Belly is in a whole new chapter of his career. The Palestinian/Canadian-bred artist is a quadruple threat of singer/songwriter/rapper and producer, an undeniable talent that has delivered a number of hits and party jams for over a decade. However, for Belly, it’s now time to change the narrative as he releases his most personal work to date: Immigrant.
“I was just uninspired in terms of artistry. I took a step back and just viewed the whole atmosphere of what was going on around me, in music, everything.” That is how Belly describes his brief hiatus from music. After dropping mixtape after mixtape, starting with his debut Death Before Dishonor Vol. 1and his debut album The Revolutionin 2007, the inspiration ran dry after six years of grinding. It was time to regroup and reassess. “I love music and will always make music,” Belly explains, “but as a solo artist I was uninspired to even be a part of the business at that time. I just had a lot of ups and downs with music. I just wanted to make music and do it at the best level I could.”
By 2015, he returned to the scene, co-writing with longtime friend and fellow Canadian The Weeknd on his breakout single “Earned It,” along with a slew of other tracks off The Weeknd’s second album Beauty Behind The Madness and third Starboy. “Once we started working together, I started to have more of a passion in terms of putting my own stuff out again,” Belly admits. “That’s when it all came together. It was just a natural occurrence.” His critically acclaimed mixtape Up For Days was a welcome return for Belly, delivering his knack for party tracks, along with the hit “Might Not” featuring The Weeknd. Belly ultimately inked a deal with The Weeknd’s XO Recordings and Roc Nation soon after, as one fortuitous evening Jay-Z was blasting his music at a Roc Nation dinner. “Man, that was just a bunch of stars lining up,” he recalls. “Somebody that was there called somebody that I knew and was like, ‘Yo your boy’s music is getting played right now at this dinner and Jay-Z is the one playing it.’ So my guy called me and told me, and probably within the year I was signing to Roc Nation.” Belly even found a serendipitous placement on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, having written the reference track for the intense “6 Inch.” In 2016, he was honored at the SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) Awards as Songwriter of the Year for his work with top-tier artists, fueling the fire for his own upcoming work.
But as Belly was piecing together his follow-up album, things began to shift in his life as well the on-goings of the world, and so the focus changed. “I had a really upbeat album and I don’t know, I felt like at this stage of my life and career, it just didn’t speak to my soul or what I was doing or feeling,” he expresses. The catalyst was a t-shirt.
“I actually made a shirt to wear for a short video,” he explains. “I had the shirt made at the mall with the word IMMIGRANT printed on it. “The whole team was inspired by the photo and the footage I showed them. It sparked a whole new idea of what this project should be. It awakened something inside of me that put everything in perspective. I realized that I need to speak on things that will change the world right now.” With roots in both Palestine and Jordan, Belly began to realize that his platform was bigger than the club. “I’m not here to make party records for the rest of my life,” he adds. “I’m 34, and I’ve got a long history of making dope shit like that behind me. I’ve always been vocal, but I’ve never had something that’s been fully themed around this full time. This is something special to me. I’ve managed to merge my two worlds together instead of having these split personalities. In my real life I’ve always donated or helped not just my community, but any community that’s under pressure.”
The result is Immigrant, a project just as powerful as its title where Belly brings next level message music that hits extremely close to his heart and home. “For me, growing up it was hard to find somebody vocal about what was happening in terms of where I was from and what I was going through,” he says. “When we had artists or actors speak, they would do their best to stay neutral because they were afraid of losing their jobs. I had to draw inspiration from guys like Muhammad Ali and watch his old footage and be like, ‘Man, this guy’s a rebel and he spoke out about the right things. He’s a rebel with a cause.’ That always resonated with me to never stay silent when you believe in something. I feel like now is the right time to speak on the situation.”
Immigrantopens with the autobiographical “Another Note,” as he pours his feelings into the Intro, detailing his journey thus far. “It’s kind of me summarizing some of the things I’ve been going through and some of the things my family has gone through,” he explains. “It’s a really emotional track for me. When I wrote it, it was hard to get through.” There’s even a moment where he has to pause during recording, but kept the music going. “It got to a point where the words really got to me and I broke down and started crying from what I was saying. I caught my breath and kept going and kept that take. We didn’t slice it or cut it or edit it or make it pretty. I wanted to let the fans capture a real emotion from the music.”
In other songs like the title track, Meek Mill and Belly volley bars about parallel experiences from completely different worlds. “It’s a song that really speaks to my experience and how I’m feeling right now about how the world is reacting to immigrants and refugees,” Belly says of the song’s concept. “Meek has a story to tell too and it was great to bring those two stories together and show how the struggle is very similar. The lack of compassion I’m seeing around the world…this is giving the disenfranchised a voice.” The song also features internationally renowned singer. songwriter, rapper, and activist, M.I.A.; an artist not only known for her musical contributions, but also her political beliefs. “Having M.I.A. on this record is surreal,” Belly shares. “As a fellow immigrant, she understands the struggle we face first hand…and not only understands but actively speaks on it. It’s nothing less than an honour to collaborate with someone as extraordinary.”
The smoothly rhythmic “Dust” with French Montana highlights how inner turmoil can manifest itself in many ways. “That’s one of my favorite songs on the album,” Belly admits. “It’s kind of about trying to escape the pressures of the life, but the life keeps pulling me back. It’s upbeat and you can still play it in the club, but at the same time there’s still substance behind it. All of us have something that we’re trying to run from that keeps pulling us back. The song is about that struggle.”
While Immigrant hits all layers of life for anyone listening, it’s Belly’s most intimate work to date, marking the next phase in the career of a star who just leveled up. “It’s the most honest and vulnerable I’ve been on anything I’ve ever put out,” he advises. “It’s not just one song that’s going to stand out. This is a whole movie. I’m sure some scenes are going to be more popular than others, but this is a movie from the diary of Belly. Rappers need to get their pens ready.”