Pop Culture

Belly’s Long Road Back

The rapper and Weeknd co-writer has a new album, See You Next Wednesday.

Belly.

Belly.Courtesy of David Black.

You know Belly’s words even if you don’t know his voice. His melodies have been stuck in your head for days even if you couldn’t pick him out of a crowd. The Palestinian-Canadian rapper, born Ahmad Balshe, is a longtime co-writer and collaborator with his fellow Canadian Abel Tesfaye—check the credits on any of The Weeknd’s smash hits (“Earned It,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” “Blinding Lights”), and you’ll find Balshe’s name is right there alongside him. But Belly isn’t just a collaborator, he’s an artist in his own right, and one who’s been around longer than you might think. Long enough to have had prolific 90s and early aughts R&B crooner Ginuwine on his debut single. Long enough to have his own mixtape with DJ Drama. In the waning days of August he released his third studio album, See You Next Wednesday — ordinarily it’d be just another natural progression in a long and solid career. But this new project is something of a light at the end of the tunnel after an extended bout with depression and darkness.

In 2019, Belly sued Coachella for assault and battery and emotional distress. The story behind the lawsuit is devastating. Before The Weeknd’s performance, Belly performed at the Gobi Tent, then went backstage to check out his labelmate’s show. He was allegedly accosted by Coachella security, who he said repeatedly choked, pushed, and kicked him; some of the melee was captured on video by a civilian. (The organizers of Coachella never issued a public statement, and the current status of the lawsuit is unclear.) Belly was a brown man at a majority-white populated event — the racial implications are hard to overlook. Belly became depressed after this event. His weight fluctuated. He took a break from music. Belly had to rebuild his life again. His new record, See You Next Wednesday, is a celebration of that journey back.

Belly is no stranger to oppression. Born in Jenin in the Palestine West Bank, his homeland has been under Israeli occupation since 1967. Israeli settlers have displaced Palestinians from their homes and forced them out with little to no resources. Belly comes from one of those families: He and his family immigrated to Ottawa, Canada by way of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Jordan in 1991. He is one of two brown Canadians in Hip-Hop (the other being the internet’s hero, Nav), and has been vocal on Palestinian issues over the years. 

Released on August 27, See You Next Wednesday is a toast to health and wealth, marked with features from Young Thug, Nas, Nav, The Weeknd, Benny the Butcher, Gunna, and Big Sean. It’s an event: having a rapper’s rapper like Belly link with a legend like Nas is one for the scrapbooks. Belly and Weeknd’s award-winning, chart-topping chemistry is in top form on, “Better Believe.’’ On the album closer ‘“Can You Feel It,’’ he talks about still feeling the weight of his past tribulations: “Every day, I see an RIP post, I think I’m startin’ to see ghosts/Swallow pride and put aside my ego, I prayed until my knees broke.’’ At the end of the song, he reveals that his best friend just got deported back to his homeland. Belly is embracing the good times though: He is engaged to be married now. When I saw him at his listening party, he looked as good and grateful as ever. GQ caught up with him to talk about his mental health journey, his new album, and what he wants people to know about Palestine.

Belly.Courtesy of David Black.

What was your thought process like on this album?

It was kind of learning how to do this the way I want to again. I had to get back to at least making the music first, before I started thinking about what I wanted my whole album to sound like. I wanted to feel that I could do a song, that I could just get in there and work. For a period of time that was becoming really hard to do: to go in there and just be authentic. What was happening to me was becoming harder and harder to deal with.

Specifically, in terms of what you were going through, do you remember what brought upon the feelings of anxiety and depression?

I think there were a lot of things — Coachella, the incident that happened there, just different things that were happening with me, personally in my family life, and it was just a lot. It was overwhelming, a lot of things were happening right in a row. At the same time, I had been working for so long that music didn’t feel like my outlet anymore. It wasn’t like I could use that to escape all this other stuff that was going on. That was the beginning of the downward spiral.

What did you do to get yourself out of that dark place?

It was just realizing that I had a long road ahead of me. And it’s a big task at hand. And if I could do one little thing every day, that was better than yesterday. I tried to put a little more structure to my life, as opposed to just floating around, not knowing what to do. I tried to be active at least one or two hours a day. Sometimes that gets out a lot of frustration. I was just trying to not be too overwhelmed by what I had to do. And I knew that I had to get back to a good place.

I think the music industry sometimes abandons artists when they’re having mental health issues. Do you think that the industry helped you enough?

Honestly, I was blessed to be with some good teams. I’m sure, in a lot of other situations, artists might have been shelved or dropped, trying to take three years off, so, you know, shout out to Roc Nation/XO for understanding and just having my back throughout the whole experience. And then I think if I didn’t see some kind of anticipation from fans that have been around since day one, from people that have always been supportive to me, I don’t think I’d have ever come back to the game.

