Find Your Passion: Q&A with Hip-Hop Journalist Sama’an Ashrawi

me n pharrell

Sama’an Ashrawi interviewed famous artists and comedians, hung out with legendary rappers, and started his own TV show—all while he was still a student at UT. Since graduating in 2011 with a degree in Radio-Television-Film, the Palestinian-American filmmaker and music journalist and has gone on to work with big names in the music industry, from Gary Clark Jr. to Hannibal Buress. He’s also freelanced for prominent music media companies like Revolt TV and Okayplayer. Raised in Cypress, Texas, and now living in Houston, Ashrawi is also regularly seen around town with rap giant Bun B.

Taking advantage of his time at UT with a can-do attitude, Ashrawi joined Texas Student TV and started Longhorn Hip Hop, a TV show centered on urban music. He spoke with the Alcalde about his path.

Alcalde: What made you want to go into music media? 

Sama’an Ashrawi: It just kind of happened by chance. I didn’t go to UT thinking, I’m going to get a camera and hang out with whoeverReally the reason I joined was because I wanted to get my degree in film, and I thought TV could be a good experience. So I went to a meeting, and one thing led to another, and I just ended up producing Longhorn Hip Hop, and naturally started reaching out to different artists. And really the reason I ended up doing what I’m doing is that the artists started feeling comfortable around me, and they just started letting me hang out. I figured, ‘Well, this seems like something I should be doing.’

I tell people this a lot, and I don’t think people get it, but I wouldn’t have this life if I didn’t go to UT. Even though I ended up in Los Angeles, everything leading up to that was because I went to UT, 100 percent. Producing Longhorn Hip-Hop is how I met everybody.

How did you get to know Bun B?

I met Bun at the album listening session for his third solo album, Trill OG, in the summer of 2010. I met Bun’s manager, and I was like, “Hey, I work for the TV station at the University of Texas, and I would love to do an interview with Bun, if there’s time.” And he was like, “Yup, soon as we finish listening to the album, I got you.” I was like, “That was way easier than I thought.”

I learned a lot from being around him. He is one of the most respected names in hip-hop, and he is so good at code-switching. I can be with him around the mayor of Houston, and he is just as comfortable being that Bun as he is going to the Third Ward and speaking to the community down there. And I learn a lot from him every time I’m with him.

How did your upbringing as a Palestinian-American influence your career choice and your approach to music?

Not to say that the Palestinian struggle is the same as other struggles within the United States, like [those of] the black community or the Mexican community, but it gave me something I could relate to. That’s really why I ended up relating more to the messages that I heard in hip-hop and the blues because they’re talking about going through the same struggles as people go through in Palestine. And I came to find out a good amount of rappers are aware of what’s going on. 

Obviously growing up in the United States I haven’t gone through anything like what the folks back home in Palestine are going through, but I hear those stories every day. And when you hear music that talks about being oppressed, and going through a struggle, people not treating you right because of where you’re from, you relate to it. So that’s how I got into the blues and hip-hop.

Are there any moments when you’ve geeked out over someone you were interviewing?

The only time I’ve really been starstruck, or at a loss for words, is when I interviewed [soul singer] Bill Withers. He hadn’t done an interview, and definitely not an on-camera interview, in like 20 years. I was like, “I’d love to, but there’s no way he would agree to it.” And sure enough, it happened.

He wouldn’t break eye-contact with me, and that’s what tripped me up. He was looking into my soul, and I didn’t know what to do, and I froze up. Truthfully, it was one of the worst interviews I’ve ever done. But I did it. 

What’s your advice for aspiring young music journalists?

I would say that taking calculated risks pays off. Maybe not every time—obviously you’re going to have to deal with rejection, but if you take a calculated risk, at the very least you’re going to learn from it, and the best case is it turns into an opportunity.

Bun B’s photographer, Kalele Thumbutu, who has a college degree, was like a big brother to me. I would drive to Corpus Christi the night before a test to cover a show. I was doing that a lot, and I had a talk with Bun’s photographer, like, “I don’t know if I should be in school more.” He said, “Well, pass your classes, obviously, but don’t let college get in the way of your education.”

Really college is about either finding your passion or following it. If there’s something you’re passionate about—and you want to do it til six in the morning—go do it. That experience is what college is about, it’s what life is about. Go do the things that you care about, and it’ll pay off for you.

Photo of Sama’an with Pharrell by Marco Torres.


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