“Music was always around me as a youth,” states Yassin Alsalman, formerly known by the moniker The Narcicyst, and who now goes by Narcy. Raised on the music of classical Arabic singers, Narcy credits his sonic passions to his father. “My parents would listen to classical Arabic Music from Fairouz to Um Kulthum around the house, but my father was the most eclectic with the sounds. I heard Barry White, Motown, Abba. A lot of different sounds,” he recalls. The Iraqi artist, who vividly remembers holding a tape of Michael Jackson‘s Bad for a long time as a kid, has just launched his third solo album, entitled “SpaceTime”.
The project is an 11-track sonic compilation of hip-hop, electro, and indie pop, and features collaborators hailing from different parts of the Arab world, including Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, and Algerian singer Meryem Saci, among others. “SpaceTime is really about a collective experience of time and space, so it wouldn’t do justice to the concept if it wasn’t for the people on the album who represent a diverse community of humanity, something I strive for and live every day making art and music,” explains Alsalman.
In his ongoing bid to support local talent, the artist also tasked those closest to him (“I do not believe in collaborating with people before you know them personally or have developed a rapport with them”), Sundus and Tamara Abdul Hadi, Roï Saade, Cheb Moha, and Chndy, to do everything from photographing the album’s visuals, to art direction, and designing the logo for the album’s accompanying merch.
Alsalman was born in Dubai to parents from Basra, and resided in the UAE for most of his childhood before his family emigrated to Canada. He would go on to split his time between the two countries for several years, before ultimately settling down in Montreal for his post-secondary education while simultaneously pursuing a career in hip hop. “We had access to studios at Concordia, which we would use overnight, and it went from a hobby to a profession in a matter of years,” he explains. “I learned to mix music and write music, I got better and better lyrically. It was a growth that was undeniable so I pursued it and it became real. I was 19 at the time and dreamt unrealistically, but I believe that’s what helped build the longevity of my career.” Fast-forward to today, and Alsalman, who is a professor at Concordia University, is perhaps the one of the most influential voices in hip hop for young Arabs and Muslims living in a post 9/11 society.
In addition to being a pioneer of Arab hip-hop, the artist formerly known as The Narcysist has garnered a series of accolades, including the MMVA Video of the Year in 2017 for his directorial debut with a Tribe Called Red featuring Yasiin Bey (Mos Def). Extremely multi-faceted, Narcy also directed visuals for the likes of Jay Electronica and Anderson Paak.
Below, the artist opens up about his new album, the biggest challenges he’s faced thus far in his career, and offers advice to emerging Arab creatives hoping to make it in the industry.
On putting together SpaceTime
“I finished this album in the span of a month; I forced myself to record it that way. On day 30 I got my last verse, which was from Talib Kweli. That song is coming out on SpaceTime Ultra in the new year, an accompanying EP to the album I just put out. Everyone was given their space and time on this record and I reached out to people who have both moved me personally, and/or inspired me. That’s everyone from Lido Pimienta and Ana Tijoux, to Mashrou’ Leila, my children, and my grandfather Jamal, Allah Yirhama. My favorite songs would have to be Yemenade, Space. Only You, and Animal.”
On the inspirations behind SpaceTime
“First, I find our community, the ‘others’, to be at a pivotal time. It is time for us to take our space back and start telling our story and insisting it’s in our voice and tone.
“Two, I was at a point in my life where my grandfather passed away and my child was born. Thirty years since emigrating to Canada, at the age my son was at that time. I was studying the ancient histories of my people in Iraq, in Sumeria, and their link to the cosmos. The infinite layers of space started crashing in. As I viewed Earth from the macro perspective of the galaxy, I saw my life’s moments in micro-view and honed in on those emotions and moments in time. I started reflecting on time passing in life and how it defines us.
“Third, in the studies of Spacetime, it is said that life is a predestined journey we are on. Everything is happening at once. It is our three-dimensional understanding of life that makes us experience time. This was fascinating to me because it mirrored the cosmic and ethereal studies of Sufism. That we are traveling through time in a cosmos that is pre-destined to take us where its meant to be. Maktoob.
“Finally, this album is a launch pad for me. It is showcasing the diverse and amazing community of artists around me, and how independence as an artist can be propelled through sheer belief. It’s about projecting your dreams into the universe and believing in yourself, making the impossible happen.”
On his biggest career challenges
“In the West, it was a challenge being Arab in an industry, or in a public narrative, that wasn’t very accepting of a normalized image and creativity from our people. Back home in the East, a lot of tension arose in the early days because we were very vocal about the politics of the region, but also because we were making rap music, which wasn’t accepted as a viable form of expression for the youth.
“Another big challenge was finding the right team, the right platform, to push things out. Because we are so entrenched in our experience, I think a lot of visual artists, musicians, and artists in general from our generation were ahead of their time. They thought ahead of the public narratives presented of us. That is both a gift and a curse as we were building resilient representations of dealing with the traumas of war and racism early on, to deal with what we are seeing now. It was also amazing because that struggle birthed a ground for the next generation to look at and walk on.”
On the main highlights thus far
“Being on stage with the legends I grew up listening to. The latest and most powerful highlights would be my foray into video directing. Going to South Africa with Cheb Moha and a small team to shoot a video with Yasiin Bey for A Tribe Called Red’s R.E.D was very magical to say the least. I was with some of my favorite people in the world, on the day Muhammad Ali died, retracing his steps through Cape Town and filming a short film about emancipation and a new understanding of nationalism. It was a dream come true. Also, shooting Time in Lebanon with Mashrou’ Leila, was an important moment in contemporary Arab music, I think. It was a cross between genres but also, a meeting of hearts that hadn’t been on film before. I wanted to display the beauty of Lebanon, as well as Arab men and how we can represent ourselves as natural and positive. It was also a dream come true.”
On the Middle East’s music scene
“I love our people and our music. I definitely think there needs to be an overhaul to the visual representation in a lot of our music videos from pop to hip-hop. I also believe the archaic radio formats and music formulas need to change. There is a market for it but we have to start thinking of alternate ways of reaching our youth that permits them the freedom and space to think and feel freely. This will be the future of our people. We are a dying tribe and if we do not work on our youth now and their expressive world and works, then they will ultimately suffer. We need to grow outside the bubble of popular pop music and into a more realistic representation of the on-the-ground experience.”
His best piece of advice for up-and-coming Arab artists
“In the worlds of the great Jay Dilla, ‘don’t sell yourself to fall in love.’ Be you. It takes Time to carve your space. Take it and let it take you.”