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With Outlandish Familiarity

With Outlandish Familiarity

Issue 7 Sept / Oct 2004

Outlandish, as their name suggest, are not a nasheed group, rather they are a hip-hop band, with music which sparks adulation and controversy in equal measure. Hailing from Denmark; Waqas Qadri, Lenny Martinez and Isam Bachiri, who make up the group discuss their lyrics, critics and life with Nathasha Aly.


Whatever you think of their music, the unique sound that Outlandish has brought to mainstream ears demands closer consideration. After seeing their second album ‘Bread and Barrels of Water’ go gold in India and platinum in Denmark alone, what first strikes you about these ‘El-moros’- a motto implicit of their brotherhood - is the sheer hospitality and friendliness with which these individuals will receive you. On being intrigued by the fresh sound of ‘Guantanamo’, the fi rst single released from their current album, I found that through their music you feel somewhat of an instant familiarity with them. Perhaps this connection is due to how genuine Outlandish clearly are, as they present themselves in an honest and upfront manner to their growing audience. There are no airs and graces.

Outlandish may consider it a cliché, however it is an undeniable fact that they are something of a microcosm that represents the cultural world at large. As Lenny describes it: “Outlandish are the perfect Danish group.” Waqas concurs, in terms of ethnic representation, you can’t get much more multicultural than this trio: “We consist of one Moroccan Muslim, a Pakistani Muslim and a Honduran Christian. In England, maybe there would have been three Indians, three Bengalis or three Pakistanis, you know, because you have such a huge concentration of each specific minority group over here.” When asked about growing up in Denmark, it’s not difficult to comprehend how their music found each other: “Where we come from, in suburban Copenhagen, you’ll fi nd that your neighbour’s Turkish, then the other is Somali, your third one is Polish, South African, Cuban. That’s the reason why we’re so blended.”

This ‘Danish-at-heart’ group have evolved in a variety of ways from their first album, ‘Outland’s Official’, in which, Isam admits, they were largely experimental. “When we started out, we just wanted to be ‘gangsters’ and have fun. As you grow up, you become more mature, for me personally that meant coming closer to my Deen, which had a big influence on everything I did.” Outlandish certainly have something to declare in terms of politics, social ignorance and religion. However, as Lenny emphasises, “When we do music, it’s personal. Religion in our music is not a gimmick; it’s a refl ection of who we are.” When listening to the album, tracks such as ‘Eyes Never Dry’ echo their emotional experiences by framing the verses with a religious skeleton: ‘In the name of the most beneficent the most high/He who holds my soul before and after I die...’ The Spanish lyrics: ‘Perdón se_nor/Por todos mis pecados’, translating as ‘Forgive me Lord/for all my sins’, supplement the absolution prayer that this song becomes. Whereas tracks such as ‘Fatima’s Hand’, which exposes the sometimes harsh consequences of an unwanted arranged marriage, immediately reach out to the listener with an irrefutable invitation to open one’s eyes to the taboo issues within our own communities: ‘Even though Fatima’s not ready for it.../She feels she gotta do this for her parents ‘cos they’ve been on her for the last five years.../Her mum keeps telling her/“Compromise, this ain’t no fairytale my child/Do not waste your time/You’ll regret it if you don’t say yes to this guy”.’ This somewhat daring approach to their music is perhaps what tempts Outlandish’s audience to listen on, as they address those controversial matters that we ourselves are hesitant to confront. Maintaining their persona of truthful rhyming, Waqas reinforces the importance of substance in their hip hop poetry: “Lyrically we try to keep it authentic, about subjects that are important to us.”

Anyone who encounters Outlandish will sense the connection that bonds the three. Rather than confusing their sound, the diversity of their cultures compliments a distinctive flow. The fundamental difference between them is that of their faiths: Christianity and Islam. When confronted with the fundamental differences between their faiths as a possible obstacle, they strongly uphold their united front: “It’s important to know about other people’s religions. You can’t respect other people if you don’t respect what they believe in. It’s your responsibility to gain knowledge.” Outlandish seem to challenge each misconception, constantly reminding you of the unifi ed approach they perceive to be a successful element for a cohesive society. Waqas explains, with his characteristic articulacy: “In reality, there’s so much that we have in common, and there’s so little in which we differ. Why not concentrate on all the things we have in common? Let’s just take a sophisticated approach instead of continually kicking one another.

Their latest offering comes in the form of ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’. The promotion of this new album staggers their absence from the British performance arena, allowing them to celebrate the several musical infl uences that have fl avoured the  Outlandish sound’ that we hear today. Waqas recollects how their cover of the Cheb Khaled classic ‘Aicha’ in particular sent shockwaves through the Indian subcontinent. The controversy that arose surrounding the video was something of a surprise to the band. The ‘Aicha’ video portrays women from various walks of life, including some women in hijab. Some saw this particular portrayal as ‘crass’, others argued that the video suggested lasciviousness, perhaps due to the shock of seeing a hijabi on a music channel. Isam deals with this topic of controversy realistically: “If you take our video and compare it to the rest of what’s on MTV, you’ll fi nd that 99% of what’s on Music Television is haram but I feel like we need to change that through our videos.”

