Arab Hip Hop – from Local Inspiration to Global Revolution

Hip hop ain’t dead, it never died, it just moved to the Middle East, where the struggle’s still alive.

(Arabian Knightz – Uknighted State of Arabia)

Arabian-Knightz-in-the-Arab-hip-hop-festival-in-QatarThe message from the song “Uknighted State of Arabia” by Egyptian rap crew Arabian Knightz, featuring 29 musicians from all over the Arab world is clear: hip hop artists from the Middle East and all over the world need to unite to bring back the spirit of hip hop music and talk about the different struggles against totalitarianism, occupation, poverty and oppression. Arab hip hop can be a great inspiration to the global movement, considering its important role in voicing the different revolutions that took place across the Middle East in recent years. As rapper Karim from Arabian Knightz—known by his stage name Rush—explains:

Guess what, they’re all pointing at us right now. They’re like, ‘Listen, when they had a revolution, these guys were talking about it, and when we have riots you guys are talking about ass and tits? Where is us, where is our problems?’ Hip hop is about the struggle, so we’re actually putting a bunch of them on blast without even doing it purposefully.

But how does hip hop fit into Arab culture? Is it an American invention or something authentically Arab? Does hip hop have the potential to unite different struggles in different national and social contexts? And is that aforementioned struggle a crucial part of hip hop culture or just one of many possible approaches? These are some of the topics that I talked about with Karim. Arabian Knightz is an Egyptian rap trio – composed of artists Rush, Sphinx, and E-Money – that formed in 2005 and employs a mixture of English, Egyptian Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic in their songs. All following quotes are by Karim, unless labeled otherwise.

Hip hop is an art form that originated in the Bronx in the 1970s and has from the very beginning been the voice of “the unheard, marginalized and the ones suffering from poor social conditions.”[1] American hip hop developed within the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and even songs that did not address that struggle can be seen as a form of empowerment for the Afro-Diasporic community at the time. That original, subversive character of hip hop remained part of the genre as it spread and developed in various shapes and styles around the globe. Many of the most famous hip hop artists in Germany are of Turkish origin, descendants of the 1960’s Turkish labor immigrants, who until today have not been fully integrated into what is considered German culture. France’s hip-hop scene is strongly influenced and shaped by the country’s equally marginalized Arab community. But the genre is not just about nationality. What used to be the voice of revolt against white supremacy has now become an instrument of protest against any and all oppressive systems; it has expanded from racism to social injustice, arbitrary political rule, and economic exploitation.

Thus, it is not surprising that hip hop was one of the most important music styles during the uprisings in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and other Arab countries, especially in response to the predominant pop music scene, which hardly addressed political issues.

It was very important for me to start hip hop in Egypt, because I think Egypt was in need for music or a genre or an art form that expresses people’s struggle and their problems, and music in Egypt was not doing that, it was doing ‘habībī’ music. People were starving and eating out of the trash and the music was talking about ‘she left me’ and ‘she dumped me’ and ‘I want her back.’ Okay, why don’t you talk about what the youth and our generation is facing? Who’s gonna talk about that?

arabicgraffitti-nativezentwo-01_webWhen young people realized that music could talk about something other than love and hate, that they could use it to express their problems and fears, aspirations and criticisms, the hip hop audience in the Middle East grew and people from all around the world showed solidarity with the movement. On his blog Sean O’Keefe remarks that even though the youth-driven nature of the recent uprisings has made Arab rappers—especially those in the diaspora—a go-to source of insight, it can be problematic if Western observers focus too much on “Western cultural forms” being used in a Middle Eastern context, thereby overestimating the role of hip hop and ignoring other forms of expression. However, I would argue that this does not necessarily result in contempt towards unfamiliar cultural practices. On the contrary, one of the greatest achievements of art is that it serves as a gateway for different societies to relate to each other’s struggles.

And maybe hip hop is not that new to Arab culture in the first place.

