Libyan-American Rapper Khaled M. on Hip-Hop, Islam and the Mainstream

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Biography

Khaled, an emcee who hails from Libya, Africa, but grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, is “really trying to get people excited about lyrics again,” he explains, “I’m trying to take it back to the days when rhyming actually mattered.” In an era where dance moves and ringtone sales give an artist more clout than actual talent, Khaled is able to combine his craftiness with genuine song writing ability to appease both hip hop purists and casual fans alike. Khaled’s goal may sound like an uphill battle to some, but he’s not worried, fighting uphill battles is in his blood. In Khaled’s case he gets it from his father, Fathi, who was part of a revolutionary movement in Libya. Imprisoned for his role in a student protest against the government, Fathi was facing a shortened life in jail that would end with his execution. After five years of brutal, dehumanizing torture, Fathi amazingly managed to escape incarceration. Khaled spent the first few years of his life on the run, moving from city to city, as his father avoided spies and attempts on his life. Read complete bio here.

Urban Cusp: How do you strike the balance between having mainstream appeal and being a progressive artist?

Khaled M: When I was young, I used to be into a lot of lyricists (Nas, Mos Def, Wordsworth,etc). I thought they were dope but when I showed the music to my friends in Kentucky, they’d complain about how the beats were whack or the rappers were monotone. So on the most basic level, I try to write music with lyrics that satisfy Hip-Hop purists and fit my message, but that also have dope beats, catchy hooks, and a flow that’ll attract even the most casual fans. Secondly, I make it a point to never come across as “preachy”. My music isn’t contrived, and I don’t go into a song thinking “I’m gonna address this issue or that problem”. My music is simply a reflection of me. I share my perspectives as part of a greater dialogue, not as the end-all be-all answer.

Lastly, and I think this is most important – I don’t necessarily consider my music “conscious” or “progressive.” I feel like people often get intimidated by those terms or they automatically feel alienated. I don’t feel like most artists who are considered “progressive” are speaking about anything outside of the norm. It just so happens that what I speak about in my music is more in line with what people talk about in daily conversations. This is sincere music, real life music. Think about it. How much time of your day do you actually spend talking about “popping bottles” or “dropping it low?” I mean, even if that’s something you do for fun, I’m sure it doesn’t actually make up most of your daily conversation. So I think this is music geared more towards real life.

UC: What does the Hip-Hop landscape look like overseas? Does America have anything to learn from other parts of the world as it relates to
Hip-Hop and the music industry?

KM: There is no question Hip-Hop is global. Countries like Japan, Brazil, France, and Germany have embraced Hip-Hop to the point where American indie artists get more love out there than back home. In countries facing oppression, like Libya, Hip-Hop has become a voice for the people. It allows the downtrodden to be heard when traditional means marginalizes them. For a long time, international Hip-Hop mimicked that of the US. Clothing, content, etc. was similar. But, now, we see a wave of countries that are developing their own identity in the Hip-Hop world. One thing that is beautiful about Hip-Hop in many countries overseas is that it truly is about the music. There’s less politics when dealing with radio, labels, video channels, etc. It’s truly easier for an independent artist to rise to the top, and that’s something that is slowly catching on here in the US.

UC: What was it like connecting the #FreedomTour to Lupe Fiasco’s work?

KM: The “Freedom Tour” was my first headlining tour. Lupe was simultaneously on his own tour. We teamed up with the Lupe Fiasco Foundation for all my Chicago-based stops on the tour. We definitely share the same vision, and it was a natural partnership. I’ve tried to use my shows to support the same initiatives, like having concert-goers donate coats to the underprivileged in Chicago. Both our schedules are pretty crazy right now, and we’ve had our disagreements regarding certain issues, but I think its a matter of time before our paths cross.

UC: How much is your artistry influenced by your Muslim faith? Can you speak about the influence of Islam on Hip-Hop in general?

KM: Islam’s influence on Hip-Hop has been immeasurable. Many would be surprised to know how many of their favorite artists are Muslim, and I’m just speaking on orthodox Sunni Islam. Of course Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Freeway, Akon, Q-Tip & Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest, Brother Ali, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killa, Ice Cube, Beanie Siegel, Loon, and the list goes on. But Islam’s influence goes beyond just that of “who’s Muslim”. You can hear references to Islam through artists like Nas, Common, Lauryn Hill, etc. At the beginning of Doo Wop (That Thing), Lauryn says, “Don’t forget about the Deen, Al Siraat Al Mustakeem (the staright path),” which is s strictly an Islamic phrase. Islam’s influence also manifests itself in the culture. For example, you see lots of artists from Philly sporting beards, who may or may not be Muslim, but the Islamic culture is huge in Philly.

Secondly, I think Hip-Hop is just a bridge to a plethora of cultures and thoughts. I remember participating in Urban Cusp’s dialogue with Mark Jefferson and pointing this out: “You can find a man who got his Master’s at Harvard, graduated top of his class, and he may be ignorant to many other cultures. But you can also find a high school drop-out, who happens to be a Hip-Hop head, and I’m sure this person is knowledgeable about Islam, vegetarians, Filipinos, Native Americans, and a host of social issues.” Personally, I don’t try to push my faith on anyone. But I also dont shy away from my identity. People that listen to my music will be exposed to a host of ideas, and I hope it can help spark a dialogue.

UC: Recent news coverage speaks of Hip-Hop diplomacy in which the State Dept. seeks to use the appeal of Hip-Hop and rap artists in the middle-east
to improve US relations with the Islamic world. What do you think about this?

KM: I think I definitely have to learn more before reaching any conclusions on this one. Hip-Hop has been proven to build relationships between various communities. It is a universal language. It’s ironic though because Hip Hop has always been subversive in nature. It’s been used as a shot to “the Man.” So for “the powers that be” to flip it and use Hip-Hop in their favor is kind of ironic. I would be cautious, but wait before rushing to judgement. It could be a sincere effort, or it could be a means of manipulating a certain demographic. I will say this though- Ambassador Rice, representing the U.S. at the UN, has been to Libya and spoke highly of the Hip-Hop movement. She’s reached out. I’m interested in learning more.

UC: What do you hope your music/lyrics will contribute to Hip-Hop now and in the future?

KM: In addition to being a voice for the voiceless, I want to offer average fans an alternative. I want them to realize that there are voices out there that they can relate to on a personal level. Most entertainment is meant to offer an escape from daily problems. My music is the opposite. I want to tackle issues head-on and progress. But I don’t have any specific, quantifiable goals. Right now, I’m blessed to be traveling and paying all my bills through music. Hopefully, soon I can start paying other people’s bills too!

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For more information on Khaled:

Web: www.thisiskhaledm.com
YouTube: www.youtube.com/ThisisKhaledM
Twitter: @ThisisKhaledM
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ThisisKhaledM

 

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a public theologian, social activist, writer and speaker. She is also a former columnist for The Washington Post and founder/ publisher of UrbanCusp.com, a cutting-edge online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Visit Rahiel.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @RahielT.