Left Hook co-editor M. Junaid Alam recently got a chance to discuss the political and personal with the radical Palestinian-American activist and rap artist Will Youmans, who dons the moniker ‘Iron Sheik’ in his clever and powerful music aimed against Israeli oppression of the Palestinians – and more recently, the American occupation of Iraq. Below, the Iron Sheik discusses the roots of his radicalization, how music has helped him convey his politics, and the importance of integrity, solidarity and resistance in the struggle for justice.
Alam:In the lyrics to your rap music, you strongly identify with and support the Palestinian cause, fiercely oppose the war in Iraq, and fire rhetorical salvos against the Bush administration. Did you develop your politics and then find music as an avenue of expressing them, or did you first get into rapping and then develop radical politics?
Youmans: My first musical influence besides the Beatles was Public Enemy. So I came to know music as political expression. Because of Public Enemy, my first political consciousness was centered on American race relations. My early sense of justice gave me a sense of outrage at the American history against blacks, Native peoples, Mexicans, Chinese, etc.
My political views on the Middle East, my sense of injustice there, developed separately, but the underlying principles were always the same as my views on the US domestic scene. Groups were treated unequally. My views on the Arab world and US foreign policy came a bit later. Later on in college, the political music of the Arab world inspired my already strongly held views and showed me how effective political music can be, especially since it is so underground and inaccessible in the States.
I definitely started rapping before I became an activist. But only recently did it occur to me to combine the two.
Alam: What ignited your passion for politics? How much did your Palestinian roots and Arab ethnicity play a role in your radicalization? What kind of obstacles and problems did you have to cope with when you first expressed your radicalism with rapping, in terms of other rappers, audience, and friends and family?
Youmans: My family was a great source of knowledge for me, though they never were dogmatic or trying to brainwash me. I became political outside of the family’s influence. Since there was so much activism in my family though, it had to seep in somehow probably.
My transforming moments were the 1991 Gulf War. I was in 7th grade, but jumped on a bus to DC to protest with my Aunt. I saw my Mom crying when the bombs were falling, even though at first I thought they were kind of cool, in a GI Joe kind of way. But I didn’t begin to understand the politics of Palestine until I went there at the age of 17. My eyes opened up and I embarked on a path of learning. Palestinians tend to have more radical politics because the extent of the injustice committed against them is so radical. Dispossession from homeland, ethnic cleaning, cultural expropriation – we as a people had everything stolen from us. That kind of experience would make any people “radical.”
For us, justice ends up being seen as a radical solution. Justice is the only path to peace though.
My main obstacle as a rapper is that I am of the books. I was never on the streets. My friends liked getting into fights. I thought it was stupid shit. I also grew up very comfortably, never had to worry about basic needs. I held down jobs since 9th grade, no doubt, but I blew all my loot on tapes and ugly clothes I wouldn’t wipe my end with now. So, for people wanting street, I’m soft. I’m a Nerd-rapper. I care more about abstract knowledge and learning than I do about trying to compete in some testosterone contest.
Alam: You take a pretty defiant, aggressive approach with your music, taking direct aim at some main reactionary propagandists, cutting to the core of Israeli myths, and adopting the moniker of ‘Iron Sheik’, which first belonged to a professional wrestler who played the stereotypical ‘Middle-Eastern bad guy’ in the 70’s. Do you find it therapeutic, to any extent, to sort of turn the tables by using irony and the anti-Arab racism of the right-wing to show how hollow their own arguments are?
Youmans: Taking the name feels good. It is a form of resistance. It is like beating back an invader who claims ownership over your cultural space. The Iron Sheik, as a caricature, bastardized our culture, vilified us as a people, and did it all for money. That whole idea of exploiting stereotypes for money disgusts me. We need to take back those ideas and stereotypes and mock the crap out of them. In another sense, a Sheik is a learned or respected individual, and my knowledge is my strength. It is Iron. MC’s like to battle, well I will debate anyone, anywhere on Israel-Palestine, and I will win. Few can command the facts like I do. And, people who really know, they come down on the right side. Those who do not, lose morally.
Alam: Despite the wealth of scholarly information now available from Israel’s own historians using declassified archives about that nation’s history of robbing, looting, rape, and ethnic cleansing, in America the Zionist mythology largely prevails, mostly through bullying and wild accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’. How has this oppressive intellectual atmosphere affected your musical method and style, and your consciousness in general, in defending the Palestinians -and being one?
Youmans: Oh yes. Here’s an analogy. Zionists in the US are the high school bullies. They have managed to scare so many people into silence. Even Palestinians in the US get freaked out about speaking their mind. We self-censor, we fear what the Zionists will do. We even give them more credit than they deserve. We think they got their stuff together, but they had nearly a century head start in this country getting organized, fitting in. I’m here to tell everyone we will not be bullied. We will share our history. We will be honest.
And when we speak out, it will let others follow. If we don’t stand up for our views, who the hell will? Once we get going, the dominoes will start falling. The more we dissent, the more everyone else will. American Jews critical of Israel need to help more than ever. They have it harder than us because they get the same stigma for speaking out PLUS alienation from their community. We should reach out with love and support to those good people. So all those ignorant Arabs and Muslims blaming “the Jews” need to rethink their views. A Jewish-American activist fighting for what’s right is my brother or sister before a club-hopping Palestinian who doesn’t even care about our people.
