UChicago Presents: In addition to music, activism as played a significant role in your life as an artist. How did you come to see music as a vehicle for activism?
Rahim AlHaj: I’m obsessed with social justice. When I was in Baghdad I was politically active against the regime, criticizing the first Iran-Iraq War – was a hideous war, really. I was captured and tortured for a year and half, but I was able to escape Iraq in 1990 after my mom bribed a guy who made false travel documents. I fled Iraq for Jordan, and then from Jordan I came to the United States. A lot of the music that I made over the next eight years was about injustice in all forms, whether it was war, or dictatorship, or against women – whatever it was, I was outspoken against it.
You know, it’s almost inconceivable to me that almost 30 years later, I’m still protesting war with my music, and yet nothing has changed in this world; we still make the same mistakes. But as a musician, of course, my objecting to war and injustice will go on until I die. This is not an option for me. Activism is important for everybody, but I feel it is extra important for artists, because we put forward an obligation to the world. It should be our mission to make art – this tool for bringing justice – more accessible and more effective in order to make this world a better place for generations to come.
UCP: The program you’re performing at UChicago Presents in May is Letters from Iraq, which was released as an album in 2017. Can you tell me a little more about the premise of this project, including the instrumentation with string quartet?
RA: Letters from Iraq is still, to me, the most important record I have ever made. The instrumentation is oud plus string quintet and percussion. I chose to string quartet with bass because this is the fundamental ensemble of the Western classical world, and then the oud and percussion reflect the music of Iraq, where these stories come from. But the instrumentation only serves the message of this project. The letters that I collected are so heartbreaking and so powerful, that when I decided to write this piece, it was important to make the message of those letters as clear as possible. I felt obligated to put aside my ego as a composer, and hopefully you can tell it is not about me and the oud, or even about the string quartet. No – I want to tell the story through the music.
The response to this project has been amazing. Just the emotional substance of the stories, and the fact that they’re real – they would be impossible to imagine, but that doesn’t matter; when you present something real like this, in a good way, it will find a way to reach people.