Decades ago, Mahmoud Shehade sold three of his olive trees — which hold great value to Palestinians — to his neighbor. He wanted to send his son, Yusef, by boat, on a three-month journey from Palestine to Lima, Peru in search of a more prosperous life.
Despite Yusef’s challenges, he was able to support a family of his own and eventually immigrate in the early ‘70s to the U.S., where he lived until he passed away from cancer in 2010. The sacrifices made by Na’el Shehade’s father, Yusef, and grandfather, Mahmoud, fueled his dream of working in the music industry, a dream that has swelled into a successful career.
Shehade — a self-described serial entrepreneur and record producer — inherited his work ethic from his father. According to Shehade, that drive is what led him to collaborate with artists such as Chance the Rapper and Kanye West.
“I have to be the best,” Shehade told Palestine in America. “[My dad left Palestine] with nothing. [He] made money, made a business, made life, had some kids. This is the least I can do.”
The “least” he can do turns out to be quite a lot.
Shehade is the youngest of five children. He owns three restaurants — Rio’s Fine South American Cuisine and Middleterranean, both in Addison, Illinois, and Chisme Cantina in San Francisco. He also operates a digital marketing agency, called KAKE. On top of that, there’s DRAMA Music, a record label he owns with Lluvia Rosa Vela (Via Rosa), his partner in business and art; together they make DRAMA, a musical duo that fuses dance, rhythm and blues, and pop. According to Shehade, they’re courting “several” offers from major record labels but haven’t received an offer “worth giving everything up for.” In the meantime, DRAMA recently completed its 2019 North American tour and wants to release a new album soon. The collaboration has led to millions of streams on platforms like Apple Music and Spotify and a budding friendship.
As DRAMA closed its 2018 North American tour in Chicago last December, Rosa described meeting Shehade in 2013 when he was working with Chicago artist Jean Deaux on her project “Soular System.” Deaux, a friend of Rosa, suggested that Shehade and her work together, but it took nearly a year for the them to find the time. When Shehade finally sent Rosa an email to meet up and work, Rosa quickly and nervously made her way to Shehade’s studio.
“We made four songs in one night. It was pretty magical,” Rosa told the crowd at Lincoln Hall, a northside venue located at 2424 N. Lincoln Ave. “So, less than a month later, he was like, ‘Yo, I’m going to start a band; do you want to be in my band?’”
But when Rosa showed up for the first day of rehearsal, she was surprised to learn that she and Shehade were the only band members.
“I really love telling that story because it reminds me nothing great happens overnight,” Rosa told the audience. “Nothing happens if you’re afraid to try something new.”
The risk they took was spontaneous but has led to two albums — “Gallows” and “Gallows (Remixes).” In 2018, the duo released an EP called “Lies After Love.” And the group is off to a fast start this year with its single “Dead and Gone.” In between recording sessions, DRAMA has also completed a few tours. As if their musical synergy doesn’t validate their decision to meet, Rosa and Shehade have forged a creative partnership that goes beyond it.
Rosa, who is also a vegan chef, helped develop half the menu at Chisme Cantina.
“When I’m not thinking of music, I’m thinking of what I can put zatar (thyme) on,” Rosa told PiA.
Born in Austin, Texas, Rosa was raised by a family of African Cherokees. Music was instilled in her at a young age. Her parents were reggae artists whose home was usually filled with artists rehearsing before concerts. Rosa’s family eventually moved to an Indian reservation a few hours away from San Francisco. There, she went to culinary school and catered for artists before moving to Chicago in 2010 to further her music career.
Prior to meeting Rosa, Shehade already owned Middleterranean and Rio’s. According to Shehade, he started investing in different ventures to diversify the money he was bringing in. KAKE, his digital marketing agency, has collaborations with Timberland, Groupon, Coca-Cola, and more.
“I wanted money to come from different directions because I didn’t know where I was going in music,” he said.
Balancing the businesses was a humbling experience, according to Shehade. He understood the odds of success in the multiple ventures was statistically unrealistic, so he did whatever it took to make things work. He waited tables, mopped floors and cleaned bathrooms for the first time in his life.
“I slept at the restaurant so many times because I have to make this happen,” Shehade said. “I think when you put your heart in it and [have good intentions], it’s going to happen for you. You just have to really want it.”
Shehade was not always as confident in the direction he was headed, which is why he opened up his businesses. But he couldn’t stay away from music, despite his strongest efforts.
“Music is like a cancer; it never leaves you,” he said. “It’s literally in your body. So as much as I tried to leave it, something brought me back.”
Shehade has worked toward his dream since he was 11 years old. He earned his first DJing gig in Chicago and still remembers the man who gave him his first opportunity — Eric Williams from The Silver Room, an eclectic store located at 1302 N. Milwaukee Ave. He let Shehade spin records a couple hours a week.
A few years later, inspired by Kanye West, Shehade decided he needed to become familiar with every aspect of music production.
“[West’s] sped-up samples is what kind of drew me in. Because [his production] is amazing,” Shehade said. “So I had some money saved up and I went and bought a MPC, an AKAI MPC 2000XL. It is a drum machine, it’s a sampler. I just started teaching myself how to produce, how to make music.”
While a student at Niles West High School, Shehade made a five-song EP with young rappers he met on the internet and at school. He released the tape under his company Force One Seven, partly named after Yasser Arafat’s presidential guard (Arafat is the onetime chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as well as the onetime president of the Palestinian Authority).