Moving to happier topics: How did the Nas feature come about?

Nas is just one of those dope legends, man, he’s just somebody with his ear to the streets. When I finished Mumble Rap, he came to listen to it in person. And it always meant so much to me. So this time around, we had that song done, and I felt like I wanted to put somebody on it. And then his manager Anthony and Sal, my manager, just kind of made it happen. I came back in two days later and I was just going crazy. I couldn’t believe it. Not only to have him on it, I have my brother Abel on it. And then to have him kill that verse like that, and actually be saying something, you know, that the young guys can learn from on the song was really dope.

Speaking of Abel, what have you learned from him? Professionally, and personally.

I mean, personally, he hasn’t changed — at least for the worse. If he’s changed any, he’s changed for the better. It’s even hard to say that because he was a great person when I met him, and he’s still that person. The lights and the glamour and all that never, never changed him. He’s always been somebody that looks out for his guys. As an artist, I would have to write a book on how much this guy does in the studio, and I’ve been in the studio with almost everybody. The experience with him is completely different. He’s a completely hands on artist. Super talented, but also super meticulous and mathematic about it. It’s like a magical experience.

Belly.Courtesy of David Black.

It has been a few years since you’ve released something. Did that make this album more of a special event for you?

Honestly, it made it crazy. Because even at the listening party, I had butterflies on the mic. I was nervous to speak.

I liked how sincere you sounded at the listening party.

Because, like I said, it feels all new to me again. And I love that. I love the fact that it turned out the way it did, because it could have gone completely differently. I’m grateful every single day that I could share those moments and I’m back being able to do this.

What’s your relationship with the internet’s favorite musician, Nav?

Musically we all know he’s super talented, production-wise. But just as a person, same thing. He’s a really good dude, funny as hell, cool to hang around with and just got a good head on his shoulders. I love that man. That’s my little bro.

And you’re engaged now. Congratulations!

My fiance, Dina, that’s my best friend. She really changed my life in so many ways for the better. She’s always there to help me understand, health-wise, how things affect me and how they could affect my body. It’s helped me come through a lot of stuff. I quit drinking hard liquor. I used to drink a bottle of hard liquor a day. Now I may have a glass of wine with dinner. That’s about it. I quit all my hard drugs, no more pills, that’s out the window now. She showed me the reality of what I was doing to myself. And I made the choice to stop because she’s always been there to make my life better. I love her.

So you’re from Jenin, in the Palestinian West Bank. What is it that you want to tell people about Palestine, and the humanity of Palestinians?

Well, in general, Palestinians are some of the most beautiful people I know, inside and out. Resilient, hard working, smart. You know, at one point, Palestine was the most educated region in the world per capita. It’s a beautiful culture that I can’t wait for the world to find out more about, and learn more about. Once we’re able to get into a situation of at least equity and equality. I think once we get to that place, the world is going to learn about the the beauty and the resilience of the Palestinian people.

I think the tide is turning on the conflict and how people view it. More people are becoming pro-Palestine. Do you think so?

Well, if you notice, I don’t talk about the conflict anymore. I did early on when this thing started, but I refuse to speak about the conflicts anymore, I would rather highlight the great things about my people. I’d rather people understand that there’s real humans there, that you guys are putting a conflict in the context of something that doesn’t involve humanity, it’s just a chess game, to a lot of people that are looking at it. And it’s not just that there’s real humans there. They’re really, actually great people. They just want to live, they want to go to school, they want to work, they want to make something of themselves, they want to have a home that they have security living in—these are human beings, you know what I mean? And I think the media fails by not showing people that this is much more than just some conflict that we’ve been writing about for the last sixty or seventy years. These are human beings on the ground, children, women, people with dreams and aspirations, just like you and me. I think once people start to realize that, you know, the types can officially change.

What does Allah mean to you?

Yeah. When I was young, I was always taught that you can learn something from every religion, and to never use your religion or someone else’s religion to differentiate from somebody else. And I’m always like that. I’m open to learning from everybody. I still preach that to all my homies still.

DJ Drama had a kind of renaissance because of the Tyler record. You released a tape with Drama way back. What was that like? You got any Drama stories?

Yeah, I was the first person to bring Drama to Canada. I put them in one of the videos that we were shooting at that time. I might have been the first Canadian artist to have—not to sound like Soulja Boy—but I might have been one of the first Canadian artists, if not the first, to have a DJ Drama mixtape.

Do you remember what it was like when he was in Canada?

Too crazy to tell. I have to tell my grandkids one day. That’s how crazy it was.

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