The name Belly might be slowly been making the rounds in the U.S. (partly due to his affiliation with XO and Roc Nation) but if you grew up in Canada, that name has been a staple in hip-hop for years. Part of Belly’s appeal isn’t just his knack for the rap fundamentals, but for consistently speaking his mind – sometimes at the detriment of his own career.
Sitting down with Hot97’s Ebro and company, the Ottawa raised MC spoke about how his career was nearly halted before it got the chance to blow up; and it was all because he chose to speak up about a conflict that has plagued the world for the past 50+ years.
Years ago the man born Ahmad Balshe decided to tackle a subject close to his heart. Belly is from Palestine, a nation that has been going through a horrible turf war with Israel since the mid-twentieth century. Due to this decision his life took an unexpected turn and ultimately, it made him ponder whether his rap career was worth it or not.
“I’m gonna be honest with you guys bro I put out a song called History of Violence when I was in Canada, very politically driven song, I felt like I got blacklisted [because of it],” said Belly.
“They went to the point where I would get a club gig and the police would show up first and be like ‘if he plays here, we’re shutting you guys down for whatever reason – we’ll find a reason.’ I couldn’t play a club gig in Canada no more, that’s the facts. That’s the stuff that made me like [for the] first time be like ‘yo, I don’t even wanna do this no more. If they could control it to this point, I don’t want to do this. If I can’t say the things that I wanna say then I don’t wanna do this, you know?”
Being stifled from pursuing music in the public eye made it difficult for the rapper to find an outlet for his art. This forced him to change his career trajectory from rapping his own rhymes to selling them to others in the interim.
“That’s how really I got into songwriting,” he said. “I still wanted to be in the studio, I still [wanted to] make music but obviously [at that time] my vessel ain’t the vessel that’s working so I gotta do this and when it came back around, like the passion came back in me to wanting to do this, then ye I did it again.”
With this life altering experience, Belly easily could have convinced himself to choose another direction for his music but he didn’t. He never let up speaking out against the ongoing war in the middle east. Specifically, he made it a point of emphasis to indicate his criticisms was towards the government and not the people living in those countries.
“People wanna group everything into one thing like ‘oh it’s Israel;’ no, nah I’ll never ever say I got a problem with Israel, never,” said Belly. “I got a problem with the Israeli government and the government that’s in power currently because I’m sure there’s another party that doesn’t want to see everything that this party is doing, you know what I mean?”
Mentioning the focal point of his latest album Immigrant being the Middle Eastern conflict, the veteran artist pointed out in addition to the government, the media has to front some of the blame as well. Their lack of coverage about the positives occurring in that part of the world is leading some people to have a skewed perception of how the rift is playing out.
“You hear all the same stuff they spoon feed you all the time you know, the common denominator in everything you said and everything people go through – it’s the governments bro,” said Belly. “Israeli citizens rally for Palestinians in Israel. You won’t see it or hear about it you know, 75 thousand women in Israel marched for women’s rights in Palestine. It was never shown, nobody ever put it on TV or nothing.”
He believes it’s important to show the human side to this conflict because people are under the impression the two sides despise one another when in actuality, the citizens of Israel and Palestine are just like the rest of us.
“The people, they’re always gon be people,” he said. “You’re always gonna have a good heart if you got a good heart, you’ll be a asshole if you’re a asshole you know, but people are going to be compassionate towards each other. If they see some crazy, animalistic behaviour going on towards other human beings they gon be like ‘whoa hol on, I’m not a part of this lemme separate myself’ – we don’t see that.”
The full interview can be viewed below and throughout, Belly speaks about a variety of topics including his battles with depression and PTSD, what he looks for in artists he collaborates with, his fans saving his life, his experiences as a child immigrating to Canada and more.