Melissa Modeste* talks inspiration, empowerment and the future of music with Afghan-American rapper and activist Silo Mentality (aka Ahmad Mustafa Alnoor) of Oddly Enough Productions, who recently performed live at Women for Afghan Women’s 2017 Gala.
How did you get the name Silo Mentality and what does it mean?
My older sister gave me the stage name Silo Mentality. It is meant to loosely describe independent thinking or free thinking and, at that time, that reflected my beliefs in my work. I wanted to be free to mold myself before I introduced my work to the world – lyrically, musically, and personally. My idea of what Silo Mentality means differs now. I have grown as an artist. But originally, the main idea behind the name was to reflect independent, free thinking and work.
When you told your parents that you wanted to pursue a career in music what did they say to you?
Oh man, well, I started getting into music at around the age of sixteen. I was a sophomore in high school. I remember I would fantasize while listening to artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Incubus and Pearl Jam. I would fantasize about performing on stage. I guess it was originally a call for attention and I’ll admit that. I wanted to be unique. I wanted to stand out. I had this need to belong to something. It ultimately stemmed from that. I was in high school. I think every boy in high school goes through some rapper phase…
Or a rock star phase…?
Yeah, everyone tries to rap or make music at that age, which I fully respect and support. At lunch time, I remember we would bang on the lunch tables and just freestyle to each other. I was horrible. I was garbage. I mean, I was not very good, but I was very determined. Friends would joke about it.
But, when it came to my family I just kept it secret. I kept it to myself. After about two years, while on a break at work, I shared a verse with a friend and he said, “Oh my gosh, you are really good”. He brought me to a studio called Nice Studios. Later, a few tracks surfaced on my Facebook and on social media. That was how my sisters found out. Mind you, I have three older sisters and they have really shaped the person that I am. Anything that I choose to do, especially at that time in my life, went through what felt like a 10-step filtering process through my sisters. Everything was screened through them, you know. They came to me and said, “So uh, apparently, you are rapping? What is going on with that? We heard the songs!”
I remember they were reluctant about allowing me to do that, but at the same time, they couldn’t deny that the tracks were pretty good and that they really enjoyed them. Over time, more and more people started supporting me. Random people, at events, school functions, or family functions would go up to my family and would say things like, “We heard the song that your brother made or that your son made.” So, unfortunately I was not the one to break the news to my parents
It was tough at first because it was always the same thing: “What would the family say back home? What would the community say?” But, I feel that as long as my music is genuine, comes from the heart, and isn’t nonsense, money driven, or misogynistic, and as long as my music is respectful–that is what counts. I just try to keep it original, I try to put my heart in the music and I honestly try to be someone that my community can look up to and be proud of. I really want people to be proud of what I do.Over time, my family has become so supportive of my music. About a year ago, my dad was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. He is still fighting it and recently finished his last dose of chemotherapy. So, there was a time when I was thinking it is selfish of me to continue to pursue this field especially as my dad is the family breadwinner and he is sick. I remember my family, especially my sisters, being so straight up about it. One of my sisters said, “Look, we understand that you feel like that, but if you give this up we will be so disappointed in you.” That support opened my eyes. And, the support that they are giving me now—it really gives me confidence that I never had before.
Everyone tells me that your music is great, keep it up. But, it is different when that comes from your own family. Especially in a situation like we are in at the moment. So, it is nothing but love from the family!
That’s great! So, you mentioned Mos Def, Incubus, Pearl Jam…
Yes, you want to hear more?
Yes, what I really want to know is which artists would you say had a major impact on you as an artist?
Well, different artists impacted me at different times. In high school, I was trying to find a sense of identity so I listened to a lot of Muslim, hip-hop artists like Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco. A lot of my interest in hip-hop and a lot of my passion for hip-hop stem from their drive and empowerment within their communities. I looked up to that and I looked up to those artists. I am all for empowerment and for the empowerment of all minorities and of women. So, I would say that, while I was in high school, one of the artists that really drove me was Mos Def
What about now?
Now and for the past few years, without a doubt, my favorite artist that I connect with musically is Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. I love the passion that he puts into his music. He is just so real. There are days when I’ll just look at his work and it really keeps me driven. He is just an all-out creative, musical genius and I really look up to him.
