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 Punknews.org 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 Iâve 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 wouldnât 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 thatâs awesome. If I remember correctly, you are based in Washington, DC?
Ok; I am as well. Iâm 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?
Ummâ¦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 weâre definitely more involved in whatâs 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. Itâs something that Iâm very passionate and interested in. Actually Iran is a country I want to visit but I feel like thatâd require some tactful traveling.
Youâd love it! See itâs really interesting because I went there over the summer. I hadnât been there in nine years but itâs a beautiful country with a lot of culture and so different from what the media shows that itâs shocking. Youâd be surprised by the beautiful restaurants, the beautiful landscapes – itâs incredible.
Yeah, itâs 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 Iâve heard youâve 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 donât know what Iâm saying. Thatâs usually the response I get and people saying, "I really like your style but I have no idea what youâre talking about." So thatâs why Iâm trying to make more music thatâs in English and Farsi so you know, if people donât understand the first verse they can understand the second so theyâre 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 thatâs not really shown in the mass media culture. But thatâs what is prevalent, especially in the DC area, so I think when people hear another culture mixed with American culture itâs refreshing and theyâre 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 theyâre trying to figure out whatâs 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 itâs really beautiful to do it through hip-hop. I mean, just knowing thereâs a long tradition of Persian poetry and Farsi itself is a language that lends itself, from what I understand, to lyrical composition. Itâs really cool that youâre doing that currently.
Hip-hop is a lot more international than people think, you know? I know thereâs German, Italian, Chinese hip-hop – there are so many cultures that appreciate hip-hop. We donât 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, itâs not!
Yeah, with punk especially there are a lot of Middle Eastern punks that people donât hear about, which is incredible. Thereâs definitely a lot of punk around the world.
Looking at individual songs Iâve 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 youâre 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 Iâve seen myself, what a lot of things people have gone through. When I went there hearing people, heard people who are suffering – thereâs more than 70% unemployment. There are issues that if you logically look at the situation youâre like, "How could it be this way?" So thatâs where the politics come in. There are so many other things going on behind the scenes that people donât know about or even if they do know about it, it just keeps happening and doesnât change. And people are suffering and a culture is dying. A lot of times people will say, "Oh, youâre Arabic," which Iâm fine with but Iâm not Arab and so I think a lot of times the Iranian culture of poetry and different aspects of it get lost. I think itâs 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. Iâm 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 itâs much needed, especially from a female perspective. Thereâs 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 Iâm 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, Iâve been there and New York but not really elsewhere – Iâd really like to go to LA because thatâs where all the Iranians are. But Iâll definitely be doing more traveling this year.
Anything in the works in terms of an album?
Yes, Iâm working on my debut album called The Secret of Mana and thatâs coming out in August. Itâs 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 womenâs empowerment organization and we did an album together with 13 different females – some were singers, musicians, bands. Itâs 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 youâd 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. Iâve met a lot of different people and thatâs kept me going. If youâre out there making music, keep doing your thing. Always be involved with that passion that you do.
Thank you for your time!