Being an immigrant in the United States can be a painful, difficult, nerve-racking experience. Being Muslim in the United States can be even more alarming and tenuous. But being an immigrant, Muslim, and a rapper in the USA? Most would have folded and followed the path more traveled, pitter patter with common motifs like model minority and “doing the right thing.”
Born Faris Mousa, Phay started making noise in Atlanta due to his affiliation with the STNDRD crew and fellow Atlanta rapper Kelechi. After a falling-out, however, he decided to separate from STNDRD in order to preserve their friendship and move forward with his career. Since then, Phay has focused his efforts on making music that is upbeat and soulful, churning out a steady stream of records and singles while also building and promoting his MAMA clothing line.
Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with the artist and discuss his music, his lofty aspirations, and the difficulties that come with identifying as an Arab American rapper.
What’s your earliest memory of music?
My earliest memory… my mom playing old-school Arabic records. I just remember those Arabic records in the car and I would just get goosebumps listening to them even though I couldn’t really understand what they were saying or what was being said.
Is it true your parents are Palestinian refugees?
Yeah actually, they were kicked out to Jordan during the occupation. I remember visiting when I was 6. They came from a city called Zarka, which is the second biggest city in Jordan, but essentially it was built as a refugee city so there were no architects. So you go to the city of Jordan, right, there’s buildings but they’re not symmetrical. Some buildings are leaning to the left, some buildings are leaning to the right. It’s just a very impoverished environment. I just remember them saying this is where we got kicked out to. We had our own houses in Palestine and after the occupation, we came here and essentially had to start over.
Do you have a musical family?
My grandpa was a poet. He would freestyle in Arabic and somebody would hit the tabla drum and he would just go on for like 10, 20 minutes rhyming. My uncle is a wedding singer and he was shunned from the family because of it. Long nights, coming home at 4 a.m. It’s a deadbeat job. That’s how they saw it. He still sings at weddings to this day.
Where are you from?
Born in Chicago, moved to East Atlanta.
When did you move?
What was your initial reaction coming to Atlanta at that age?
I rebelled against the South. “Southern Hospitality” had just dropped. I wasn’t fucking with or wanted anything to do with the South. Years later, I learned to adapt. I was a Dipset fan when I first moved here. I remember Diplomatic Immunity and “Hey Ma.” When it came to Ludacris and the southern rappers, I felt like it was trash. Later on, I started to embrace the culture and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
What was the first song you remember recording?
Um, it was in my homie’s… this was before the plug and play sound cards and shit. It was back in like 2006-2005 where me and my homie were just playing with Fruity Loops. He was learning how to produce so he bought a mic and I remember working on this song called “Tell You Again” or something like that. And that shit was horrible. I remember the first bar, too. It was bad. I don’t wanna say the first bar, it was really bad. It was ignorant.
What’s your writing process?
I don’t pen and paper. Sometimes I’ll just record voice notes to get the melody right ‘cause sometimes when you just come up with the melody [first]. You’ll forget it so I’ll record it and see if it sounds good.
What made you wanna go by Phay and Phayweather in particular? How did those names come about?
So I started out as Pharaoh, which is kind of corny, playing on the whole Middle Eastern thing. I quit rap for two years after I graduated. When that “Niggas in Paris” record came out with Jay and Kanye, they be like “I just might let you meet Ye.” People started calling me Phay ‘cause he’s one of the greats. Ye, Jay, Phay—that’s what they would call me as a joke and it really stuck. I came back a year and a half ago after taking a hiatus, and I came back as Phay. Phayweather comes from Phay just being taken on all platforms. I wanted to make sure it was consistent throughout all platforms. Floyd Mayweather, at the time, was retired. He was 49-0. Undefeated. He’s a legacy athlete and he’ll never be beaten.
How divided do you think your outlook on music is having this quintessential American side and then having your Middle Eastern background? How do you find the balance between the two in your music?
I kinda veered away from using, like, Arabic, Middle Eastern samples. I might have a few elements here and there in the production. Before, I felt like it was so important to have those elements in the music. I wanted to be “the Arabic rapper.” Growing up, it was a really corny thing to do because it was like you’re stereotyping yourself and putting yourself in a box. As I grew up, I just became the artist who happened to be Arab.
Have you ever experienced a position where you’re able to educate on your culture or do you feel like that’s not an objective of your music?
I feel like my culture plays a big part of me. I try to put myself in the music, so when I come out with records like “Wallahi,” I’m trying to explain what that means. We use it in everyday terms. We’ll go from ebonics to wallahi within ebonics. It’s a term we use basically every day in everyday life. Everyday transactions. We’ll say “wallahi,” you know? You’ve probably heard it even if you’re not Arab or Muslim.
Do you find that difficult given there’s so much Islamophobia in the world today?
