Atlanta has become one of the go-to cities when people think of hip-hop. It seems everyday there is someone new. Faris Mousa, or Phay, are quickly getting more and more attention in the Atlanta scene. Being a first-generation Arab-American, Phay uses his flowy verses and smooth choruses to tell his story of trial, triumph, and racism. Recently, he found time to join the Sit Down Series and discuss his music, his recent wedding, and his desire to be your next favorite rapper!
Colossus Music: Thanks for joining the Sit Down Series, Phay!
P: Thanks for having me!
CM: Getting started, you are Palestinian correct?
P: Yep first-generational.
CM: Being a first-generation Arab-American, how has that influenced your music, your grind, and your artistry?
P: Great question. My dad came over at 19 and has been here most of his life now. He came to this country for a lot of the same reasons many others come, which is to provide a better life for their kids, have them get an education, and get a “conventionally” good job. It really shaped me. I didn’t really feel like an immigrant until 2001 after September 11th. I grew up in predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods. When you are a kid, you don’t see that many differences in people. You think to yourself, “We are all homies, we are all the same.” I was born in the U.S. in Chicago so I am just as American as anybody else, but after 2001 when I was in 5th grade, I started seeing a shift in mannerisms and the way I was treated. I remember even my art teacher was scolding me for being Arab. It was just weird because I felt outcasted at that time. I was just confused. That’s when I knew I needed to find my way and find the right balance. To some, I wasn’t American enough and to others, I wasn’t Palestinian or Arab enough. I feel like it’s a strange dichotomy that a lot of immigrants and first-generation Americans go through to find their place in society. I think it’s shaped my way in that sense. My music has deeper messages about immigration and institutionalized racism. I feel like growing up in an Arab household, it’s like being in a different country. Then you walk outside your house and it’s a whole different world. It really shaped the way in how I think.
CM: Arab culture has typically not embraced rap music. Has that been a challenge for you at all?
P: Yeah man, I mean my dad is kind of a hippie in the sense that he came to the U.S. during the “Make Love Not War” era. He thinks it’s cool because he’s a big fan of the Beatles and he put me onto Motown. That’s what he was listening to when he got here. My dad is cool with [being a rapper] as long as I take care of myself and do my thing. My mom is where there is a lot of backlash. A lot of immigrant parents contribute success to financial success. They aren’t typically concerned with what makes you happy. As long as you are financially safe, the rest will follow. She’s learned that this is something I really love doing and will do regardless. She still doesn’t fully understand though. I have sat with her and showed her my streaming statements, and she still doesn’t get it. She says “So you get money from people listening to your songs?” and I will be like, “Yeah I had 150,000 monthly listeners this month.” But it still goes over her head. I wouldn’t be surprised if my mom thought I sold drugs or something. I have a wife and she works full time at a really good job, but I still support her and pay a majority of the bills. I still think she [my mom] doesn’t understand though and I have stopped trying to explain because it just goes way over her head. Just being Palestinian and Arab, or even just as an immigrant, there are only a few jobs that are noble enough to choose. It’s being a doctor, an accountant, or an entrepreneur and everything else is seen as “what the fuck are you doing?” Art is not really an occupation in Arab culture, but my uncle was a wedding singer. He was kind of locally famous, but he got a lot of flak from my grandma. He would come home at 3 am drunk and my grandma would be like “You need to get a better job, this job is for losers”. Meanwhile, my grandpa, God rest his soul, he was a poet. They were always involved in the arts, but they never had a way to make it lucrative. I think that’s where my mom’s reservations stem from.
CM: Outside of your family, where else do you pull influences from? You are based in Atlanta. That city is pumping out some of the best rap in the game right now, so how does your hometown affect you in that sense?
P: Atlanta is the new mecca! You could go to different bars or open mics and somebody could be playing the sax and another person might be rapping over it. Atlanta is just a really good place to be in terms of culture. Outkast came out of here, Ludacris had an amazing run here, just so many Atlanta legends. Even in R&B too like Usher, and So So Def, and Jermaine Dupri. Atlanta has just always honed so much talent. It’s a commuter city too so a lot of people who are from Atlanta aren’t born in Atlanta. It’s the best of every world. You see a lot of people who are born in Chicago and move down here, people from New York who move over here, even L.A. It’s just like a melting pot within a melting pot, and there’s an Atlanta undertone. If you factor in the food: the chicken and waffles, lemon pepper wings, and just the whole culture. I just feel like it shapes everybody’s world view differently. That’s why there are so many different subgenres of rap in Atlanta. You’ve got your Young Thug’s, you’ve got your JID’s, you’ve got your 6LACK’s. You know what I’m saying! Back in the day you had your Gucci Mane’s too. But that’s what Atlanta is…just so many different parts to it.
