Hope was in the air when Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President Of The United States. Eyes gleamed with promise, voices roared with elation—the spirit of wishful thinking could be felt worldwide.
Eight years later the air is filled with a different energy, a touch of gloom floats above like a malicious cloud, blocking out the shining sun. We grieve for the days to come, unsure what the unknown holds, but we walk into these days with Donald Trump as our new commander-and-chief—a circumstance that few foresaw.
Phay called me around 11:30 p.m., thirty minutes before Inauguration Day, thirty minutes before the release of his debut album, Mama. The two events made for an interesting juxtaposition—the high of giving a piece of art to the world, and the low of knowing who was about to become the face of America. “It’s a very bittersweet feeling,” he said, explaining his current headspace as the clock ticked closer to midnight. “But that’s why I picked this day to do it. I didn’t want this day to be all bad. Let’s try to build some hope for these next four years,” he spoke with added enthusiasm to his tone. Instead of being dragged down by somberness, Phay hopes his album will be a beacon of light that could pierce the darkness of Trump’s arrival. This is the time to show resilience; this is where the fight begins.
Momma’s boys can be found throughout hip-hop history, from Jay Z to Tupac, Kanye to Ghostface; excluding rare cases like Eminem, rappers have mostly championed their mothers as royal queens. Phay joins this ongoing lineage, but he might be the first to dedicate his debut album and overall brand to his mother.
She is the very first voice you hear once you press play, and a recurring narrator that leaves bits of wisdom and life experiences between songs. When asked about her, Phay speaks highly of the outgoing, bubbly, sweet woman who raised him. He points out that his mother is physically and aesthetically a Muslim woman, an important detail when discussing a post-Trump America. She can already feel the changes, the sprouting seeds from Trump’s sickening Islamophobia.
“I’m not afraid for us, I’m afraid for my mom's sake. Since Trump’s running, throughout the entire campaign, people have been more bold toward my mom. She said there’s more tension, anytime she goes out she feels more eyes on her. It’s not a good feeling. On the Election Day, before Trump was elected, a guy pulled up next to my mom yelling, 'Go back to your country.' Just some random guy, yelling and cursing at her. Just because she wears a garment on her head. Not all Muslim women wear hijabs. It’s an optional thing depending on who you ask. Some of her friends they don’t wear hijabs. She likes nah, I’m not going to let them win. I wear this for a reason. If you're ready to take it off at the first signs of adversity it’s just a piece of clothing.”
Listening to the album, it’s sickening to hear what she is subjected to. You feel like you know a bit about her by the album’s end—the same way “Hey Mama” brings you closer to Donda West, and “December 4th” is almost like meeting Gloria Carter, Mama is an introduction to Abeer Mousa and her son. There’s no way you can hear this album and even fix your lips to spew vile words in her direction.
Phay gives a voice to the voiceless, allowing a side of life that isn’t strongly represented in hip-hop a chance to be heard. The song “Us” talks about his father coming from Palestine with the hope of making a better life for his family in America. He saw a dream in a foreign land, a promise of a better life, and he built from the soil a foundation for his family to stand on. There are specific records that speak for the immigrants who strive to come here for a better life:
“'Adios' is important to me for a few reasons. I wrote it during the presidential campaign. It was the beginning of Trump’s dangerous rhetoric about “building a wall” and keeping “illegal” immigrants out of the country, specially Hispanic people. Although I’m not Hispanic, I’ve always felt a connection with Latin culture. In Chicago, I grew up in a neighborhood that was primarily people of Latin descent. My best friend was Mexican. I wrote this song specially for two artists: GH Pancho and Kap G. They are amazing Latin artists with a voice that should be represented. It is the perfect message to our new president Mr. Trump.”
Mama is an album about stories. It’s a universe that revolves around an Arab-American learning about the world while living in East Atlanta. One of the more touching records isn’t about Phay, but a man named Mr. Kennedy, the father of a former girlfriend. The story of Mr. Kennedy is told through two records—“North Cackalacky” and “Mr. Kennedy”—giving listeners the complicated life of a man who has spent the last 30 years of his life behind bars. This is a man who wasn’t simply a drug dealer, but a black veteran whose life was never easy; a man who fought in the war and returned home suffering from PTSD, while trying to raise a family during the Reaganomics era. A non-violent bad decision put him behind bars for the same amount of time that murderers get. It’s a story that Phay felt needed to be told, touching on mass incarceration, crack cocaine, economic disparity, and the lives lost behind these sentencings.
"We spoke on the phone and he was one of the most genuine people I’ve come across. I needed to meet this man. I wanted to ensure this man that his daughter was in good hands. We made a trip out there, last Thanksgiving we drove up to North Carolina. Out in the middle of nowhere, deep in the mountains. We meet and he has the brightest aura to him even though he was locked away for over 15 years for a drug charge. I’m in the jail thinking they don’t even put animals in cages like this. Soon as I left North Carolina, I wrote 'North Cackalacky (Interlude).' It’s still racist. It’s overtly racist. I felt like I had to tell the story of people who are in jail right now who are in a fucking box because of a nonviolent offense. When you get out you’re back in jail due to recidivism. We need rehabilitation programs. The justice system is flawed. Extremely flawed. I was trying to expose it from my point of view. I’ve never been convicted of a felony, or a crime. I wanted to tell his story."
Heavy moments are mixed with lighthearted rhymes, fun punchlines and catchy flows. Mama is layered in a way where you see all sides of what has made Phay into the man and artist that he is today. He can give you insight about a girlfriend’s father, about his Muslim mother, and still sprinkle in the Atlanta culture that has greatly influenced his growth.
Before he made his SoundCloud, before he even started taking music seriously, Phay wanted to do a song with his favorite rapper—Young Dro. In 2016, Dro is far from the biggest star in Atlanta, his star was brightest a decade ago, but Phay was adamant about at least having this feature a part of his career. Their collaboration, “Holy Moly,” was made specifically with Dro in mind—it has an undeniable Atlanta vibe that is infectious enough to live even without the “Shoulder Lean” hitmaker. Hearing Dro rap with a strange, color-driven rhyme scheme was reminiscent of the rapper that surprised the game so many years ago.
"It was all funded by us. It’s a business. These rappers monetize their voices in their verses. With Dro, Fat Trel and Kap G they all had to believe in the record first before they decided to get on it. Management requested for me to send over the record and if they liked it they would cut the verse. The year-and-a-half that I worked the job I got some cheese from it and knew what to do with it. Best thing I ever did with some money is invest it in myself. So when I’m paying for features, artwork, or videos it’s the best money I can spend. Until your bank account overdrafts. But when you got it, it’s not like you're spending it because I’m investing in myself. The moment I started spending real money on myself is the moment I started making notable moves."
Mama is the album that Phay has spent his entire life writing. The oldest song, “Disrespectful,” has transformed since he first wrote it five years ago. It’s been a long process to get here—long hiatuses, name changes, thousands of dollars, small failures and big successes have littered the road that led to this album. A product of his environment, a product of his culture, and all that he has seen, witnessed and experienced in the last 25 years. This album may be Phay's story, but he feels that it's many stories told through his voice.
Phay’s only fear is that the album falls on deaf ears. He'd rather have 10,000 people hear it and hate it than to feel the project failed to reach the people. Phay cares about people and keeping spirits high during a time when it’s so easy to be low.
Let Mama be a reminder to cherish our mothers, chase our dreams, and keep the light glowing when life is at it’s darkest.
By Yoh, aka Nostalgic Yoh aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Instagram