UT alumnus documents music scene as journalist and filmmaker

Elizabeth Hlavinka

When UT alumnus Sama’an Ashrawi hears hip-hop, he thinks back to the first Dr. Dre CD his cousin played him, hunched over the stereo in his room. He thinks about the samples involved, like the James Brown albums he listened to with his parents, while painting his living room. Today, he thinks of his interviews with Drake, A$AP Rocky and Flying Lotus.

As a music journalist and filmmaker, Ashrawi interviews artists and produces film projects and documentaries. One of his most recent projects, an “Ode to Hannibal Buress” was released in February to promote Buress’ new stand-up special. The film features Buress’ friends — Chris Rock, Waka Flaka and Eric André — inserting themselves into his stand-up routine. 

“When you’re put behind a project like any of those I’ve done, it means people trust you in some degree,” Ashrawi said. “People can definitely tell if you know what you’re talking about or not. I think that’s what’s always carried me.”

Ashrawi began his career before he got to UT, integrating himself into the music scene of his hometown, Houston. In 2010, Ashrawi met local rapper Bun B at an album release party and joined the Trill Gladiators, Bun B’s collective. Later, Ashrawi produced an “All-Star Tribute to UGK” documentary, detailing the rap group’s history and influence, featuring interviews with Mac Miller, Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar. 

Bun B said he was impressed by Ashrawi’s music knowledge and persistence and wanted to encourage his work from the beginning. Ashrawi surprised Bun B with the UGK documentary, showing him a comprehensive artifact of his career.

“I’m sure that Trill Gladiator jacket may get him in a door or two, but it’s his personality and intelligence that keep him in the room,” Bun B said. “It was heartwarming to see a young man dedicate so much of his life to what I’ve done.”

Ashrawi met Buress at FunFunFunFest and asked him to be a part of the UGK documentary. Along with the “Ode to Hannibal Buress” video, the two also collaborated during one of Buress’ stand-up shows, where Bun B came on stage to defend himself against one of Buress’ bits, while Ashrawi filmed from the stands. Buress said this was one of the highlights of his tour.

“Overall, [Ashrawi] is a very bright, likeable dude,” Buress said in an email. “He has a good energy and he works hard. I’m excited to see what else he does.” 

During Ashrawi’s time at UT, he joined Texas Student Television and started Longhorn Hip Hop, a segment of TSTV that profiles rappers every other week.

“It was very scrappy, but the kids that were working on it were all really passionate [and] we had fun,” Ashrawi said. “To me, that’s what really mattered. We weren’t getting paid for it — we had nothing to lose.”

UT alumna Tabitha Lipkin, who was the station manager during Ashrawi’s time at TSTV, said he brought his own ambition and hip-hop knowledge to the show, but used TSTV as the vehicle to bring his ideas to life. 

“He has pretty much rubbed two pennies together and made nickels,” Lipkin said. “He takes visions that he wants to do and makes them happen. He’s infiltrated hip-hop, essentially.”

During his last semester, Ashrawi participated in the UTLA program and worked at P Diddy’s network, Revolt TV. After a year there, Ashrawi said he wanted to work independently, and followed rapper Ana Tijoux on her tour in Chile.

“[Belle and Sebastian] have this song, ‘Get Me Away From Here I Am Dying,’” Ashrawi said. “That’s how I felt. I took the risk and left my job. It paid off.” 

Ashrawi said he learned to follow his creative passions from one of his mentors at UT, assistant professor Charles Carson, who taught Music of African-Americans. Once, when Ashrawi visited Carson’s office, he worried about his career.

“[Ashrawi] is doing what he wants to do and making his own opportunities,” Carson said. “Most of us aren’t going to walk out of college into our dream job. You have to make your dream job happen.”

Matt Sonzala, who has 25 years experience in the business, said Ashrawi’s work keeps the hip-hop scene alive. As someone who brought artists like Eminem and 50 Cent to South By Southwest, Sonzala said Ashrawi’s work is particularly important in places like Houston, where artists may not get the recognition they deserve.

“He’s a guy that really cares about the music and the culture,” Sonzala said. “He wants to make sure it’s not forgotten.”

Ashrawi said the messages associated with rap and hip-hop particularly resonates with him. Ashrawi said the resistance movements depicted in rap lyrics reflect movements within his Palestinian heritage, a culture often faced with similar oppression. 

Ashrawi’s current undertaking is a project detailing the history of blues and rock and roll. His last visit to Austin was spent interviewing Herbie Hancock and Bill Withers.

“I’m definitely not making as much money as I would be if I’d stayed at Revolt,” Ashrawi said. “But I’m young and I’m getting to do what I want to do, which is always better.”