Full name: Stuart Benyamin Benyamin
Hometown: Chicago, Ill., USA
Occupation: Assyrian American recording artist, PR and host for Shamiram Media and iRadios.ca
You’ve been singing for many years. Where did your love for singing come from? My love for music comes from home. I was born into a musical family, where band rehearsals were blasting from the basement of our building, all the way up to the second floor and out the windows. My late uncle was Albert Rouel Tamras and my father is Benyamin Benyamin, who is also a singer-songwriter. My father composed many Assyrian hit songs in the 70s and 80s, not just for himself, but also for other singers ranging from Sargon Gabriel’s “Oymo Zarde” to Marlin Khoshaba, who’s known for her “Khome Khome” song. And believe it or not, in the 80s we had Assyrian Broadway shows in Chicago. He put many of the melodies together for those shows. Also, my cousins Yousip and Ashur Tamras are both successful artists in their own right. So there you have it. How could I not have a love for singing? I’m just waiting for my sister Mariam Stacy Benyamin to join the family business.
How do you explain who the Assyrians are to someone who may not be familiar?
People often confuse “Assyrian” with “Syrian.” They may not be familiar with the history of the Assyrian people. It is fairly simple to explain. They were the rulers of the Middle East thousands of years ago. They come from the area that was commonly known as Babylon. While this is “accurate,” it is not the whole story. They lived in the Nineveh Plains in what is now part of Iraq. This is often referred to as the “Fertile Crescent.” While many Assyrians live in Syria, most Syrians are Arabs and speak Arabic. Our language is based on ancient Aramaic, which is the language Christ spoke.
What historical Assyrian figure is your favorite?
My favorite historical Assyrian figure is the Lamassu, which means “protective spirit.” The Lamassu sums up everything that the Assyrian Empire was in the 8th century B.C. The crown on the top the head has two horns, which is a sign of divinity. The beard has an intricate pattern which represents the image of the king. So, one could say the Lamassu is both royal and divine. The body represents strength. The wings represent speed and the human head represents wisdom. The Lamassu guarded the palaces of the Assyrian kings. It was a strong message to anyone who would threaten the king.
You’re going to have a new travel show soon. Can you share any details?
The travel show will be through Shamiram Media and it’s called #saparchi, which means “world traveler” in Assyrian. I will show the world from my perspective, showing my favorite cities, restaurants and attractions. I will also try to demonstrate how to experience it from a local’s point of view along with that of a tourist. Travel snobs often will say, “Oh that’s a tourist trap.” And while I understand this, it is also true that if you have never seen the Eiffel Tower or Vatican, they are not just tourist traps, they are important places in the world. Put that together with a tip on a great out-of-the-way restaurant and you can really experience something. I have learned how difficult it is to put a project like this together. In fact, I have been working on it for a couple of years. I underestimated what it would take to put together a quality project. My vision is to have something that is not overproduced but still quality. I want it to be real and genuine. Thanks to Mariam Shamalta and others who have supported me. I think it may now actually become a reality. It will be on YouTube and Facebook on Shamiram Media. So when it comes out make sure you like, share and subscribe, please.
You live in Paris. How was that move from the U.S.?
Actually, I moved back to Chicago a couple months back. I commuted back and forth for a while, but now I am happy to once again call the USA home. I loved living in France. It was a great experience. In fact, living in France was my second time living outside of the U.S. I also lived in Canada for about five years. I have learned that most people, no matter the place, are good, kind people. While it is initially difficult to understand local culture, especially when you are not fluent in the language, the kindness of others makes it easier and fun.
How did you adjust to living there?
Initially it was a little difficult. In fact, in a small way it helped me understand how our refugee brothers and sisters feel when they come here. The first six months I felt like a refugee in France because all I knew was “bonjour” and I didn’t even pronounce it right. I dressed, walked and talked like an American … because I am an American. Europe is a little different. People travel between the countries because they are so close together, and they gain exposure to other cultures and many people speak multiple languages.
In America we are kind of in our own little bubble. The size and diversity of the country means you can see and do many things without ever leaving the country. We have beaches in Florida, mountains in Colorado, the desert in Arizona and big cities like New York. You never really have to leave the country to experience new things. This is part of what is great about America, but it does limit our exposure to other ways of life. We only know the American way of things.
I loved the experience and learned to appreciate the differences. People often ask me which is better. My answer is that neither is better, they are different. All of the places I have lived offered something unique. I do consider myself to be very blessed, for having had the opportunity to live in France, but mostly for having the opportunity to make so many new friends in the Assyrian community in France and the rest of Europe.
