Iron Sheik

ironsheiklogoWill Youman wants to be known as the next Public Enemy. He also believes that most people should read The New York Review of Books. The hip hop artist and self-proclaimed creator of cultural resistance calls himself "the Iron Sheik" and this afternoon, he's munching on nachos in a small Berkeley café that's covered in murals advertising justicia.

Tall, friendly and principled, the Iron Sheik discusses land dispossession and consumer-oriented hip hop. As a Palestinian American hip hop artist and activist, both these issues are personal ones. His latest and only album, "Camel Clutch 2003," is named after the bloodthirsty chokehold of the famous 1980s WWF wrestler The Iron Sheik. The Sheik of Berkeley is not quite so hardcore. "I don't want to just be known as the pissed off Palestinian," he explains. His Camel Clutch is the truth about the history of exile and suffering of Palestinian people for as long as there has been an Israeli state. Most of his songs narrate the history of Western imperialism in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine, by discussing artists and poets as well as political theory and theorists.

While journalists labor over the technicalities and hypocrisies of the Bush regime, the Sheik takes a lot less time to say the same thing. His radical words, though slightly awkward, could definitely get him deported. He introduces his "Oil Anthem:" "It was Henry Kissinger who said oil is too valuable a commodity to be left in the hands of the Arabs." Then the beats roll in and the Sheik raps:

"Bush is itching to remove Saddam/His answer is to kill every Iraqi with a bomb/But the US helped him attack Iran/In 1980, they wanted oil from Teheran/that regime change was about Khomeini/America helped Saddam even though he was crazy/He used chemicals but there's something absurd/the US gave him the gas he used to kill the Kurds"

He sounds more like a freestyled textbook than an underground rapper, but the Iron Sheik's been spinning rhymes since junior high.

The Sheik grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, a small city outside of Detroit, known to some as the Arab capital of the United States. After eighth grade, he moved to a nearby town that had a significantly lower Arab population. This was when he was confronted with the identity of "Arab American" that he identifies with so clearly in his music and activism. Before high school he says that though he was growing up as an Arab American, he never thought of himself with that label: he was Palestinian as opposed to Lebanese or Iraqi, Christian as opposed to Muslim.

The Iron Sheik perfoms.

The Sheik's parents sent him on a bus to protest the first invasion of Iraq when the Sheik was 12, but his rhymes have not always reflected the times. He says he started out rapping mostly "I'm better than you stuff," though he was raised in a politically active household. He was listening to Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and KRS-One. As he got older, he tried to use his skills and that influence to address issues that were affecting him as a Palestinian American living in the boondocks of Michigan. During his senior year, he hooked up with another politically-minded Palestinian American hip hop artist and they had a couple of gigs, but the Iron Sheik remained frustrated with the bling-bling that his generation embraced.

When The Sheik started college he gave up creating hip hop; he didn't see any way to reconcile his activism and organizing with the pleasure of making beats. The first song he wrote, "The Tale of the Three Mohammads," for a movie with the same name by Nasri Zacharia during the Sheik's senior year, transformed his focus. He had some friends who were Arab American spoken word artists, and they helped him understand the power of fusing culture and politics to achieve the same goals he and his "ideological activist" friends had been working towards.

The Sheik persevered and at 25, he has just cut his first album. He's not doing Palestine to make it big, however, he's doing hip hop to spread the word about Palestine. He explains, "I'm doing it because I have kind of a greater goal. Because [hip-hop] started as a grassroots mode of resistance." In his case, he feels that his role as an activist and hip hop artist is "to give the Palestinian narrative."

Currently, those who surround the Sheik want to steer him in the hip hop direction, which means tightening up his beats and diversifying his content. "I'm expected to talk about more--not just politics, you know what I mean," he explains shyly. "I don't want to write a song about getting drunk or something, but I might want to mention that when the Intifada started I felt so powerless that I got drunk for two weeks straight before I got my act together."

Despite attempts to cut loose (the line "you're not an activist/you're a mactivst" will appear on his next album), the Sheik vows to keep it real and reach out especially to Arab American youth. He believes it's deeply important to promote pride in the Arab American identity when Arab Americans are constantly slandered and treated as terrorists. His song "Growing Up" points out that,

"We're treated suspiciously, cuz we are Arabi, meaning deadly/Some hide their identity and claim Italy/Or some other country . . . Macking at clubs trying to spit some game/Ali's name becomes Antonio from Spain."

The Sheik plans to address these issues directly in his immediate future through what he calls "publishing and cultural development." He and a few others are about to start up an online Arab American magazine called "Al-Mohajer" (the migrant). The purpose is to build community among Arab Americans and "promote an Arab American identity."

