Feature photo by Seth Kammueller
On 25 July 2011, Claudia Garcia-Rojas, interviewed Libyan-American emcee Khaled M regarding the parallels between his father’s political refuge from Muammar Gaddafi and his own naissance into a unified anti-Gaddafi community. While the depth of his experiences sparked his involvement in the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) and Enough Gaddafi, it does not completely define his persona. Khaled M is also a socially conscious artist with a strong lyrical dexterity that moves full-force.
You have moved a lot in your life? Tell me about that.
I come from a family of resistance. My uncle that I was named after, my other uncle that my brother was named after, were killed in 1984. There was a group of 15 people that infiltrated Gaddafi’s home base in an attempt to assassinate him. Everyone on my father’s side of the family has been jailed or killed by Gaddafi. My father ended up escaping from jail before he was supposed to be executed. He made it to Tunisia on foot. They deported him to Egypt. He met my mom in Egypt, from then on, for the next few years in his life he was on the run, ended up having a family, was still on the run, while Gaddafi’s people were after us.
We lived everywhere. A few months here and there: London; Iraq; Egypt; all through the states; in and out. I was born in Arizona. We never actually lived in Arizona. My brother was born in Pittsburgh. We never lived there. We never had homes or rented homes or anything there. That’s probably how [we spent] the first few years of my life, until I was about four years old, and we relocated to Lexington, Kentucky. Seems random, but Lexington became the home base for the National Front for the Salvation of Libya [NFSL], the main opposition group against Gaddafi. [They] had relocated so many times in Morocco and Chad and Sudan. It just seemed like America was the safest place. They wanted to go somewhere where they can practice their religion freely. It was ironic that they had to go to a non-Muslim country to be able to practice their religion freely. They wanted to go somewhere where there were no Libyans at all, so they didn’t have to worry about who’s a spy and who wasn’t. It was a really interesting upbringing.
How has migration influenced you as a person?
I think, definitely! Those places have always been a part of my history. I grew up in a community of people that were Libyan-Americans but they didn’t all live together and happen to know each other just because they were Libyans. They didn’t come here for school or for work; they came here as political refugees. They knew each other before we were ever born. Basically, we became each other’s family. We didn’t have cousins and uncles and aunts. Everybody left Libya and the people that are part of my parent’s generation haven’t seen their parents and siblings for more than 30 years. We became each other’s cousins and uncles and aunts. All growing up the uncles would tell me stories about when we were in Morocco or in Sudan or in Chad. I’ve always consciously kept these places in mind though I don’t have a lot of actual conscience recollection of being there. I was really young at the time. It definitely influenced me to be global minded.
The people that struggled for the freedom of Libya always would talk to us about how our struggles aligned with other people’s struggles. Not just Arab struggles, like in the Arab spring, but people all throughout the world that are going through oppression and basically fighting for justice.
What led you to Chicago?
I originally came because I signed with a record label that’s based in Chicago. Stayed on the record label for about two years and didn’t really do much. It wasn’t until I left the record label, and started putting my scene together, that I really started expanding and growing in my career.
Do you feel that Chicago’s social justice scene has helped you acquire a more widespread reputation here?
It’s hard to say to be honest with you. I’m new and I’m kind of really figuring out my fan base. It’s international. It’s really scattered and there are a lot of random countries that will have more fans than Chicago. It’s definitely a place where I am trying to make a home base.
In Kentucky there’s absolutely no music scene at all. There’s no social justice scene at all. That’s one of the reasons why I ended up staying in Chicago, because I ended up building a solid foundation. It’s hard to really gage how many of my Chicago fans come from that sub-culture. I’m really not sure. I meet a lot of friends and good people in those circles.
Tell me about your video: “Can’t Take Our Freedom”. What inspired the lyrics and the visuals?
I’ve always passionately been involved with the anti-Gaddafi movement. I was born into it. And it’s probably one of the few things in my life that I really believe strongly with more conviction than most other things.
