MC Mana

Washington, DC embodies a rich musical history that extends beyond being associated with one of the US' most significant punk scenes. The city, especially as of late, has also witnessed a blossoming hip-hop scene with artists just as politically-minded as their punk peers. One such MC is Mana who spoke with staff interviewer Andrew Clark about her bilingual rapping, navigating two cultures, and upcoming plans for 2013.

Thanks for taking the time to sit-down and talk; I am very excited to do this interview!
No problem at all.

I would first like to start our interview by allowing you to introduce yourself and offer any background information. For a lot of readers, hip-hop is probably not the first genre that comes to mind for the site, but I definitely think there is a lot of cross-pollination if you will and overlap when it comes to protest music.
Yeah, definitely. Well, my name is Mana and I’ve been writing lyrics for about ten years; performing for about three to four. My music is hip-hop, but I love to do stuff with other types of music like rap over beats that people wouldn’t expect to be hip-hop and I rap both in English and Farsi. So I try to do different stuff and take music to another level, if you will.

Excellent and that’s awesome. If I remember correctly, you are based in Washington, DC?

Ok; I am as well. I’m living in Columbia Heights [a DC neighborhood].
So you know DC is all about politics then haha.

Yes, absolutely. How did you first get involved with writing music?
Umm…it just really came out of me being an angry teenager and you know started by writing poetry and then it grew from there into doing something more than that. Then I got encouraged enough to actually perform and once I did that it just took on a new life. I kind of found myself and my purpose more. I met such incredible people along the way that it really helped me decide what I wanted to do.

Great; is there anything in particular about DC that you feel has influenced you performing or writing?
I mean, DC is a very political city so we’re definitely more involved in what’s going on than some other cities around the country. So being from Iran, everyone talks about politics all the time and here [in DC] politics is right there. You can go to the White House anytime you want so it definitely influences me a lot.

Cool and yeah, in school my focus was Middle Eastern politics. It’s something that I’m very passionate and interested in. Actually Iran is a country I want to visit but I feel like that’d require some tactful traveling.
You’d love it! See it’s really interesting because I went there over the summer. I hadn’t been there in nine years but it’s a beautiful country with a lot of culture and so different from what the media shows that it’s shocking. You’d be surprised by the beautiful restaurants, the beautiful landscapes – it’s incredible.

Yeah, it’s on the top of my list to visit. I studied abroad in Cairo and have been elsewhere in the region, but to get back to you. From the music I’ve heard you’ve mentioned rapping both in English and Farsi. Have you found people receptive to that or do they give you a look of, "What the heck is going on?"
People like it; they do like it, but they just don’t know what I’m saying. That’s usually the response I get and people saying, "I really like your style but I have no idea what you’re talking about." So that’s why I’m trying to make more music that’s in English and Farsi so you know, if people don’t understand the first verse they can understand the second so they’re not completely lost. But I think my major in school was political science so in the United States you see so many people who are second generation and a lot of times that’s not really shown in the mass media culture. But that’s what is prevalent, especially in the DC area, so I think when people hear another culture mixed with American culture it’s refreshing and they’re very receptive and want to hear more.

I agree and have some first-hand experiences with that being a Muslim convert myself or hanging out with friends who are second generation - often times from South Asia, from the Levant, I mean North Africa, you name it. And they’re trying to figure out what’s their place in American culture, like what do I keep with me and what do I leave by the wayside. But it seems like your music is an outlet for some of that and helping you find, in my opinion, your identity in a way.

I think it’s really beautiful to do it through hip-hop. I mean, just knowing there’s a long tradition of Persian poetry and Farsi itself is a language that lends itself, from what I understand, to lyrical composition. It’s really cool that you’re doing that currently.
Hip-hop is a lot more international than people think, you know? I know there’s German, Italian, Chinese hip-hop – there are so many cultures that appreciate hip-hop. We don’t hear or see them as much as we should.

I can say the same thing about my experiences with punk music. There are scenes all over the world. I think being here, especially in a city like DC, with its long history of punk just as much as hip-hop, funk, and go-go people get tunnel-vision about it. They think of punk as exclusively American thing – no, it’s not!
Yeah, with punk especially there are a lot of Middle Eastern punks that people don’t hear about, which is incredible. There’s definitely a lot of punk around the world.

Looking at individual songs I’ve heard, they tend to have a very political bent to them, discussing things such as the Green Revolution and the current regime there. Could you share a little bit more about where you’re coming from when writing lyrics? You mentioned visiting Iran for the first time in nine years; so is it coming from first-hand experiences? Friends and family?
You know, my music comes from a lot of what I’ve seen myself, what a lot of things people have gone through. When I went there hearing people, heard people who are suffering – there’s more than 70% unemployment. There are issues that if you logically look at the situation you’re like, "How could it be this way?" So that’s where the politics come in. There are so many other things going on behind the scenes that people don’t know about or even if they do know about it, it just keeps happening and doesn’t change. And people are suffering and a culture is dying. A lot of times people will say, "Oh, you’re Arabic," which I’m fine with but I’m not Arab and so I think a lot of times the Iranian culture of poetry and different aspects of it get lost. I think it’s important to show that through my music and talk about it because there is no other way that I can run through the streets to talk about it. Music is a way of showing the history of a people. I’m not saying I represent the whole of my people but I know I represent myself and having lived there and here there are so many different things I want to share about the culture we have with the world.

Many props for doing that; I think it’s much needed, especially from a female perspective. There’s already a plethora of guys doing hip-hop and punk and whatever. Turning to performing, have you done much in the way of live performances outside of DC?
That is the goal. Right now I’m planning a tour and going to be starting a fundraiser pretty soon for it. I once got sent to St. Louis last year for the Euphrates Institute, which is really cool, and had a really good time. It was a Middle Eastern peace building conference that was going on and I loved the whole thing. So yeah, I’ve been there and New York but not really elsewhere – I’d really like to go to LA because that’s where all the Iranians are. But I’ll definitely be doing more traveling this year.

Anything in the works in terms of an album?
Yes, I’m working on my debut album called The Secret of Mana and that’s coming out in August. It’s going to have 13 tracks and a single is going to come out soon. And when you were talking about the women in hip-hop or music generally, I started an organization called Lipstick Revolt. Basically it is a women’s empowerment organization and we did an album together with 13 different females – some were singers, musicians, bands. It’s definitely good to see and I try to encourage other females to get their voices heard because they are part of a culture as well.

Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
Yeah, when I started performing I had the opportunity to work with Wu-Tang and open up for Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, CappaDonna. I also got to work with Biz Markie. The Abjeez are an amazing Iranian rock band and you can check out their videos on YouTube. I’ve met a lot of different people and that’s kept me going. If you’re out there making music, keep doing your thing. Always be involved with that passion that you do.

Thank you for your time!