So, as Outlandish embark on their new project after the success of ‘Aicha’ across India and Europe, I ask them about the formulation of ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’: “We went back through our collections, picked them up and asked which songs could represent Outlandish as a whole. All the songs are about life and spirituality, and what we found funny was that whether the song would be a hip-hop track or a Nusret Fateh Ali Khan track, the subject would be the same.” The compilation album arguably has a hard act to follow in terms of the footprints that ‘Bread and Barrels of Water’ has left behind, as this was the album that essentially assembled the strong fan-base that now exists in London.

These artists are breathing new life into the hip-hop industry with a lack of profanity in their lyrics and absence of indecency in their videos, contradicting the demeaning ‘norm’ within hip-hop culture. As Waqas dis- cusses: “It’s natural now in many rap videos to see these naked ladies getting degraded. The kids growing up now are going to think that that’s hip-hop, because they don’t see anything else and that it’s ok to treat women like this.” Lenny supports this statement in repeating the ‘impact’ the music business can have on the younger generation: “You have to keep in mind you’re affecting other people with your lyrics.” There are those who would see this comment to be rather ironic considering the swearing to be found in songs such as 'Gritty', and themes in songs such as 'Belly Dance' and 'Love Joint'. Whilst in no way reaching the lev- els of mainstream hip-hop, the swearing and themes to be found would be unacceptable to many Muslims.

 Isam points out how the extensive religious context within their words is difficult to ignore when one listens to their music. “Today it’s not cool to be that religious; people in Denmark think that we’re ‘pretty boys’, because we dare to say that we pray five times a day.” I ask whether they class their profession as a form of Da’wah, a concept towards which they pre- dominantly warm to, as Waqas replies, “Yes, but you have to do it in a way people can relate to instead of scaring them.” Isam agrees: “One time when I went to Jum’uah, the Imam of the mosque asked ‘Where is our youth?’ And I was like; you’ve got to speak out to the youth in their own language for them to come here.” Presumably, this ‘language’ that Isam refers to is the tongue in which Outlandish are skilfully communicating with their audience, although many may find their untraditional approach hard to accept and might be inclined to ask ‘is this the only way we can reach out to the youth?’

 Outlandish continue to shed various skins to reveal a deeper aspect to their lyrics through- out the interview. The Honduran-born Lenny has no qualms over writing and performing the genre of music that Outlandish are becoming notorious for: “I wouldn’t be comfortable just doing a party song. That’s not the reason that we do music.” However, whether they like it or not their music is used at parties and clubs - Outlandish are not a nasheed group after all. Isam discusses nasheeds, “They are a good thing, me and Waqas have talked about doing work on a project in the future where we do some nasheeds. But I feel like Muslims, or normal guys and girls will be much more inspired by hearing us talk about how hard life can be and how we overcome our problems.

 For me, Islam is one thing and being Muslim is another. With Islam, I talk about it as the perfect thing but as a Muslim I think a lot more people can relate to the struggles we go through and how Ramadan is, how it is to be a Muslim growing up in the West.”

 By commenting on society, Outlandish use their music as an outlet for their views on global as well as local issues. When discussing the local problems that are closer to home, Lenny observes: “Denmark still has a long way to go in terms of immigration.” Pondering on the fortunate status of the group’s developing success he later adds, “You know if we did something else, something normal, we’d just be three immigrants working on the streets.” You begin to realise how socially aware the group are, when you come across the subject of immigration, the thematic thread weaving through their latest video, in ‘Walou’. Not only do Outlandish focus on such contentious political areas such as illegal immigration, but the unavoidable Israel-Palestine conflict is subtly brought through in their lyrics on tracks such as ‘El Moro’ from Bread and Barrels of Water’: ‘Holler West Coast/West Bank for life/Upside down, holler for my moros alright?’ Isam insists: “Politics is not our main thing but I have to admit that greedy politicians cannot be overlooked within our societies.”

 So we look to the present day for the group. With ‘Walou’ beginning to break through the music arena and the release of the new compilation album, things finally begin to look promising for Outlandish, though belatedly, in the UK. On the surface, Outlandish may seem to be no more than the ideal multicultural band, but the cultural fusion resonating from their music delivers a unique and real message that will be popular with the youth.

 Outlandish have evolved over time and one hopes they continue to do so, in the hope that this may have a positive influence on those inspired by them. There will be those who, in their attempts to navigate the minefield of modern culture will be captivated; others might find it all just too outlandish. 

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