Before I ever got into music, I was always part of the protests and part of the meetings and things about Gaddafi. But when this happened, this revolution happened, I wasn’t exactly sure where the people in Libya stood. Even though I know that [my family had] sacrificed a lot, I didn’t know how they viewed us.
Are they proud of us? Do they understand our sacrifice? Or are we outsiders? Do they feel like we jumped ship and left them? I consciously avoided making any song about the Libyan situation. For two reasons: one, I didn’t want to seem like an opportunist. I didn’t want to exploit the situation. Once [the revolution] happened there were a lot of opportunists everywhere. People that never spoke out about the regime before that now are on the pro-revolution bandwagon because they want more airtime, and two; I didn’t know how people inside Libya would feel about me talking about it. “Man, who is this guy? He grew up in America. He doesn’t know anything about our struggle.”
It wasn’t until people inside Libya and Libyans around the world really started calling on me and pressuring me to say, “Khaled, we need you to say something! We need you to speak up! Be our voice!” That made me really comfortable and I felt like I had to do it. I usually really like taking my time writing songs but this song came about really quickly. It was an idea. And then I contacted Lowkey who is a good friend of mine, has a history of political resistance in his music. And I also contacted him because I knew he would be sincere.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people that make conscious “political” music that do it because it’s a good market niche for them and they make money off it and they have a fan base. But Lowkey is not that. He sincerely believes in it. I didn’t want any opportunists on this track. So, we put it together and it came out. I didn’t really know what I wanted to say. I just knew I wanted to say something. I really wanted to inspire and motivate people inside Libya and I wanted to raise awareness to those outside Libya.
I wanted to speak up about it. I wanted to let the people in Libya know that them standing up and raising their voice, they weren’t doing it in vain. They were making a difference. It was going to raise more awareness and people were listening. And that the rest of the world couldn’t turn a blind eye to it forever. Eventually the rest of the world did start listening and that’s why I said:
“In the Darkest Hour
When the world has turned away
And no one’s watching
When the sky has turned to gray
And you have no options
When your voice is illegal
Only choice for the people
Is to stand up proudly
In the face of death
It ain’t a waste of breath
When you speak up loudly”
I really feel that! I feel like just using your words it’s not put in vain. And for those people never stood up and got killed for speaking out, this revolution wouldn’t have happened. It’s really because of their courage that it happened. [In] a lot of parts of the song I’m really touching on my personal life and my experiences. I am talking about speaking up on behalf of kids who don’t know if their father is dead or if he’s missing. I have friends, good friends of mine, my DJ actually, his father was kidnapped in 1990 and to this day they don’t know. Gaddafi’s regime doesn’t even have the decency to tell you ‘Oh, we killed your father’ or ‘He’s here in jail.’ They just don’t know, so they haven’t been able to properly grieve for him if he is dead and they haven’t been able to get in touch with him if he’s alive. These are common stories, you know. That’s the sad thing.
Even the story of my father, the saddest part is that it is not unique. It’s happened to a lot of people and I touch on it later in the song. I just wanted to bring my personal experiences. I spoke about my father. I spoke about my uncles that were hung; my other uncles that were electrocuted. Still, with all that in mind, it wasn’t a personal vendetta against Gaddafi. It’s not revenge. I’m not going off because he attacked my family, I’m going off because it’s oppression. It’s a systematic oppression that’s going on in Libya. It’s not only that there’s no decent and there’s no groups of any kind, there’s no unions, there’s no labor work forces, there’s no political party, there’s nothing!
But it’s also because they proactively oppress the people. They intentionally keep potholes in the road so you can’t keep your mind on anything else except the road when you’re driving.
I wanted to speak out about it. The video is specific and is comprised of footage of what’s going on in Libya in the frontlines. A lot of it is actually exclusive footage. It shows people getting shot at and killed while protesting.