You know how Afro beats are being popularized right now? People being, like, “wagwan” and stuff? They try to use different terminology. I think it’s time for Arabic to be like that. A$AP Ferg used it in “Plain Jane.”
When did you start MAMA, the brand?
I started during the album Mama. I just had this huge admiration for my mom just like a lot of people do.
How has that brand gone hand-in-hand with your music?
People start to associate the hat and the print, this right here, with Phay. Sometimes people will just know the brand and won’t know Phay. I don’t think the brand is bigger than me just yet, but I want it to be.
Do you naturally find yourself in a collaborative rhythm?
I’m really picky with collaborations.
What’s the best thing about recording music in East Atlanta?
The culture. You just pass so many things that inspire you. Little Ethiopia is there. Clarkston is right down the street.
How has that side of town changed for you?
There’s a lot of gentrification going on. I remember going to school by the Tobie Grant projects. Have you ever heard “Beef It Up?” That was a song back in the day. Those projects were right down the street from my house and they no longer exist. It’s Section 8 housing and they tore them all down and now they’re luxury apartments. We see all that. Because it’s becoming, and it’s one of those areas, the people native to that area have to move down south because of gentrification and zoning and all that bullshit.
What was your writing process when it came to your studio sessions for Mama? I mean, do these gentrification changes affect your writing process?
There’s certain songs on there that touched on mass incarceration and institutionalized racism. The gentrification processes that I witnessed, I think some of those definitely influence a few of the records.
Why release a song that’s named after an Arabic word?
It’s a term that not only Arab people use, but people around me started picking it up. My homie is very Christian and he’ll say “wallahi.” It’s a word that basically forces you to tell the truth if you have any fear in a higher being. It’s like, say “wallahi” which means swear to god or on god, you know? You’re swearing on something so I think it’s just become part of our vernacular. It’s just such a pocketed term amongst ourselves in the world, I mean. Islam is the largest growing religion, so imagine how many times the word “wallahi” is thrown around every day.
When did you make the song?
I made it two months ago.
Did you write lyrics for that or did you freestyle it?
It was more so I wrote the melody. The melody is kind of a “Versace” in some parts. I just remember I recorded the cadence for it and then it was one go from there. It was a pretty easy song to memorize.
Who produced the song?
Krikit Boi. I’ve worked with him twice actually.
What’s your initial hopes for the song?
Honestly? To get a publication on it. Specifically Pigeons & Planes or Complex and to get [on] playlists on Spotify.
Have you yourself ever experienced bigoted racism or some phobia in your recording career?
In my recording career? It’s on YouTube. I have a record called “Peace” and there’s a video for it, and there’s a comment, you can go on there right now. There’s a comment that says this is my favorite song at the moment but I would never go to one of his shows because of how he looks, like basically implying that I’m blowing myself up on stage or some shit. I dropped a song called “Immigrant Son” and for the video, somebody was like your culture oppresses women and your culture oppresses all this shit and stuff like that. Just little comments here and there from people that I really don’t know or give a fuck about.
How do you block that out?
I block out all the noise. I block out the good and the bad. You can be talking shit about my single artwork, it’s in the past.
When it comes to your videos, do you have direction over most of your videos?
No. There’s only like two or three videos out right now. They’re not big production videos so 2018’s going to be a huge year for videos. I mean I put out over 50 songs last year if you want to include features. I’m going to take this year to really focus on my visual content. I do write all the original treatments for the videos and then my directors fine-tune them.
What’s your favorite thing about the music industry today?
My favorite thing is probably the freedom that artists have now. With streaming and with expression and with just getting their brand out there. There’s a lot of artists now I feel like that could really do it on their own, with a backing, of course. You really have to invest money and time into yourself. This is an era where if you connect with the masses, there is no middle man. You could portray your message directly to the people instead of going through somebody to distribute it. SoundCloud rappers have proved that.
Going back to “Wallahi,” you’ve released a hoodie which has the single cover on top of it. Is that a MAMA product?
It was a giveaway. I just really liked the cover art and I thought it would look really good on a hoodie. I made it for a hoodie and then I was like, you know what? Let me give this away because the people who support me are amazing and I don’t have the biggest fan base. They’re really dope. Whoever thought they deserved this hoodie was going to let me know. [This guy] Casey, he hit me up and said, “Yo, I have four months to live and I need to stay warm for the winter because I have heart complications.” The shit really touched me, so right away I got the hoodie and drove over to his house, gave it him, and was really inspired by his story. Now we’re doing weekly giveaways inspired by Casey.
A lot of these jackets and hoodies that go along with your music, do you see yourself always intertwining fashion and music?
