by Yasmeen Adin
When you create from the margins, your art often refuses and revolts against the the preexisting genres and categories that were created by and for people who represent the dominant culture(s). As a result, your art may be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused. Unless the main purpose of your work is to appeal to the dominant gaze or align with its imagination, your creation is destined to be placed in the wrong genres by cultural critics at awards shows such as at the GRAMMYs.
One day before the release of his 5th studio album, Tyler, The Creator posted a precaution for people to take into consideration before listening to IGOR. He explicitly stated that no one should listen to it expecting it to be similar to Goblin, Flower Boy, or any of his previous works that were conventionally put in rap or hip hop categories. He defined IGOR as an experience of its own that crossed different genres. Out of all of the things this album represented, it was NOT a rap album. Yet, the experts writing reviews or evaluating IGOR for awards nominations flouted this vision and precaution. To them, it was not possible that Tyler, The Creator and artists who share his experiences were capable of creating something beyond rap. This phenomenon persists in the voting processes for awards ceremonies and remains unaddressed.
Tyler, The Creator did not fail to express his frustration with the process and the individuals controlling it. “I’m half-and-half on it,” he replied to a question regarding his initial reaction to winning, ironically, the best rap album at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards for IGOR. He expressed his gratitude for the acknowledgment of his work. However, to him the win felt like a “backhanded compliment.” For many years, the voting process for the GRAMMYs has been unfair to and limiting for artists of color, especially Black artists, in certain categories and genres. Tyler, The Creator accurately articulated the racism and ignorance underlying the categorization of his production, or any works by “guys who look like [him]” in rap or urban categories, even if they are genre-bending or fit in other categories, as a “politically correct way to say the n-word to [him].”
Other forms of creative expression did not survive this ignorant approach. After the release of her Netflix stand-up special, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby was described as a comedian over and over again in the majority of the articles and think pieces written about her. Although she acknowledged repeatedly her use of comedy to tell stories about her personal trauma, she maintained that what she was doing was not a stand-up comedy; it was a form of storytelling that many queer individuals grow up unconsciously adapted to. From a cis/heterosexual perspective, the way she wrapped her experiences with homophobia, sexism, and rape in jokes was quite shocking; it was a form of comedy that they had rarely (if ever) been exposed to before. However, this mode of storytelling has historically been known as queer storytelling. In fact, various queer critics and storytellers recognized her use of this mode for trauma-centered experiences, including Drae Campbell. She commented on Gadsby’s recent stand-up, and how it “subverts comedy.” She thinks that Gadsby knew her audience well and used their idea of comedy to introduce them to critical issues faced by every queer woman around the world. Gadsby is not the first to introduce this form of storytelling, but since it had been hidden from the dominant gaze, it was immediately perceived as pioneering and novel.
From Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR to Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, there is a trend of miscategorization and misinterpretation of artists' work that does not follow the guidelines and genres of the dominant culture(s). These cultures continue to push their narratives and misconceptions on these works despite the creators’ explicit disapproval of the categories they are forcefully put in. And until the experts in these culture(s) are willing to listen to and amplify the voices of these creators, this trend is not going anywhere anytime soon.
by Yasmeen Adin
I had no choice but to unreluctantly start reading Mona Eltahway’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution after reading the dedication to her book on Twitter: “To the girls of the Middle East and North Africa: Be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free”. Eltahaway’s writing is unapologetic and filled with rage. Reading the title alone back in 2015 was partially uncomfortable, but that is generally how she engages with her readers -- she purposefully disrupts them, encourages them to be angry with her, and asks them to use that anger to unlearn, change, and create. And she is right. My tendency towards creation exponentially increases as a result of anger. I did not know what to do with my rage whenever I felt like fuming. I would encapsulate it and wait for it to evaporate from my skin; acting upon it would bring unpleasant outcomes that I was not fully prepared for. However, I find myself now running to a pen and a sketchbook or a laptop instead of helplessly staring at my anger and see it stare back at me. Whether it is a bunch of scribbles, or smashing a keyboard, I found this anger cease and metamorphose to written pieces and rough sketches. This anger-driven art was not something I only experienced, but a psychological phenomenon that psychologists and artists have been investigating through their research and artwork to better understand how rage fuels creativity.
