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#3: "There's no such thing as cool music. What makes music cool is your connection to it"
Danny Hajjar on facilitating connections, the Arab artists breaking boundaries, his thoughts on Taylor Swift, and getting MENA on the census
Hello lovely readers,
This week I bring to you a conversation with the wonderful Danny Hajjar.
Danny is a music writer and curator of playlists and stories for his incredible weekly newsletter, Sa’alouni El Nas (if you haven’t subscribed yet, this is your sign to do so! I guarantee it is life-changing. Or at the very least daily commute-changing).
In this interview, Danny talks about the joys of discovering Arab hip-hop artists, what it means to be a MENA person in the US, and how he’s changed his mind about Taylor Swift. Danny’s enthusiasm is infectious and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did!
If you want to know more about the Arab artists Danny recommends below, check out the article he wrote for Esquire on the 10 Arab artists you need to listen to in 2023.
How do you define who you are, and how much of that is interwoven with your Lebanese heritage?
Wow, it's 9:30 in the morning, and you hit me with “Sorry, who are you?” [laughs]. How do I define who I am? I define myself in a lot of different ways. I know that's a very cliché answer! For me, being Lebanese, being Arab-American, is a big part of who I think I am and how I identify myself. Being someone who lives in Washington, DC, someone who grew up close to Boston, Massachusetts. The consumption of art and movies and television and music is also how I identify myself. And especially my own Lebanese heritage, I mean, obviously, that's a very dominant trait in my identity. That was something that I was very attuned to growing up with both of my parents being immigrants from Lebanon and listening to a lot of music, not just in Arabic, but also performed by Lebanese artists, or artists from the region more broadly. So I am very into keeping up with what's going on in the country all the time, and that is a very big part of who I am.
It's really interesting that you mentioned both geography and music as making up who you are, I wonder if music sometimes feels like a bridge between some of these physical spaces?
Oh, 100%. Music is a great facilitator of connection. For me, one of the ways I really wanted to connect with my Lebanese identity — aside from just being physically there every summer of my life growing up — was the music. I remember when we would go to Lebanon, I would buy these bootleg CDs that were maybe $2 or $3 apiece at the time, and I would buy 10 CDs. I would just spend all my money on buying these CDs and really trying to get in touch with Arabic music. Growing up, my parents were very intentional about not only teaching us Arabic — so we grew up speaking it — but also playing a lot of the music, playing a lot of the artists, giving us that exposure. We grew up in a musical house, music really surrounded us; it was part of my daily life. Even to this day, music helps me connect with some of the newer scenes on the ground, to different movements that are happening in different countries in the [MENA] region, which is a beautiful thing. I definitely feel like music is a great way to bring you that connection to your geographical identity.
“We did not have formal statistical analysis for how Covid affected people who are from the Middle East or North Africa, because we're considered white in the US.”
I know that in the US right now there are movements to put MENA on the census as a racial category. You defined yourself as Arab-American, I’m wondering how you understand yourself in terms of race?
How much time you got? The census in particular is a very flawed system. I think the idea of putting people in a box is a very difficult thing, so we're trying to work as best as we can within the system to advocate for ourselves. In the US, I would identify myself as Arab-American or Lebanese-American, non-white, personally. So those are things that we look for [on the census but don’t find].
But if you go to the UK or elsewhere in Europe it’s a very different conversation, right? It feels like there's much more recognition of that demographic than there is in the US. I think that’s partly because there is a greater concentration of people from the region, particularly in London. Obviously, there are places here that have that exception like Dearborn, Michigan, or Little Arabia in Los Angeles, but I don’t think we have had that opportunity to really put ourselves on the map in the US.
So there is this push to get us on the census. It was supposed to happen, and then President Trump got rid of it. But it is starting to happen again because we want to be included. We want to have our own census category, not just to mark us off and check a box, but because the census has implications for federal funding for our communities. It helps us with healthcare costs, medical costs, education costs, even for something like Covid. We did not have formal statistical analysis for how Covid affected people who are from the Middle East or North Africa, because we're considered white in the US. That's helpful information for us. Information that we need to know.
Your newsletter also spotlights Middle Eastern and North African voices. Could you tell me a bit about it, and why it was so important for you to showcase people from our communities?
I had been toying with the idea of doing some kind of ‘music in MENA’ newsletter, and I was thinking about the best way to go about it when the blast in Beirut happened in August 2020. For the first time that I can remember in my lifetime, it felt like people who are not Lebanese or Arab, or even Middle Eastern, were starting to pay attention to what was going on in my country. That was a new phenomenon for me so I wanted to take advantage of that in some small way. The newsletter then morphed into this thing about music and culture, but I also wanted it to have a section dedicated to Lebanon for the people paying attention to what's happening in the country, in order to ask how we are holding people accountable; I hoped that people would continue paying attention.