Alam: The American left has traditionally been pretty weak on both the issues of Palestine and Israel’s relationship with America. The liberal so-called left has almost always cowered and hid when it comes to criticizing Israel. Even in the anti-Iraq war left, bringing up Israel and Zionism can be a tough task. On your Camel Clutch album there’s a particularly poignant song in which you rap out the real history of Israel, Olive Trees, and you say:
I can’t stand it/ It’s time to panic/ cuz we’re heading for the bottom of the Atlantic/Israel and America’s a sinking ship, If we don’t change it/ Soon we’re going down with it
Why do you think there is such great fear in bringing up the role and influence of the world’s last colonial settler-state in American imperialism? Do you think progress is being made in this area, with the ISM, SJP, or Arab-American groups?
Youmans: Most definitely, there is change. I mean way more people are active on Palestine now than the past. It is natural. Israel was once a progressive idea, a socialist stateâ€¦now it is an outpost of global capitalism. It was all very well to progressive people in the US who knew very little about the situation. Most people did not even know people pre-existed Israel. Folks on the left talked more about the kibbutzim than they did the Palestinians in refugee camps. Israel was after all, a solution to Europe’s despicable Jew-hatred. Without a Palestinian response in the US, why would anyone doubt it? Jewish nationalism is in principle just as valid as any other groups (so long as no one is wronged in the outcome).
It was off the Left’s radar for a long time, except for a few voices: Isaiah Berlin (not sure how critical he was) in the 50’s, 60’s, the Arab-American writer Amin Rihani in the 1920’s, M Cherif Bessouni (1960’s, 70’s), Noam Chomsky (80’s +), AAUG (1967 +), Nasser Aruri, Samih Farsoun, Edward Said, Elaine Hagopian, etc.
Also, the old left was mostly white and Jewish, more liberal and sensitive to American domestic politics. The newer left is more open to Palestine. They understand colonialism more because more often they descend from colonial peoples, and tend to be more questioning of established views. I see in the new left, basically everyone after Said and Chomsky, more commonly critiques of Israel. Read the ‘New York Review of Books’ now, some of the best analysis on Israel-Palestine. ‘The Nation’ is improving. ‘Dissent’ still sucks, of course. I think we are winning the left. It is the Liberals we need. Also, keep in mind that the free-market right and Libertarians are potentially sympathetic to rights-based arguments. Maybe I’m not a true radical because I consider them as possible allies in this struggle, but I have an urgency that disallows me from being too choosy about whose support I accept (racists need not apply though).
Alam: The question consuming the American left at this hour is that of the elections, and there’s been a feverish debate over politics and principles vis -a-vis the ‘Anybody But Bush’ bandwagon. Given that there is zero difference between Bush or Kerry on the issues of support Israel and occupying Iraq, how do you view the ABB call, as an Arab-American and as an activist in general?
Youmans: Tough call. I won’t vote for either because I vote my conscience in California. To be honest, if Bush wins, he will feel a mandate, which he never won in the first place. If he wins, his aggression will be rewarded. If Kerry wins, I’ll party that Bush is gone, then cry the next morning. At least the Neo-Cons will be punished a little bit. Plus, that John Edwards is so charming! (syke!)
Change in American politics is 90% illusion. Screw the elections. I want a multi-party system; no Senate; and let’s terminate the electoral college; and add run-off elections for President! Let’s start a campaign for Real Democracy in the States, then Israel, then the rest of the world (starting with the Arab and Muslim countries).
Alam: Has expressing politics through rap allowed you to widen your audience and make it easier to communicate your politics to more people? Do you have any particularly memorable experiences from any of your performances?
Youmans: Hip-hop is much more accessible for people, especially the youth and folks who don’t have the leisure time to read, and what not. It is about to access to knowledge. I have been fortunate enough to gain much knowledge. I want to pass on what I learned to others and pay tribute to those folks putting that knowledge out there. People are much more likely to listen to a song than read lyrics in a magazine or whatever, I think.
One of my most gratifying moments is an odd one for a hip-hip artist. At the ADC convention in 2003, I performed ‘Olive Trees’ and got a standing ovation from many old folks, a lot of Palestinians, who experienced what I’m talking about. Even if they didn’t understand the words, they felt me. Hip-hop lets me tap that emotional strain that I lose too easily as an activist talking in abstractions. Music is a form of abstraction of course, but it lets me connect to other humans in ways that writing and lectures cannot.
My other memorable moment was performing in Pine Ridge, a native reservation. I was in front of high school kids. Hip-hop let us connect, because almost all of them listened to it. Many of the kids felt the struggle my rhymes expressed, and related it to their own.
Hip-hop, as a subversive, but mainstreamed medium, gives people many tools for reaching out to other communities. I’m not saying hip-hop is all love or positive, but its origins were about speaking a reality. Corporations and clubs made hip-hop into fascist action-fantasy bullshit. But we can take it back and use it to connect with each other.