After the bombing of the African American Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, singer Nina Simon said, “I had it in mind to go out and kill someone,” but her husband tried to push those ideas aside and simply said, “you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do.” A year later, in 1964, Simon released Mississippi Goddam, whose inspiration came from her utter rage and frustration, resulting in one of the most revolutionary songs that became integral in the protests of the 20th century in the US. For different reasons, but with Simon’s same fuel, sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ prolific career was driven purely by anger. “You have to be very aggressive to be a sculptor,” she said in her documentary Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. “It’s the anger that makes me work.” But these anecdotes that correlate between creativity and anger are not exclusive to Simon’s and Bourgeois’ experiences; they are universal in their nature and proven by the human psychology. This topic has been the interest of psychology researchers Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad, who conducted a series of studies investigating the emotions fueling creativity, ranging from sadness to happiness, and from neutrality to anger, and which emotion(s) specifically catalyzed this creativity. In their studies, they traced back the “creative” process from its foundation: brainstorming to solve solutions. They found that creative people, although mostly unstructured in their reasoning, were noticeably the most creative in both the quality and volume of their ideas. But as their anger faded, so did their creativity. It seemed like this fuel did not last long once it was ignited and needed to be increased in order to survive. Which further proves the continuity of Bourgeois’ and many other artists’ creative careers as “it is the anger that makes [her] work.”
This series of studies was published in 2011 under the title Creative Production by Angry People Peaks Early On, Decreases Over Time, and Is Relatively Unstructured in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. I showed the article to my friend Saida Dahir, who immediately commented, “why did they not mention me in the title?” She related to the experiences mentioned in the studies, and how as a Black Muslim refugee woman, her rage about issues she faces on a daily basis, from gun violence and police brutality targeting Black people to Islamophobia and misogyne, was best articulated and expressed in the form of poems she used to protest in marches. In fact, her first album, The Walking Stereotype, is a celebration and embracement of this anger. In an interview with The Recording Academy, Saida answered a question about what inspires her to write poetry about tragedies like the Parkland shooting with:“The anger and the fear and all of that just boiled down to, ‘What I can do to make sure that that never happens again?’” And to make sure that never happens again, Saida’s activism extends beyond her personal poetry as she creates spaces for other poets to express their anger and frustration. As I witnessed her cocreate Slam Gun Violence, a youth led poetry slam centering the experiences of marginalized communities as they exist on the frontier of the threat of gun violence, I fully realized that I was about to witness a living proof of not how pure rage fuels creativity, but how it also fuels social and political change. Being in that space, where poets as young as 16-year-old, whose frustration found solace in poetry, I was left with much more anger than I came with. Although I could only snap or shout “PERIOD!” after each line this slam participants recited, like poet Kenede McCloud’s “America was never great,” I was also left with hope and relief and reassurance as well; our rage-driven artistry can move mountains.
Two weeks after Slam Gun Violence, Zara, organizer and artist, invited me to an event they were organizing titled Shape Shift, which they described with: “Experiencing the queer brown musical magic of artists: Diaspoura, Quisol, and Mirrored Fatality.” The use of the words “brown,” “queer,” and “magic” in the same sentence suggested that that the event would promote healing and perseerverance, but the healing process leading to these outcomes demands learning how to deal with one’s rage. And I was not disappointed — as they opened the event, Mirrored Fatality asked the audience at the end of their performance to confront their rage. They emphasized that we are left with so much rage on a daily basis as we carry the burdens of the struggles that we inevitably experience because of the intersectionality of our identities, and we mostly do not know how to deal with it; they as artists express it through their music, and they audience may choose to scream, sing, or simply sit in silence. After their performance, Quisol his performance by thanking them for this part of anger release. “As a soft person,” he said, “I don’t express that anger.” Softness and anger are both radical acts and can exist simultaneously. And when their intersection inspires art of any medium, we get to witness the creation of revolutionary art that moves beyond canvases and book covers and contributes to social and political shifts.
