Probing root problems with music, the Kareem Salama way


Kareem Salama had what he called a “very traditional American upbringing” in Oklahoma. His Egyptian parents, both engineers, migrated to the US in the late 1960s; he grew up in quintessential smalltown America where kids played outside till late at night and went to football games on Friday nights.

“Very much like what you see on TV,” he said, speaking with a very distinct Southern twang. And country music was very much a part of the background music. It was like crickets, he said. You always hear it.

Today, Kareem is best known as the first American-Muslim country music singer, winning fans around the world over with his strong, distinctive vocals and thoughtful song writing. He was in Malaysia in February for the second Miri Country Music Festival, and with bandmates JJ Worthen and Mike Whitebread, sat down with Penang Monthly for a quick chat about his career, music and why he avoids talking about politics.

When did you start to think that country music was what you wanted to do?
Kareem Salama: I was memorising poetry when I was a teenager, and I would write melodies to remember the poems. Then, I just started writing my own songs. The vocal styling was naturally country; that’s just how I sang. It wasn’t like one day I went, “Oh, I’m gonna sing country music.”

How would one get his foot in the door in the first place?
My thing was, when I sang, people were like, oh he’s a Muslim, (but) his style is kind of country. I never said I was Muslim or anything, but the press latched on to that.

I guess the lesson to take from that is if you have something unique that the press is interested in writing about, it’ll give you some publicity, and if your music is any good then people will take to it. But the element of me being unique wasn’t something I thought about. People noted it because I didn’t look like them (chuckles).

Do you remember what your first gig was?
(Pauses) Yeah. I sang a cappella actually, in Chicago. It was at a large Muslim conference, and everyone was shocked (laughs). I think the Muslims were way more shocked than the non-Muslims; they never heard a Muslim sing country music. People liked it, though! They really did. I got invited to other things.

Can you talk a little about your music? They’re not necessarily about things I’d associate with country…
Some of the newer stuff you might have heard is more pop. The older stuff definitely sounds more country. Country music is about stories, so I think that’s one of the elements I take regardless of how the arrangement style changes. We worked on a track recently; the sound’s almost like dark R&B. It’s about a guy from a bad part of town who believes that the only way he can get ahead is to be bad. And there’s a woman that believes in him, who loves him, and she’s trying to convince him that there’s something better inside him. That’s something you would hear in a country song.

You’ve been playing since – 2004, but I’d been singing for my sister a long time.

That’s 11 years. How has your career evolved over that period?
Up and down. I don't only do this; I do other things. I didn’t study music, so a lot of times it depends on how much time I invest in it and try to seek out opportunities. There was a time in 2008 I did a lot of press, like I had some major press hits and we did a lot of shows in England where I have a really large fan base. That’s how music is though: regardless of whatever level you’re at, there are always ups and downs because you’re putting out music and then you kind of disappear.

So what’s working with Kareem like?
Mike Whitebread: There’s just a friendship there. Getting to play music together is really an awesome experience – just getting to share our backgrounds and getting to go to different places, meet different cultures and engage with them, and share our story.

JJ Worthen: The most rewarding part of making music with Kareem is we know his story, and he writes from his heart. He writes from a very deep place that resonates with us. It’s not just music for pop music’s sake, where you just write about trite subjects – the “hit factory”, so to speak. He’s very thoughtful in what he writes, and we’re kind of the same.

Karen Lai

Kareem: We have some of the same interests in the way we write the same subject matters, trying to find a deeper theme and trying to move people with words as well as melody – making a good marriage between a soulful melody and soulful words.

So what themes do all three of you find that you most enjoy working on?
One of the things I hit a lot is people getting along, irrespective of their backgrounds. I hit that theme quite a bit, like with “Makes Me Crazy”: “I have a dream that we could dance in the street / and all the righties wouldn’t mind the kids with two left feet.” I also have a song called “I Am You”; it’s like an Arabic- English song where two people are talking to each other, repeating the same thing back to one another until they realise there was a connection between them.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

I have to ask: How religious are you?
I take religion seriously, but people have different definitions of religion, so I kind of worry when people ask “How religious are you?” By my definition I care about my principles, and I feel like I try to be spiritual, to connect to god or stay connected to god, and to continue to increase in that relationship.

You also went on a tour of the Middle East. What was that like?
Oh it was great. We were there for like five weeks and we visited a lot of different countries like Morocco, Syria, Kuwait… We went to Israel and met some Palestinian kids who’d been through a lot, but they were part of this music programme which I think helped them overcome some of their issues. It was an enlightening experience for us.

Do you ever use your music as a platform to talk about politics?
No, because ultimately there’s a root problem to politics. An example I give sometimes is the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. The main issues there are rooted in a problem, and one of those problems is mistrust. Even if the Israelis give the Palestinians a piece of land or something, or the Palestinians give the Israelis something, there’s always a sense that it’s a trick. If I can’t even show you generosity, then we have a root problem in our hearts. I try to talk about root problems, not politics.

How big a problem is Islamophobia in the US, in your view?
I never really dealt with it myself. Occasionally you hear some people paint people with a broad brush on the news. More importantly, I don’t feel that there is much of a point in complaining about it. You can complain about the people who are saying it’s dark, or you can work on trying to be the light. And I think the more empowering position is always trying to be the light rather than complaining about the people who are complaining about the dark.

Go to Geek Prank and try the online Windows XP simulator, play with the classic Minesweeper and Tetris games or listen to some music.

Jeffrey Hardy Quah is deputy editor of the Penang Monthly.

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