Mohammed Assaf (photo: Arin Rinawi)
Since winning Arab Idol last June, Mohammed Assaf’s life has been a whirlwind, from adoring fans in Gaza, Ramallah, Amman and Dubai, to concerts everywhere. He has been the positive story of the summer in the Arab world, a summer that has seen drastic changes in Egypt, Syria and many places.
Enass Tinah sat with Assaf in his Grand Park hotel suit in Ramallah, for an exclusive interview with Mondoweiss. We talked about his vision of his future career, how he sees the role of music and singing in a social frame, Netanyahu’s complaint about his song Ya Tir Ya Tayer, and many more matters. Assaf seemed aware of the responsibilities he carries not just as a popular winner of Arab Idol, he is aware that there are hopes and dreams built on his story and success, both musically as an extraordinary talent with a golden voice, and as a Palestinian whose message has affected not just Palestinians and Arabs, but a global audience as well.
Tinah: In one of Martin Luther King’s speeches he said “As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free.” He referenced psychological freedom and self-esteem as “the most powerful weapon” against physical oppression/slavery. Assuming he is correct, how do you think art and beauty strengthens that weapon? Where do you see the role of art and music in giving freedom for the oppressed human under oppression and injustice?
Assaf: From more than one side, look at the Palestinian people, they have been suffering under occupation for more than 60 years, but despite all the suffering and the pain, they do feel happiness. People get married, they have weddings, they celebrate graduations, people are living normally like anybody else, like someone living in Britain. There are differences of course, they are under pressures. The secret in the Palestinian people, is that despite their ordeals and suffering, they can celebrate any place and at any time.
Tinah: But how do you see art, music, poetry. How can they help us?
Assaf: They do help us, music is essential, the music for little children before they go to sleep, it’s calming for them. Music is something that changes the world, it prompts yearning and longing, love, so many noble things. Music is a noble message that reaches people’s heart faster than anything else.
Tinah: Phil Weiss wrote on Mondoweiss, “His career, we can only hope, will be as a singer for the world, not just for Palestine.” He didn’t use the words ‘a global star’, he said artist of the world. If he chose the right path, he could be a singer for the world, his message will not only reach the Palestinians or the Arab people, it could reach other nations who are suffering. What do you feel about this, can you deliver Arabic music and culture to non-Arabs?
Assaf: Of course. First, these days singing in many accents and languages is not an easy thing maybe, for me. But if I work on it I can improve myself, I can actually sing in different accents, this is one thing. Second thing, music and singing I want to tell him is not about music videos, people dancing, fame, lights and stardom; art should be a message; this is what it is basically. You can use it in any pathway you feel suitable. You can change things, you can help a cause. Songs are not just for love, you can talk about women issues in the Arab world, I am not talking in general terms, but specific issues, like the right of women to inherit, her right to work. Even these issues can be put in songs; you can try and solve problems. Singing is not just about beautiful songs, I feel that I want to do these things, I want to do unordinary things, I want to talk about causes. I am like any other young man, talented, having reached success after struggling but I have a goal and it’s not fame, I want to influence people. How can you gain people’s love? Through your artistic message, in different ways, not just the love song, you can sing for peace, you can sing about kids going hungry in Somalia……
Tinah: Are you planning in your coming album or maybe the second album to have such songs?
Assaf: Look, the albums I don’t fully control, but I can release singles. I can sing about specific issues, especially the land and human issue, it’s the most important issue. Let me tell you, that people are tired from politics, politics is exhausting. I really don’t want to do the ordinary, and [want to] sing for issues that can serve my cause, my community, the whole world and humanity.
Tinah: There is a question about Netanyahu’s statements, why do you think he was bothered by the song, and why now, and from your view point, why did he consider the song inciting?
Assaf: This is what occupation policy is! This is art, if he is bothered by my art, what is left to say more? He is occupying the land, they are doing Tahweed* the land, his settlements are sitting on my land, he doesn’t want to give me my rights, imagine! That he wants to give me permission to sing? Does the song he protested call for violence, shoot and ….? No! I am singing of the towns and cities of Palestine. I consider his protest a recognition of our existence, the existence of Palestine. This is a victory for my cause and for me. To complain about me!
Tinah: About a song..
Assaf: About a song!
Assaf: This, the occupation recognizing our existence and I consider this a victory.
Tinah: For sure. Palestinians have been occupied for 60 years, but Palestinian resolve seems only to grow stronger over the decades. This is more a questions from an American perspective. What is it about Palestinian culture, Palestinian people and Palestinian art, what makes this endurance increase year after year, from a cultural perspective?
Assaf: Look, this is what’s beautiful about our people, this is the secret of our people, look at the reality our people live in. The occupation, we live in the 21st century, and I need a permit to go from city to city? And this is my homeland, I consider these things impossible in such circumstances. Look how much ingenuity there is, how many educated people are there, people in high schools scoring 99.9%, intellectuals, educated people. They love life, Mohammed is just a small example of Palestinian youth living in the middle of the siege in Gaza, living in bad economic and political conditions, this affected the social conditions of all Palestinians. To produce from the middle of this suffering, from the middle of war, to have a flower growing in the middle of the desert, this is not something in Mohammed Assaf only, it’s present in all Palestinian youth! They are creative in everything, I have said this a million times, I am not complimenting my people. We exist, here we are, we are educated. Let me tell you an example, Palestinian professors are among the best professors in universities in the USA.
Tinah: Yes, I know this because I was there.
Assaf: Our people are educated, we are not ignorant, the occupation is trying to market the idea that we are terrorists. International and Arab media is marginalizing the Palestinian people from so many facets, they are just interested in the politics. They only talk about; “They died..they were shot.” .. Come and see.. why won’t you give them a state? We have all the building blocks of a state, what do you want? Women are in leadership positions, also women here are more educated than men.
Tinah: A question about the art scene in Gaza. The art scene in Gaza has produced, and of course you are the biggest example, but it also has produced things in music the Arab world have not heard before, things that are unordinary….
Assaf: This is exactly what I mean, the media in general, have marginalized everything and is concentrating on politics. Come and see, I know a kid who plays the Qanun*, if he enters a competition, he will win, and will be successful. You have musicians, poets, composers, and we have everything. Our problem is occupation, if it’s removed–… We want our rights, we are not asking for the impossible.
Tinah: There is a global audience that is starting to get to know you, there are people who don’t understand Arabic, and despite that, they love your songs and your music, what do you say to these people?
Assaf: I tell them that we as Palestinains and Arabs have the right to our freedom and our rights. We have the right to establish a state. We have all the elements to establish a state, cultural, educational. Remove the occupation, and let us move freely like any normal citizen in his country. Just this.
*Tahweed: To remove the Arabic and Islamic Character and enforce the Jewish one
*Qanun: a string instrument played in much of the Middle East, Central Asia, and southeastern Europe.
(Previous Mohammed Assaf reports on Mondoweiss available here)