Dreams of war are not uncommon for Jamila Al-Yousef: bullets strewn across ruined streets, slowly approaching bombs, strategizing how to hide, impending death. And when she opens her eyes, she works for a better reality.
When she was all of 15 in 2004, Jamila had walked up to the politicians of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to ensure that a Serbian girl did not get deported. That year, she convinced the city councilors to let her host a music festival against racism.
Now, on the cusp of turning 30, she is changing the music landscape of Berlin by infusing Arabic folk with psychedelic rock and neo-soul — and a dash of cultural activism.
Politics runs through Al-Yousef’s veins and oozes out through her music. And why wouldn’t it? She was born to a Palestinian refugee father and German mother in an East German hospital (now central Berlin) the day the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
Of course, she has no conscious memory of it. But the memories of the night shine bright in her life through the stories of her family members and her consciousness of the world around her.
Jamila’s father, Mufid, and mother, Carola, could hear West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper’s speech from inside the hospital. Carola was excited. “Till then, I did not have the right to go to West Berlin. So I wanted to go almost immediately. But there I was lying on the bed.”
“I still get goose bumps when I hear about the fall of the wall or even see movies and pictures depicting it,” Al-Yousef says, fiddling with her curly red hair and taking a break from recording her new album with her band Jamila & The Other Heroes, which features Syrians Bilal Hammour (bass) and Salam Al Hassan (percussion), German Leon Hast (guitar) and Poland’s Kuba Gudz (drums).
I grew up with different identities — and … I will not be bullied for it.
“Part of my identity comes from Palestine, a place shut down by a wall and where people have no freedom of movement,” she continues. “On the other hand, my German ancestors have survived World War II, lost loved ones, lived in abject poverty and have seen the wall go up and come down — and faced the trauma of belonging and not belonging.”
Jamila has always carried that feeling of unbelonging with her. Growing up in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern — a region known for its growing neo-Nazi scene after the fall of the wall — was difficult. While she didn’t look Arab enough to be bullied by strangers, she was told off by those who knew her. “I knew I had to create a space of my own and for like-minded spirits,” she says with a glint in her eyes.
To focus on her music completely, Al-Yousef dropped out of her Ph.D. program at the University of Hildesheim, in which she was researching the problems faced by musicians with refugee experience. She felt hemmed in by government restriction and racism that she faced while working with the refugees right before her PhD. “I thought to myself whether I wanted to succumb to the pressures or touch lives and increase awareness among people through music,” she says. “I opted for the latter.”
With lyrics in a mix of Arabic and English — a message in itself — the music has strong political undertones. But that’s not something she does consciously. Everything in the world is political, Al-Yousef says. “The question is how you want to make people understand that.”
When Jamila & The Other Heroes self-released the EP Change in 2017, they had just started out as a band. They didn’t have a manager, a label, or a booking or promo agency. They sold just 2,000 copies, with income arriving from streaming platforms such as Spotify since.
But the new album is backed by Springstoff, a recognized record label known for supporting political causes through music, which has plans to take them global.
So far, their new single, “Abu Dub,” is getting several thousand YouTube views. They’ve scored radio interviews across Germany, and Spotify curators have added them to four playlists. The band has hit the festival circuit across Germany and has toured in the Middle East and North Africa. They’ll draw 2,000 to 3,000 people to a political event or festival, or a few hundred to sets in Berlin.
In her free time, Al-Yousef loves walking around the canals of Kreuzburg, spending time with her friends and going to concerts — once flying to New York just to see Erykah Badu. She recently started teaching a course on anti-discrimination at the University of Hildesheim, and has been conducting workshops for cultural institutions and groups on “racism-critical cultural work.”
For the last eight years, she has also been active with her unapologetically left-wing project, Arab Underground, which challenges right-wing ideologies and promotes Arab culture across Germany’s festival and club scenes. “I felt that it’s not enough to have political debates about it, but that actually artistic, interdisciplinary events really open something up in people to be interested,” she says. “Because it’s no longer about living in a bubble and only caring about yourself.”
The collective has been operating at a time when Germany has seen a rise in groups like the anti-immigration and anti-Islam Pegida movement, and the far-right political party AfD. Besides, she has also been active in the Palestine Music Expo as its Berlin ambassador.
Thomas Winkler, pop editor of Berlin-based culture magazines Zitty and Tip, points to the success of politically tinged Ton Steine Scherben in the 1970s as evidence that Germany can embrace such acts. “While songs may not directly bring about political change, they do get the conversation going for the better,” Winkler says. “But Jamila needs time to make her voice heard. As of yet, people hardly know her.”
It’s another wall for her to knock down.
OZY’s Five Questions for Jamila Al-Yousef
- What’s the last book you finished? Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak, a novel [about] the phenomena of God being aside of religion; and Fruit of Knowledge by feminist writer Liv Strömquist, a graphic novel on the history of the vulva.
- What do you worry about? Feeling powerless, when I don’t have things in my hand — e.g., a sickness or death of beloved ones.
- What’s one thing you can’t live without? Music and sun. I know those are two things, but I cannot decide between both of them.
- Who’s your hero? Frida Kahlo.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To experience a partnership in crime with someone as crazy, vulnerable and open as me — to become friends, lovers and creators and learn from and with each other and to share life in a free and connected way.
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