What does the future of music look like to you?
Have you ever watched a music video on YouTube or a song online and then you scroll down to the comments and they are like, “Man, that was when hip-hop was great”, “Bring back the 90s” or “This was when rock was awesome.” Come on, there are great artists, today, performing and making music right now as we speak.
Music is always changing and I could be quick to say, music is in a horrible state today. But no, I think we were in a bad state, 15 or 20 years ago when the music industry held artists in a state of complete slavery and where artists had no say. Now, with the internet and music sharing sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp, there are artists like Chance the Rapper that can literally build their career as independent artists and do not rely on any label. Record labels are losing power and I think that is a beautiful thing.
I see you have done some acting in the past. Would you give a shot at acting again if you had the opportunity?
I love creative fields and I love to express myself. I have always been like that. Unfortunately, I grew up in a family where children did not get any musical training. But, six years ago, I taught myself music, and I continue to learn how to read and write music. As for film and acting, these are fields that I was so passionate about growing up, especially when you have people like Ali Baluch to look up to. That trickled down to me. I have a younger brother and my passion in music has trickled down to him. He is already singing at school talent shows and things like that. I think it has a lot to do with the people you are around and your upbringing. But, I am still very much passionate about film and acting. If I ever got the opportunity, you bet I will do whatever I need to do to express my creative urge, you know? I love it!
How did you and Jeremy Barr of Oddly Enough Productions meet?
I took an academy class in music production in high school. So, every day, they would bus me out to D.C. to learn music production. I met a lot of people there. I learned a lot about music production, music composition, and music theory. A person in this class, who had heard a lot of my music, said he wanted do my high school’s international night with me. We decided to work on a hip-hop song about my background and my upbringing. But, we needed somewhere to record. He had heard about this guy named Jeremy, who was a few years older than us. Back then, they called Jeremy “Edison’s Finest”, because of the high school he went to (Thomas Edison High School). He was a part of the marching band there—the drumline—and super musically-talented. We linked up with him and I remember him being really impressed by my lyrical ability and writing skills. He was interested in me musically and he asked me to come back. I kept coming back, again and again. Six years later we are now very close friends. It is not only about the music anymore—It has become a friendship. I really look up to Jeremy like he is a mentor and brother.
On your self-titled album released last year under Oddly Enough Productions, there is a song called ‘Odd Soldier’. How did you come up with that song? What was your inspiration?
The song comes from the conflict that comes with being an American, being a Muslim, being an Afghan, and of course having to deal with these multiple identities… It is about being a hyphenated person in this country we live in…an Afghan-American. The song is about someone who looks up to America like an older brother. It is about how one looked up to America because it stood for justice, it stood for equality, it stood for such honorable, dignified values. It fought for the most beautiful values. But, lately it has taken a turn…
Does this song stand in reference to Afghanistan as well?
Not Afghanistan alone, but more our foreign policy in general. In the past hundred years, we stood for such great values as a nation and then it kind of took a turn. We have to wonder if our intentions have become a little spoiled? Has money influenced the way we feel? Are our own brothers and sisters in arms literally dying for the right reasons? Or are we sending them to a foreign land to die for a dignified, justified reason? How can you justify death? There needs to be a really good reason for those deaths to be considered justified, because there are not many things that can justify death in my opinion. “Odd Soldier” really questions that… “You are an odd soldier and you’ve lost your face. You’ve got no face. I feel betrayed over love and grace.”
What is next for Silo Mentality and Oddly Enough Productions?
We have three or four shows coming up in North Virginia and Washington, D,C. But, what I am really excited about is that Jeremy and I are working on an EP that will be out by the end of the summer, hopefully. That is the goal now, and after that, we will be going on tour for the EP. I am super excited for that.
Follow Silo Mentality on Instagram @SiloMentality
For more information on Oddly Enough Productions visit www.oddlyenoughproductions.com
*Melissa Modeste has been the social media volunteer at Women for Afghan Women (WAW) since early 2016. She is an active member of WAW’s communications team and has become a part of the WAW family.