On the picture-perfect fall afternoon of Thursday, October 11, Karina Nistal has a busy 24 hours ahead of her. The Houston rapper and singer, Best Local Rap/Hip-Hop winner at this year's Houston Press Music Awards on the strength of 2006 LP Nistyle, and her band Rebel Crew are about to embark on a three-week Armed Forces Entertainment-sponsored tour of U.S. military installations in six countries: Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Djibouti. They depart Bush Intercontinental Airport at 10 a.m. tomorrow, and Nistal just got all the necessary passports and paperwork from the Pentagon yesterday.
"I told myself at the beginning of the year, 'I'm going on tour this year,' and even though it's not my first choice of destinations, we're still going on tour," she says over a quick bite at Midtown coffee shop Stir-It-Up. "I'm doing it for me, but not completely for me. It's bigger than me, it's bigger than the band and bigger than anything I've ever done."
Nistal, 27, has by and large completed her lengthy list of preparations. First she had to draft her five touring companions — Rebel Crew co-founder Lion 808 on keyboards and drum machines; guitarist Mark Speer; trumpeter Jon Durbin; keyboardist/vocalist Jon Cruz; and DJ Soulfree, a.k.a. Rebel Crew tour manager and Starlight Beats and Breaks (Nistal's label) owner Tanya Pelt — from the artist/musician collective's ranks and work covers like Heart's "Magic Man" (complete with "fly-girl breakdown") and Sheila E's "A Love Bizarre" into the group's Latin-laced repertoire.
There was also getting her eyes checked, training no less than three people to take over her office-manager duties at Goldman Sachs, thanking friends and colleagues for their many farewell gifts — everything from makeup to a digital camera — and familiarizing herself with the myriad military regulations Nistal and the group will be expected to follow. "It's crazy," she laughs. "I'm going to have to wear long sleeves in 100 degrees."
And, of course, she's been reassuring her loved ones that Rebel Crew's trip, which they landed after Nistal's chance encounter with some AFE representatives at the Billboard Latin Music Conference earlier this year, keeps them well removed from any potential hot zones.
"They keep saying, 'We want to see you one last time,' and I'm like, 'Okay, I'm leaving tomorrow,'" she says. "My mom has a bunch of candles around the house, praying to her saints. My sister has been calling me, frantic, every day. I'm like, 'Guys, I'm not going to war. I'm going as an entertainer. We get protection. Don't worry, we're not, like, on the field.'"
A few weeks later, Nistal has already been back for several days and still hasn't had a chance to process her experiences or relax much at all, really. "I wanted to lay low initially — I have so much to digest, I wanted to just chill, but it didn't happen," she says as she prepares to host the Friday-night hip-hop gathering Tha Scenario at GRAB downtown. "I'm feeling really inspired right now, but people keep throwing my name on flyers."
Nistal, who says she wanted to "kiss the soil" when Rebel Crew landed in the States, uses words like "impacting," "powerful," "unique" and "pride" to describe her trip. "Despite how much we criticize our country — and I don't claim to condone a lot of what goes on over there — it gave me a lot of pride," she says.
Specifically, seeing the way women are treated in Southwest Asia gave Nistal a new appreciation of the freedoms American women enjoy, and indeed sometimes abuse. "I don't have to walk 30 paces behind a man or cover up from head to toe," she says. "Those women don't even have the option to disrespect themselves. I'm frustrated for them."
However, Nistal says she noticed times may be changing, even in such hyper-traditional societies. "Muslim teenagers were fighting the fact they have to cover their head and face," she says. "They were wearing modern clothes underneath their burkas. I saw it one day when the wind blew a girl's burka up: She had on a cute top, nice belt and was carrying a handbag."
Rebel Crew's trip was eventful from the get-go. At London's Heathrow Airport, their first stop after Houston, after the band was frisked ("I got felt up"), Russian airline Aeroflot said they had too much baggage, and it was over the weight limit — they brought their own sound equipment on the tour — and hit them up for $9,000, almost draining their AFE account before they even played a show.
When they did reach Kyrgyzstan, their bags did not, and they had to wait for almost three days before they could change clothes. Nistal got an eye infection in Afghanistan after sand got in her contact lens. The band encountered further baggage trouble in Bahrain, where they learned how giving away CDs could help grease the wheels — something that also paid off on the way home, when a London ticket agent upgraded their flight to Miami to first class.
On the bases, Nistal was impressed to see how many female soldiers there were, and met sailors who loved that she sang in Spanish. She encountered a wide range of sentiment from the troops — some told her they missed Mexican food; others said Starbucks. Some just wanted to see their families again, and others told her, "I'm not going home until I kill somebody."
Though Nistal was frustrated that the phones provided to call home cut off every 15 minutes, and that sometimes it would take days before she could get online (she blogged her trip at karinanistal.wordpress.com), Rebel Crew accomplished their goal of bringing a little bit of Texas to the desert. One sergeant in Afghanistan asked Nistal to eat some Whataburger for him when she got home.
"People from Texas who found out I was from Texas would hug me for like five minutes," she laughs.
When they weren't entertaining the troops, Rebel Crew found plenty of ways to entertain each other. They shopped at UAE's Mall of Emirates, which Nistal says "blows our little Galleria out of the water." They hung out on a beach in Dubai, where the sand was "like baby powder," and went on a camel ride, where they learned flash photography will startle the desert mammals. They enjoyed Arabian coffee, went on a "desert safari" and smoked out of a hookah.
Other times, though, Nistal says the homesickness was overwhelming. "I think I felt homesick the whole time, but I dealt with it," she says. "I got a taste of what I wanted, and it kind of scared me. It really hit me when I got to our last stop in Bahrain. I just wanted to see my folks, my friends and my honey.
"It starts to consume you a little bit," she continues. "I had to tell myself that first and foremost I'm an artist, and this is what I want to be doing."