CM: Now, you graduated from Georgia State correct?
P: Yeah. Oh yeah. You did your research man!
CM: I’ve got to make sure I cover everything! I read a little bit about how you went to a 9-to-5 job and it just wasn’t for you. Now, you’re making music and you’re getting a lot of attention. You mentioned 150,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, what has that shift been like for you?
P: It hasn’t been easy man. I made the decision to do music full time three and a half years ago. I had some money saved up from my job and just kind of went all in. I feel like if you want to do something you can’t half-ass it. Of course, everybody has bills and things like that, but I was at a point where I was single too. I had no bills, still living with my mom. I knew it was a now or never type situation. So I started and it was like therapeutic for me because I was dropping records again. I did like a 2 year hiatus after college so it was good to be back. My homie was engineering all my stuff and I was like “Let’s just put this record out on soundcloud and I will be surprised if it hits 100 streams.” So it hit 100 and I decided to drop a new song every time one [song] hit 100. Then it turned into every time I hit a 1000 and then I thought “Yo I’ve got all these songs, I’m gonna drop them weekly.” That became this whole “Phay Friday” thing. I hit a wave and I wanted to get different people and musicians into the studio. I had a pianist come in and play over all my vocals on my first album. I had Young Dro on the album as well as Fat Trel and Kap G. It was all from an Indie budget. These guys were doing these records for a couple thousand dollars. A lot of people think it’s not attainable to get features like that, but you really can. I had no name for myself back then…I didn’t even have a Spotify! When I had Young Dro on the record, I just hit up the right people and next thing I knew, I was in the studio with Young Dro and nobody knew who I was. I just feel like that was my fate. Once I dropped Mama, it became a whole brand. It became a whole lifestyle. A lot of people started trusting me like “Yo, this guy is doing it on his own and he put so much production value into his stuff. If he cares this much, I want to care this much.” I feel like the listeners know how much I put into the music. I have a strong base and after after I dropped Mama, I dropped E & Phay, which is the most popular project to date in terms of streams. I have like 3 million streams on Spotify on that project alone. After that, I dropped the Baby Phayce EP and now I’m on my second full length album. It’s just been consistency. It’s every Friday; this is the streaming era so you got to be in people’s faces every fucking week,m or they will forget about you.
CM: And you’re still completely independent!
P: Yeah I don’t even have a manager. No PR, nobody speaking on my behalf at all.
CM: And you’re also selling your own merchandise too correct?
P: Yep! And that’s where the majority of the money comes from. It’s all based off the foundation of the music. When you get a group of people to trust you, whether it be your tastes or your music, they will support you in anything you do. The merch moves really well because of the name that’s associated with it and the brand.
CM: Now into the music itself, you recently just dropped the track “MASEGO“. What’s the story behind that? Was Masego, the artist, the inspiration there?
P: So I am a big fan of Masego. His record “Tadow” is my favorite. One of my favorite records of all time. I don’t know much about him after “Tadow”. I never went through his discography. But my record “MASEGO” is actually about one of my friends that I grew up with who was arrested on gun charges. It’s actually the interlude for the song called “BADU“. They’re both named after artists, but it’s kind of like how people glorify violent stuff. I try to make the song sound beautiful, but the situation was terrible so I guess that’s the juxtaposition. The Masego part came from the line that goes “Chopper sings like Masego”. His gun was singing like the artist, but in reality this kid was a really good kid. He just had gotten caught up in some financial troubles and was trying to help his mom. He had a really good heart, but turns out he did a few armed robberies allegedly to help his mom in the situation. It’s a perspective thing. I got flak for it, some people were like “good job you are laughing about killing people, you should be proud of yourself.” You have to listen deeper to understand the situation and if you listen to “BADU” it makes more sense. It’s about somebody who really just got caught up. He was a really good kid at heart and was too shy and too prideful to ask for financial help for his mom. He took matters into his own hands. Of course, it was extreme and he was locked up and deported after that. The song is about him, but I named it “MASEGO” because I felt like that was the most memorable line in the song.
CM: Switching things things to a lighter subject, I saw you just recently got married. Congratulations on that! You made a music video during your actual wedding. That’s pretty unique!
P: Yeah that shit was crazy bro looking back on it. The photographer wanted to do it. The woman who did all the photography, her boyfriend shoots video. Sometimes, I guess, they do music videos for the couple over a Drake record or a Future record. But she said “You’re an actual artist and I listened to “She Mine” and it’s perfect for the wedding.” I was like “This is ridiculous. I got 300 people deal with and I’m getting married. There’s no way that this could go down.” Then the day of, I wake up and I’m like fuck it why not since we had already spent all this money on the wedding. So I hit the dude up like “You still down to do it?” It was on the fly type thing, like literally hours before the wedding. For an extra thousand dollars, he came out and shot the whole video and captured every moment which was genuine. 95% of people there didn’t even know a music video was going on. Just captured the moment between me and my wife. It was very transparent and I felt like sharing that with the world and with my family.
