A Man Named Qusai

UCF graduate turned international hip-hop star pays a visit to his alma mater before House of Blues concert.

By Sam Schiffer

I walked into the UCF Fairwinds Alumni Center Wednesday evening expecting to hear an up-and-coming rapper talk about his time at the university. I walked out knowing an artist that sought to make a difference in the world.

Unlike his legions of fans in the Middle East and globally, I knew very little about Qusai Kheder before meeting him that night. I prepped for the Q & A event by watching some of his music videos and listening to a couple of his tracks on Spotify. I like to think we live in the golden age of hip-hop (Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, Kanye West, etc.), but I have a respect for the elders (MF DOOM, A Tribe Called Quest, Eminem, etc.).

Qusai seemed a mash-up of the two: the smooth, almost spoken word verses of the old rappers, but with the complex and busy production of the new MC’s.  There is a heightened feeling of internationality on the tracks.  Qusai raps over what sounds like the din of a mechanized bazaar and backup vocals singing in distinct Arabic. Needless to say, my interest was piqued and I wanted to meet the man responsible for the music.

Despite the fact I had never seen Qusai outside of YouTube videos, he was the first person I recognized upon entering the Alumni Center. He was wearing a black t-shirt with a camouflage baseball cap that contained his long, dark dread-locks reaching all the way down to his blue jeans.  I shook his hand and introduced myself. “Pleased to meet you,” he said politely with a sincere smile.

The interview began and Qusai started with his roots in Saudi Arabia and his early love of music.

Before hosting Arabs Got Talent or MTV Arabia’s Hip HopNa, Qusai Kheder grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Yet he was introduced to American pop culture and music at a young age, and distinctly remembers listening to the Prince and Michael Jackson records his uncle gave to him.

Qusai’s musical world changed when his uncle brought him an LL Cool J record. Qusai fondly remembers hearing the rapper’s song, “Mama Said Knock You Out”, with a feigned stunned look and then a laugh. “’What is this?’” Qusai pondered. “I think I was around 11 or 12 and I thought ‘hey, this is music. They’re not singing, they’re just talking over rhythm.’”

His mother supported his early affinity for music and bought Qusai a keyboard to make his own. It was not until he heard American hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur that he was inspired enough to rap on his own. “Gangsta” rap was all the rage in the U.S. Living in Saudi Arabia, however, there were no gangsters.  Instead, Qusai rapped about his life at the time.

“I used to talk about what was going on around us.  How the boys would get together on the weekend, hit the streets, meet the girls,” he said with a bashful laugh.

By 1995, Qusai had a mixtape out in Saudi Arabia under the name Don Legend, derived, in part, from his love of The Godfather.

Along with music, education is very important to Qusai and his family. Having a father with a Ph.D. and a mother with a master’s degree, higher education was a priority for Qusai. His father sent him to the United States for higher education; he first attended the University of Vermont. Not a fan of the cold weather (understandable coming from the Saudi Arabian peninsula), he transferred to Valencia College, then to the University of Central Florida to study business.

By 2002, Qusai’s first album was out. Recorded in his bedroom in Orlando, Qusai circulated the record while visiting his family in Saudi Arabia. His music caught on. He recalls studying in Orlando while his album was blowing up in Saudi Arabia.

“Everyone in Saudi Arabia thought I was an American kid who lived in Jeddah and rapped about Jeddah,” he said. “That was the rumor while I was in Orlando trying to study for the GMAT so I could get my master’s degree.”

Understanding the logistics of being successful in music was vital to Qusai from the start. He knew that separating himself from the crowd of budding rappers in the U.S. required business acumen. Using the skills he attained from UCF, Qusai approached a club manager in downtown Orlando and convinced the owner to let him promote his music. Qusai was able to make the club his own and establish his reputation as a DJ and a rapper.

After graduating from UCF, he went on a club tour with other underground hip-hop artists. After a show in Chicago, he received a call from his mother asking him to come home to not only his family, but his culture. Initially, Qusai did not understand his mother’s request.

“Why are you doing this?” he recalled telling his mother, “I was just trying to find stability and happiness in my life. And I thought I found it here.” His mother hung up the phone. For three months, Qusai did not speak to her.  “Why did she do me like that?” he thought.

In 2005, he risked his budding career in the U.S., moving back to Saudi Arabia to be with his culture, his family and most importantly, his mother. Qusai experienced what he called “reverse culture shock”.

“I didn’t have a job, a car, and was 27 years old living at my mama’s house in my sister’s room,” Qusai said.

After a stint working for an airline and rapping on the side, Qusai was paid a visit by the president of MTV. After hearing his work, MTV knew they had something different, something original. They approached Qusai to host Hip HopNa, MTV Arabia’s flagship show. He agreed, giving MTV their most popular program in Saudi Arabia.

Upon completing his next record, Qusai received an offer from Platinum Records, owned by NBC. Given a contract to sign with the label, the company executives expected Qusai to agree on the spot.  But he remembered what he learned as a business student at UCF.

“Man, I’m an educated person,” he recalls thinking. “I’m going to take this contract and present it to my lawyer. That’s when education helps. I was not going to sign this blindly.”

After negotiating with Platinum Records, Qusai’s first single was released and blew up worldwide. A short time later, he agreed to host Arabs Got Talent, further elevating his fame. Today, he is touring in support of his BassLine EP.

Qusai Kheder describes his music as “experimental edutainment.”  He seeks to expand the minds of his listeners, both in Saudi Arabia and in the United States, by bridging the gap between the two cultures. Listening to Qusai, I heard a man who was on a mission. Not to just “make art for the sake of making art” as he put it, but to make a difference in the world.  Using love of music, he is able to prove that we are not so different after all – a comforting thought in today’s world.

Sam Schiffer is a double major in political science and journalism at UCF, and an intern with the Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Program for Strategic Research & Studies.

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