Asharq Al-Awsat, London – What happens when three young talented rapper/singer/song-writers, each bringing their own unique sound flavored heavily by different cultural origins, come together? Well in the case of Danish hip-hop group, Outlandish that certainly lives up to its name with its unique style both lyrically and musically, you get a string of hits and European number one singles including ‘Aicha’ and more recently ‘Look into my Eyes’. On the verge of releasing their new album ‘Closer than Veins,’ in Europe, the group continues with their musical messages highlighting real life issues, and distancing their ethnic hip-hop style from hip-hop’s commonplace themes of cash, cars, “bling-bling” and women.
Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to Outlandish member, Isam Bachiri, about hip-hop, life in Denmark and his Moroccan origins as well the recent cartoon controversy that has brought Denmark under the media spotlight.
Asharq Al-Awsat: For those who may not be too familiar with Outlandish in the Middle East, how would you describe the group and your music?
Isam: Basically, we are a hip-hop group based in Copenhagen, Denmark and we all have different ethnic backgrounds: Lenny is Latin, Waqas is from Pakistan, and I’m from Morocco. We all met in Copenhagen, Waqas and I were born here, and Lenny came to Denmark around 1989. Our music is a description of the society over here, how it is to be a second-generation immigrant, to be a Muslim and to be Danish with a twist!
A lot of immigrants feel something with hip-hop or urban music. In the US a minority started it (hip-hop). We also have that connection with hip-hop.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You have mentioned that you are originally Moroccan, which part are you from and do you visit Morocco?
Isam: I am from Nador, it’s in the northeastern part of Morocco and is close to Algeria. I love traveling around in Morocco. As a kid when I would go with my parents we would just stay in Nador where the family live. Transport is cheap, food is cheap, and the people are really nice. I try to go to Morocco at least once a year but I don’t like going in the summer because there’s too many people.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What’s your favorite place there?
Asharq Al-Awsat: What’s and your favorite food?
Isam: There are lots of things because the Moroccan kitchen is big! There’s a lot of variety, but Harira is something I really like.
Asharq Al-Awsat: So how did your family respond to your musical ambition? Were they supportive?
Isam: Actually, they were supportive; when I was 12 years old, they forced me to take guitar lessons. I didn’t have a guitar and they didn’t buy me a guitar, they just forced me to take the lessons! After about three weeks they bought me one and about two weeks after that they got tired of me playing the guitar at home…then they let me play soccer instead!
They have always been supportive. It depends on the way you do it. They never really had a problem with the way that I express myself because they have shown me trust in what I do and I will not exploit it or disrespect it. I know where the limit is. I would not do a video with lots of girls like in the hip-hop videos of today…it is not what I want to do.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The lyrical content of the group’s music does differ to most others on the hip-hop scene; do you feel that there is a responsibility upon you to refer to more serious issues in your music?
Isam: I definitely feel that that is a responsibility on every artist. As an artist, it is your right to express yourself, but with it comes a responsibility. Do you have the guts to take that responsibility? Your albums will be put into society and will have an effect on society so think about what you say and how people will react to it.
Today you have many love songs on the radio but if you check out the statistics for relationships, everybody is getting divorced! I think as an artist or even as a journalist, you have a responsibility for what you write, the truth has to be told. But a lot of these songs aren’t about the truth, it’s about glamorizing, it’s about your own ego and that’s not what it should be about.
You can hear in some rappers that here is a man who has been through rough times but you can also hear that he is a man who has been poor and become rich very fast. Now it is all about the money and that is a dangerous thing because a lot of kids are just looking and listening and they eat it raw. They want to become like that, or they look at women in that way. It is the industry that comes first and not the people.
Asharq Al-Awsat: But don’t you worry that the issues that you deal with in your videos are too serious for the industry that you are in?
Isam: Well, yes. We always consult our record company and talk about our ideas because they know we’re not a normal group, that there are Muslims in the band, and they know that we have some messages and principles, so we always discuss things with them first because in the end it’s their money too. Sometimes I think about it but I don’t like to think about it too much because this is me and this is what I do and if people don’t like it, then don’t buy it. Khalas!
Asharq Al-Awsat: What about the general Muslim reception that you have received. Do you get criticism from some Muslims who may perceive your occupation as unislamic?
