AJ is an all-American guy, right out of a Bruce Springsteen song. The 39-year-old, whose bright eyes and youthful voice make him seem 23, was born in Youngstown, Ohio, the son of a steel worker. Once the mills closed down, and skipping stones down at the quarry had lost its luster, the family moved to the big city of dreams — New York, New York — where his father opened a corner store.
On that crucial scene in the late ’70s, AJ got to witness the birth of hip-hop: Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J, and all the rest. He also experienced the violence of the city, culminating in his being shot in the arm and stomach with an AK-47 as a drive-by blew past his dad’s market. After recovering, he came out to California, where he got married and now works at a convenience store on Oakland’s Market Street, deep in Black Panther territory.
All his life AJ has been writing and performing raps, but in the ’90s he decided to do something different: He began incorporating the native tongue of his parents, who emigrated here from Yemen. “I mostly rap in English and I throw a bunch of Arabic phrases in there, and I take a lot of Arabic music and blend it with a hip-hop beat,” says AJ, whose given name is Hagage Masaed, on a break from his job at the mom ‘n’ pop.
The results are mixed. His rapping is actually much stronger when he does it in Arabic, which is well-suited for the clips and starts that give the form its sound. The beats are catchy, but this ain’t the Neptunes or Timbaland. All in all it has an early Too Short vibe, though not quite so minimal, and is infused with traditional Middle Eastern instruments.
AJ’s DIY aesthetic lends the music a certain authenticity and charm. Most importantly, the Arab community here has eaten it up. “I had a friend of mine take it to all the corner stores and see what they thought,” he says of his initial raps with Arabic thrown in. “I had the Islamic call to prayer in it, and I thought they would be really offended … but he was like, “Oh, everybody loved it!'” From there AJ put together several other songs and put out his first album, Another Night in Arabia. He claims to have sold more than 40,000 copies by focusing his distribution on places that have strong Arab-American communities, such as Buffalo, Detroit, and New Jersey. And that’s not counting what he’s sold to his peeps in Yemen.
So what does our Muslim rapper rap about? Well, his style has changed since 9/11. He used to rap about Yemeni and Arabic culture in America. Now he’s gotten more political, and outside of über-liberal Berkeley, his stuff is pretty controversial: pro-Palestine, anti-Bush. “22 terrorists/All Arabian/No drug-lord-killing South Americans/Federales ain’t terrorists, they Mexican/The Jews never kill, only victimized/I want to see what you see through your president’s eyes.”
It’s not so much that he’s a Yemeni KRS-One, drawn to shine the light on politics through music. It’s more that he feels he has to. He’s been thrust into it. “No matter what I’ve done as far as successwise or musicwise, people don’t look at that,” AJ says. “They just see Arab, “he’s one of the bad guys,’ terrorism. All of the newspapers, magazines, news — everything is anti-Arab. You can call it propaganda. It just sort of makes me feel like no matter what I’ve done up to this point, I have to start all over again and prove myself, because all of that is washed away with 9/11. Now I need to show that I’m a good citizen, a good American, a good Samaritan.”
AJ remembers a flight he took two weeks before the World Trade Center attacks. “There was a pilot sitting next to me,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I’m pretty talkative, and I was like, “Hey, how you doing?’ The guy was from Texas and had a house in Cleveland, and I’m from Youngstown, Ohio, so we had that in common. I started asking him questions like, “Man, you’ve been a pilot for how many years? Have you ever been hijacked? Have you ever thought about what you would do if you were?’ We were on the same flight of 9/11, Manhattan to San Francisco, and I’m sure this guy was home with his wife saying, “Honey, I tell you — one of them was sitting right next to me! Asking me terrorist-type questions!’ “
Things have calmed down for the Arab community in the East Bay since then. People aren’t as paranoid, though all that could change if we invade Iraq again. AJ has some shows planned with belly dancers instead of hoochies, and on September 11 (that’s today) he’s releasing his new album, entitled The Second Coming. “Right now, I guess I’m the Arabian voice of the East Bay,” he says. “I don’t mean to be a spokesperson for them. I’m just hoping that I can open some eyes.”