Rana Fayez is the founder and director of YallaPunk, a nonprofit organization that is redefining and reclaiming the narrative for South Asian North African (SWANA) people through multidisciplinary arts. YallaPunk will be holding their third annual arts festival from August 29th through September 1st in Philadelphia, PA.
Prior to creating YallaPunk, Rana lived a past life as a reporter and spent over ten years booking shows. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism from Virginia Tech and a masters from University at Albany in Organizational Communication. While not running YallaPunk, Rana adjuncts at digital media departments at Philly universities and coaches artists on web development in addition to utilizing digital tools for online community building for social causes. Rana is also a DJ and a noise performer. As this year’s YallaPunk festival nears, I chatted with Rana about YallaPunk’s past, present and future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Yasmina Tawil: I think it’s safe to assume that probably very few, if any, of our readers have heard of YallaPunk. Can you give them an idea of what it is?
Ranna Fayez: YallaPunk started as more of a reaction our first year. I started planning it for a few months in 2016. I had felt that the political climate was changing and I was getting a little bit nervous. I remember after the election there was this student in my neighborhood and I had gone to get a burrito and this kid was joking about shooting up Muslims and it really freaked me out.
There was also this post where a Philly DJ that had Arabic on his flyer. The letters were connected on the flier and it really bothered me. I asked him to take it down and then he deleted my comment. I told him, “I see you deleted my comment”. He says, “Well, I’m doing this in solidarity because if I tell people Arabic is okay, everybody will think it’s okay.” I told him, “You’re not related to the culture at all. You’re not even booking any Arab DJs. You’re not playing any Arabic music. What’s the point like other than using it as a novelty?” And he just doubled down. He said, “I’m not and I’m not taking it down.” I finally said “Oh, okay, that’s fine.” He said, “Well if you, if you want to DJ, you can send me a mix.” I was like, “I don’t actually [want to DJ]. We just had this conversation about how I feel really rude about your event. I don’t like it and I don’t need this. I’ve been deejaying for over 10 years. I don’t need this publicity from you.” So he asked me for music suggestions. I said “I‘m not really comfortable sharing a list because I don’t really trust you at this point.” But I was kind of curious about this idea, as it’s a DJ’s job to do this research. I decided that maybe I will do this research to uplift my friends. I though, what if I were to book a show? Who would play it?
So I created a public internet thread because I was curious about what was out there at that point. I hadn’t really worked on booking a festival for almost 10 years. The last fest I had booked was when I was down south in Virginia. I wanted to see if there were any other MENA (Middle East North African) punks out there. At that time we were still using the term MENA. I created a thread and all of my old friends from booking started tagging friends, people they knew. I made the thread public and then more people commented. I got almost a hundred messages that day. It was really wild! It wasn’t all from MENA punks, but it was all people who were really excited. So, with that, the first YallaPunk was planned and executed four months later.
I decided we really needed a pilot because it was either now or never, you know? We needed a pilot to learn from. So [the festival] was two nights and two days. I am really grateful for Johnny Brenda’s, the venue where I DJ, for really stepping up and really being excited about testing this pilot out with us. Icebox project space was another organization that really helped us out as well. They run a space out of the Crane Arts building. The co-founder of the space, Tim, also works with film so that was an ideal space for us to screen films since it already had a projector and speakers, and he knew what he was doing. That was really great. I wasn’t really sure if we really wanted to do film the first year, but we got submissions and I thought, why not? We need to put all of these conversations we’re having into context. We need to put this art into context. So why not create like a full experience with film and music and poetry and comedy and then talk about it in the panel discussions and then explain it in the workshops.
YT: I hadn’t realized film had been a part of the festival since the beginning.
RF: From year one we have been doing comedy, poetry, music and film has always been a piece of it. Film is so important too because it’s an interpreted snapshot or slice of life where it combines, you know, imagery, music, writing. It’s a whole experience in a way. It’s an interpretation, seeing life through somebody else’s eyes or another production team’s eyes. And I think it’s really important to see these images as they can create a feeling of belonging that we don’t really get to experience with a lot of pop culture today that is really important to convey.
YT: That’s how we feel about film at the Arab Film and Media Institute as well. Through the institute and the Arab Film Festival we try to change the stereotypes of what you see, to give that representation to people who are underrepresented and also to provide the filmmakers with a platform to do that.
What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in increasing this representation of different cultures and experiences from the work that you’ve done?