Yeah, I’m not the most fashionable dude. I wear the same shit every day, but I live by a notion: why not represent yourself or your mom or your own brand rather than spending thousands on designer shit that really could give a fuck if you wear them or not. This fashion is always going to be important to me. I always will come out with different seasonal attire. So, for the winter, we have hoodies. For the summer, we have baseball jerseys. We’re always trying to innovate and everything is limited supply except for these hats, the black hats. These are pretty standard.
What was the moment that someone called you Phaytoven?
I call myself Phaytoven. I would just remember hearing this beat. Shoutout to Fly Blimp. He’s a producer from Universal. He heard me on the Young and Happy podcast and he sent me a record, and it was just like these beautiful keys on it and I was like I’ll be playing with the keys and then, you know, Zaytoven, Phaytoven. It’s just a play on that. Just some silly shit.
What made you wanna do the show Words with Phay?
The same way I’m dropping “wallahi,” I want people to understand how we talk. It’s a life piece. I want Phay to be a lifestyle brand. When you think Phay, you think MAMA. You think Words with Phay. You think lighthearted, you think happy. It’s more of a lifestyle brand showing people who support me or fans how we talk and when we use certain terms and some of those terms happen to be Arabic terms.
Where do you get your sense of cultural humor from?
My mom. She’s hilarious. She doesn’t mean to be. You know how foreign parents are man. They say the funniest shit.
When it comes to the portrayal of Arab Americans in rap today, do you feel like since you’re one of the few, do you feel like you’re a role model to them?
I do feel a sense of responsibility to represent where I’ve come from. A role model in the sense of being an entrepreneur. That’s what I want to be a role model for. I really don’t expect kids to look up to me and tell their parents I wanna be Phay one day! They’d probably slap the shit out them. People like us are supposed to be accountants and be in the medical field. I don’t want them getting in trouble by their parents, but I do want to inspire people who are creative people like me and I want people to know that there is an avenue for them. Regardless of what their parents may say.
Would you say you’ve gained a following in the Atlanta area?
On Spotify, I think Atlanta’s like tenth out of the top 10 cities. I definitely want a bigger following here. Atlanta is my stomping grounds. It’s the greatest city in the world to me.
Are you still with STNDRD?
No, not anymore. Kelechi and I made the conscious decision to kind of part ways so we could preserve our friendship, actually.
If there’s one artist you could have on your song who would that be and why?
Young Thug. He adds such a different dynamic to every record he does. I think he’s the most versatile artist in the game and I think he’s a genius in his own right and this is not me in any way trolling. A lot of people are like, Young Thug? I think he’s one of the best artists of this generation.
How do you stay true to your sound?
I was really sheltered in Chicago, so I can’t say that, like, the blues or Motown influenced me in that time. But moving to Atlanta and there’s a huge Baptist community out here. [There’s] a huge gospel community out here, and although I’m not Christian, the organs, the chords, the choir—they speak to me. I just became a really big fan of that. I’m a big fan of the 808s. The Atlanta 808s. Our 808s, the ones in my records, they might sound a little southern. Some people say, “You are not from Atlanta,” but they’re just a little bit more uptempo. They’re not low, they’re kinda higher, they kinda facilitate the melody. It’s definitely something that I choose to do. I want to convey a certain message. I want to convey, more importantly, a certain feeling, so when I hear my music, of course it’s biased. It makes me wanna smile or it makes me happy.
Is it true that you recorded on one of the same beats that Chance the Rapper recorded over?
I did, produced by Rascal.
Rascal is a Chicago-based producer?
Oh. So how did that even happen?
We came across Rascal. I forgot how my homie Dom told me about him. I checked his catalog out, and he’s fucking fire. The shit that he had was on some next level shit. I remember hearing “Lawd Please” and I was in a pretty dark space when I recorded it so I leased it from him. I didn’t buy it. That’s why Chance has it right now. We’re cool with Chance’s manager, Pat. He comes and basically is like, “Yo, this guy named Rascal produced this record with Chance.” This is before it came out. He was like, “Justin Bieber is on it.” Just my luck. I was like, “I know it’s the same fucking record.” Even though dude has like 40 beats online, I was like, “I know it’s the same exact record.” It turned out it was. We got a DJ Booth article written on it. I’d just advise artists to purchase their beats, to buy them now rather than lease, because you never know. If you feel like they have potential, of course. But it really didn’t hurt me. It didn’t hurt at all. It probably helped more than it hurt. It shed light to different aspects of the business.
What’s next for you in 2018?
Videos. I wanna do videos. I want people to know who Phay is, how Phay looks, how Phay acts. I was gonna make new merchandise. I want to continue these giveaways. I want to give back to a lot of people who support me, and I just wanna make an imprint. Especially in Atlanta. Before we venture out into the world.
Many thanks to Sara Brown for transcribing this interview.