The Sheik sees himself as a role model, but stresses the inherent obligations, saying, "I really want to reach out to the Muslim population a lot, but if I swear too much or talk about drinking then I'll alienate them. My political message is greater than that. At the same time, I kind of want to be honest. I like to have fun, too. Because if you're all serious you lose your connection to the people. It's kind of a contradiction because it doesn't match up with the reality, but in some ways it does. If you go to Palestine, people are having fun, laughing, having weddings, partying. If you go there, as long as people aren't on their deathbed or getting shot at, they're trying to maintain their humanity."

As far as activism goes, the Sheik isn't content just to rap about the rights of Palestinians. Just after the start of the second Intifada, the Sheik founded one of the leading Palestine solidarity groups in the country, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). He had just moved to Berkeley where the words "Free Palestine" were barely beginning to decorate car bumpers. Frantic to contribute to the struggle, the Sheik and a friend mobilized an equally frustrated group of Berkeley students to create SJP. It has become a diverse powerhouse, founded on principles of equality, rights and liberation. Many other inspired campus groups then sprang up around the country and joined in a national divestment campaign, a movement to end financial support to Israel from U.S. colleges and universities.

Though SJP has disintegrated slightly in the past year or so, the Sheik believes it will bounce back. He wishes that people who want to work on Palestinian solidarity wouldn't treat it like environmentalism or feminism, but would defer to those that have deep knowledge of the nation and the struggle. At the same time he acknowledges, "The trendy activists bring some optimism. A lot of experienced activists would say, 'we'll never pull this off, the Zionists will shut us down,' when the trendy activists might say, 'we can do this.'"

The Iron Sheik has family in Israel, and has traveled to visit them. He stays connected to what's happening over there, and believes that the liberation movement in the United States takes its cue from events in Palestine. He feels that it's ridiculous to discuss a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict when "it's not like we're close to the finish line or even halfway there." According to the Sheik, people get hung up on establishing two states (one for the Palestinians and one for the Israelis) or one state for both peoples, when really those things aren't really in activists' hands. "What's in activists' hands is how much do people really know about what the Palestinians are suffering."

He pauses, but unable to resist, he adds, "So where I fit in, I see the refugees as vital, I see Jerusalem as vital. I don't want a crummy Palestinian state. If they're going to give us a state, it has to be 100% real sovereignty." He's referring to "the refugee problem," a vague expression the Western world uses to describe the forced expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 when Israel was founded by Britain and the United Nations. The Sheik wants to see the refugees' rights and demands for return taken seriously and wants Jerusalem returned to the Palestinian people who currently have no control of their territory's former capitol. The Sheik reflects that he would "rather have no state at all" if sovereignty is "given" to the Palestinian people--essentially, he believes anyone who "gives" sovereignty can take it away.

The Sheik's grandparents are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship living in Israel. He describes them as "a complete underclass." When he visited them, he says he "had this constant feeling of being inferior. There were soldiers all around. When we would go outside, Israeli kids would come up to us with video cameras, making fun of us." He points out that the Palestinians who live in refugee camps usually get the most attention from many Palestine solidarity activists, because of the intensity of poverty and overcrowding that exists there. He explains that the Israeli military controls Palestinians living in the camps through curfews, checkpoints, and closures, "everything from the use of water to access to medicine is controlled by Israel."

When there are closures and curfews many kids can't get to school, and so some have organized to have a school by phone, and they attend their classes by calling each other. "The spectrum of resistance is wide," says the Sheik, noting that, "when the occupation is so total, resistance is going to be total." Palestinian youth sometimes talk back to Israeli soldiers, dismantle roadblocks, or even just claim to be Palestinian, which is a mode of resistance for a people whose existence has often been denied.

There's also been a rise in hip hop expression from the Palestinians. The Sheik says that many have been inspired by Tu Pac. "Not necessarily his words, some people don't even understand his words, but just the energy from him." Some Palestinian hip hop artists have Israeli citizenship and live in the hood, like TN (Tamer Nafar), and some are coming out of the refugee camps. The Sheik says, "It's kind of a resurrection of the origins there, people trying to claim a voice out of their oppression."

Likewise, the music of the Iron Sheik addresses the silencing of Arab American voices in this country, as well as political policy and political theory. Another song on "Camel Clutch 2003" is called "Conversations with Edward Said." In this song, the Sheik mixes a speech Said, a prominent Palestinian cultural and political theorist, gave at Berkeley with his own rhymes, discussing "Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights." The Sheik asks about Israeli policy, "Which one is most blatantly a violation of the United Nations?" Said answers dryly, "extra-judicial criminal assassinations." It could be an editorial in the Sheik's own New York Review. Noam Chomsky might blast it out of his car windows and get pulled over. That's why the Camel Clutch is an anomaly. The more hyped up media you read, the more down you get to the Iron Sheik.

Check out the rap version of this article!

Click here for a link to the Iron Sheik's homepage

Zoe Chace, 21, is a former WireTap intern.

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