From a little booth in the corner of his room, a 25-year-old hip-hop musician is refusing to be put inside a box as he creates a new kind of music that reflects his multi-cultural identity.
Shaheen Alasmar, better known as Shanii22, is a Syrian-Lebanese rapper who was raised in Kuwait, but now lives in Halifax, N.S., and creating a fusion between the Arabic and English language in his music.
“As an artist, I need to keep finding gaps that need to be filled,” said Alasmar.
He has been rapping and making music for 10 years, but has only started doing it professionally for the last two years and a half.
“There’s like a whole section of hip hop music that the Arab world missed out on, which is like the stuff that slaps your ears good,” said Alasmar.
His music aims to do just that, especially with his most recent track called ‘619.’
Alasmar said music created by Middle Eastern artists doesn’t always need to have a deep meaning or be connected with political turmoil in order for it to be consumed and taken seriously.
“(I’m trying) to bring about a colourful kind of tone to music, because I find a lot of people (make music) that is all about how bad things are in the Middle East, which I completely understand and I respect,” he said.
“But at the same time, people in the Middle East don’t want to always hear about how bad it is. They just want to sometimes have a good time.”
Alasmar said he took influence from American musician Timbaland, who has sampled notes from the iconic Egyptian singer, Abdel Halim Hafez, who is one of the most influential Egyptian and Arab stars of the 1950s and ’60s.
According to an article by Jared Malsin in the Guardian, this has landed Timbaland in hot water in 2015 “when the descendent of Egyptian songwriter Baligh Hamdy claimed rapper and producer Timbaland sampled the 1960 song ‘Khosara Khosara’ without proper licences.”
“I was like if he’s taken from my culture, I’m taking from your culture too, so I sort of flipped the roles and I put my Arab-ness onto like that kind of style,” said Alasmar.
With over 200,000 streams across all platforms and releases such as Cartii22, JLSY, and You Is (ft. Just Chase), Shanii22 is in the process of dropping an EP this year.
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The EP will feature lyrics in both English and Arabic, blending these elements into a cultural fusion that Shanii22 has spent the last year honing.
He’s also going to try and work with some local artists like Kye Clayton.
“I really feel like my growth is has been amazing so far. And I really want to give back to the community here and because I wouldn’t be anywhere without them,” said Alasmar.
Shedding light on international talent
Alasmar said he’s proud to have a team of videographers, artists and supporters who are from international backgrounds, like Palestine and India, going on this music journey with him.
It’s especially important after Alasmar noticed that the hip-hop scene in Halifax is divided.
“It was very divided between white and Black. There was no kind of middle,” said Alasmar.
“There’s enough internationals, and there are enough people that aren’t in those two boxes that need to be represented or that need to be involved,” he added.
Having said that, Alasmar said that he has been supported heavily by both white and Black artists.
Many people in the Maritimes also seem to love the music Alasmar is releasing, despite the language barrier.
“Most people don’t understand it. But I feel like there’s a beauty to that because people are now more driven to start discovering things and finding out more,” said Alasmar.
“The Arabic sound has really made people want to learn Arabic and indulge themselves in the culture,” he added.
Opening the gates for a new generation of musicians
Alasmar’s dream is to one day be the first English-Arabic fusion artist on the charts because he finds that people from the diaspora don’t get as much representation in the music industry.
In doing so, he said he’s not only representing Arabs but anyone who hasn’t had a real home.
“I was born in Kuwait and grew up there, but didn’t get a Kuwaiti passport, and when I went to Syria, I wasn’t considered really Syrian, and when I went to Lebanon, it was the same,” said Alasmar.
“And so when I came here I get asked where I’m from and I’m like you need to sit down for this one,” he added.
As far as any upcoming Arab artists, Alasmar said he hopes to open the gates for them.
“You’ve seen people that are rapping seriously about what it’s like to go through war, but nobody’s really making it commercial,” said Alasmar.
“And so that being said, I really hope that it doesn’t stop with me. And even no matter how high I get, I really hope that the next generation gets even higher.”