Later on, I wanted to do something a little bit more interesting: to highlight people either living in the region, or in some sort of diaspora, who are doing cool things. Be it in academia, the culinary world, music, writing, journalism, or whatever it is — we're doing a lot of cool things! But I didn't want to ask people about their jobs because I was talking about identity, and people are more than their job. Instead, I wanted to ask about their music, which is something we can all relate to. It's just the coolest thing to talk to musicians about what song reminds them of home, to ask academics about what song gets them in their feels, what gets them really emotional. You'd be surprised at how many people have similar songs and ideas. I've had the opportunity to interview people who I admire so much and now I can relate to them on some level. And when they say they know all the words to Mariah Carey, other people can feel like they can relate to them too — it’s a fun thing! So I wanted to showcase that because it helps people; music brings people together.
How have your mixed geographies shaped your own relationship with music?
When you are a child of immigrant parents, you have your foot in both worlds. So I've obviously kept up with what's going on in western music, because it's interesting. I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop, 50 Cent and Eminem, and a lot of rap from that era. But it's interesting to see what's happening now in Morocco with hip-hop, for example, or Tunisia, or Egypt or Iraq. They're taking rap to a whole other level, and I love that. It's a cool thing to be able to hear music done in languages that you speak.
For me, I think what's different now is that I'm starting to move away from the Arab pop world. That's what I grew up on and I love it, it's nostalgic, and it brings up a lot of different familiar feelings. But man, do you know how cool it is to hear some Moroccan artists do something that Drake would do but in Arabic? That is the coolest thing in my mind. I love that I can listen to that and that it exists. I think that's the relationship I have now with music
And do you think they have influenced the work you do?
I've been able to expose people to artists they may not have listened to before, which I love. People who either aren't Arab or Middle Eastern, don't speak Arabic, or speak a different dialect of Arabic, you show them these artists, and they all come back and say, ‘Wow, that was dope!’ I try to do that for myself too. I don't speak Farsi, but I like listening to Googoosh. Or say, Kpop. This dude, RM, just put out an album and it's an ode to old-school hip-hop but in Korean. It’s really cool, you gotta love that. Ultimately, I want people to stay open to other languages, other genres, when they listen to music. If you don't like it, that's fine, but at least you tried. One thing I always tell people — and I firmly believe in this — is that there's no such thing as cool music. What makes music cool is your connection to it. I've had guests in the newsletter say, “Oh, I don't know if I have cool music,” — and I'm like, who cares? That’s not what makes it cool. If you connect with a religious song, or classical song, or a TV show theme because it brings up emotions, that's the cool thing about it.
Is there someone from a SWANA diaspora that is inspiring you right now?
One person I really admire is Big Hass. He is a DJ based in the UAE. What he's doing is so interesting! He puts together a music magazine and he had a podcast for a while. But what he's doing currently is bringing together artists from the same country, who maybe wouldn't have collaborated together before, on singular tracks and releasing them as songs. He recently brought Iraqi rappers together and released a song called the Iraq Cypher. And it’s just all Iraqi rappers on this drill beat, which is fascinating.
He did the same thing with Syrian and Sudanese artists and he did one with rappers who are all women. I love to see how you can bring artists together on a track like that, and I think what he's doing is incredibly important. He inspires me because that's essentially what I would want. I would want all of my artist friends to find a way to connect on these cool projects. On some level, that's what my newsletter is. It’s a way for people to see that a person is doing something, and perhaps think of someone else who might be helpful for that person to know and vice versa. I love facilitating connection and collaboration and he is someone who does that really well.
What is something you have changed your mind about lately?
I changed my mind about Taylor Swift’s album. I understand that people connect with Taylor Swift, and that's a beautiful thing. Her music doesn't always necessarily resonate with me the way that it resonates with other people, but I think I've changed my mind about that album. It's quite good. I mean, it is top to bottom, a very holistic album. It took me a little bit of time to listen to it and appreciate it, but I think I understand it now. So that's going to be my answer: I've changed my mind about Taylor Swift's new album, and it's quite good.
What is the cultural text that has shaped the way you understand the world?
The one book I always come back to is Questlove’s autobiography. He is a drummer and a DJ. He's part of the roots of hip hop and he came out with an autobiography a few years back where each chapter wasn't just in chronological order of his life, it wasn't some very standard sort of autobiography. Instead, each year he chose to write about was influenced by a song. And he wrote about that song through what was going on in his life. I thought that was such a fascinating way to look at your own life journey, through music, which is something that resonates with me. Then at the end of each chapter, he would list a bunch of other songs that influenced him. That is something that I think about constantly; that's how I want to look at people. People are more than just their ethnic background, they're more than just their careers. We’re all multifaceted, and one of the facets that I want to focus on is music. Because we can all relate to that.
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