Omda occurred to Costandi "just by watching who comes here," he says. "What is the art form that expresses social issues that they can identify with, because they actually live it? It's hip-hop." He caught up with the Oakland-based emcee Iron Sheik (aka Will Youmans) and the spoken-word poet Excentrik (aka Tarik Kazaleh) at Al-Omda in early December, and asked if they'd be willing to perform a show for the Arab youth of Oakland.

It just so happened that Pep Love from Hieroglyphics was also in the shisha bar that night, so Costandi tried to recruit him, too. "Okay, it will be you, you, and you," he said, pointing at the three emcees. Pep Love smiled and nodded. Kazaleh and Youmans looked at each other skeptically.

Youmans and Kazaleh became friends in 2003 through the organization Students for Justice in Palestine. After a protest one day, they were hanging out at Youmans' house and smoking shisha on the balcony when he popped a cassette of his first single, "Tale of the Three Mohammeds," in his stereo. Kazaleh, who'd been writing poetry, rapping, and playing Arabic instruments for ten years by then, was stoked to hear another emcee flash on Arab stereotypes. Within a few months, the two were jamming together, which eventually led to Kazaleh producing and rapping on many of the tracks on Youmans' sophomore album, Yet We Remain. Over the past two years, the emcees have performed together at cafes, clubs, and colleges throughout the country. They balance each other out perfectly: Onstage, Youmans is more literal and Kazaleh more poetic, but in person, Youmans is the politician, and Kazaleh the loose cannon.

Either way, their work is initially disorienting. You might be cowed by Youmans' frequent lyrical references to UN resolutions, or Kazaleh's burlesque spoken-word catalogue of anti-Arab stereotypes (I beheaded my sister 'cause she missed her period). There are no songs about fast hustles or M-16s between these guys, and the closest thing to a beautiful big booty girl is Condoleezza Rice, who Youmans nuzzles in his political torch song "Neo-Con Luv": Condoleezza, you look so good to me/Dick Cheney, why you so sexy?/Wolfowitz, you make my dreams come true/W, those freaky things you do.

Apart from that single slow jam, these cats rarely deviate from their basic theme: freeing Palestine. "I'm trying to arm people who feel the same way politically, but not come at them through institutional avenues," Youmans says. Kazaleh adds: "I want people in a position of struggle to listen to my music and feel like someone gives a fuck."

"The Arabs I grew up with were as much into rap as other folks," Youmans says, describing the Detroit neighborhood where he came up. "Lots of kids tried to look like Run DMC and talk like NWA. There was some gang called AWA. But ultimately, I think the Arab kids liked the image of hip-hop more than the culture."

When Youmans started out in that culture, he rapped under the name Epic el Guapo, which he later changed to Don Flamingo. At that time he wasn't busting diatribes about Fox News or setting tablas to a hip-hop beat -- he just wanted to be fresh. "I associated Arab music with what was uncool, especially since my aunts used to make me do traditional dances for them," he admits. "In high school, all my lyrics were about boasting." But after a couple years of spitting dope rhymes and swaggering, Youmans grew disenchanted, feeling he'd run up against the limits of the medium.

He might have made this conclusion of his own volition. Then again, it might have something to do with being booed off the stage while battling another backpack rapper at a Bahamedia show in Detroit. "I never achieved freshness," he admits.

Meanwhile, Kazaleh grew up moving back and forth between the Bay Area and a working-class suburban neighborhood in Detroit. In San Francisco, he had friends of Mexican, Salvadoran, Asian, and Arabic descent, and they'd all hang out in his uncle's Arabic imports store off 26th Street.

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