Isam: Of course, there is the whole issue of music being haram (religiously prohibited). You have to respect that. I have had brothers come up to me in the mosque talking about it and that is cool, it is their opinion. But there are differences of opinion about this. I believe that it is more about intention, do you want to use your message to be famous and get money or is it to tell people about what life is really about or what life should be about? Spread the truth! It is a big business and it has a wide audience and is a big inspiration for a lot of kids, so it all it depends on who is producing.
All this violence and sex is so popular, that you have to look like Paris Hilton to be down or whatever. It’s the whole issue about the industry taking over and the bottom line is that that’s not what Islam is about. Islam puts the person first and money is not the issue, but in the society we live today, money is definitely the first thing that you talk about.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Hip-Hop does seem to have digressed somewhat from its roots…
Isam: Personally, I don’t listen to that much hip-hop anymore, I don’t watch MTV to be honest, I haven’t watched it for about four years now, I think it’s uninspiring.
I love doing videos. The people who control the media, control the world, they’re the ones who tell you what to think. It’s a tool and I personally believe that you can use it in a halal (religiously permissible) way or a haram way. It’s very easy to use it in a haram way but very hard to use it in a halal way because you need to be extremely creative. That is why I think it’s a challenge.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Denmark has been in the media spotlight over the past few weeks for obvious reasons, what is your position on the matter?
Isam: I think the government definitely messed up. The government should have met with the ambassadors of I think it was eleven Muslim countries. They should have listened to the Muslims in the first place. In the beginning, the Danish Muslims complained about this newspaper and they didn’t say anything but freedom of speech (argument).
People here just don’t respect religion, and want to treat Muslims the same way they treat Christians but believe me they have learnt a lot in this case and the good thing about this is that people will go out and buy the Seerah (Biography) of the Prophet (PBUH) and will learn some things about the Prophet. Just like after 9/11, you had a lot of people converting to Islam because people were disrespecting the Quran so they went and read it themselves. Here in Denmark, a lot of people are converting to Islam that’s the positive effect.
Being a Muslim in Denmark in the last decade has not been fun. There’s been a lot of disrespectful arguments and attitudes towards Islam so really when I saw the drawings I thought, “Oh, it’s just another day in Denmark!”
But I think it’s a positive thing now that we have this dialogue and people will start respecting religious persons, values and traditions more.
Getting an apology from the Prime Minister may mean something for the governments in the Middle East or in the Muslim world but for me, personally, it doesn’t mean anything. It would have meant something if he apologized four months ago when it happened and if he did it on his own. He has apologized but only after the Danish economy is losing a lot of money on this. That’s life!
Asharq Al-Awsat: What was it like growing up in Denmark?
Isam: It was okay. There aren’t many Moroccans in Denmark, I think we (total) about 15,000. It was very easy, lifestyle over here is okay, you’ve got everything you need, and the people are nice.
I was shocked actually, when I came to London for the first time and saw Indians, Pakistanis and people from the Caribbean, as this is not what you see on TV. I was expecting London to be 80% white but it was not like that, it was quite the opposite.
I don’t think Denmark is a multi-ethnic society. I went to Malaysia three weeks ago and there you have Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, everybody’s just mixed. The mosques are full, the churches are full and the temples are full and everybody just respects each other and that was really nice. I loved it over there. It is so beautiful. It is a different vibe. I was there for three weeks and it is just completely different from over here.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you rap in Arabic?
Isam: No, I can’t. Arabic is a very special language and if you can’t master it, then don’t go there!
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you listen to Arabic music?
Isam: Not that much.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you not like it?
Isam: Well the pop scene in Arabic music…I hate it! Every time I go to Morocco, there are so many music channels and everybody, especially the female artists are just competing in who can show more skin in their videos. “She did it like that, so I have to do it like this!” I don’t like it at all.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What’s next for Outlandish?
Isam: The new album is out in Denmark and it’s about to be released in Europe. We will be working that album in Europe and in the Middle East. Basically, trying to get the album out across the world.
We’ll be working on a new video in a months time for the first single in Europe and that will be the song “I only ask of God’ which is written by a Latin American artist. She wrote that song back in the seventies when the Argentineans had problems with the Chileans and they were about to go to war. It’s a peaceful song that calls for people not to be indifferent around the world. It has a nice message.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Any ideas for the video for that?
Isam: Oh, I can’t really tell you that!