Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 2 July 2020

'It's my first million': How UAE rapper Freek shot his hit 'Wala Kilma' music video on an abandoned plane

The video, directed by Emirati filmmaker Aiham Al Subaihi, is shot on a Soviet aircraft in Umm Al Quwain's desert

Somali rapper Freek is at the forefront of the Arabic trap music scene. Courtesy Elia Mssawir
Somali rapper Freek is at the forefront of the Arabic trap music scene. Courtesy Elia Mssawir

It may be shot on a rundown Soviet-era aircraft in the middle of the Umm Al Quwain desert, but the music video for Abu Dhabi rapper Freek's song Wala Kilma is flying high.

The video, directed by Emirati filmmaker Aiham Al Subaihi and released in March 2019, has been viewed more than one million times on YouTube, and the numbers seem to be steadily climbing.

The song, with its anthemic hook, brooding keyboard line and Freek’s adrenalin-pumping flow, has put the Somali artist, who grew up in the UAE capital, in the region's spotlight.

But Freek – born Mustafa Ismail – says both the song and the video first resonated in the UK before coming to the Middle East's attention.

“The video didn’t do so well when we first put it up,” Ismail says. “But then Link Up TV [an influential hip-hop platform in the UK] put it on their social media and people began sharing it like crazy.”

The song landed the artist his debut tour in London and Leicester in December 2019, as well as paving the way for a series of performances in the UAE, including spots at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix After-Race concert, the Cultural Foundation and Sole DXB in Dubai.

Part of the song’s appeal – beside its feverish beat and in-your-face attitude – is its hook. Freek repeats the title of the song – which translates to “not a word” – periodically throughout the four-minute track. Raising a finger to his lips, he shushes at people “who didn’t believe in what I am doing. And that includes people within and outside of the industry".

And the video seems to match the confrontational flair of the track.

AIham Al Subaihi and Mustafa Ismail on top of the abandoned plane in Umm Al Quwain. Courtesy: Aiham Al Subaihi 
AIham Al Subaihi and Mustafa Ismail on top of the abandoned plane in Umm Al Quwain. Courtesy Aiham Al Subaihi

With smoky, almost stroboscopic scenes filmed in the gutted interior of the cargo plane – as well as on top of it and by the landing gear – the aircraft has as much of a starring role in the video as the rapper.

“I was performing there as part of an event by the Sharjah Art Foundation,” Ismail says. “I knew it was the perfect location to shoot Wala Kilma’s music video. I asked the foundation if we could film there, and they said the permits were still valid for a few more days so I called [Al Subaihi] and we got on it right away.”

Emirati filmmaker Aiham Al Subaihi looking out  of the abandoned plane in Umm Al Quwain. Omar Tartoub 
Emirati filmmaker Aiham Al Subaihi looking out of the abandoned plane in Umm Al Quwain. Omar Tartoub

The abandoned plane – with its cracked windows, corroded exterior and adverts for the Palma Beach Hotel on its sides – is one of Umm Al Quwain’s most peculiar landmarks, sitting beside the Barracuda Beach Resort.

There is a good measure of mystery surrounding the origins of the aircraft, a Soviet-era Ilyushin IL-76.

“We went there one day before the shoot, and I took a look at the place, deciding on how to set up the lighting, the shots and how best to frame the video,” Al Subaihi says.

The filmmaker – who has directed a number of projects, including the 2018 short film Forthcoming, about a martial arts-fighting Bedouin couple – said there were a number of challenges that came up during the shoot, namely the lack of time they had to capture the plane scenes.

Aiham Al Subaihi's 'Forthcoming' is a short film that tells the story of a Bedouin couple who are confronted by a group of bandits. Design by Tariq Abdalla 
Aiham Al Subaihi's 'Forthcoming' is a short film that tells the story of a Bedouin couple who are confronted by a group of bandits. Design by Tariq Abdalla

“We had a skeletal filming crew of about five people, and we had only a single day to shoot there. Getting on the plane wasn’t easy, either, we had to climb in through the scaffolding. We also had to go through the cockpit and climb on the roof while being careful with all the equipment.”

Al Subaihi notes that there are usually three types of music videos. “Some are driven by stories, others put the lyrics in the forefront, and then there’s the kind that concentrates on hype. Wala Kilma was essentially a hype video. We wanted to take a number of shots in odd and eye-catching places with [Ismail] rapping towards the camera.”

Al Subaihi has worked with Ismail on four music videos. The Emirati filmmaker says he is looking forward to working with the rapper on future projects.

“We were friends before we worked on the project. Working with a friend can have many upsides. [Ismail’s] musical talent and my experience with filmmaking seems to merge really well together. He trusts my vision and visual sensibility with each project, and I appreciate that.”

As with many who work in the entertainment industry, a number of Al Subaihi’s upcoming projects have halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the filmmaker isn’t letting that impede his creative process, instead taking the time to work on scripts and concepts.

Ismail, too, has had a number of projects and performances derailed by the pandemic. The rapper was set to perform at Mother of the Nation in Abu Dhabi in March. The festival was cancelled in line with restrictions put in place to thwart the spread of Covid-19.

“That same month, I was supposed to fly out to Riyadh for a performance there. Everything was already booked, flight, hotels, all of that. I was also supposed to meet with the Saudi rapper Lil Eazy to shoot a music video for a track we did together.”

However, now Ismail is celebrating the milestone he has recently set with his YouTube video. “It’s my first million,” the rapper says, promising to keep pushing out material to ensure that the views maintain their upward trajectory.

Updated: June 25, 2020 05:23 PM

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