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LA and Dubai-based rapper Deen is all about giving Arab youth a voice. He talks about the rise of hip-hop in the Middle East and making his Hollywood acting debut

By Mohamad Kadry

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Published: Sat 22 Jan 2011, 7:26 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:10 AM

How did you start out with music?

I started rapping when I was around 12 years old. I have two older brothers, so I grew up listening to hip-hop before it really broke into the mainstream and I developed a knack for rhyming at an early age. What really pushed me to pursue music professionally was seeing that it could create a platform for me to reach millions and I wanted to take that and do something positive with it.

As a Muslim musician, do you find it difficult being in the entertainment industry?

It is difficult because a lot of mainstream music promotes certain lifestyles that are contrary to Islamic beliefs. However, it also depends on what you are trying to do as an artist and what your goals are. I know that I’m a Muslim, first and foremost, and that comes before anything else. So for me it’s more about finding a balance and creating my own lane while still making music that the mainstream audience can appreciate and enjoy. There is always going to be some form of struggle when trying to do something righteous, and as it is said, “Allah tests those He loves.” The blessing with music is that there are so many different avenues and approaches you can take to be successful.

Do you think that your ethnic background makes you a unique rap figure?

I was born and raised in Cerritos, California but being a Pakistani/Afghani rapper is definitely something unique for the rap game. When I first started out, I got a lot of heat for rapping, especially from my own community. But as I began to show and prove my work, it really helped me stand out from the pack. Today with the global market becoming so accessible, my background has really aided me in reaching a wider international audience.

What sort of struggles did you face growing up? When did you realise that it was time to change your lifestyle?

I had a good life growing up. I come from a good family that instilled me with the right beliefs and I’ve been blessed with friends that I consider family who have been there for me through thick and thin. But growing up I was enthralled with the streets and that led me to be around gangs, drugs, violence and all sorts of negativity. I realised it was time to change when I saw the impact my lifestyle was having on my family and friends. Being Muslim, I really struggled with the wrong things I was doing and I knew that I could be doing so much more with myself. Our time in this world isn’t guaranteed, and I didn’t want to take the life I’d been blessed with for granted.

How do you feel about the contemporary rap industry?

I think the contemporary rap industry has been pretty commercialised compared to when it first began. In some aspects I feel that it has evolved naturally and a lot of the changes have been for the better. In other ways I feel like the music has been diluted and the content being pushed nowadays help perpetuate negativity. I remember when hip-hop first started you would hear almost every genre of rap being played on commercial radio. One minute they would be playing Tupac and Public Enemy and then right after you would hear a song by A Tribe Called Quest or Souls of Mischief. Now the radio is mainly geared towards club and party music. The hip-hop industry is constantly changing so things may be different in the next few years.

Are you ever surprised by the following that rap and R&B enjoy in the Middle East?

When I first came out to the Middle East I was pretty surprised by the cultural impact that these genres have had on the region. The Middle East used to be a really tough area for Western culture to infiltrate and influence. But hip-hop speaks to youth and the art form really makes it acceptable to be different. I think people here have embraced that individualism and they have gravitated towards the rebellious nature of hip-hop music and culture.

Let’s talk about your music. What material are you most proud of and what can followers expect from you in the future?

The song I’m most proud of is We Want Peace. The main message being conveyed through the song is a call for peace between Palestine and Israel. Last December I released a street album entitled Slumdog Serious, (available for free download at and I’ll be releasing another street album within a month entitled Face Of The Middle East, which will be followed by the debut album of my group, WPNRY. We’re also filming for Mic Check, a documentary I’m producing about hip-hop in the Middle East, with the main focus being Dubai. I’ll also be heading back to the States to finish shooting for my acting debut in the Hollywood movie 513F by French director Kader Ayd. The movie features Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Christian Audigier, Bokeem Woodbine, Damon Whitaker and Bishop Lamont.

Who has been the most exciting artist/producer you’ve worked with thus far and who do you dream of being in the studio with?

Swizz Beats is probably the biggest producer I’ve had the chance to work with, but the most exciting has to be my own producer Big 4D a.k.a. Da Oz. He has really helped me grow as an artist and provided me a musical landscape where I’ve had the ability to explore my creative boundaries. It also helps that he’s a Grammy-nominated and platinum-selling producer because he brings a plethora of knowledge and experience that’s helped to raise my profile as an artist.

You changed your long-time stage name from Jihad to Deen. What was the reason behind this?

I had been pushing my music under the stage name Jihad since around 2002, and after doing We Want Peace, I felt like I had made my impact and it was time for a change. People still know me by that name, but commercially I felt like I wanted to give myself a fair shot and utilise a name that didn’t overshadow my music. I chose the name Deen, because it still had an Islamic meaning and it didn’t deter anyone from listening to my music.

How would you ultimately define success?

Success, to me, is living in the way of Allah and following the straight path. Musically, if I’m able to make a positive difference in even one person’s life, I feel that’s a success. I’ve set my goals high though and, Inshallah, I hope to reach the status of hip-hop’s biggest names like Eminem, Tupac and Jay-Z.

Is it true that you regularly schedule time to Skype with your nieces and nephews?

Yes, that is true. I love my nephew and nieces and I try to stay in touch with them as much as possible, especially my nephew, Zayd who I’ve been around since his birth. We have a super-close relationship. I’ve always tried my best to make sure I make ample time for my family and friends, no matter how much work I have to put in career-wise. I don’t take any of them for granted, and I treat my nephew and nieces like they were my own children. I have a lot of love for my family and friends, and I want to be successful, not only for myself, but also for them.

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