Belly shoots from the gut
By Dimitri Nasrallah
Ever since the popular, Ottawa-based Palestinian rapper Belly (aka Ahmad Balshe) first began making hip-hop, people have wondered when he’d bring his politics to his music. Now, thanks to the “unofficial” single (and YouTube sensation) "History of Violence,” he finally has.
So much info about the Middle East comes from negative and dubiously alarming news soundbites, that it’s natural to pine for a more cultured perspective from creative types able to offer a more tempered, insightful outlook.
But for the artist, it presents an inner conflict—are you using the topicality of your cultural associations to further your career, or are you taking a stand as the voice of a people? Both come with thorny issues.
This is where a Canadian-bred rapper like Belly, who was born in Jenin to Muslim Palestinian parents, finds himself in a spotlight he may not want illuminating him. Mostly, it’s a debate he’s avoided up until very recently. At twenty-two years old, Belly’s produced three regionally successful mix-tapes highlighting the prosaic thuggery and bombast of the current hip-hop scene. He’s also co-written several international hits for Massari, an Ottawa-based R&B singer of Arabic descent, which focus on sex and clubbing.
Belly’s debut album, The Revolution, is a double-disc affair (the two discs are dubbed The People and The System) that splits its sets down hip-hop’s idea of the serious and the playful: street life and the club. First single, “Pressure,” is a by-the-numbers ode to getting down and getting it on featuring R&B crooner Ginuwine, the kind of single geared to appeal to as many people as possible. It has. Bolstered by a flashy $200,000 video featuring Hulk and Brooke Hogan, predictable bravado and hip-hop’s most obvious tropes—cars, women, gold chains and clubs—the single went Top 10 in Canada and landed Belly his first-ever #1 video on MuchMusic.
Based on this evidence, one gets the impression Belly has carefully manicured his music thus far expressly to blend into the top tier of the mainstream hip-hop circuit. His middle-eastern roots may figure prominently in his bio, but apart from the odd Arabic music sample, Belly has spent much of his career conspicuously silent on all subjects political.
But a few weeks ago that all changed when Belly and CP Records leaked “History of Violence,” a song from ‘The People’ side of ‘The Revolution.’ Uploaded to YouTube, “History of Violence” is an unapologetic Arab perspective on the various Middle East crises, international poverty and the discord between governments and their people. It chastises the human costs of last year’s (post-soldier kidnapping) Israeli incursions into Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the 34-day Lebanon war that quickly followed. The song also tackles the situation in Iraq and the plight of the mostly black lower classes left behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
It even intersperses little autobiographical notes from Balshe’s life, irrevocably fusing the person with the politics, and the powerful video matches the lyrics frame for frame.
“History of Violence” is the hardest hitting and most sincere-sounding piece of music Belly has yet released—and constitutes one of the most exciting about-faces in Canadian hip-hop. Belly seems intent on highlighting a different side of his talents here, and in that regard the song and its video succeed. But in the larger context of his career so far, it is suspicious watching a rapper who has made a name for himself indulging the excesses of capitalist society (materialism, wealth, womanizing) suddenly grow a conscience and speak up for the world’s impoverished. It presents a bit of a conflict of values.
According to Belly, there’s a strategy behind his unexpected move. “A lot of other people who try to take a stand and bring the same message that I bring sometimes get quieted too early,” he explains. “But the whole world is hearing me say what I’m saying right now, so it’s a big step in the right direction. The fact that I didn’t approach my commercial career like that is just a matter of ‘you’ve got to get your foot into the door.’ And that’s exactly what I was doing. At the end of the day, to get people to agree with you, they’ve got to like you first. [The politics] has always been there. I just never over-saturate my music with it.”
Unlike past music videos, however, Belly and CP Records didn’t service the usual media outlets in hopes of airplay. “History of Violence” was issued solely as a video posted to YouTube. It’s not even the official second single—that will be the more flirtatious, and frankly safer, choice of “Don’t Be Shy” (off The System side of the double-album).
“History of Violence” wasn’t going to be issued to MuchMusic, even though “Pressure’s” #1 status there would have guarantee the song airplay and bring his message to a much younger audience. The YouTube video does depict scenes of warfare, but it’s nothing that could be considered more grotesque than the six-o’clock news. As for the lyrics, apart from the blatant politics, there’s nothing to get the song bumped from radio. So why not send the message to all the media? This past week, programmers at MuchMusic asked CP Records the very same questions, requesting the video based on the success of its YouTube presence. Still, the song isn’t being issued to radio, even though “Pressure” made Top Ten in Canada.
“This is honestly something I just did from the heart,” Belly says. “It’s nothing to do with singles, nothing to do with anything like that. It was literally self-funded. It was a song that I had to do, and it was about time that I did it. I think I’ve always put a little bit of politics in my music, so it’s always been there since I started rapping. So far, the reaction to the song and its video has been better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Through word-of-mouth, “History of Violence” has already been viewed on YouTube more times than “Pressure.”
YouTube reaches arguably more people than cable television these days—and mainstream radio isn’t known for taking chances with material that could be considered offensive to listeners—so in the end Belly and CP’s decision to bypass more traditional venues for the song is a prudent decision business-wise. When you factor in that pop artists live and die by their chart success, venues like YouTube offer a win-win situation for mainstream artists who want to have their say without sacrificing their stats. As the recent MuchMusic request demonstrated, YouTube also offer a test-run to see if more controversial videos could have mass appeal.
This time round, Belly’s prudence has paid off. Maybe if he had spoken too soon, he would have been quieted. Too bad those charts have to get in the way. “History of Violence” is a rarity, a song with a blatant political edge that is thoroughly refreshing, not only for Belly, but also for hip-hop as a whole. It’s one of those rare tracks that harkens back to the venomous sincerity of Public Enemy’s golden days. Compared to “Pressure’s” bombast and calculated hit-making, “History of Violence” showcases Belly shining through as a thinker and pushing his rapping capabilities to their fullest potential.
Belly admits that putting such a potentially polarizing track out there during this rise in his career had him second-guessing himself at first. “Doing the song, on one level, was something I just did because I had to express myself, but letting people of different races and religions hear the song, and getting positive feedback from everybody gave me inspiration to actually release the song.”
Despite the initial skittishness, the video’s sincerity and topicality have now landed Belly the kind of attention south of the border most Canadian rappers dream of but rarely attain. Apart from the MuchMusic request, he was recently featured on Fox News, as a centerpiece for the news show “Geraldo at Large.” “It was all based on ‘History of Violence,’ my life as an Arab and the knowledge that I had to share with the world,” Belly explains. “I think it’s opening a lot of doors for me, and it’s allowing me to speak to people who wouldn’t normally have this perspective put in front of them.”
If anything, “History of Violence” has proven to Belly that the internet will provide him with ample room for his heartfelt and intelligent thoughts on larger topics, and proven he can be the voice for a people should he want to go there again. Here’s hoping he does, without questioning the reach of that voice next time.