The Palestinian-born Canadian rapper, songwriter and record producer Belly has participated in countless hits. Including the track "Earned It," which he co-wrote with fellow Canadian The Weeknd, and which was nominated for an Academy Award, a Grammy and an iHeartRadio Music Award in 2016. In the same year, Belly was named Songwriter of the Year by the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada.
Belly moved to Ottawa as a child as part of a resettlement program. He began his music career at age 16 and reached No. 1 on MuchMusic’s video charts at age 23. IRC spoke with him about his experiences as an immigrant and how they influence his art.
Tell us about your move to Canada in 1991.
I was 7 years old when we came to Canada. My father had been there for a year and was preparing everything to catch up with the rest of the family.
Canada was a completely different world [than the West Bank]. It was the first time I ever saw a microwave oven. I thought it was an extraterrestrial technology. Canada was open to immigrants and refugees. So I got to know a lot of kids my age who came from similar situations in similar regions. I think that kind of comforted me and showed me how to be a part of something I didn’t know I was a part of.
Can you tell us how your history has influenced your music?
My past is in my music. My earliest memories of music are from Jordan. I was probably 3 or 4 years old. My uncles and aunts, just everybody, went up on the roof. My uncle started drumming, another started singing, and everyone freestyled. I was fascinated by how fast they improvise? How do they get on this stuff so quickly? So the first thing I did in terms of rap was freestyling. I wanted to do what my uncles did. This developed into a love for words and poetry. I remember these nights very well. This roof was the only world that existed for us at that moment.
When I came to Canada, the English language was like a vessel. Something I could use to describe certain things that wouldn’t have felt right in my native language. The English language allowed me to open other doors, first as a poet. My love for rap came after that. It’s really a love for everything to do with music – from the words to the melodies and to my memories.
When you think of three or four year old Belly and his family on the roof, what words come to mind?
Happiness, real love. A lot of courage, in my opinion, comes from the fact that many of us move in units. We are a family first and foremost. We act as a unit and do whatever it takes for our family members to make it ahead of us. And that’s real love for me. This to me is the most genuine love I’ve ever experienced in my life.
What is the songwriting process like for you??
Sometimes the melody comes first, it then inspires the lyrics, or vice versa. Sometimes one or two of my producers will play something that inspires a whole night of writing. I try to change my approach every time.
My first love is writing. I am a poet . at least I consider myself one. My second love is music, of course-mostly rap music, but also R&B and other genres of music that inspired me when I was young. I wanted to emulate everything I heard and saw, whether it was Kurt Cobain or Biggie or Snoop Dogg. I wanted to make songs that touched people the same way these guys touched me. I listened to Snoop and Big so much that it was like they were my English teachers.
Finding the courage to be myself came through music and writing. That helped me break down walls, like ‘okay, maybe I do have something to say’. Before I thought there were only my own problems. I didn’t really understand that it was a universal thing that people go through the same things.
You have just mentioned the courage. This is so central to the refugee and immigrant experience.
For many of us, it’s hard to sit down in a room and tell people our problems, ask our questions, things that are affecting and bothering us. It takes a lot of courage to be able to say, "Hey, look, this is what’s weighing on me. "I did not find this voice at first. I literally had to sit on the side seats and write out things that needed to come out of me. I had to get rid of these things, but I didn’t know how.
This was my way of letting these things out and giving myself some kind of therapy, which I didn’t understand at the time though. It didn’t matter if I wrote something that someone read, because it helped me move on.
So work with IRC to share your experiences with others like you so they realize they are not alone?
Refugees and immigrants go through a lot just to make it somewhere they can feel safe and secure. For me, the best thing is to be able to help people, just to be involved. An organization that has that in mind, that’s dope to me.
I’m watching real change happen in real time. I want to be part of this change. I want to support IRC and give something back. Like I said, many of us have been in crazy situations. And sometimes all it takes is a little help.
What is your advice to young immigrants or refugees who are starting over in a new country??
Today’s Belly would tell 7-year-old Belly, "It’s going to be okay. Everything will be fine. "That’s literally what I would tell them to do. As a kid in a new place you have a lot of fears and worries, you don’t have your friends around you anymore. I’d say, "You’ll be all right, pal. "I wouldn’t give them the keys or tell them the codes. I would make them go through everything the same way I did. But I would tell them: "Everything will be fine.
It takes great courage to start over in the uncertainty of what the future will bring. This World Refugee Day, we celebrate the courage of artists* who have had to start over in a new home and now use their creativity to connect, heal and bring us together.