“We were hip hop before we labeled it hip hop,” claims Lebanese rapper Malikah. Indeed, many rappers agree that hip hop as we know it, though originating from the US, is in fact deeply rooted in Egyptian and Arab tradition. “[T]here were people in Saudi Arabia 1400 years ago beating on drums and battling each other with poetry even before Islam,” Sphinx of Arabian Knightz argues in response to accusations of becoming “too Westernized.”[2]

It is true that the poet in Arab tradition has always had a very prominent position. He was almost considered a prophet, the word shāʿir meaning “someone who knows,” who follows divine intuition and sees things that are hidden from ordinary people. Poets would participate in battles by bashing the enemy and supporting their own tribesmen through elaborate lyrics. Their role was downgraded with the rise of Islam in order to highlight the Prophet Muhammad’s prominence, emphasizing that the Quran was not just some skillful prose that any talented poet could create. However, poetry has remained a powerful medium in the Arab tradition and has been almost entirely politicized, especially since the 1950s when Taha Hussayn translated Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of literature engagée into the Arabic iltizām (commitment), claiming that it was the writer’s duty to be the mouthpiece of his society.[3] And what else is hip hop if not rhyming poetry to a beat?

Rap is rhythm and poetry. Poetry is a hundred percent Arabic invention. Nobody did poetry before Arabs, even before Islam. So if rap is rhythm and poetry, then rap borrowed from us. Graffiti is borrowed from Egypt. Nobody drew on walls before us. They did, Stone Age, but that culture is old, is borrowed. Break-dancing is dancing. Dancing is an ancient form. Nothing in hip hop is new.

However, Karim agrees that the message of hip hop is not only limited to nationality or religion. Regardless of where hip hop was born or where its roots lie, it is now blurring the perceived binaries between East and West. It combines creative works of international artists from past and present and pieces them together to form a strong voice of solidarity against such constructed separations. “One thing I know is that all the separations are government made,” says Karim, “No separation is human made. The governments want people divided.” Sphinx agrees that “we should be using culture to learn from each other.”[4]

COVER-FINAL“Unknighted State of Arabia”, which was quoted above, not only features artists from all over the Arab world, but also includes those who were born in France, raised in Canada, or have an Armenian background. The diasporic connections of these artists extend the Arab collaboration to an international movement that spreads the message of a local revolt while relating and uniting with the struggle against—for example—police brutality.

What happened to Trayvon is the same thing as they did to Khālid Saʿīd. And their media is covering up the same way our media covered up, ‘They are terrorists, they are a bunch of gangs…’ Oh my God, it’s like they spit in each other’s mouths. So the struggle is global and the solidarity is there.

Whether it is the occupation of Palestine, the Egyptian uprising, discrimination of minorities or similar socioeconomic grievances, Arab hip hop artists not only find inspiration in local communities, but also give something back by raising global awareness and educating people about the cause.

Karim emphasizes the role of rap music in not just expressing people’s thoughts and concerns, but also building on those experiences by telling stories they did not know about before.

You have to add to people’s information. You’re not gonna go there and be like, ‘Police is bad.’ Everybody knows the police is bad. You can’t be telling me that in a song. Give me something new. Everybody knows fuck the police. Yeah, I’m just saying, add to what you know. Add to what the people know. Cause we’re teaching the people much more faster than the media is teaching people.

For better or worse, the flow of material for hip hop lyrics will not stop anytime soon—not when journalism has become a crime in Egypt, refugees are being violated across Europe, and Black Americans are being arbitrarily shot by police officers.

Hip hop is bigger where there’s a struggle. (…) I think hip hop is bigger where it makes more of a street difference. And it makes more of a street movement and difference in places where it’s most needed, which is places of struggle. (…) Our message in general in these songs was: free your mind and think for yourself. You know, cause that’s what the world is about. You’re here to be free.

This video shows the whole interview with inspiring bookstore ambiance, crazy Rush comments, Kiwi juice, and a guy telling us that he just got out of jail and we will soon be arrested for talking about this kind of stuff… (sorry for the shitty quality, but vimeo only allows 500 MB files :/) or just read the clean transcribed version here.

[1] Haack, Anne: Civil Rights Movement, Islam and Arab Hip Hop. Norient. 12.04.2015. URL: http://norient.com/academic/arab-hiphop-in-the-us/
[2] Mangialardi, Nicholas Rocco: Egyptian Hiphop and the January 25th Revolution. Thesis. The Ohio State University. 2013.
[3] Pannewick, Friederike: Opfer, Tod und Liebe. Visionen des Märtyrertums in der arabischen Literatur. Fink. München. 2012.
[4] Mangialardi: Egyptian Hiphop.
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