Yemeni-American Musician Tackles Hate With Hip-Hop

Hagage Aj Masaed; courtesy of the artist

Hagage Aj Masaed. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist

A failed Christmas Day terrorist attack in Detroit has stoked concerns that Yemen is serving as a safe zone for terrorists. But one Yemeni-American hopes to turn the tide in his family's home country. Rapper Hagage Masaed is using his music to spread a message of peace in the Middle-Eastern country. Host Michel Martin talks to Masaed, who has described himself as the Snoop Dogg of Yemen.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, not one book by a female writer made the year's top ten list from Publishers Weekly. Less than a third of their top 100 books of the decade were written by women. We'll hear from one female writer about what she thinks that says about the publishing industry and what it means for women writers. And she had a unique perspective. She often writes under a male pen name. That's in a moment.

But first, we've been talking about how the U.S. plans to combat the terror threat in Yemen. But one Oakland-based musician has another approach - hip-hop. Hagage Abdul-Gowee Masaed, also known as AJ, is using music to promote a message of peace in his family's home country. AJ grew up in Ohio and dreamed of becoming a hip-hop star. He has not yet signed to major record label and he is still working on that breakout CD, but, he says, his music is gaining a following in Yemen. And he joins us now from the capital city, Sana. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. MASAED (Singer, Songwriter): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, what are you doing in Sana, what you're up to?

Mr. MASAED: Well, actually my dad is here and he is very ill and he's old. But I figured since I'm here, I might as well use this time to do some writing and recording. And I was fortunate enough to be contacted by some people that were interested in making a CD.

MARTIN: Hmm. I understand that you've been performing there, you performed recently at the Yemen culture center in Sana. What kind of response did you get there?

Mr. MASAED: I got a very good response. It was actually a French culture center and the German house combined to do a show together. It was sort of like the coming down of the Berlin Wall.

MARTIN: Breaking down of the Berlin Wall, what did you mean, you mean by bringing the genres together, bringing, what, East and West together?

Mr. MASAED: Yes, you know, I guess Germany and France, I guess, before weren't one or, you know, they didn't get along. And then when they brought down the Berlin Wall, then the ties, you know, there were greater ties and so they've been sponsoring a lot of projects here in Yemen. And I've been fortunate enough to be a part of a lot of those projects.

MARTIN: Well, let's play a clip of your latest song - one of them - deals very specifically with the whole sort of question we've been talking about, very extensively, on this program about the whole question of al-Qaida in Yemen. And let me just play a short clip of...

Mr. MASAED: Okay.

MARTIN: ...so what's it's called, "No Terrorists Please," okay here it is, let's just play a short clip.

(Soundbite of song, "No Terrorists Please")

Mr. MASAED: (Singing) Yes man, in Yemen and workin' my home, al-Qaida not welcome, so let it be known, (unintelligible) don't want to know no terrorist please, (unintelligible) but they're not my enemies. (Unintelligible) one Yemen, united indeed, no such thing as perfection but we try to succeed. Too many followers, we need more leaders to lead. (Unintelligible) Mr. President, you're just what we need. (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: That's interesting, you got some different genres there, and you're also including - is that prayer that you are incorporating, that we just heard?

Mr. MASAED: No actually, what I did is I took the reggae track and I got a very popular Yemeni singer and he added oud to it. Do you know what an oud is?

MARTIN: It's an instrument.

Mr. MASAED: It's like, looks like half a watermelon...

MARTIN: Yes, exactly.

Mr. MASAED: I guess.

MARTIN: ...instrument is a, you know...

Mr. MASAED: A string instrument - exactly. And this kid is very popular in Yemen. And so I approached him about doing a hip-hop song and he went for it.

MARTIN: Sometimes, you know, more traditional cultures aren't feeling hip-hop. How are people feeling you there? I'm sure the young people are appreciating you, but...

Mr. MASAED: Yeah, the young people - but see that was the magic. He connected with the older generation and I connected with the younger.

MARTIN: What gave you the idea?

Mr. MASAED: Well I've been doing it for about 10 years. And I've had everything from reggae artists to Arabic artists singing with me. But I've never got a Yemeni singer. I've always used, like, samples. And it was the first time that I had access to singers and musicians. I was really eager to try to find someone, to tell you the truth - and I got pretty lucky.

MARTIN: Can I ask though, since you are in Yemen at the moment and Yemen has been so much the focus of discussion in the wake of that alleged attempt to blow up the Northwest airliner - how is that being discussed in Yemen, among the people that you're talking to? Are people upset about it, or...?

Mr. MASAED: No. Well, see, Yemen - most of the people in Yemen are good people. The lack of jobs, lack of money, lack of understanding about, I don't know, arts, music and all of that - people are being pushed to go to the other side, I guess you can say. al-Qaida and this (unintelligible) guy, they have money. And so they're bribing people more or less you can say. And, you know, lack of money make you do things that you probably wouldn't usually do.

MARTIN: Except that this guy, Omar Farouk Abdulmuttalib, was quite wealthy. His family was quite wealthy. I mean he wasn't without means, so...

Mr. MASAED: You know what the problem is, religion is rooted in everything here. See we're in the States, we have all different ethnicities that we go to school with. We don't know what their religions are, you know, we play basketball, do history and math and everything together. And when they go home, you know, they practice their religion on Sundays. Over here they're like pushing it into the schools, into the politics, into everyday life. And they've try to pick the ugly picture of the West, of Europe and people sort of get brainwashed, I guess, you can say.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel, you feel that your music in a way or you particularly as a role model perhaps provide some sort of antidote to that?

Mr. MASAED: I do. I think if I catch him young enough then, you know, they will think of other things like arts and music, and sports, and video and, you know, and there's a more to life than just, you know, religion. I mean, religion is a big part of our life, but a lot of times there's a lot of religious people and there's people that are obsessed with religion. And that's what we have here -the lot of people that are obsessed.

MARTIN: Sure, I got it. I understand, I understand.

Mr. MASAED: Yeah, you know and...

MARTIN: Well, what you're working on now, what - something your next...

Mr. MASAED: Well, I'm working on the first CD funded by Yemen and recorded in Yemen. This is going to be pretty cool. I've already got like four songs deep into it, but I've been little under the weather, so I have to - postponed it for a minute.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

Mr. MASAED: Thank you, thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Hagage Abdul-Gowee Masaed is with us from Sana.

Mr. MASAED: Yeah, you're getting better at that too.

MARTIN: Well, thank you - where he is rapping and writing his music and visiting his family. We thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. MASAED: Thank you very much for having me, my pleasure.

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