What is the Assyrian community like in France?
The Assyrians in France are in some ways more integrated than [Assyrians] in the USA. They speak more French than Assyrian with each other. Kids, adults, everyone there speaks more French. Here, I would be embarrassed to speak English with an older Assyrian, but in Paris they approach you in French. The French Assyrian community is a little different to the Assyrian community in the USA. They have adopted many of the customs in France. A small example is that French meals are served in multiple courses. Dessert is normally served before tea or coffee. So you won’t normally get your chai and cake at the same time. Many of my friends from America would say, “I want my chai and cake together,” and I would laugh and say that’s not how it is. They also tend to have events that are more lectures and information sharing sessions. Not like our parties where we usually sing and dance khigga. I think they only have one party per year and it’s Kha B’Nissan [Assyrian New Year]. They seem to be more politically active. They are more involved in the French government. I think there are two or three Assyrians who are members of their parliament. Once I was invited to an event with AACF [Association Assyrian Chaldean of France] and a member asked, “Do you have connections with Monsieur Obama?” I had to laugh. In France it is more customary for their politicians to be more accessible to normal people and groups like the local Assyrians. President Hollande even invited members of the Assyrian community to Élysée Palace, equivalent to the White House, for a meet-and-greet and dinner on the 100 year anniversary of the 1915 Assyrian, Armenian and Greek Genocide.
Who are some of your favorite Assyrian musicians/singers?
I am a big fan of original artists that work hard and create and sing their own songs. My favorite Assyrian singers are my late uncle Albert Rouel Tamras and my Assyrian idol Ashur Bet Sargis. But, I also love the music of Ogin Bet Shmuel, Janan Sawa, David Simon, Walter Aziz, Evin Agassi, Zander David, Juliana Jendo, Fatin Shabo, Jermain Tamras, Linda George, Sargon Youkhana, Johnnie Youkhana (aka Johnnie Jigs) and the late Biba and Shamiram.
I have been blessed to have worked with many talented Assyrian musicians like Joe Ivanoff, Gibby Khamo, Steve B, Ninef Arsanos, Johnnie Jigs, Tony Atou, Sam Madoo and Ashur Badeleros. One of the nice things about being part of the Assyrian community is that many of the people we work with become like family. Individually they each bring their own uniqueness, collectively they all actually help each other.
What is your favorite church hymn to sing?
This is a tough question. I’ve been blessed to sing many hymns at churches in Assyrian and in English. In addition to singing at the Assyrian Church of the East, I used to sing gospel at Baptist churches on the south side of Chicago. At first it was a little intimidating because I was so accustomed to singing in a more formal and traditional church setting. The formality provided structure and predictability. People know when to stand, when to sing, etc. In Baptist churches it is more spontaneous, less ceremony. I really enjoy both. But I would have to say my favorite to sing is the Aramaic hymn, “Haw D’Nuraneh.” If ones pays attention to the lyrics, they realize the magnitude of this hymn and they realize the greatness of God. It’s about the body and blood of God and how we, the descendants of Adam and Eve, are saved through this holy sacrifice. I always warm up my vocal chords with this hymn before I record in the recording studio or perform at concerts.
As someone who was born in the diaspora, describe your first-time visiting Iraq/Assyria. What did it feel like?
My first trip to Iraq was very overwhelming and a very emotional experience. Even though I’m a proud Assyrian American, to go to the land where so much of our history occurred brought me a feeling of belonging. I lived most of my life in the USA and I am grateful for the life I have here. But, it was a sense that this is the ground where your ancestors lived for centuries and at one point ruled the world – this is the Nineveh Plains. And where sadly, many died. It is such a beautiful place. It is a shame that due to conflict and war many had to leave and many will never see it. This place is special, and I am honored to be the first American born artist to shoot a music video in the land between two rivers. “Warda D’atri,” a song I did with Iraqi rapper Zigzag, was the first duet of its kind. It built a bridge between two Assyrian artists born on opposite sides of the world that collaborated on a song. Something not traditional – a mix of East and West. Hopefully, people on both sides will enjoy it and make it a hit.
What does music mean to you?
Music conquers barriers. It’s my passion. I feel like it’s what God put me on this earth to do – to make music for the next generation of Assyrians. Someone for the next generation to look to so that they don’t forget who we are, where we came from and our ancient Assyrian language that has survived over 6769 years.
Most of us are familiar with your American Idol audition clip, where you wore traditional Assyrian clothes. Can you tell us about that experience?
