What happens when a brilliant photographer/filmmaker teams up with a socially and politically conscious rapper/wordsmith extraordinaire? Magic – that’s what.
Virginia-based visual artist (and one-half of the collaboration behind the infamous “We the People” inauguration protest posters) Ridwan Adhami, recently paired up with Montreal rapper Yassin “Narcy” Alsalman to create a music video that smashes the popular narrative about immigrants and refugees.
FREE, which is the lead single off of Narcy’s album World War Free Now! features the striking faces of refugees spanning 19 nations, from Bangladesh to South Africa to Palestine, taken over a five year period. They’re Syrian, Somali, Yemeni, Iraqi. They’re young and they’re old. They live in refugee camps, makeshift homes and slums. And they’re all fleeing something, be it flood, famine or war.
FREE is a gracious and timely reminder that we’re all human first, before anything else. It restores humanity and compassion to a narrative teeming with hate and misunderstanding. The project is about refocusing the lens onto a refugee crisis that shouldn’t be defined by political rhetoric or guided by fear. FREE forces the main proponents of the refugee crisis, the people, out of the periphery and back onto center stage.
We had the opportunity to speak with Narcy and Ridwan about their work, what motivates them and the FREE video.
Muslim Girl: What inspires you to do the work that you do?
RIDWAN: I am inspired by doing impactful, important work. The more meaning in the work, the more I can get behind it and give it my all. When I started my career I just wanted to make things that looked awesome, now I’ve reached a stage where I want to make people feel things and instill a desire to make a change.
NARCY: Everything serves as an inspiration. I’ve had moments where I’m people watching and BOOM, this rush of inspiration comes to me. Sometimes it’s in the moment in the studio.
I think my main source of inspiration is to bring a positive light to the negativity we are drowning in, information wise. I try to shed light on injustices but at the same time present work in a way that makes you WANT to learn about stuff. Visual art is a great inspiration for me; visuals have pushed my music beyond rap and entered into a visual referencing of sonics. I play movies in the studio while I write, I have photo books, etc. It’s really about colors at the end of the day.
How do you cope with the dizzying array of bad/heartbreaking/terrifying news that seems to flow from every direction lately?
RIDWAN: There’s bad news around? I hadn’t noticed. I focus on the mission. I focus on the goal. Don’t let the darkness overtake the light. I try to shine that light and encourage others to do the same because we are in this together. No matter how difficult any situation is there is always hope. “With hardship comes ease”.
NARCY: By making art. By putting my phone away and being around my love, my family, my creativity.
How did you two meet, and how did this wonderful collaboration come to pass?
RIDWAN: This is actually our second music video together. Our first video for the song Hamdulillah was quite popular seven years ago and has stood the test of time by still being relevant today to the Muslim American community. We have been very good friends ever since and honestly try to work with each other every few months even if things don’t line up. This time everything lined up with the song, the visuals and the timing of the world climate.
NARCY: This video came together over the course of a few years. When I first did one of Rid’s Scars and Smiles events, I knew right away this was the visual to this song. So I started convincing him slowly to start sifting through the hours and days of footage he has. Eventually, the world reached a narrative that really bothered us both. We had a long conversation and he just went in and put it together over the course of a couple of weeks. I knew the story he could tell would be so powerful and important in these days and times.
What was the driving force behind creating the FREE video?
RIDWAN: I have been working for Islamic Relief USA for the past five plus years as their creative director and over that time I have been blessed to travel and document our programs in 19 different countries. I have witnessed and photographed people in war zones, famine, floods, refugee camps, slums and earthquakes, the effects of man-made and natural disasters. I have collected quite a large amount of photos and footage and have presented the work in a variety of ways. Narcy approached me to use the bank of imagery as the visuals to the song FREE off his album “World War Free”.
NARCY:Look, we can tackle the conversation around refugees and Muslim ban in two ways: We can get angry and drive out and protest and push the system that is hard pressed to change, OR we can create a timeless piece of work that is human, positive, and doesn’t address any politics. I wanted to make something that took the space that we both have as artists, and turn it into something that is both eye catching and heart warming.
I also wanted to show the world that these are the hearts and souls who are being prevented from entering our lands where we live in comfort – and really, excess. They NEED what we HAVE. We are greedy and selfish for allowing people to even speak in a way that demeans a people who have been stripped of their human rights. If I didn’t use the space I have as an artist, then I, too, would be selfish in my ways.
What do you hope the video will achieve?
RIDWAN: The goal was to take all the footage I had collected and present the people in those photos and videos in a simple human way – to have the audience connect with people’s eyes, look into their lives and see their humanity. With all the hateful rhetoric and misinformation about refugees and people from marginalized places, I feel we have lost sight of what is important – the people most affected by all the chaos. We wanted to present all these people from all these places without pretense, just put their beauty on display so that maybe we can feel connected to them, maybe we can feel empathy for them, maybe we can realize that we are them.
With all the hateful rhetoric and misinformation about refugees and people from marginalized places, I feel we have lost sight of what is important – the people most effected by all the chaos.
Tell us about the Scars and Smiles initiative.
RIDWAN: Scars and Smiles was born from those field visits and seeing all the pain and suffering but simultaneously seeing so much hope and strength.The first thing you notice is the scarring, the bullet holes in the walls, the beat up tents, and the physical effects of disaster on people. Then you begin to interact with people and talk, man to man, father to father, son to son, and all the chaos strips away and you are left with two human begins sharing a moment, sharing a smile. That realization
Then you begin to interact with people and talk, man to man, father to father, son to son, and all the chaos strips away and you are left with two human begins sharing a moment, sharing a smile. That realization led me to group all my humanitarian photographic work as Scars and Smiles.
We have presented the photography and stories in a live stage show, where we have musicians and poets accompany the storytelling in a theatrical setting. FREE is a representation of that stage show in a single music video.
Do you think the current political climate has affected your evolution as an artist?
NARCY: I have always been attuned to the political climate. It hasn’t changed since the mid-90s really. So our narratives will grow from our voices, our spaces will be filled with our stories and our time is now. We must use our platforms to really educate but also, entertain, show a lighter side to the dark that people want us to drown in. I am approaching art from such a beautiful place because I share my vision with my closest friends and creatives and we mold it together. One Day.
How can people help?
RIDWAN: Share the video and message behind it. Spread the idea that refugees are people like you and me. Lastly, you can get involved in our campaign and donate to www.crowdrise.com/wewillbefree which will go to directly support programs and projects that are helping refugees all over the world.