In 2009, when Arabic hip-hop artist Yaseen Qasem (a.k.a. I-Voice) decided to leave the Bourj el-Barajneh Palestinian camp in the outskirts of Beirut to study abroad, Canada was not an obvious choice.
He had family in Houston that was willing to help, but when his uncle found out that Mr. Qasem was intending to study sound engineering, he reneged on his offer, saying that music – never mind rap – was haraam. Forbidden. The search continued, and when a cousin in Toronto casually floated the question, "Why not Canada?," Mr. Qasem thought to himself, "Why not, indeed."
Besides, he figured, his favourite hip-hop battling league, the King of the Dot, was based in Toronto. "I saw the [craziest]battles on their YouTube channel. A Jordanian rapper was chewing out a Persian MC. It was great."
The show's embrace of all things haraam tilted the scales in favour of Canada, and Mr. Qasem decided to forego a chance to study music in New York. In the early fall of 2010, he boarded a plane for the Great White North.
Mr. Qasem is one of many hip-hop artists – Arab or otherwise – who are setting up shop in Toronto, attracted to its multicultural soundscape, the result of which is best chronicled in the careers of homegrown talents such as Drake and Shad.
According to Montreal-based Iraqi MC Yassin Alsalman (a.k.a. The Narcycist), the era in which music is defined by geography is over. (Old-school hip hop was largely defined by an East-Coast-versus-West-Coast rivalry.)
He says places like Toronto or Montreal that bear long histories of the immigrant experience allow for better music. The city becomes a muse.
"These are cities going through identity crises themselves. So they permit you to feel displaced" – which is a major theme in Arabic hip hop, explains Mr. Alsalman.
Stephen Kawalit (a.k.a. Besque) agrees that the unfinished feel of the city is what attracts him to Toronto. "My music has definitely been shaped by Toronto's mosaic of language, custom, and food."
Mr. Kawalit points out another reason why Toronto has been wooing talents from the Arab world. "The artistic freedom I have here is pretty incredible … I could recite a [defamatory]note>// rhyme about Mayor Rob Ford … if I said the same about Saudi's King Abdullah…"
Now 22, Mr. Qasem is studying recording arts on a full scholarship at Ryerson University.
In Toronto, Mr. Qasem has found a welcoming Palestinian diaspora. His mixtape made the rounds, landing him concerts at Beit Zatoun, the Rivoli, and most recently at the Pilot, as the closing act of the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival.
To Mr. Qasem, whose iPod is loaded with everything from French electro to Bedouin funk, the eclectic mix of the city's music community is a godsend. He lives with a Gambian rapper. His Ryerson classmates hail from places like Vietnam and Malaysia and they draw freely from each other's vastly diverging repertoires. "There is a guy who plays classical piano in school. I'd never seen that before. No one plays classical piano in the camps," he says. It also doesn't hurt that, through Ryerson, he has access to equipment that he could only dream of back home.
Mr. Qasem is no stranger to fusing influences, however, having coined the term tarap, a portmanteau of tarab, traditional Arabic music, and rap.
Since the age of 12, he has been channelling his frustration – over girls, over power cuts, over politics – through rap. All glories of Arabic hip hop are owed to some form of struggle, explains Mr. Qasem.
"I rap because I have so much to say. Today I could wrap about Palestine, the war, the prisoners that were released, the Arab Spring. If you haven't struggled, there is nothing for you to rap about."
Taking a break from hosting a show on Al Jazeera, Syrian-American MC Omar Offendum offers a word of caution.
"A kid living in a high rise in Dubai will have a different experience from someone living in a refugee camp in Palestine to another living in a massive slum in Cairo. We all draw from similar themes, but there can never be a singular homogeneous hip hop that is Arabic," explains Mr. Offendum.
This is the reason why he is happy to be working from Toronto, explains Ahmed Balshe (a.k.a. Belly). It is only in Toronto that he is exposed to all the different identities under the Arabic umbrella, thanks to Canada's progressive immigration policy.
"One of the most beautiful things about Toronto is it is the world in one city."
And so Toronto continues to entice bright young musicians from the Middle East. Men Seeking Prophets is a duo composed of Amr Sader (a.k.a. AS-IS) and Hani Dokainish (a.k.a. 4.an.i) – both were raised in Toronto, but born in Cairo. There is also Reema Major, a 16-year-old wunderkind from Khartoum who speaks fluent Arabic in the Sudanese dialect and is more than happy to serve you up a mouthful of "salaam aleykums" and "habibis" in between more salacious English lyrics.
And then there is Mr. Qasem, who says, "Nas said, 'Hip hop is dead.' We say, 'Hip hop is not dead. It just moved to Palestine.'"
Or – who knows? Maybe it just moved to Toronto.
Special to The Globe and Mail