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US underground rapper releases a selection of his lyrics as poetry, as well as new pieces

The Poetics of Hip-Hop: On Uncommon Nasa’s Debut Book ‘Withering’

The US underground rapper releases a selection of his lyrics as poetry, as well as new pieces
WORDS BY JACK MCKEEVER

The parallels between song-craft and poetry don’t need exploring. Rhyme and verse, in various forms, have been at the epicentre of discourse for as long as humans have been communicating. Just like language itself, poetry, prose and music have all evolved via numerous man-made indents, constantly adding new flavours and dimensions.

Nowhere is this truer than within the genre of hip-hop. Certainly, if you were to look at the rap music that permeates the charts these days – all searing drill-style noise and braggadocious assertions about wealth and sex – then it would seem poetry and storytelling have been demoted to the absolute basest of natures, hoodwinking the public into believing that consumerism is all that matters. But in rap’s gritty, surrealist underbelly the art of storytelling is in rude health, and New York MC Uncommon Nasa’s debut book ‘Withering’ is a multi-textured example.

Nasa’s writing and music stems from two deeply set wellsprings. The first is a desire to outline the truth. He’s a man who has been deeply embroiled in the media sphere via Twitter (though he recently announced that he would ‘no longer be utilising that space’) and the ‘Dope Sh!t‘ podcast which he co-hosts, but he’s also fully aware of the perils of mob mentality and the buffer that it can be. In its capacity as the most malleable and personal form of prose, the poetry in ‘Withering’ is almost an excuse for Nasa to convince himself – and the seemingly small number of people open to it – of the truth.

The second foundation for Nasa’s perspective is his rich history within the New York hip-hop scene. His rhyming and writing style comes from a long lineage of East Coast tendencies, from Mobb Deep’s grim-as-hell depictions of life in New York’s projects to El-P’s 21st century paranoia. His deliveries are resolutely off-kilter and his imagery treads the line between being opaque and direct, entwining the reality of any given subject matter with evocative, late-night analysis. Nasa doesn’t so much create characters as use them as terminals through which his worldview can pass. In ‘Withering’, those deeply personal traits are laid bare in refreshing ways.

Though most of the poems presented here are from Nasa’s musical back catalogue, when delivered outside of that context they take on a whole new precedence. It’s not the notion that hip-hop isn’t powerful or widely enjoyed enough to make an impact; that’s been a misconception since the genre began. It’s that, in ‘Withering’, the words are allowed new freedom, new space to breathe and roam, and to take on new meanings by design. As before, the ethos behind the collection is to deliver the truth from the perspective of a man who has reached and embraced the ‘halfway’ point in his life, but there are ideas here that could be like looking in a mirror for any deep thinker – ideas that don’t always seem obvious when listening to their three minute, experimental recorded incarnations.

Take a piece like ‘Black Hole’, for example: in terms of sonic effects, it’s one of the strangest, most dystopian pieces in Nasa’s recent recordings (from his 2017 LP ‘Written At Night’), and its bleak analysis of the darkest aspects of the media are hard to misread. But in the book it becomes part of a bigger whole. Disgust at the despondency of the human condition continuously rears its head, along with the stagnancy of life and the proposed notion that nothing ever really changes. This frustration both strikes a more personal chord with him as well as holding universal relevance. At some point everybody’s life becomes stagnant and empty.

The moment where the collection undoubtedly makes the crossover into the sphere of poetry is in ‘Destiny’. Originally a track from Nasa’s 2014 acclaimed New York Telephone record, here, it’s the only example of Nasa veering from the structurally conventional template, presenting words and lines as short sharp shocks to the system and utilising grammatically destructive see-sawing. It’s one of the collection’s few examples of real spirituality, seeing Nasa write of how life is dictated to us via noise and outside influence beyond our control; the idea that things are predetermined and that paths are mapped out for us. The form of the poem reflects that ambiguity, but he quite literally brings the piece back down to Earth by capitalising the ‘NY’ at the end of ‘destiny’; an assertion that New York is where he belongs, no matter where life takes him.

The two short stories presented flesh out Nasa’s creative mindset, giving insight into it and his processes. It’s here that Nasa’s world view is portrayed through unlikely mediums; a female parking ticket officer in ‘Withering’, and a world weary, undefined office clerk in ‘Burt’s Dead’. Both of them are consumed by awareness of life’s perils, the former so dark as to assert that death is the only release from the mundane that leads to the moribund. But, the same inclination to keep people at arm’s length that permeates much of his poetry comes from a deep understanding of how people work. ‘Burt’s Dead’ is a damning rumination on the idealistic desperation of ‘do-gooders’; but, when you delve below the surface the true depth is revealed, meaning it makes perfect sense.

‘Withering’ is a prime example of how poetry, whether dictated in musical or prosaic form, can be a personal tool and a primer for one’s own identity. As a collection, the book clearly shows Nasa’s evolution through life, with regards to wisdom, perception and what he’s learnt. As a rapper he’s an antagonist, both sonically and lyrically, always looking for where to land the next punch; however, as a writer, he’s a realist, collected in his cynicism and always shows a studious awareness of the true power of words. Whilst that’s not the sole reason hip-hop has always been culturally important, it’s a new dimension to the sphere and has helped to establish this innovative artist as a creative force within his field.