The song is more general. If you listen to the song, I never actually say Gaddafi by name. I don’t even think I say the word Libya. That’s because I really want everybody that’s facing oppression to be able to identify with it. I want those lyrics to be able to transform over to any body else facing [oppression]. It can be a little boy in Tibet, somebody in Palestine or anywhere around the world. I kept it general, intentionally.
In an interview with Rap Review you mention being a part of National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NAFL) and Enough Gaddafi. Does this work inspire your art, such as your lyrics?
Definitely! The National Front for Salvation of Libya was formed decades ago and it was the first main opposition group. I grew up listening to these songs – Libyan songs – that our parents had made. My father was a poet. Another good friend of mine, [his] father was a singer. Another one was on the keyboard. Another one played the [inaudible], which is similar to a [Spanish] guitar. I didn’t think much of them when I was a kid. All of this was normal growing up because that’s what I knew. Looking back and listening to these songs that I heard in the 80s and they’re all about freedom and struggle, and these were mostly members of the NFSL, really influenced me.
Even on a subconscious level, I draw a lot of my experiences from those organizations. I draw inspiration from them in my music. It taught me about what type of person I wanted to be.
This is a group of people that were very affluent back home. They were generals in the army; they were lawyers; they were doctors; they were teachers. They sacrificed everything. They haven’t seen or spoken to their families. They came here. All of us were poor. Nobody had money. At fist everybody was working for a magazine that was a part of the [NFSL]. My father was the editor. They started driving cabs and being bus drivers and bussing tables. These are old established people from back home but they made strong sacrifices. And none of us had money growing up, but I had a happy childhood. Had an amazing childhood! It really taught me to always stand for principle and when you do something, do it to really check your motives. Do whatever you do based on your true desires and true inspirations and don’t do it for financial gains or financial means. That’s helped navigate me through the music industry.
In the same interview you state that you don’t consider yourself “a political artist, or a conscious rapper” and that you make music that is a reflection of you at the time. However, your lyrics tend to reflect the struggles of people and liberation. Has your perspective changed?
I feel like both of those are labels that are thrown on people. The label makes the music seem contrived. I don’t go into a song consciously trying to make a point about this or that. I draw on my experiences and I try to offer a piece of myself, in my music. Naturally, if I feel a certain way about what is happening in this country or about police brutality then I’m going to do it, but I never aimed for that niche.
The first overtly political song that I made was “Can’t Take Our Freedom,” which coincidentally, became my most popular song. It just turned out that way. I would say before then it wasn’t always overtly political or conscious, but at the same time, I don’t shy away from it or shun it. It’s basically that my music is an artistic expression of me, my thoughts, my beliefs, so naturally, that’s going to come out in the music. I feel like I am a songwriter as well. I think I can make songs. I was ghostwriter for a long number of years. I feel when people say political rapper there’s this stigma that they’re lyrical but they can’t really make songs and they can’t make hits for the radio and I feel like I can do that. I make my music in a manner where people that are really into good lyrics and good content are going to gravitate towards it. The real hip hop heads and the people that like political, subversive music; at the same time, its catchy and there’s a nice flow, nice beats to where casual fans can really gravitate towards it.
It’s not just about me being boxed in but I don’t want to exclude certain fans. You put yourself in this political rapper box and you find yourself preaching to the choir a lot of times. I don’t really want that. I don’t want just Libyans listening to my anti-Gaddafi music. I want your everyday running-of-the-mill people that may not be exposed to certain things going on in the world to become exposed through music. And at the same time, I just want people to listen to good music and have fun.
Growing up I didn’t only listen to political or conscious music, I just cared that somebody was talented. Sometimes somebody would be really talented. They might not have been talking about much but I respected their art of writing and putting a song together. At the end of the day, that’s what I would want people could say about me: “Khaled is a really talented songwriter, [has] lyric ability and he can put together catchy songs that we enjoy.” You can be a political rapper and not be a good rapper and make horrible music but you’re really talking about good things, and I definitely wouldn’t want to be that.