Yassin Narcy Alsalman Kanye West class course Concordia Montreal Maktaba

Photo by Rashad Bedeir for IRAQAFELLA

Yassin Narcy Alsalman on teaching a Kanye course and co-owning an Old Montreal bookshop

An interview with the local MC, teacher, author, label and lifestyle company director about Kanye vs. Ye: Genius by Design, the Maktaba shop and more.

Please note that this interview with Yassin Alsalman was conducted at the end of September, prior to the latest round of Kanye West controversies.

Yassin “Narcy” Alsalman has been teaching since he picked up a mic in his teens. 

But the MC, author, label and lifestyle company director and cultural curator has also been a bona fide prof with a podium to educate Concordia students on the world around them through the medium of hip hop, its roots in historic oppression and its place in modern power politics for almost a decade. 

This semester, Narcy has signed his teaching contract to the majors with a course he conceived and developed that focuses on arguably the most polarizing figure in hip hop history, and certainly the most debated-about artist in modern popular culture: Kanye West. 

Kanye vs. Ye: Genius by Design filled its 200 seats immediately. Unironically, Late Registration was never going to be an option for this class. 

This summer, Narcy and his wife, author Sundus Abdul Hadi, also opened a bookstore, cultural space and getaway, Maktaba — a college drop-in, if you will — in Old Montreal.

We spoke with Alsalman about the class and the shop. And in conversation, one topic naturally led to the other. Because for Narcy, the medium is always, inextricably, the message. 

Darcy MacDonald: Congrats on the store! Tell me about it, how did it come to be? 

Yassin Narcy Alsalman: During the pandemic, I was teaching on Zoom for two years, but I had nowhere to teach because the kids were home. Initially, Sundus and I were looking for an office space to work in, but she always had this dream of opening a book shop, and we were both published during the pandemic. (His book was Text Messages: Or How I Found Myself Time Travelling, hers Take Care of Yourself: The Art and Politics of Care and Liberation.) We never got to feel what it was like to tour with a book, you know? It was pre-vax. We both worked really hard and then it just sorta felt like, “Oh, we put a book out.”

So we decided to build the store. I have a passion for clothing and merchandise and she has a very big passion for books. So we combined those passions and split the task up of her conceptually curating the book choices, and I design all of our merchandise and stock all of our friends who are artists and who have brands. 

The purpose of the space, and one of the things we always come back to, is that when we were in university in our 20s, and 9/11 happened, it was a very particular era. We weren’t as distracted, or couldn’t be as easily distracted, because we didn’t have smartphones and stuff like that. 

(So) we created a cultural space to share our culture but a lot of our culture is this beauty of being in the moment with each other, sharing a Turkish coffee or a tea and sitting having a conversation. And we wanted to do that specifically for youth from our community, but it’s open to everybody. 

It’s an amazing location. It’s across from the Pointe-à-Callière museum. We have four arched windows and you basically see all the way to Habitat 67 from our shop. And all of the merchandise we have is numbered, collectible pieces. Everything we touch in our space is not mass-produced. 

Maktaba bookshop in Old Montreal

You know, after this fall semester and after teaching this Kanye course at Concordia, it will have been 10 years since I’ve been teaching. And I find that the further I go into the process of teaching youth, the more I feel like they feel trapped. There are no mindful spaces for them, spaces where they can go and then leave with something that’s gonna change their worldview. Spaces where they can go and just take 15 or 20 minutes and just read a book and step back from all of their worries and their problems momentarily. 

Half of the shop is that. It’s a space for anybody, really, but particularly the youth coming up right now that need a book that could change their life, or just sit down and have a cup of tea. The view is beautiful where we’re at.

Yassin Alsalman on teaching the Kanye West course in light of recent events.

DM: What was the process of pitching the course to Concordia like and what was the administrative response?

Yassin Narcy Alsalman: I was in my ninth year of teaching (the hip hop course) and I was just kind of fed up with the content. I started thinking about coming up with a new way to get a kid to pick up a Frantz Fanon book that isn’t like, “This is race studies. Read this book.” Or another way for them to think critically about the production of a sneaker without being force-fed that there’s child labour that makes these shoes. 

I want them to be interested in understanding where some of the studies behind things (come from). So I thought, “Who is the perfect conduit for this?” And I’m a huge Kanye fan. I’ve been a huge fan since The College Dropout came out and since I was in university. 

(This idea) was pre-Donda and pre-Donda-rollout and before even knowing what Donda was, and when he went rogue, kind of, around the release, I pitched it to Eldad Tsabary, my senior who I’d report to at the Faculty of Fine Arts department. He was like, “I love this idea.” He’s a music dude and he left FFAR to become the chair of the Music department, now. 

So convincing him was easy. But what was great about him was that he pushed back on me and was like, “What are you gonna do? What are you gonna teach?” Because it was a cool idea at first, but I didn’t have a framework for it. Then in March, someone tweeted that it was on, like, “Oh my God, Kanye Concordia class.” And it went nuts and people started tagging me, like, “You must be the teacher of this class.” Next thing you know, TMZ is calling me. Then I felt the real pressure. And I think the university did, too. They got (the comparable equivalent of) a $100,000 PR rollout that came out of nowhere, on its own. Nobody hollered at anybody and everybody called. 

The class filled up in 10 minutes. I got 200 students. So of course then I went to Eldad and I was like, “Do we push it to 500?” ‘Cause I’m a hip hop head, you know? “Do we fill the venue up?”

But he said, “No, 200 is the cap for classes or you’re gonna lose your mind.”

So I started building the class. 

You know, when I met Kanye the first time was at the Concordia show at Medley (headlined by) Talib Kweli in 2003. I freestyled with Loes and Kanye! Kweli hit me and was like, “What are you doing teaching a Kanye class?” But he knows I’m thoughtful. 

I have Coodie from the Netflix doc (jeen-yuhs) coming to talk to the students. And we have Nabil (Elderkin) who directed Kanye’s videos up until 808s & Heartbreak as a guest, too. 

DM: You touched on something important before and I want to circle back. This is a perfect critical thinking exercise, especially for these times. Even if kids have some innate sense of it — and I think a lot of kids have an innate sense of a truth they’re seeking — these times are confusing. 

Yassin Narcy Alsalman: There was something Kanye said in his documentary. “I need a translator.” And I think I’ve always known that — as a Gemini, as an artist, and as somebody who’s always had to break my own mould to remain independent. I didn’t get into the industry, I wasn’t with Jay-Z and I don’t have this American capitalist ambition to become a billionaire. I live in humble-ass Montreal. 

And I’ve always understood Kanye as an artist. But I was also very perplexed by some of his (approaches). In fact, he knows he’s being subversive but he doesn’t know how to say it. And he’s almost too famous to be subversive. 

With this Ye class, his work and his sound and his aesthetic are the bait. The hook is the education that I want to give them behind it. So we’re gonna talk about imperialism and colonialism and peak capitalism, and him wearing a white mask and how that’s exactly what Frantz Fanon talks about in a metaphorical way. 

Kanye may or may not be aware of that. But he is a Black man who grew up in America and has just a natural understanding that that’s how people view him. So it’s just about opening their eyes by talking about Kanye. Because everyone is interested in Kanye. He’s an attention magnet. So if I can get them to read McLuhan through Kanye, then my job is complete. ■

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Librarie Maktaba Bookshop is located at 165 St-Paul W. For more on Maktaba, please visit the store’s website.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.