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middle east

COMMENT: Identity Of Many

An exploration of boundary-pushing Music, Literature and Film from The Middle East.

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and constant societal upheaval, the mainstream public eye seems forcibly fixed on the world’s most negative happenings. The Middle East is the most commonly pinpointed target – as many of its member states are war-torn and repressive – and as with anything in these circumstances, there are so many cases of beauty & expressionism within the arts that are overlooked simply due to location. Thus, at MCR Live we have decided to combat this behaviour: highlighting two musical artists, two writers and two filmmakers from the Middle Eastern diaspora who are pushing boundaries and deconstructing prejudices and perceptions with their work.

The Musicians

Deena Abdelwahed

A native of Tunisia and now based in Toulouse, Deena Abdelwahed’s confrontational brand of dance music is a socially engaged melting pot of Eastern culture and Western perception. Klabb (her 2017 EP released through Infine records), is deeply entrancing and shape-shifting – reflecting the violence and less savoury aspects of the Middle East, whilst celebrating the power that art and music can have. The songs fuse both grinding and dissonant industrialism with colourful ambiguity, all coming from the same dark core and desire to – in her words – “critique injustices in Arab society” but allowing minds to wander through decomposing cityscapes, unsure of the future but actively clawing on to hope. Klabb is a rich example of how real cultural issues can be tackled and affronted by art; something which Tunisia’s 2015 lifted media blackout, in turn, helps.

Saint Abdullah

Saint Abdullah are a sibling duo based somewhere between Iran’s capital Tehran and Brooklyn respectively. Stalwarts of New York’s Boomarm Nation roster, their music is described on the labels bandcamp as “political music, sacred music, and for most of us in the west, new music”. Their music is steeped in the traditions and tragedy of the duo’s homeland, but it faces sternly westwards as well. Both 2017’s The Sounds of Evil Vol. I and this February’s Stars Have Eyes challenged Western perceptions of Iranian and Muslim culture. Saint Abdullah have created a way of taking their post-Islamic revolution starting point and transmitting it through suffocating atmospherics, sonically poetic cut n paste sampling & rhythmic hypnotism – the result? A world-weary, but profound, exploration and explanation of their own ethos.

The Writers

Hoda Barakat

When it comes to literature, so vast is the landscape and societal diaspora of the Middle East that the range of perspectives is in rude health. In an age where femininity and repression are steadfastly under the microscope, its the female voices which offer the most direct viewpoint. Hoda Barakat’s The Tiller of Waters, though revolving around a male protagonist, is a beautifully poetic and poignant analysis of the psyche that embodies travel, migration, art, industry, love and desire set against a chillingly hallucinogenic backdrop of war-torn Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Her work oftentimes showcases a passionate and deep-set understanding of culturally definitive cloth and weaving practices as a metaphor for the entire human condition, and in such finds beauty in the little things when the larger picture seems so bleak.

Rajaa Alsanea

Middle East

By contrast, Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyad adopts a far more colloquial, accessible prose and a form of narrative that would probably be written off as Sex And The City– esque vacuity to some. However, it would be churlish to do so. Constructed through a series of diary-style emails written by an unnamed protagonist, and depicting the life of four women from the higher echelons of Saudi Arabian society, the novel follows the travails of its characters through themes of love, religion and meaning in life in a deeply misogynistic place. At its best, Alsanea is pacey and properly electrifying – chilling and funny, and chapter eleven in particular works wonders to crush a number of misconceptions and prejudices attributed to the mentality of women in the Middle East region. Though serious and sensitive at its core, Alsanea’s book approaches life in Saudi Arabia with a twinkle in its eye, something that seems crucial to fully understand the mechanisms of Riyad’s community.

The Filmmakers

Babak Anvari

I’ve not seen a huge amount of Middle Eastern horror movies, but it’s probably fair to say that few of them cover as much profound societal, genre-orientated or psychedelic ground as Babak Anvari’s 2016 movie Under The Shadow. After an Iraqi missile hits the Iranian block of flats where a mother lives with her young daughter, the anxiety, paranoia and stress of the ensuing war outside begins to have catastrophic effects on central character Shideh and her family – as her mind unravels, she becomes convinced that they’re being haunted by evil spirits. It’s an incredibly claustrophobic, stripped back, vision that melds classic horror movie tropes with location-true themes of war and the repression of women. However, at its heart, it’s about the relationship between a mother and her daughter and how the misfortune of their environment turns them against each other. It’s genuinely fucking scary, too.

Emad Burnat

Whereas Anvari’s movie marries real-life horror and surrealism in a fictional setting, even more horrifying is the first-hand account – all presented through the lens of Emad Burnat’s primary recorded footage – of Burnat’s 2011 film 5 Broken Cameras. A stark and deeply harrowing documentary about the struggle of a Palestinian farming community during the Israeli occupation of Gaza’s West Bank, the 90-minute film is an uncompromising purveyance of death and oppression and a direct summary of what living in desperate situations drives people to do. There are glimmers of a hopeful future; Burnat’s community show a breath-taking amount of spirit and the instances of joy feel all the more prominent in the face of such adversity. Emad is ultimately fighting for his community, and by doing so, celebrating what he believes to be just. His determination to carry on filming, despite the pain it lands him and those closest to him in, is an example of artistic expressionism in its most powerful form.

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