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.

The Detroit suburbs were a different story. People there were Arab, white, or black, "and that was it," he says. Luckily, Kazaleh's eclectic interests -- skateboarding, freestyling, playing traditional Arab music on his parents' tablas, spazzing out to punk bands such as Minor Threat and Youth of Today, writing spoken-word rants, talking shit about old people -- helped him make friends from every ethnic group.

Of course, Kazaleh's knack for getting in trouble is part of his whole shtick as an emcee and activist. But he also has a rare funkiness unmatched in most conscious hip-hop circles. Having come up listening to a mélange of jazz, funk, rock, hip-hop, and Arab music, Kazaleh says that when he wasn't freestyling on the bus or writing snarky poetry, he picked up new instruments, starting with tablas and venturing to guitar, keys, drums, oud (a short-necked lute), and bouzouki (a long-necked mandolin). His interest in music coincided with his interest in social justice, and the two things congealed in hip-hop.

Granted, Kazaleh errs more toward the rabble-rouser side of the political spectrum, whereas Youmans is a diplomat. "I'm the political side, and he's the musical influence," claims the latter, sitting outside Oakland's Jahva House Cafe with the former, who is chain-smoking Camels and muttering something about "Dot-com hipster emcees with trucker hats who like to front like they're existential philosophers." Kazaleh gingerly stubs his cigarette and lights another, while Youmans folds his hands in his lap and smiles.


At UC Berkeley, Youmans took a hiatus from hip-hop and parlayed his gift o' gab into a series of articles about the Israeli occupation for political newsletter CounterPunch. He also became a spokesman for several pro-Palestine student organizations. Ironically, that political work eventually brought him back to hip-hop, though with a new outlook: "Now I'm using hip-hop to forward my activist goals." Youmans took the name Iron Sheik from a WWF wrestler who capitalized on the stereotype of Arabs as "Middle Eastern villains. He wore a headdress, flowing robes, and the curly Arabian Nights shoes," the emcee writes on his Web site. Youmans wants to recast that image.

Perhaps the whole social justice thing sounds a little schoolmarmy, but few would debate that Youmans is a born politician -- and as such, he has a very calculated approach to his music. His first album, 2003's Camel Clutch, mingles Palestinian poetry, traditional song lyrics, and ciphers -- not to mention an imagined rap dialogue between Iron Sheik and the world's most renowned Palestinian intellectual, the late Edward Said, about how Israel has subjected Palestine to Forced transfer of population, torture, starvation, humiliation, discrimination, land appropriation, and extrajudicial political assassinations.

Sheik's current album, Yet We Remain (released independently in November), has more musical depth, especially in songs like "Just Desserts," which incorporates Middle Eastern instruments with a straight-ahead hip-hop beat. Kazaleh, who also guest-raps on the record, laces up the track with a Navajo percussive instrument called a dane, which he altered by heating up the skin so that it would sound more like an Arabic drum.

On Yet We Remain, Youmans also explores new themes and new terrain in his lyrics ... well, actually, he doesn't, unless you count the Dick Cheney sex rhymes. His combination of hard-hitting diatribe delivered in an AAAA rhyme scheme is pretty much what you'd expect from a rapper at UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School whose primary concern is to dismantle the current Israeli occupation in Palestine. In terms of straddling the line between Boalt and underground hip-hop, Youmans asserts that "When you look closely, you'll see that law and hip-hop inform one another. Speaking in court is a lot like freestyling. You have an argument, a thesis, an audience to appeal to."

Now 24, Kazaleh wears wire-rimmed glasses and a black beanie, and cusses as often as possible while he explains the social relevance of his music. "It's part of my framework that folks of color are all in the same struggle," he says. "I would not want some dude in Palo Alto bumping my shit in his mom's Mercedes." He describes one performance in a Detroit club right after 9/11: "I was like, 'Fuck Bush,' and the black cats were chanting with me, so I decided to spit a rhyme that ended with the phrase 'We had it coming.' Then these white dudes started flipping out. One guy came back with a crowbar and got the bouncer to come onstage and threaten me. The bartender refused to serve me drinks. It was ludicrous."


It seemed all factors were against Youmans and Kazaleh when they finally performed at Al-Omda on a recent Saturday night: a shitty sound system, a CD player that kept skipping, and a ton of blaring junk-your-trunk bass beats wafting from cars in the parking lot outside. When Youmans arrived at the bar, Costandi rushed up to him and asked, "So where is your friend -- the Astro-glyphics guy?" Youmans sheepishly explained that the top underground hip-hop act in Oakland probably couldn't make it that night. When Costandi jumped onstage to ask "For everyone's attention, puh-le-ease," the mic squeaked and fizzled out. Youmans, who performed afterward, sounded filtered, as though he were speaking through a megaphone. "I'm going to do a song about my favorite president, George Bush," the emcee snidely announced to a rousing chorus of boos. "But first I want to ask -- are there any actual Arabs in the audience?"

For some reason, no hands were raised, which irritated Kazaleh. "There were hella Arabs there," he says later. "It was like one of those instances when the teacher asks a question in class and people just sit there, even if they know the answer." Yet the Al-Omda crowd didn't seem that eager to hear Youmans' brainiac hip-hop agit-prop at midnight on a Saturday. The emcee looked around meekly. "Oh, now I'm scared," he mumbled.

But it ended up being okay. While Kazaleh tried vainly to assist the soundman -- who'd plugged the emcee's mic into a guitar amp, making him sound like one of the Beastie Boys -- Youmans led the audience in a couple call-and-response numbers to denounce Bush. In the second song, "Return 194," he made the crowd chant "194," explaining that it's the number of the UN resolution guaranteeing the right of return for Palestine. When Youmans' CD started skipping, he divided the audience in half and had one side clap the kick and the other clap the snare. Then he spat an a cappella fire-and-brimstone rap called "Global Intifada," which cited several instances of colonialism and genocide in the world over the past two hundred years or so, including the Turks in Armenia, the French in Algeria, the Afrikaners in South Africa, and so on. The audience went wild.

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