RF: There are definitely two pieces of it. I want to be very careful in saying these two terms and explaining them. I have a feeling you’ll understand the minute I say them but somebody that is not from this background might not really understand. There are two concepts of Arab supremacy and anti-blackness in the SWANA region. There are so many more languages that are spoken in this region that are not Arabic. I feel like that really lends itself to a lack of representation even in spaces that try to be as inclusive as possible. The term Arab hasn’t really existed for very long. It’s been in use for only a few decades. So I think that we need to figure out a way to focus on a lot of the other languages spoken in the region that are not just Arabic. I think that is a challenge even in the representation in pop culture from the region. I think it’s been a problem that’s existed for awhile. We try to do a good job. I don’t know if we have been, it seems like we have been, but we’re trying to do a good job. The region, as you know, is not free of conflict and if we have representation from one language but not the others when one country that has a conflict with another country, speaking in terms of government and not people, that would definitely send the wrong message. So we’re constantly working on having more representation. We definitely listen to feedback. We’re open to including anything else that we might have forgotten because we don’t directly have lived experiences related to that language or specific culture. A culture is very diverse.
YT: This is something that I myself have been learning about more. Despite being descended from the region, I hadn’t realized quite the level of diversity in the region and languages and the conflict of the label “Arab” or “Arabic” to describe a people or a culture or country.
RF: How do you define the region and is SWANA really the best way to define it? Yeah, we’re still struggling with that.
YT: I’m glad that, that you are proactive and working towards greater representation. I think many of us focus largely on religion when we think about the diversity in the region, which is a very limited way to think.
RF: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of emphasis on religion. And that maybe is not the best way to describe a region because that is also another sociopolitical way of defining a region. There are multiple ways to define a region. Even the whole concept of nation and nationalities is complicated. The nation does not always agree with the nationality and vice versa. Religious identity adds another piece to that and gender identity is another piece of that.
YT: It’s specially complicated in places like the Middle East and Africa because these places were divided up not by the people living there.
RF: Absolutely. And I think that’s why we moved from using the term MENA to SWANA because we felt like the term SWANA is less colonized. But really, who is creating these terms is the question. If we’re able to get enough people together to serve on a panel to talk about identity and the difference between the terms MENA, SWANA, SSWANA and MENASA. We might actually be able to do it this year. That’s the one panel that’s not really confirmed at this point in time. If not, then maybe we’ll have another event to discuss identity.
YT: Moving in a slightly different direction, I wanted to ask, do you think technology can support and enhance these arts rather than undermine cultural expression? There’s long been a big debate about the pros and cons of tech in areas such as these.
RF: I have so many feelings about this. You know that I’m a web developer also and I do teach tech. I teach tech to designers as well as entertainment and arts students. I think there is a way to actually have tech support the arts. I know that bots are a really hot thing right now. Everybody’s kind of creating their own Twitter Bot. Everybody’s really obsessed with automation. I think automation can be useful up until a point when people try to automate art or try to create a generator to create an art piece or a generator to, say, compose a piece of music. I think calling that art is a bit of a stretch because it is not an intentional process. It is a randomized process written by an algorithm. It is a product of a mathematical equation. I personally don’t really see that as art. I wouldn’t really describe that as music, which is maybe a bit hypocritical of me to say because I do work with synthesizers. But I definitely think that if the process is completely randomized and completely generated by an algorithm, calling it art as a bit of a stretch. I think there can be software that helps artists maybe keep their resources together. Maybe creating a database of resources. Maybe there can be software that can help connect artists, software to help artists fund raise, or apply for grants. I mean we’ve all created crowd funding campaigns. At the moment, there are astronomical fees taken out of these online campaigns that really hurt artists and non-profits in general. I understand there is definitely always an overhead for any sort of software that is run by a company, that has staff who need to get paid. But I really think the model can be redone. Aside from YallaPunk, I have future plans to integrate tech into the arts in a way that serves artists as opposed to hurting them.
YT: Are there any other future plans for YallaPunk, any dreams you have for it that you’re hoping to enact in the future?
RF: We’ve definitely been trying to work on building a residency because it seems like some residencies don’t have the cultural competency that is needed for artists to create work and not be tokenized. You often see that in some of the bigger art fairs where, if someone is from a SWANA background, they’re constantly asked to be the “cultural influence”. People want to know things like: where is the woman wearing hijab? Where is the influence of Islamic art in your work? Maybe those elements are part of somebody’s culture but maybe this person is of SWANA background but not directly influenced by that, you know? It’s very important for an artist to decide what they are or aren’t influenced by and not be forced into a box because of their cultural background.
We are now kicking off every year with an art exhibit. We had one earlier this year in January at Vox Populi Gallery in Chinatown in Philly and we’re in talks with a couple of galleries for 2020.
We also plan to continue to work with our language conversation group which we piloted last year. We set up participants who wanted to strengthen their language skills or just have a conversation partner. Some of them are people who are unable to call their family back home and speak the languages. Maybe they came out to their family and are unable to call and this is the only connection they have to their culture. For some people they just come to practice a language. The program sets them up with a conversation partner that they can practice this language with and be who they are and feel comfortable.
YT: How can people support or be a part of YallaPunk, even if they don’t live in or around Philadelphia?
RF: We have fiscal sponsor partnership through CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia. They process all of our donations so if someone would like to donate to YallaPunk they can do so by writing a check or calling them. They can also support us by buying our shirts online at yallapunk.com.
Photo of Rana Fayez by Lauren Freney.