Rapping on life

17-year-old Yousur Faisal claims to be the only female Arab rapper in the region, possibly in the world.

yousur faisal 88 (photo credit: )
yousur faisal 88
(photo credit: )
Yousur Faisal is really something else. For a start, the 17-year-old resident of Tamra, an Arab town about 20 minutes drive east of Haifa, claims to be the only female Arab rapper in the region, possibly in the entire world. That is all the more remarkable considering she lives in a mostly conservative society that does not always approve of her seemingly extrovert and challenging behavior. But, Faisal is about as tough, and as individual, as they come. "I sometimes wear clothes which people here think are too revealing," she says, "but that's not my problem. They don't have to look at me, they can look at another girl who is dressed more modestly. I don't like rules." The teenager also has a unique way of dealing with some of her more pressing problems. "If my mom is angry with me because of the way I dress, or if I come home late from a show, I'll rap about that in my next gig." And it's not just family matters that gain exposure on Faisal's rounds of the country's clubs and concert halls. "Once, three girlfriends of mine [betrayed me]. That went into my next show too." What about the repercussions? Can Faisal just spill her troubles with her friends and family to her audiences with impunity? "The day after the show my friends came over to my house all excited, and thanked me for 'making them famous'. They were pleased I'd rapped about our falling out." Sounds like self-therapy and social healing all rolled into one rhythmic bundle. Faisal also takes a different approach to her art from her fellow Arab rappers. "They all rap about politics, and they have a lot of negative messages in what they do," she says. "I rap about real life - about families, love, things we all deal with every day of our lives. I don't get into politics." On the other hand, anyone with even a fleeting idea about what makes the Middle East tick can tell you, there's almost no escaping political subjects in this part of the world, especially with views like Faisal's. One of the first things that strikes you as you walk into her room in her cozy Tamra home is a large blue-and-white Israeli flag hanging on the wall above her computer. Many Israeli Arabs prefer to call themselves Palestinians and do not identify with the Jewish state. Not Faisal. "I am proud to be an Israeli, as I am proud of being an Arab," she declares simply. "I don't see the two as being mutually exclusive. It doesn't bother me that the Israeli national anthem, for example, talks about Jews coming back here after 2,000 years, and doesn't talk about the Arabs. The Jews are the majority here; that's perfectly legitimate. If we were living in Egypt it would be different." Faisal's apolitical ethos also pops up in her choice of favorite Israeli rapper - none other than Subliminal who is known for his staunch right-wing stance. "Yes, he can get a bit aggressive sometimes," Faisal admits, "but that's okay. I like the way he raps anyway." While Faisal mostly raps in Arabic, with some Hebrew and English thrown in, she says she didn't grow up on Arabic music. For her there were no records of, for example, classical Arab divas like Fairuz or Oum Koulthoum playing in the background. "I grew up on American and British and Israeli rock and pop - English and Hebrew. I just didn't dig the way Arabic sounded with music." Her musical preferences also connect with an all-round cultural orientation. "I wouldn't mind living in the States or England," she says, "but this is home. I want to make it big here first before I try out somewhere else." Certainly, in terms of her own social and cultural milieu you could say Faisal has made it. After three years of professional rapping she has appeared in almost every venue going in Israel's Arab sector, right across the north of the country. Recently, she gained some valuable nationwide exposure when there was a report on her on TV Channel 1's main news magazine of the week. "I've had an amazing response to that report," she says. "Things might be taking off even more now." One person who saw that TV report was veteran Israeli singer Miri Aloni. Aloni, who first came to notice on the local pop and rock scene in the Sixties, is now better known for singing "Shir LaShalom (Song for Peace)," one of her biggest hits, at a peace gathering in Tel Aviv in 1995. The event ended with her singing the number together with foreign minister Shimon Peres and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Minutes later Rabin was assassinated. When Aloni saw the TV report on Faisal she decided to make the trek up north to Tamra. It was great meeting her," says the teenager. "She spent all day with me and we plan to appear together at Tzavta in Tel Aviv." Tzavta is one of the top concert halls in the country. The idea is for Aloni and Faisal to sing a song - respectively - in Hebrew and Arabic. "It will be a way of spreading peace and coexistence," Faisal explains. Faisal believes both in freedom of speech, regardless of the cost, and the power of music to bridge gaps. "My next album, my third, will be in Hebrew. I did some numbers in Hebrew at a show in an Arab town not so long ago. The audience didn't like it all, but I didn't mind. If someone wants to criticize me for that, or anything else, or wants to curse me, that's fine by me. People can say what they want." Faisal is now in 12th grade and maintains a hectic schedule. "I go to school, do gigs during the week, and I make sure I do all my homework. I also play soccer and do karate." What about her classmates? Do they think she's a bit weird? "Yes, they think I'm strange, but they also come to my shows and give me a lot of support. That's important to me."