I think the way they set up the clip was perfect. I was satisfied with it. I was a little afraid because Paula Abdul and I had a small confrontation regarding my identity. Everyone thought I was a Syrian from Syria, an Arab, rather than Assyrian. When I walked in Simon asked about my outfit and I explained who the Assyrians are, then Randy replied, you’re just like Paula. And I said “no I’m Assyrian, not Arab/Syrian” and off screen this offended her. Once this happened I knew I wasn’t going to Hollywood. It was actually my idea to wear the Assyrian traditional clothes. I figured why not be proud of my Assyrian heritage and show the world that Assyrians still exist? With over 35 million viewers just in the USA alone, I was able in a small way to educate. Originally I sang in English but Simon asked for something that matched with the outfit I was wearing, so I decided to sing Ashur Bet Sargis’ song, “Dakhy Qam Shoqhatly.” He had given me the clearance to record and recreate the song for my first album, ”a2ria.”
What is something you haven’t done yet that you wish to accomplish?
Win a Grammy Award for World Music.
You have a big following on Instagram What’s your advice for someone who wants to be more influential?
Being the first Assyrian on a reality TV show, I was totally against the social media hype for a while. My management at the time said I had to get into it and self-promote my projects. As I was part of the opening act for Ashur Bet Sargis’ “From A Distant World” concert in Los Angeles, Calif. and also because everything nowadays is on social media. But having a big following is like a double-edged sword. The good part about it is you’re able to connect with your followers that support you wholeheartedly. They encourage you, they show you love, they send you videos of their children jamming and singing to your songs. I also believe because of my social media it has allowed people in the Middle East to know who I am as an artist. So, you must be real, true, genuine and honest with what you’re posting, to be a good role model. I have everyone from children, to Assyrian organizations, to politicians, churches and bishops following me, so I have to be conscious with my content to cater to all generations.
The downside of social media is that you are subject to criticism and you’re susceptible to being hacked and having people make fake accounts with your name and photos. Linda George used to tell me stories about people hacking into her social media accounts and making fake accounts with her name and using her photos all the time. I never thought that I would ever experience this kind of attack, but sadly I did several times. You also have people that contact you and give you stories about their lives and make you feel guilty saying, “I don’t have one lira in my pocket,” and as an Assyrian American you want to help. Several other Assyrian public figures that I know of have also experienced this, and have also helped Middle Easterners, but these people have turned out to be con-artists. They’ll call you “lbi, kheyee, habibi” and you’ll guide them to the right organizations, but they’ll knock down these organizations, such as ACERO, which has helped hundreds of thousands of Assyrians in the Middle East, and say that they don’t provide assistance. They will target people with a large following and try to get them to help. However, not everyone is like this, but the small population of them makes it necessary to discuss the issue. As an Assyrian American, it is enjoyable and a blessing to showcase the things that I do that some may dream of someday doing as well, and be an inspiration to them.
What’s something we as Assyrians need to work on within our community?
We have to work on being kind to one another. Encourage each other, and not take advantage of one another. For example, many Assyrians ask me to share their music or businesses on my social media. I have no problem sharing their content on my Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat, but it makes me sad when only a few people follow these up-and-coming Assyrian artists or Assyrian businesses. However, we will post and share Turkish and Kurdish music and soap-operas. We Assyrians need to understand that these artists have millions upon millions of fans following them. We need to learn to support each other before anyone else, as we Assyrians only have each other.
Switching gears now. Favorite Assyrian food?
It’s very hard for me to choose just one, so I’ll give my favorite dishes, kubba hamot (cracked wheat with meat stew), dolma et range (colorful dolma), reza and masha (rice and white beans) and reza smooqa with besra (red rice with beef) koubideh with baghali polo (beef kabob with dill and lava bean rice) and the more spicy the food is, the better!
Favorite Assyrian word?
“Bina?” (Excuse me my breath.)
I have a funny story to tell you about my favorite Assyrian word. I was about 6 years old and my grandfather called my name and I replied with, “moodi Babi,” and he slapped the heck out of me. I still remember falling into the kitchen right in front of the refrigerator. He yelled, “Don’t you ever answer anyone with, ‘moodi!?’ You must always answer with, ‘bina!?’ That is the proper and well-mannered way to answer anyone that calls for you.” And that was the last time I have ever replied with, “modi?”
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for this opportunity. I am so proud to have an Assyrian American journalist working for POLITICO and interviewing me. God bless you and thank you for supporting Assyrian art.
Portions of this interview have been edited.