When I first heard that Al-Bustan was bringing a hip-hop artist to Philadelphia, I was intrigued. I read about the influence that hip-hop music had in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and, even though I didn’t understand much of what was being said, I liked listening to these tracks and trying to feel the inspiration in them. Some quick research into the Naricyst taught me that I would, thankfully, be able to understand his mostly-English rapping. The sounds of his songs began to fill my study space as I grew more and more excited for his visit. I looked forward to his performance with the Takht Ensemble, which I knew would yield “remixed” versions of his songs, and when I learned he would be doing a presentation for Penn students too, I was excited for an intimate experience with a rapper who clearly has a lot to say. What I didn’t realize, though, was how inspirational his story would be at both events and how relevant it was for me and other Penn students.
At the event at Penn on Thursday, Narcy read an excerpt from his book, Diatribes of a Dying Tribe. It detailed the identity struggles he felt trying to figure out how to be an Emirates-born Iraqi who had immigrated to Montreal. He recalled coming home to his house in Canada and seeing rude, racial writing scrawled on the garage door and remembered his struggle with answering the question, “Where are you from?” He addressed this at his concert too, saying, “It’s hard enough trying to figure out who I am as a rapper, let alone a Muslim, let alone a Canadian, let alone an Iraqi!”
Now, I don’t exactly consider myself someone who struggles with identity issues. I was born 30 minutes away from where I currently live, to a family whose family had essentially always lived in America. But some members of the audience felt differently, and, when Narcy invited anyone who wanted to share their story on Thursday, spoke up about the identity issues they experienced: some of them growing up, but some of them more recently, on Penn’s campus. A few said that they used hip-hop or even Narcy’s music to alleviate these problems, utilizing it as an outlet where they could really be themselves. I found these stories really inspirational: college, for me, has been a huge journey in self-discovery during which I’ve struggled to figure out who I am and who I’m becoming. It’s not always easy to talk about this journey, and seeing students who had used the Narcicyst’s medium to do so was really inspirational.
At the concert on Sunday, the inspiration continued through spoken-word poetry put on at the beginning of the concert by several students who had refined their performances during a private workshop with the Narcicyst. One was a Native American student who talked about his experience being off the reservation and in a city; another was an African-American who talked about the stereotypes that exist within his community. All of their stories were interesting and a reminder of the complex issues that every student seems to experience.
It was a reminder for me that you never know the experiences of the people you walk past every day. Even when you try to guess who someone is—which is often done in earnest between Penn students—you don’t know their background or upbringing, and in fact, you might be shocked to hear their real story. It reminds me of a favorite quote of mine: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The Narcicyst, in some ways, expressed this when he introduced himself at the concert, saying, “You can call me whatever you want, just please nothing negative.” Overall, his performances in Philadelphia were informative and inspiring for me, helping me connect better with the other students who surround me.