Palipalooza performer, Bilal Shouly brings underground Arab hip-hop to Chicago
Bilal Shouly describes being captivated by Tupac at just 12 years old when he won a Tupac CD at a radio contest in Amman, Jordan. He recalls memorizing and studying Tupac’s lyrics to learn how to master his flow. In 2010 Shouly met Al Basha in Amman while the underground Arab hip-hop scene was reawakened and taking on new forms. The two formed a musical duo, fusing hip-hop with a variety of Arabic musical traditions, creating original tracks and lyrics that spoke to Palestinian youth. The duo collaborated in producing their early original work such as “Walk With Me” and “Trap the Mole” using music as a means to share their stories and express their harsh realities.
After five years of successful collaborations and performances around local venues in Amman, the artists gained a following and released their first collective EP entitled "ShuBasha" in April 2016, and “Ouffwhite” in 2017. Their contemporary take on Palestinian rap is a clear homage to the legacy of Palestinian hip-hop that emerged in the early 90s. Often touching on themes of displacement, struggle and resistance, Shouly and Al Basha rap out about social and political issues as well as personal struggles that trouble them and their communities.
Their music has become a tool for them to connect struggles, and provide outlets for Palestinian youth, as well as youth everywhere to feel heard and represented. Shouly has since released numerous singles and music videos that established his name alongside the rising scene of Arabic alternative hip-hop. His most recent project “Farfa6a” is available to listen on Spotify and Apple music.
Palestine in America got a hold of Shouly before his anticipated Palipalooza performance to discuss his inspirations, challenges and his collection of music. You can purchase your ticket to Palipalooza here.
Palestine in America (PiA): How did you find your interest in hip-hop?
Bilal Shouly (BS): I won a Tupac CD at a radio contest in Amman when I was 12 years old. I remember I couldn’t stop listening to that album for a month. I memorized the lyrics and started copying them on paper to learn how Tupac flowed. I would rap other people’s lyrics to my friends at school. Since then, I grew interested in hip-hop as a science not just a genre.
PiA: Were there Palestinian musicians or artists you admired growing up?
(BS): My father worked closely with the [Palestinian Liberation Organization], he was an avid supporter and soldier of the Palestinian cause in the diaspora. Therefore, you can always expect Marcel Khalifa and Julia Botros playing at the Shouly household. I gravitated towards my dad’s books and cassette collection. In Jordan, I met a lot of influential artists such as Tarek Abu Kweik, Amer Al Taher and others that really made me want to create a sound of my own.
PiA: Can you talk a little bit about Ouffwhite and what this project meant for you and your career?
BS: Ouffwhite was a project created remotely in every sense of the word. It’s a project conceptualized by Al Basha (Bashar Mihyar) from Abu Dhabi and myself in Chicago, on which we collaborated with Synaptik (Laith Al Husseini) from Amman and Wikidz (Bader Azem) from Haifa. The project was released on November 7, 2017. It is comprised of 7 tracks (5 collaborations and 2 solo tracks by Synaptik and Myself). The project launched all of us into a higher sphere of music-making. We were no longer operating in the basement, it put us in the forefront of the new generation of hip-hop coming out of the Levant region. We had concerts, millions of views and a growing fanbase because of the project. It gave us accolades and something that we can use to anchor our careers.
PiA: There are both English and Arabic in your projects. How does each language impact your style and artistic expression?
BS: I started rapping in English when I was 14. Maybe because I never thought of rap in any other language but English. But as the subject matter shifted to a more socio-political and personal direction, rap became much more intimate to me. I started integrating Arabic in late 2017 and couldn’t stop. I am more versed in English because of practice, but Arabic comes natural because its my native language. They both help me portray aspects of my personality and really express my ever-changing whims and thoughts. Being an Arab in America, growing up speaking English fluently but using Arabic as a first language and so on.
PiA: How did you meet Al Basha? Did you immediately know you wanted to work together?
BS: I met Al Basha in Amman when a few peers introduced us to each other. We collaborated once before we were asked to perform at 4 events in one month. We then started making music, but were really just good friends who had a fun and creative process. It extends beyond music. After becoming close friends, the music was working, so we just kept doing it.
PiA: What inspired your most recent project Farfa6a?
(BS): Farfa6a was composed, written and recorded under a lot of personal pressure. It was the first song that looks beyond my usual subject matter. It was personal. Music was opening doors for me, but people were still feeling a way about me and who they thought I was becoming as an artist. Meanwhile, I was struggling to make the decision of leaving or staying in the US after getting my bachelors. I was entering a transformational phase, and I was depressed. The song was recorded in my living room but a lot of people related to it.
PiA: How do you decide what you want to write about when writing music?
BS: I decide the subjects of my songs after days of collecting inspiration and material. It usually stems from political, social and personal issues at the time. It can be imagery drawn from the news, conversations with friends and family and so on. The point of my music is to always retain my agency to speak for myself.
PiA: What has been your favorite project to release so far and why?
BS: I admire all my work almost equally. I know its cliché to say, but really, they all required different things, yet similar levels of energy to create. Recently, I’ve been bumping Sa3adeh a lot. I guess it was created at such a hard time for me and I like to listen to it see how far I have come.
PiA: What are some of the challenges of being a Palestinian artist?
BS: Being a Palestinian artist usually means lack of financial and institutional support. There aren’t many agencies interested in nurturing independent, alternative art, let alone hip-hop. Due to the bad rep that rap caught over the years, many in the region tend to stay away from it and stick to the more traditional sound. That’s why you see mediocre artists touring the globe, while super dope rappers struggle to find venues in their own cities to perform and showcase their art.
PiA: Have you always wanted to pursue music?
BS: I always liked writing, I did poetry and screen-writing in school and college. I just found it appealing to me. Hip-hop was something I stumbled upon and figured I was good at. Music became a part of my life and it did a lot more for me than I can ever match, but I try. Music was also a way to get the attention of older people. I felt like the younger generation was bullied into thinking they don’t know much and that the elders are the ones with the power. It was just a way to vocalize my thoughts but also a way to retain some power.
PiA: Do you have any advice for young Palestinian artists who would like to pursue music or the arts in general?
BS: Don’t expect anything from anyone. We live in an age where you can publish and make revenue off of our music. Keep creating and keep releasing. Put in the work, make smart choices, emulate the moves of those you look up to and don’t be complacent about your art. Excellence is not an accident, it’s a habit. Never stop writing and never stop believing in your content. In the long run, that’s what separates hype from success.