Early on, Shehade created beats in his parents’ basement. By the time he was 17, a song he produced, “Sweet Allure,” was licensed by Bravo for a TV show, “Forty Deuce,” which paid him $1,000. The money was exciting, but Shehade couldn’t believe a song he produced in his parents basement was being used on a TV show.
“I was already making money producing records for kids at school,” Shehade told PiA. “Someone gave me a bounced check at 16 years old.”
From time to time, his enthusiasm was squashed by his father’s practicality. At a pivotal point in Shehade’s life, his father made him choose between living with his parents or pursuing music.
“He was proud of me, but he was nervous,” Shehade said about his late father. “He didn’t want anything to happen; he didn’t want me to lose my way.”
Around the time Yusef fell ill, Shehade’s career was on the rise. He was working in Miami with high-profile artists such as Machine Gun Kelly, who had just signed to Sean “Diddy” Combs’ label.
According to Shehade, his life was truly altered when Kanye West’s manager Don C called him while he was pumping gas. West wanted Shehade to work on the recording and the arrangement of “Don’t Like.1” — the remix of Chief Keef’s hit “I Don’t Like” — for G.O.O.D Music’s 2012 album, “Cruel Summer.” Shehade was so “mind blown” by the news, he drove off with the gas pump still lodged in his car.
The day he went to meet Chief Keef at his grandmother’s house in Chicago, Shehade had a feeling he was about to be a part of an “epic” moment; according to a report by DNAinfo.com Chicago, Chief Keef was on house arrest after being charged with four firearm-related felonies. So, Shehade recorded the session with the rapper and uploaded the video to YouTube. The video, which has received more than 200,000 views on YouTube, upset West because, as Shehade said, “He doesn’t like people to know his recording process.” Shehade did not care. It was his time to shine.
Shehade’s resume has opened up plenty of doors for him, but now he says he’s in a position to help others.
The music scene in the U.S. isn’t flooded with Palestinians, and Shehade is well aware of the lack of representation. He places most of the blame on past generations that made it taboo to choose art as a career path. Shehade wants to remove the stigma surrounding the music industry in the Arab and Muslim communities, respectively.
Shehade is also well aware of the difficulties of maneuvering in any industry as a Palestinian. According to him, Palestinians would be more successful if those who achieve success pay it forward.
“It’s hard because … if you mention you’re Palestinian, it could really ruin your career,” he said. “[I] won’t say end it; I would say it can affect it. Like someone like DJ Khaled — he’s great. He has done very well for himself, but you can tell he’s not 100 percent like, ‘I’m Palestinian!’”
That is why Shehade’s making it a priority to visit Palestine as often as possible and do as much good as he can while he’s there.
“The goal is to go back [to Palestine] and to build on what others have built and include other artists and other Palestinian artists,” Shehade explained.
Shehade went back to do just that in 2017.
When he arrived at the Alrowwad Cultural and Arts Society in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, he was engulfed by children’s happiness. Despite barely having any equipment — a boombox was the only piece of musical equipment the school owned — the children were enthusiastic about music. Luckily, Shehade brought a bunch of his own equipment with him so he was able to create a makeshift studio.
“When I walked in [the school], the energy, the attitude that [I] saw on these kids — they’re rapping, playing the guitar — I mean, it was something I didn’t expect at all,” Shehade said. “I don’t know if you’ve been to a refugee camp before; it [can be] very depressing. [It was] very surprising that [we] did not sense that sadness. Everyone was happy, happier than people here in the [U.S.], in my opinion.”
Hamzeh, a student in the camp, impressed Shehade with his “Twista” style of rapping, so the two recorded a verse over a Desiigner track and shot a video for it.
“[He was] rapping fast in [Arabic]. It is really nice to see, like not only that he is young and a Palestinian, but he is so interested in art and music, and there’s a center [in Palestine that] focuses on that, giving these kids opportunity,” Shehade said.
Shehade had been back to his father’s ancestral land before, but his experience in the refugee camp was different. He wasn’t just visiting family and friends. This time he was giving back to the land that financed his dad’s escape from Israel’s terror and occupation.
Shehade returned to Palestine in 2018 with Rosa when DRAMA took its tour overseas. They performed in Ramallah and Haifa — which is in present day Israel.
The duo was invited to play in Ramallah by A.M. Qattan Foundation, an independent developmental organization working in the fields of culture and education.The show in Haifa was hosted by Palestinians and held at Kabareet. The bar is described by the New York Times as a “comfortable place for liberal Palestinians who want not only to escape the constraints of conservative Arab communities but also to be among their own people.”
Playing shows in his father’s home country “was mind blowing,” Shehade said, but he wouldn’t have performed in Haifa if Israel sponsored the show. That would mean crossing the picket line drawn by the Palestinian Civil Society and undermining the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Announced in 2005, BDS works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.
“I don’t give a f— for how much money it is,” Shehade said. “And [Rosa] wouldn’t either.”
When Shehade visited Palestine in 2018, he was reminded of the occupation and its barriers. He was questioned by Israel at the border for approximately seven hours. However, he and Rosa were able to enjoy their time thanks to the extreme hospitality they received from Palestinians. The members of DRAMA quickly made new friends. One in particular was excited to be their voluntary guide.
“All these people gathered around [us]. Next thing we know, we got free food,” Rosa said. “[Our new friend] is showing us around town and got us falafel and took us to get hookah. We didn’t know this guy; he was just excited [that him and Shehade] were from the same community. There wasn’t a point where I didn’t feel love or just safeness.”
“It was a experience I will never forget,” Shehade said. “And it’s something I’m going to continue to go back and do.”