“My mom can hardly see, so I want the whole world to see us.”
That’s what MCA Abdul, the 12-year-old from Gaza who recently went viral when a video of him rapping while flanked by his schoolmates was posted to Instagram, told me when we first got on the phone to talk. He was describing how his mother suffered from CNV bleeding in both eyes and had surgery to treat it in Egypt around 2007. “She started seeing better” said Abdul, but she had to maintain the treatment, and around 2008, Israel started the siege over Gaza and it was almost impossible to leave again. “Now her eyes are really damaged,” he added.
When Variety asked me to interview MCA Abdul, I was happy to oblige as his story is not about what we can’t see: it’s about what we want to show. And while I didn’t plan to start the article with this story, Abdul’s warrior spirit took me back to what I love about hip-hop: that it’s the most collaborative and uniting music in the world.
As a rapper of Arab descent in the Middle East, I too grew up in a Palestinian city that was occupied — Lydda, which Israel took over in 1948 — and started out in English as well. When I decided to be the first to rap in Arabic, it took a while to get the rhyming and syllables right. With a beat I got on Napster by searching “rap beat,” I landed on “Did You Ever Think” by R. Kelly featuring Nas and soon after, my group DAM was born along with the beginnings of hip-hop in the region.
Although I live only 40 miles away from Gaza City, I couldn’t speak to Abdul (and his father Saleh) in person — not because of Covid-19, but rather an equally harsh constriction — Israeli occupation — that’s been going on for decades and has separated family members from each other and made it nearly impossibly for an artist of his potential to go out into the world and realize it. Communicating via WhatsApp for several days, Abdul finally said, “Let’s try between 2 and 5 p.m. I think Israel will allow us to use electricity then.”
And I wasn’t the only one trying to get in touch. After Abdul’s video drew more than 600,000 views, EMPIRE founder Ghazi Shami, himself of Palestinian heritage, offered to sign the skateboard-loving teen to his label (home to Young Dolph, Iggy Azalea and others) and has been trying to get Abdul to record locally, so far to no avail.
Abdul’s message of positivity — sample lyrics: “You don’t have to be rich and powerful to make a difference / What holds this world back is ignorance in the system / Small actions of kindness they help us improve / Spitting good vibes on this track over laid-back grooves” — has elicited a strong reaction.
“He’s driven by hope and by love and by an idea that, maybe there comes a point in time in his life where he doesn’t have to live in the conditions that he lives in,” EMPIRE’s Shami tells Variety. “When I look at him, he could be my son or my little brother or my cousin. I felt an emotional connection to him and would love to fly him over here and spend a couple weeks with him to understand his goals, ideas and interests, and then build a team of people around him.”
What an exciting month for you, Abdul — you went from 600 followers on Instagram to 120,000 in two weeks. How do you feel about that?
Oh man, that makes me feel so good. More followers, more happiness, it feels so good to let the people know about my music and my message.
What is your message?
My message is about peace. Not the political side of it — I’m just 11 years old, i don’t understand what politics is — the thing i’m trying to say is that I want the children of the world to live in peace and harmony and I want to be the voice of the children in Palestine. I want to show people about my life, and what it means to be a rapper in Gaza City.
Who is your favorite rapper and why?
Can I pick four? Eminem: I think he is special than other rappers. I like how he writes his songs and the way he expresses it to the people and I really like how fast he is; NF: some people say he is copying Eminem but I don’t think so, I like his slangs and his style; Tupac: I love his rapping — “Changes” and “Dear Mama” — and how he talks about real issues for Black people; The last one is Jay-Z: I like the way he performs in his concerts. He is a great rapper and I love his collaboration with Linkin Park.
What is your dream? I know your city is under siege, but let’s say in a perfect world, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Maybe in America or Europe, that’s my target. My dream is to do concerts for a lot of people and to develop my talent and become a professional songwriter. Because in Gaza, we don’t have rap in English so no one here can teach me how to rap in English.
Inchalla Abdul, you know who can teach you? Time will, and maybe in the future you can be the teacher of Arabic and English lyrics in Gaza… But I have to ask, why English?
Because I want the whole world to understand me.
People are currently isolated because of Covid-19, but Gaza has been isolated for the last 20 years. How have you been coping?
In the isolation, I need to be hopeful because without hope, we will die. I listen to a lot of music. Music is so powerful for me and to a lot of people in that you can be anywhere and hear a piece of music that gets you fired up and emotional. I want to use it to go anywhere in the world
What made you connect to rap? When was the first time you heard hip-hop?
I was like 4 or 5 years old. I listened to a song by Eminem that then my dad showed me [the video] and I liked it. It was “Not Afraid.” And I asked, “Who is that guy?” Jumping and rapping with tattoos — I was shocked.
Oh? Is a tattoo in your future?
Saleh: He will have to ask me! (Laughs.)
I have too many, but this specific one says, “Dad, do you they have speakers up in heaven?” I got it after I lost my dad, and every song I release, I wonder if he listens to it. Saleh, are you a rap fan?
Saleh: I do now, but I used to listen to rock a lot.
Abdul: Yes, my dad likes the 70s
Saleh: But when Abdul started listening to rap, I stopped listening to rock, just for him.
Abdul: I never told him not to listen to rock. It was his choice. I love listening to Chester [Bennington] of Linkin Park. Rest in peace Tupac and Chester.
Abdul, you just turned 12. Tupac’s “Changes” was released in 1998, 10 years before you were born… What draws you to music of the elders and not the artists kids your age listen to, like Tekashi 6ix9ine, for example?
I simply like it. When i first got to know rap, I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to see how they write and how they flow, so I typed “rappers” into YouTube and ‘Pac was one of the first ones I found.
Saleh: Legends never die.
In your latest song Abdul, you say: “I might be young and I wanna have fun / Don’t wanna be rapping about bombs or about guns.” Do you feel that living under occupation is an inspiration to your music or an obstacle?
I think I would like to sing about a lot of normal life things, but rappers also need to talk about their lives, and part of my life is occupation, so I need to talk about it.
In 2013, Gaza singer Mohammad Assaf won “Arab Idol.” Would you want to compete in a TV show like that?
I would love to, it would be a great opportunity.
What are your plans in the coming weeks and months, Covid-19 notwithstanding?
I want to practice how to be a songwriter. I can’t be a rapper if I don’t write my own songs. Also I want to meet my idols like Eminem, and people from the music industry like the producer Fredwreck and the entrepreneur Ghazi of EMPIRE. Also visit the big studios and work on my showcases.
Are there Arab rappers that you admire?
You, of course! You are the godfather of Arabic rap and I love the way your music is so clever. And also Waheeb Nasan. I actually did one of his songs on my Instagram. This is how it goes: “We want peace and we want love / People pray and teach who don’t.”
Tamer Nafar is a founding member of DAM which formed in the late 1990s and was among the first hip-hop groups to rap in Arabic. Their latest album, “Ben Haana Wa Maana,” released in 2019 via Cooking Vinyl, is available at all DSPs.