Regardless of the backgrounds and identities they represent and the events their art initiated and continue to inspire, the artists previously mentioned share one main thing in common: they are all angry. And whether their anger is left unspoken and expressed in silence or in the form of music and poetry, their art resembles the correlation between creativity and anger. Their use of different modes of creative expression to release that tension from their bodies to disrupt, disobey, and lead a change that goes beyond their personal work shows that they rage; therefore, they create.
by Yasmeen Adin
While facetiming one of my best friends, he received an email back from one of his favorite novelists: Saleem Haddad. Needless to say, he was overcome with joy because he never thought Haddad would reply to his lengthy email, in which he expressed how much Haddad’s debut novel Guapa meant to him as a gay Arab and Muslim man. He only needed to say these three words -- gay, Arab, and Muslim -- to get me interested. Of course I was interested. How can I not be when the only representation of Muslim and Arab queers I have encountered was stories of how they would end up in hell? I had very high expectations for this 368 page paperback that I had kept hidden in my room. And those 368 pages did not disappoint; I ended up sending Haddad a long email just like my friend had done. Haddad created a person that not only shared my concerns and spoke my language, but had a simliar, close relationship with a homophobic family memeber. By reading about this character, even though it may be fictional, I felt less lonely. I had a sense of reassurance -- a reassurance that one experiences upon seeing oneself represented in the dialogue of novel or in a kiss in a movie. This is one of the many reasons why representation matters.
I longed to re-experience the emotions I had experienced while reading Guapa, but this addiction ceased because there were no sources nor supplies to satisfy it -- stories of people like me are almost nonexistent, suggesting that we are imaginary creatures whose lives cannot make it to the stories of regular, everyday lives, which simultaneously contribute to our dehumanization. But this feeling of alienation was soothed whenever I stumbled upon a poet, novelist, filmmaker, or artist whose art was for and about us. That reprieve of feeling understood was intensified with the anticipation of watching Haddad’s first short film Marco which was first announced on Instagram. All of the impeccably refreshing emotions I felt while reading Guapa will immerse me again I thought, and I could not wait for that to happen again when I booked my ticket for the 23rd annual Arab Film Festival, which featured Marco as the opening film of its Queer Lens Program. I thought of asking someone to come with me, but I did not want to tell anyone. I did not want anyone to come with me. I wanted to have this experience entirely for myself, without worrying about arguing or discussing any of the films afterward. And this is how it went at the Roxie Theatre: myself, a group of curtious white people, and tens of queer Arabs whose existence in that space with me seemed surreal. Similar to me, each one of them was there to witness a story that spoke to them. We were ready for the moment the films started playing, the moment of representation we have been deprived of, dreamt of, and advocated for -- it was finally here. And I was part of it.
Marian Wright Edelman, civil rights activist, summarized the importance of representation when she said:“You can’t be what you can’t see.” The lack of figures similar to me became the norm. This was the case until I saw Marco. The plot progressed until I witnessed one of the most important scenes of film history: two Arab men speaking in Arabic, being vulnerable, singing kissed on the screen. I was awestruck. It took my brain a few moments to fully process and absorb it. I did not realize that I needed that scene until I saw it. It was a moment I have been deprived of, a moment of pure love between two people who looked and loved like me. That scene seemed unnatural at first as if I was not supposed to see it or even experience a moment similar to it. After all, I could not be what I could not see, but a simple, romantic kiss between two lovers in a movie and 368 pages were enough to end my delusion.
by Yasmeen Adin
Gasping loudly was the only response my body was capable of when I listened to Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebenase indie rock band, for the first time. I mean, how would a 15-year-old Saudi questioning kid listening to someone singing “[translated from Arabic] The masses (literally: herd) accuse you of treason when you demand change in the motherland” react otherwise? I remember listening to this song, Lil Watan, over and over again, while gasping as if it was my first time listening to it. These gasps were fueled by the reality that freedom of expression was never fathomable to me -- how could Mashrou’ Leila, an Arab band led by openly queer singer and violinist, risk being arrested or assaulted as they sang publicly and unapologetically about topics ranging from the Arab Spring to LGBTQIA+ rights? Although I have found the answer to this question that accompanied me while listening to their albums that I’ve known by heart since 2015, I could not help but gasp as I saw the band I grew up with perform live last Saturday at The Regency Ballroom. I was, and I still am as I am writing this piece, in absolute awe.
