Mixing languages hits home for people like me

By Beverley Knight

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Fluently speaking different languages must be a joy. It’s something the English find hard to comprehend. For half Middle Eastern, half Scottish rap artist L Don, it’s natural. Travelling is in his blood. Calling international hubs home, like Dubai for fifteen years and London for seven, means he soaks up how others live. “Which country, culture and language seeps through in my music depends on where I am, physically or mentally, when writing.”

Sometimes, one place pushes through more than others, but often, it’s a blend of everything all at once. “We Lebanese are notorious for merging languages in one sentence, which I do in my music. I think the same goes for cultures, like making a Western pop culture reference at the tail-end of a lyric about Lebanon.”

It’s not a deliberate effort for L Don to switch between dialects seamlessly. Multi-lingual people don’t think twice about speaking, and even thinking, more than one language in conversation and choose whatever words describe the meaning best. “Singing in French and English is more of a natural medium of expression than something important to me. It’s a cultural thing rather than a language thing. Mixing languages might alienate some people but hits home for people like me of mixed cultures.”

Musically minded for as long as he can remember, L Don wrote his first songs at eleven and recorded three, in his words, awful tracks when he was thirteen years old. “J. Cole’s Lost Ones, a two-sided story about abortion, inspired me to write.” Rapping started as more of an imitation exercise. “I also had this gift of memorising songs after just one or two listens max and delivering them with the same intonation as the original.”

When he was seventeen, his younger sister called him outside to perform Lost Ones for her friends. Keen to impress, he did it word for word with a passion that matched the author’s delivery. “It captivated everyone; they were in awe. That feeling – it isn’t a feeling I chase. But it comes back every so often, usually after a performance. What a high.” He loves making music for many reasons, but this reminds him of why he started.

When music’s path sprawled in front of L Don, challenges didn’t appear. He felt blessed that everything came so naturally. Difficulties came later when it was time to grow up and get a real job. “That voice is especially hard to silence when you’re actually quite good at other things. But, to be honest, there’s only ever one answer to whether I should keep going.”

There are a few musical memories that L Don holds dear. “The one that comes to mind is the Palestine Tribute Fundraiser, where I performed as the opening artist for El Far3i.” It’s relevant more than never to unite as a community – it happened beautifully at that gig.

It matters to L Don to be distinctive. “Everybody and their brother is a rapper nowadays.” Some distinction lies in the realm of mixed language and mixed culture. “It’s a much less saturated area of the game, yet a fast-growing one. That’s the sort of template that makes me stand out from the rest.” He looks at it like painting: The mixed cultures are his colours. The paintbrush is his life experiences and eyes that see the world.

“Haters hate, lovers love. People often hate out of fear.” L Don believes you can view other artists as competition or collaboration. “In the past, I’ve been guilty of viewing my peers as competition, which I think a lot of artists do. I realised that mentality comes from fear. There’s infinitely more power in collaboration.”

L Don feels ill-placed to advise anyone who wants to rap as he’s still figuring it out himself. “I guess I would just say have fun with it and don’t confine yourself to a genre. You’re inherently limiting your capacity to create if you’re creating in the confines of a genre.” Free yourself from walls. “Express whatever comes to mind in whatever shape it wants to manifest itself in.”

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