Thirty-four year old Saudi rapper Qusai is back home in Jeddah “resting a bit. I miss home.” Much of his time at the moment is spent in Lebanon, where he’s filming the second series of MBC’s Arabs’ Got Talent, which he hosts alongside Raya Abirached. And soon he’ll be promoting his third album, The Inevitable Change, which was released in early July on Platinum Records. Qusai began to take rapping seriously when he was at college in the States, starting out under the name Don Legend The Kamelion, as he thought Qusai was too tough for people to pronounce correctly. But when he moved back to Saudi in 2005, he “decided to embrace my birth name.” It was his roommates in the U.S., hip-hop act Soliloquists of Soul, who persuaded him to drop the pseudonym. “The way they broke it down was, ‘You’re Qusai. Q,U,S,A,I. And what you’re doing is Quality, Uniting Souls that are Ambitious and Intelligent,’” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow! OK, I’m going with my real name.’”
You’ve said N.W.A and Ice-T were early influences. The world they were rapping about was very different from Jeddah. How did they speak to you?
What I loved about hip-hop was the expression. You get to say whatever the f*** you want to say. And, as a teenager, you don’t watch what you say, you don’t watch your actions and everything, so I just found myself starting to sound like them. And that was kind of wrong, because we don’t live that life around here. And on top of all that we don’t have that freedom of expression. So I accept my limitations, you know? Not to cross the line. Even so, people kind of noticed me. “This is a loss of identity, blah blah blah.” I got that all the time. I’d started recording tapes and passing them out on the street when I was still at high school. That’s why everybody called me The Legend. And then I took that name and added the ‘Don’ because I was infatuated with the Godfather movies.
Did you ever get into trouble for passing that stuff out on the streets?
Nah, man. I was slick like quick. [Long pause.] That’s all I got to tell you about that.
You were in the U.S. when you started to make a name for yourself as a rapper. Was it tough as an Arab artist?
Well, I started this whole thing around 2000. I released my first single in 2001, and it got played on local radio [in Orlando, Florida]. Then, a few months later September 11th happened. I got a call from the organizers of a charity event to benefit the victims’ families. They said, “We want you to come play, we heard your song on the radio.” I said, “You must be out of your goddamn mind. I’m the enemy of the state right now.” The promoter said, “Think about it. You’re an ambassador for the Arab people. You can fight those stereotypes.” I thought about it and figured whatever happens, happens. So I performed at that event and there were a lot of people singing along with me. That was such a great feeling; I was [welling] up on stage. After the gig, I saw a big group of people walking towards me, and I was, like, “Here we go. I’m about to get my ass kicked.” But I was embracing positivity and I got nothing but love and hugs.
You’re pretty outspoken for a Middle Eastern artist. Were you surprised to be asked to host Arabs’ Got Talent?
In a way, yes. But they liked my personality. I’m not trying to imitate or be someone I’m not. This is me. And the show’s helped me a lot. It’s opened a lot of doors for people to get to know me and the hip-hop movement.
Do you ever find yourself disagreeing with the judges?
It happened in the very first episode of this season. The new judge, Nasser Al Qasabi, is not a fan of hip-hop. Period. I have nothing against that – I’m not saying the hip-hop acts that came on the show are the cream of the crop; I’d reject a lot of them myself. But every time a hip-hop act came on, he’d just bash them. He wouldn’t pay attention to the talent. It was, “If you come in here representing this art, expect me to reject it.” That is wrong. I might not know anything about someone who does ballet, or anything, but if you’re presenting the art in a good way, I’ll give you props. I let him have it. I stopped the show for about an hour. I was, like, “I don’t care what the outcome is, I’ve got something to say.” I noted that the talent were getting very frustrated and confused backstage. That’s not cool. That put a stop to it.
Your new album’s called The Inevitable Change. Where did that title come from?
This is the true millennium. The millennium is not the switch from 1999 to 2000. I believe the millennium is the true change that started in 2011 when my Arabic people woke up and started to express themselves. And change is certain: It happened, it’s happening, and it will happen. And it’s inevitable.
On “The Movement Part III,” talking about Jeddah, you say “Glock is the mode/Lock and load.” Are you talking about protests in Saudi?
Nah. That’s just a basic expression. When I refer to a weapon, it doesn’t necessarily mean a gun. I’m not about violence at all. My weapon is the microphone, and my words are my bullets. So, “Lock and load,” I’m loading my brain with the bullets. And I’m letting my bullets out with my microphone.
Who are you aiming those bullets at?
I’m aiming the bullets at ignorant individuals.