Editor’s Note: Warning: Embedded material contains graphic language.
Belly released "Mumble Rap" earlier this month
He reflects on his own experience in "Immigration to the Trap"
Belly was 7 years old when his family immigrated to Ottawa, Canada, from the West Bank city of Jenin in the early ’90s. They lived in a motel room for about a year, and Belly, whose full name is Ahmad Balshe, found himself in a strange land, struggling with poverty, learning English and grappling with culture shock.
That’s when he found refuge in hip-hop.
“I was speaking broken English when I bought ‘Ready to Die’ by (Notorious) B.I.G. and the only reason I convinced my mom to buy it was because there was a baby on the cover,” Belly laughed, “and I listened to that album like it was English class, so that’s the cultural impact that era taught me. It taught me how to speak, it taught me everything.”
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The Palestinian-Canadian rapper, who is signed to Jay Z’s record label Roc Nation and The Weeknd’s label XO Records, reflects on his own struggles as a young immigrant in his latest mixtape, “Mumble Rap.”
He addresses the struggles of immigration in “Immigration to the Trap,” reflecting on his own experience as a teenager selling drugs on the streets to get by. The video for the song was shot in the Seine-Saint-Denis district in France, where there’s a high immigrant population.
“People would check your passport and be smiling, and ‘good morning,’ and then they see my government name and it’s like ‘Ahmad Balshe,’ and they’re like ‘Oh my God,’” Belly said, reflecting on the discrimination he faced as an Arab and a Muslim. “I bring nothing but love and joy to everything I do when it comes to this music … I just want to see people smile more when they see me instead of reading my name and getting a preconception of what I am.”
The Grammy-nominated artist has been outspoken in criticizing President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration. In May 2016, Belly and The Weeknd canceled their performance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” because Trump was also slated to appear on that episode.
CNN: What inspired “Immigration to the Trap”?
Belly: I just wanted to let all the immigrants out there know, that have been through that experience, that there’s somebody just like you that went through some of the same things you did that managed to pull himself out and be here and you can do the same thing.
CNN: Refugees from countries like Syria are facing many political barriers and nations like the United States have taken steps to limit resettlement. As an immigrant, how do you feel about the refugee crisis?
Belly: You’re allowing people to die because you haven’t decided whether or not they’re worth enough of being here. That’s a little deep, that’s a little heavy. To me, that’s the human issue … Forget what color or creed people are, what race they are. If we don’t move fast, we’re allowing human beings to die right now. We have to do better.
CNN: What about anti-immigrant rhetoric?
Belly: Most of that hate rhetoric that you tweet from that iPhone … was a result of a Syrian refugee coming here and having the opportunities and giving his son (Steve Jobs) the opportunities to create something greater than we’ve ever known.
The ‘mumble rap’ debate
Belly has worked with rappers like Snoop Dogg, Future, French Montana and Travis Scott. And as a music producer, he wrote songs for artists like Beyoncé and The Weeknd and was nominated for a “Best Original Song” Academy Award for co-writing The Weeknd’s “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)” in 2016.
He told CNN that his mixtape, “Mumble Rap,” was inspired by the ’90s and the hip-hop that came out at that time but it is also an ode to a modern sub genre.
The album was named after a new style in hip-hop, popularized by rappers like Future, Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty, whose lyrics are difficult to decipher as they mumble over the beats. In a 2016 interview, Wiz Khalifa referred to it as “mumble rap,” and while mumbling is not new in hip-hop, some artists like Desiigner released entire tracks (check out “Panda”) with lyrics fans couldn’t understand. The term took off and that sub-genre has been criticized by some who considered it lyrically weak and said that it’s not real rap.
CNN: “Mumble Rap” is often used in a condescending way. How does your album define it?
Belly: I think taking back the term “mumble rap” was important to me because I appreciate and love every facet of hip-hop and everything that’s going on right now in the game, so I felt it kind of disrespectful that people kept referring to that whole genre as “mumble rap.” I just wanted to take the term back. I wanted to put out a good, you know great, rap album with that title to see what happens and it was dope. I stirred the pot a little bit.
CNN: Why is there some resistance to “mumble rap” within hip-hop?
Belly: I think when it comes to hip-hop in general, there’s this sense of nostalgia that people have that it’s almost like amnesia in the same sense … We’ve had different genres within our genre for so long that people just fail to realize that it’s going to keep repeating and we’re watching the cycle repeat again.
CNN: What about conscious rap?
Belly: Everything is integrated to me. We can use all the platforms to speak what we want to speak, but with that being said when I’m in the club I don’t want to hear conscious s—, sorry. I want to turn up … There’s a place and time for everything. When I’m riding in my car I want to hear some s— that makes me think.
For more on hip-hop, culture and politics, check out CNN’s #GetPolitical.