Mother Tareka – City Breathing

Photo by Amanda Cheung

Tarek Ajak is a Hamilton-based musician and rapper who performs under the stage name of Mother Tareka. He left Syria with his family when he was in High School during the 1990s and moved to Toronto. Tarek is a youth worker that engages immigrant youth through music and hip hop.

Recently, Tarek came to the IWC office to share his story and to speak about the experiences of immigrant youth in Hamilton and the importance of art and music as a form of empowerment. In this video Mother Tareka performs his poem “City Breathing.”


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Why is hip hop and rap music important for immigrant youth?

I don’t want to speak for others, but when I came to this country it was hard for me to identify with most of the things that people are into because of financial and cultural barriers. (You know, your parents won’t let you go out after a certain point at night.) So going to spaces like youth centres where hip hop is celebrated is a really powerful thing.
They have two options really: a) they can go out and get “in trouble” so to speak–find the wrong side of the law, find themselves doing all kinds of sketchy business—or, b) they can be in this safer environment. It is a safer space
where they can have fun and be themselves. Their body language can be expressed in a way that’s not policed as much as it would be in a space where there weren’t many immigrants or people from different cultures.

Music and hip hop can create a space where that’s possible for youth, that’s where the power lies: to give them a narrative to speak their story and to tell themselves that they can be better than what they have been told. That’s the primary source of power from hip hop. A lot of people don’t understand why hip hop has to be so braggadocios — like
“I’m the man, I’m the best.” It’s an answer to the forces that immigrant youth face that tell them they are not going to be amounting to much. That they are going to live in a neighborhood where jobs are limited, where opportunities are limited, where the school is a little bit on the rougher side of things. Hip hop is kind of like the Uncle that believes in you and says “You know what? You got this: you are the best version of you that you can be.” That’s where hip hop comes in.

What do you rap about? Why do you sometimes rap in Arabic?

When I rap in Arabic I am trying to speak to other Arabs — If you don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, what’s the point? It is just sound. It can be frustrating and I stayed away from it for a while because it felt fetishizing to be the “Arabic MC” for a crowd of white people that don’t speak your language — it felt kind of like “dance monkey dance.”
But I got over it by realizing that as a Syrian man in Canada, I can be a representation of what Syria is, and to bring that story forward. I can help other people connect with the story of what’s happening in Syria. I rap to find a connection with another person who is an immigrant, who speaks my language.

Some of the ideas are quite confrontational to a country like Canada — a place that is on stolen native land, First Nations Land, Turtle Island. It’s important to acknowledge that and to acknowledge other truths about the role of Canadian and American military forces and the history of imperialism that created problems in Syria and other countries in the region.

That’s why I rap in Arabic, and that’s what I am talking about. The dominant Canadian culture doesn’t want to speak about these things; doesn’t want to talk about the role of imperialism in creating the refugee crisis; doesn’t want to talk about the double standards of Canada being a nation that took this land by force, committed mass genocide, and the hypocrisy and irony of it to say “No, we can’t accept refugees, this is our county.”

How do immigrant youth connect with you and your music?

Youth connect to my music by being able to recognize that they to can make music, that they have a voice of their own. I’m a bit older than most of these kids, I’m turning 30 and most of the youth I work with are around 17, 16 years old. Sometimes my politics and theirs are at odds. When you first come to Canada you often buy into all of the glamour, trying to make money, and all that stuff. Sometimes you lose some of the essence of your cultural experience, and you want to distance yourself from it because those elements are what makes you feel “othered” from this country—you feel like you don’t belong.

When I came to Canada, I didn’t want to have much to do with Syria or Arabs. I just wanted to fit in, to be part of that cool Canadian thing. What I do with kids is teach them that the cool Canadian thing comes from you, from us, from people making this place a diverse space with a depth of cultural experiences. I feel like the way they connect with the music is to recognize that they have something to add to the conversation and then learn how to do it. We bring people together to share skills and talk about oppression in a day-to-day kind of way and demystify all the forces that that put you in a box of stereotypes.

Can you describe your current band, Mother Tareka & The Rebelfunktion? Who is performing with you and where can our readers hear your music?

Mother Tareka & The Rebel Funktion is a political Hip Hop Funk Jazz fusion 9 piece band I started two and a half years ago, consisting of Charlie Banjo Bean and Fela Kiti on violins, Tom Altobelli on bass, Scotty Mac on guitar, Connor Bennett on Bari Sax, Aaron Hutchinson on trumpet, Drop D on drums, DJ LP on turntables and samplers, led by fronted by MC Mother Tareka on vocals, tenor sax and flute, featuring our unofficial 5th Beatle Lee Reed.
Music can be found at free downloads available or name your price.

Photo by Amanda Cheung
Photo by Amanda Cheung