CM: That’s so cool. She must really support you and your music if she lets you do that at your wedding.
P: Yeah man, she’s tight. I feel like it’s tough love. It’s not like she’s an outwardly fan girl or anything. She definitely supports it and always plugs me when I’m not around.
CM: What music outside of hip hop do you listen to? You mentioned that Atlanta’s such a melting pot for culture and music. Does that influence your choice of music, or do you specifically listen to hip hop?
P: It’s definitely a wide variety but real sporadic at times. If you are riding in the car with me, my friends will make fun of me because we will ride in silence. I won’t listen to anything. In terms of hip hop, I’m really a huge fan of Young Thug and the way he utilizes his voice. You know with the auto tune and stuff like that. It sounds like an instrument. Big fan of Future. I love old R&B artists. I’m a big fan of Craig David, and R. Kelly was one of my favorites before the whole shit with him came to light. It kind of sucks because like I grew up on R. Kelly since I’m originally from Chicago. Kanye West of course. My wife really got me into Afrobeats and stuff like Davido, Wizkid, and Maleek Berry.
CM: Wrapping things up, we have our standard Colossus question. If you could have dinner with any three artists, dead or alive, who would they be, and why?
P: So first. I’d have to pick R. Kelly. Hear me out. I picked him because I want to ask him what the hell was going on through his mind when he made the choice to do the shit he did. I just need to know why he was doing that. Not that it was justified or anything but I want to know if the man’s mentally sick or something. You don’t really hear his side of the story in terms of that stuff. But I just want to say “Yo, like you know a lot of people look up to you, why the fuck were you doing this?” I want to sit down with Timbaland, the producer too, and just literally ask him about his sampling. I feel like he’s one of the greatest samplers of all time. I could just sit there and listen to his samples and come up with a freestyle and do something on off the top. Young Thug too. His recording process is genius. I just want to go through his process. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard stories about the engineers. He will go through 12 engineers and kick them out because they can’t keep up right now. It seems like Young Thug is always high and he doesn’t know where he is, but when he’s recording he’s super sharp. I just want to pick his brain and gain more insight on how he thinks.
CM: Is there a specific place you’d want to take them?
P: There are so many places in Atlanta. There is this place on the West Side called Jamal’s Wings. It has the best wings in the world! Lemon pepper hot, the Atlanta staple, and like a peach drink or something. Just a whole bunch of sugar. It’s like diabetes in a cup but shit is good bro.
CM: Last question, where do you want to be by the end of this year?
P: A lot of rappers will lie to you and say they aren’t number guys. All of this shit is based on the numbers. I’m a big Spotify guy. I like waking up and looking at my Spotify numbers. There is a stat that comes out on Spotify and it says “X amount of people played you more than any other artist this year.” I think last year that stat for me was 70 people. All the songs and all the music they could be listening to, but 70 people literally listened to me more than anybody and that might not seem like a big deal to an artist like Drake or any of those guys. I’m looking for that number to grow to anything more than 70, to be honest with you. I just want to be one of those people’s favorite artist’s. Like, I’m not doing it thinking I hope people like me and they add me to their playlists. Instead, I want them to dissect records. I want them to play the records over and over. I want them to feel when they’re listening. So my main goal at the end of 2019 and at the end of every year that I’m an artist is, I want to be your favorite. Whether I’m your new favorite or your old favorite, if you’ve just discovered me and want to binge listen to my discography, or if you’ve been put on during the last 2-3 years. I want people to go back and listen to my records and think back on the nostalgia and how that song made them feel when they first heard it. We all have records like that when we go back and listen. Like, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, while you listen you are like wow I remember where I was when I heard this record. It makes me feel like there’s a sense of nostalgia and warmth. I just want to be people’s favorite. I want to win a Grammy. I don’t know how feasible that is by the end of 2019 but anything can happen. I just want to maximize my brand and be an Atlanta staple. It’s growing and I’m on the right track to be one. I just want to leave people with a sense of authenticity. I want people to align themselves with the music because they feel it, if that makes sense. Any of the people who are listening, I want people to feel like they can relate. Maybe one of their friends or family members is locked up so they can relate to “MASEGO” or “BADU”. I’m a first-generation American and maybe they can connect with my perspective. I really just want to capture the hearts of people. Capture their ears first and then move on to their hearts. I just don’t want to let people down. I want to stay consistent.