A group of students at the American University in Beirut in 2008 decided to gather regularly to make music as a way to help them destress and practice. They decided to call themselves Mashrou’ Leila, which loosely translates to “a project of one night,” thinking their music would not survive, not knowing that they would be touring worldwide in 10 years. They are one of the pioneering Arab musicians who were not afraid to tackle taboos, even if it meant sacrificing their personal safety, receiving death threats, or being banned in some countries, including Lebanon. These sacrifices were natural and expected for a band whose music, in and of itself, is a revolution against the norms and cultures of the people they write and sing about. To be a band that discusses gay sex, transphobia, feminisim, AND in Arabic and not only survive, but also flourish, is something that has seemed surreal even to them. But it did not seem surreal to me. Their survival and success was a must.
When the representation of certain marginalized groups, especially within Arab communities, is nonexistent, any glimpse of representation, in whichever form it may take, feels refreshing and unprecedented. But those labeled as ‘pioneers’ may bring disappointments to the groups they are representing due to their unavoidable problematic nature. My bias and admiration of Mashrou’ Leila may be clear here; however, they do deserve the platform they were given and show commitment to amplifying the voices they represent. When discussing sensitive topics, such as trans bodies, that do not necessarily relate to some of their experiences as cisgendered men, Mashrou’ Leila has never claimed that they have given those communities voices. Everyone has a voice, but our queer, trans, nonconforming voices are marginalized, policed, and tortured. They just amplify those voices through their art, and they do it magically. Being exposed to this magic at the age of fifteen seemed frightening yet liberating and empowering as it accompanied, and partially ignited, a lot of unlearning and healing I underwent to thoroughly accept the fluidity of my body and emotions. Whether listening to Inni Mneeh and experiencing the disappointment and solitude coming with loving one’s country while hating its fucked up government, or listening to Shim El Yasmine and being introduced to the first ever gay love story in Arabic, this band creates a space, for a few minutes on Spotify or two hours on stage, where my existence is validated, acknowledged, and celebrated.
The preparations of their two-hour performance began three months ago and was preceded by a crying session before purchasing the ticket, a crying session after purchasing the ticket, and a crying session in between. Beyond regular crying sessions, the preparations extended to borrowing and choosing outfits with friends (shoutout to Nadia!), showering at midnight while revising their lyrics and ensuring I knew each one by heart, and telling every stranger I meet for the first time that Mashrou’ Leila’s upcoming concert will be my first concert. And was all of the anticipation and the physical and emotional effort poured into it worth it? YES. AAAAAAAHHH. It took my brain a few seconds to process that I was seeing them live when they came from backstage. When Hamed Sinno started reciting a poem, Haig Papazian held the violin, Carl Gerges stood behind the drums, and Firas Abu-Fakhr played a few keys of the piano, I reacted the same way I reacted when I listened to Lil Watan -- I could do nothing but gasp. My body moved involuntarily as they played the first song; it was finally in the space that it longed to be, where it could dance, move, and jump carelessly and unapologetically. For two hours, it was able to exist in a space and be whatever it wanted to be as it mourned as they performed Marrikh and almost exploded with joy as they performed Radio Romance. The scene capturing my movement was actually rare. To be queer, dancing joyously AND publicly and share these moments with complete strangers who only bonded with you over trauma AND feel safe? What a concept! But beyond sarcasm, this is how I felt, how we felt, during the few moments we were inside the Regency Ballroom, where I gasped endlessly.