It's hard to fit in if your relatives came to Germany with just a box and pocket change, says German-Pakistani rapper Zulfiqar Ali Chaudhry, aka Ali As. He also tells DW how the refugee crisis has tempered his humor.
DW: How did you develop an interest in rap?
Ali As: That was in 1999, when my colleagues W78 and Passtschon used to visit the Flava Club in Munich on Sundays. Every single Sunday, there was an event with live acts and people freestyling on stage or presenting their latest songs. That's how it all started. I then copied a few things from him, as I always knew what had happened in his life during the week. I saw how he packed all that into rhymes on Sunday and how he complained about how bad his week had been. I found all that very inspiring and fascinating, and I thought I should do that, too.
How long did it take you to develop your own style?
I believe you need to find it over and over again, but then try not to lose it. You should keep things that have become your trademark and modify them a bit.
How much energy do you put into distinguishing yourself from other German rappers?
I've thought about that a lot. There are always people who are looking for a very clear inspiration or model and then start looking or sounding exactly like that. I don't think that's very refined, especially since it's possible to be smarter about it and just find different sources and see what you can adapt or use in the situation you're in. Just so that it seems authentic.
Compared to other parts of Germany, Bavaria and its capital, Munich, are pretty unique. How have these places influenced you?
Anyone who makes music has been formed by their environment. Over here, it all seems less "edgy" or "industrialized" than in Berlin or Hamburg, and less "grimy" than Frankfurt. Shindy, for example, comes from Stuttgart - that's why his music is rather sophisticated. And when you come to Munich, it's the same thing. Here, people spend more time refining their music. They don't just offer the very first thing, like in other cities. The standard of living in Munich is very, very high. Maybe that's why people are not satisfied with things that are less than perfect. My producer Eli is always concerned about trying out every possible thing. And that's the same with me and my texts.
Your father came to Germany from Pakistan in 1961, your mother in the 1970s. How has your parents' home country affected your outlook on life?
Less and less. A long time ago, I used to spend my school vacations there, sometimes even six weeks at a time. I remember those vacations, but I haven't been back there for a long time, especially because I'm so busy here. When I do travel, it's a mix of work and travel. But maybe my next logical step should be to film something over there.
In your song "Denkmäler" (Monuments) you tell your parents' story. Why is the topic so important to you that you put the track at the beginning of your new album?
At some point, I had a big mouth and wrote on Facebook that I thought that I'd just written my best song. I it was very exciting since it starts off very quietly and thoughtfully and then gets really fast - even loud and explosive. That went well with the music.
Back then, your parents were confronted with a totally different culture here in Germany. What do you know about their experiences?
I came to understand that it's quite easy to settle down here somehow, but much harder to lead a normal life like everybody else, so that the others don't immediately assume that these people are total outsiders. There's one line in my song "Denkmäler" that says, where the host only rarely sits down with the guests, and that was an important point for me.
You were born in 1979, when your parents had already been in Bavaria for a long time. Did you ever experience culture shock?
In the sense that I attended a school with only few foreign kids and lots of rich people. It was a rich area, but I wasn't that privileged. That's why I didn't invite people over because our place was crowded and there wasn't enough space. The others were more privileged than I was. And then you get into the situation where you say, ok, now I have to try to keep up with my 501 jeans or by having my own car, so I can offer the girls something when we go out. It was important not to lag behind.
What do you feel when you think of your parents' home country?
I have mixed feelings, I mean, there are reasons why they didn't stay in their own country. Here, living conditions are much better, the education system and job opportunities are better. And you have a chance to see the world - that's another important factor. What's also important to me, though, is going back to their country and seeing how people live there. When you're there for a while, you develop a whole new sense of time.
Is there something in Pakistan that you miss in Germany?
In general, the way people deal with each other, like when they have parties. The whole street is involved and invited. It's not such a closed society, like it is here. On Christmas here, for example, I always felt like I was under house arrest, because the other kids didn't invite me over.
Do you have an advantage being at home in two different worlds?
I can't really say… but yeah, I see an advantage, even if it's just superficial. When I'm on vacation or in other countries, people see me and think I'm a local. When I'm in Mexico, I'm a Mexican and people talk to me in Spanish. But I have the same experience in Sweden - there are people there who look like me. It's easier for me to get in touch with people who have different lifestyles or cultural backgrounds.
Bavaria and Pakistan - is your heart divided?
No, because in general I am not such a close-minded person. I find it difficult to deal with patriotism. It doesn't make much sense to me, though I understand that it's important to some people. But I also know that I have cultural intersections, in my case through the culture of my parents, my cousins, uncles, and so on. I experience that during meals or cultural events. My father used to be the president of a German-Pakistani organization. Many events took place there, and that's how I kept in touch with that culture.
So you always had a multi-cultural environment as a child?
No, it wasn't that I grew up totally multi-culturally. It was more like I was the only "non-German" in a wealthy area. Then I noticed, ok, I can't keep up with the others who were building vacation homes in Kitzbühl and stuff like that. For me, it was almost like "window shopping." I could look at all the things I couldn't afford. That probably affected me.
But being rich or poor doesn't really have anything to do with nationality.
But if your ancestors used to own castles, then it's a little bit easier for you than if your relatives came to Germany with a box and 250 Deutschmarks. It does make a difference.
As a young man, your father fled from Pakistan to Germany. Last year, many refugees came to Germany and Munich was one of the first points of arrival. How did you experience that situation?
I noticed that the events strongly affected people, and I did my best to calm things down, like by not expressing any extreme opinions. Instead, I preferred to talk to people in private. And I observed how people were bringing blankets and clothes to Munich's main train station. So my impressions were very positive - at least, no refugee homes have been set on fire over here.
Has there been anything about the refugee crisis that's affected you in particular?
There was that event on television, where a refugee girl was told by Chancellor Merkel that she had leave Germany, then she then broke out in tears and was consoled by Merkel. And then there were the pictures of a dead little refugee boy on a beach - he was named Aylan Kurdi.
A punchline immediately came into my head, but I didn't include it in a song, because I knew that it would be misunderstood, something like, I enjoy life like a tourist in Thailand and then I lie on the beach like Aylan Kurdi. It's hard to laugh about that one.
I'm known for lines like that - like Eminem. He says he made jokes when a plane crashes - as long as he's not in it. It's a kind of gallows humor. So that idea did cross my mind, and I wrote it down, but I didn't rap it because I told myself, no, it doesn't fit.
But what are really the right words for such tragedies? It's a difficult choice. And since political issues can heat things up so quickly, I decided to stay away from posts online and not include them in my lyrics. It's very difficult to come up with a solid viewpoint without getting all the background information first.