‘A lot of hip-hop legends will say that as long as you’re good at what you do, it’s accepted,” says Assasi, a rapper who calls Biddeford home by way of Aleppo, Beirut, Kathmandu, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangor.
We’re talking at SPACE in Portland as he rehearses for the show he performed this past Saturday to launch his EP, “Third World Wide, Vol. 1.” He’s just run through his set, a braided blue mohawk over one shoulder, his choreography illuminating Arabic lyrics like 2Pac doing “Hit ‘Em Up.”
“That’s very inspiring,” he says. “When I started, I didn’t know any of that. And then I heard people like Kool Herc (widely credited with bringing hip-hop to the Bronx) talking about listening to Middle Eastern hip-hop and they love it.”
Assasi and his partner S6ef – pronounced “Steph”; the 6 represents a hard Arabic “T” in the SMS script known as “arabeezy” – met in Beirut. He was a musician seeking opportunity outside of a home that had been torn apart, the few avenues for success in Syria now completely wiped out. She was teaching high school history, a Millinocket girl seeing the world and a musician in her own right.
Things started looking up. Assasi got a gig through the folks at “Arabs Got Talent” (there’s a version in every part of the world at this point). The hope was that their marriage would allow them to travel together and eventually land in the United States, where Assasi could tap into a larger music industry.
Things got wonky in India. The Syrian passport didn’t have the currency of an American one, so Assasi found himself going to Nepal where they accepted Syrians on arrival while S6ef traveled home. They hoped he could quickly follow once he got his visa sorted. Six months pushed into a year. He made his way to Malaysia, applied for asylum, overstayed his welcome, got detained.
“It was the most depressing time of my life in Malaysia,” he says. “But I did a lot of work on my album.”
In fact, he found himself working with two Finnish rappers and making “Shabah El Sham” (“Ghost of Sham”), a song that “talks about feeling like a ghost no matter where I go,” Assasi says. “The ban happened while I was working on that project.”
That is the so-called “Muslim ban.” Assasi and S6ef watched as the ACLU and the Trump administration battled, eventually getting Assasi in via his family-related visa and landing in Bangor, where he began to ply his craft, having recorded striking videos like the one for “The Blue Giant” in Kathmandu along the way.
In an extended single shot, we see Assasi rapping through tight streets, followed by children and eyed by wary men leaning in doorways, with mannerisms you’ll recognize from any hip-hop video released ever. There is the hint of Arabia, keyboards that echo sitars, a resonant bass pop and bounce like you hear in Indian pop, and while the lyrics are in Arabic, a quick look at the translated subtitles on YouTube confirms the impression it’s an angry song, classically boastful and disgusted by world powers that would let his home be obliterated, let so many go hungry, cold, and unhoused.
But Assasi has range, and by last year’s pandemic he was releasing the likes of “Stay Home,” a mellow and contemplative piece with S6ef and rapper Sarbasst, as much Phoebe Bridgers as Atmosphere, with a singalong chorus and life-at-home scenes that burst into English when S6ef enters.
Now, with the newest work, the five-song EP is fully global, from the pointed and sharp “Yalalalli,” heavy on the sitar sounds and burning indignation, to the nostalgic and haunted “Yasmina,” where the Maine-based, but well-traveled Coyote Island supplies an indie-rock guitar whine, producer Haquin pops in a nursery melody like a horror movie’s backing track, and Assasi gives us a full eight bars of English rap in the Golden Era style as homage to his homeland: “I will never forget you/ Without you I feel hopeless.”
The English, which he taught himself after leaving formal schooling in the seventh grade, is here an expression of vulnerability, he says. It’s an address to a new English-speaking audience, “very sincere and vulnerable and open.”
His attire, too, is a reach into his Syrian upbringing and a signifier to Maine listeners. He dons a red fez as an homage to older Syrian men who wore it to blend in with Ottoman occupiers who stole the look from Africans. He applies ochre and black makeup around the eyes as a throwback to ancestors who used eye-black to protect them from the sun, and as an androgynous repudiation of the contemporary toxic masculinity that infuses Middle Eastern culture. He drapes a scarf over his shoulder as an acknowledgment of the working-class men who knew to cover their heads from the sun and wipe the sweat from their brows when he had not yet learned that lesson.
The package is truly striking. It is as far culturally from Maine as you can imagine. Yet it is so easy to see it settle into the spectrum of local hip-hop and electronic music and so many of the influences are what has driven so many independent releases before it. And it’s fresh as hell.
Even better news? Assasi already has two more EPs in the can.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Joshua Eden, “Rust and Sand” — Gritty, mid-tempo, big-band rock ‘n’ roll from a guy who’s been making music in Portland off and on since Ishai’s Story in the early 2000s.
• randal b., “Joint with the Birds” — A new, out-there production from the Ruby Yacht crew, this is among the many trippy bits off of the eight-track “Weed-Head.” In the jazz-fusion tradition.
• Killing Zoë, “Let It Burn” — Seattle-style grunge with a dash of hardcore, this is the latest single from the new duo project fronted by Zach Romanoff and backed by Jason Stewart (6gig, Sidecar Radio, Nigel Hall).
• Kurt Baker, “Keep It Tight” — Back in Maine from his sojourn to Spain, Baker’s got a new cover of a Single Bullet Theory tune, bouncy rock like the Happy Days diner got a new jukebox.
• Yeong Die, “Po” — Based in Seoul, this ambient producer’s work is released by the highly interesting label enmossed, off the grid in the unorganized territories of Maine. Edibles highly recommended.
— Sam Pfeifle