Joseph Alhallak is the 21-year-old rapper and producer making refined, self- reflective hip hop under the stage name Yusuf Yellow. Translating his personal experiences and feelings into confessional rhymes and introspective bars, Alhallak tackles themes such as toxic masculinity, negative conditioning, self-worth and self-development in his reflective music. Editor Meg Firth talks with Joseph about storytelling through hip hop, the importance of self-expression and his new project under Yusuf Yellow, The Yellow Tape.
Your name, the lyrics in ‘Sippin Tea’ and the title of the project refer a lot to the colour yellow. What significance does the colour hold for you?
Originally, I gravitated towards the colour yellow after learning that sunflowers keep turning until they find sunlight. To me, that served as a great metaphor for my life: no matter how dark things get, I’ll keep working hard and try new ways until I eventually find what I’m looking for.
“Yusuf” is an Arabic translation of my name “Joseph” that my dad would sometimes call me growing up. I used that name to represent my conscious self and “Yellow” to represent the unconscious. [Yellow also represents] the guidance I feel like I receive from a higher power. The colour holds many meanings to me; it helps me feel calm, positive and happy.
'Growth Of The Flower' is a beautiful biographical track about pressures and expectation when you were young. Growing up, did you find writing lyrics therapeutic?
The main purpose of making songs for me is to understand what my thoughts and feelings are about certain things that happen in my life. Before I was rapping, I would just write down all thoughts and feeling to try and understand them. This turned into poetry and then rap. Writing songs is always like self-therapy for me.
In terms of ‘Growth Of The Flower’, the lyrics represent some very heavy insecurities for me. I was brought up being told often that I was clumsy and forgetful with my head in the clouds. I’m sure most people didn’t mean to be hurtful, but after a while, those comments lead me to believe that I was pretty stupid and unintelligent. Now, my awareness of why I feel that way helps me ground myself and it gives me the confidence to tell them they’re wrong. The song also explains a lot of other things that I’ve experienced, such as society’s pressure to drink and do drugs, and also about my experiences in relationships. That song, in particular, has a huge amount of meaning to me.
"Writing songs is always like self-therapy for me"
Your lyric "Gone with the fairies is what they used to say to him” is something a lot of young creatives hear. What are your thoughts on the importance of self-expression and nurturing creativity?
In my opinion, a lot of people are scared of what they don’t understand or have in their own lives, so when these people see someone doing something they’re not comfortable with, they project their insecurities onto them in a range of different ways. You don’t know what people are thinking or going through, so it’s important to think about how you judge others and consider that it’s maybe more about you.
That’s why I feel promoting self-expression and nurturing creativity is important, especially in music. Your life and way of seeing the world are what sets you apart from everyone else. I think there’s nothing more beautiful, scary and inspiring than a true expression of one’s self. When you make art, you bring something into existence that has the power to change people’s lives. I think it’s important that you understand what your art is and whether you feel that it’s the right thing to release into the world.
"There’s nothing more beautiful, scary and inspiring than a true expression of one’s self. When you make art, you bring something into existence that has the power to change people’s lives"
In ‘Late Nights’, you admit “I don’t wanna write I just wanna sleep” and speak about the pressures to constantly be working. Do you struggle with burning out creatively and mentally?
The line “I don’t wanna write I just wanna sleep” was written when I was up super later one night trying to write this song. I’m not completely sure why yet, but my personality drives me to want to finish everything that I have to do straight away. I can’t sleep if I haven’t dealt with something that I can do right now, which makes that line quite ironic thinking about it now.
There has been a pressure in my life to be constantly working, but it’s internal pressure. For a while, I’ve struggled to believe any accomplishment is ever enough. I just go straight onto the next thing once I have completed something. This results in getting a lot done, but it’s not necessarily healthy because you rarely feel satisfied or happy. I see this a lot within musicians I know too.
I feel like I have now found a solution for me, which is having a variated routine that involves waking up early every day and doing all the things I need to do in smaller windows. Even if I don’t finish a song, I feel like I’ve got a lot done so it’s okay. I feel like this has helped with my mental health too because I don’t feel guilty for chilling after a day of work.
Your music is full of very important messages and social commentary. What are your early memories of hip hop and its use as a form of expression and storytelling?
I have always admired the storytelling style in hip hop, but I didn’t consciously realise that I was doing it until a little while ago. To me, [my music] is just talking about parts of my life, but to others, it is a story. Artists such as Mac Miller, Kendrick, Saba and Mike Skinner are just a few of the rappers that I notice for being great storytellers. I think the first Hip Hop album I ever heard with great storytelling was The Chronic by Dr.Dre, which I stole from my dad’s room and listened to on my cd player. I was too young to understand what the songs were about but I appreciated them none the less.
What are some ambitions you have for the future? What are you most looking forward to?
I’d love to get to a point where I’m selling out shows, doing tours, travelling the world and am able to make enough money from music to help my family and friends. However, I try not to set anything as an ultimate goal because I don’t want to set any limitations to how far I’ll go. I tend to just focus on what’s happening now because nothing is guaranteed and things can change at any second. I just focus on my short-term goals and keep working hard. I’ve got a lot of new music that I’m working on, so I’d love to get it all finished and have them ready to release over the next year. I’d love to do loads of shows and perform The Yellow Tape when I move to Leeds. I’m going to make more music videos, collaborate more and just keep learning and growing as much as I can as an artist.
The Yellow Tape is available to stream now on Spotify.
Follow Yusuf Yellow on Instagram and Soundcloud.
Interview by Meg Firth