Rap and hip-hop has mostly been thought of as a western phenomenon and the biggest stars are still to be found in New York or L.A. But things are changing, and the Middle East has emerged as a hub of political hip-hop.
It is political in the sense that it exposes social issues, injustice and lack of political freedoms. Much of the rap music coming out of the west nowadays deals with love, women, alcohol, partying and the “good life”, a theme immortalized by Kanye West’s popular song with the same name. Middle Eastern rappers, on the other hand, tend to have a cause. Even in Lebanon, a country without its own Arab Spring, people jam to the song Thawra by national icon Rayess Bek. It begins with a call for change: “The people want the downfall of the regime”.
But hip-hop in the Middle East still has a long way to go before gaining recognition amongst the big masses. Young rappers continue to battle stereotypes and misconceptions about an art form they use as a way of expressing their rightful opinions. For example, under Kadhafi’s reign, rapping was considered a felony.
The Arab uprisings have changed things for the better. Artists such as Tunisia’s El General and Egypt’s Rush were central figures in the revolts that toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak. Music and the written word thus became more important than ever, as artists performed in front of thousands of people on Tahrir and other squares across the Middle East and North Africa.
We had a chance to catch up with Shannon Farhoud, a journalist who is now wrapping up her second documentary about Arab hip-hop, which she co-directed with Rana Khaled, Melanie Fridgant and Ashlene Ramadan. The group received a lot of attention for their first film, Broken Records.
Why did you decide to make Broken Records?
Broken Records was a documentary we did two years ago. The girls and I were assigned a class project to profile someone in Qatar. Rana Khaled, one of the co-directors, decided to profile a friend who rapped. She didn't expect much but after filming him there was so much more to hip-hop than we knew. She presented the profile and received great reviews, so as a team we decided to follow the story of hip-hop and what it stood for. To our luck Omar Offendum and The Narcysist were in Qatar at the time and we got to interview them. Broken Records was our stepping-stone into the hip-hop world. From there it lead us to create our most recent documentary Lyrics Revolt, which looks at Hip-Hop's role as the soundtrack to the Arab Spring.
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How much has the hip-hop scene changed in the region since the Arab uprisings?
I don't believe hip-hop has changed in the region but I think more and more youth have found their voices in hip-hop and feel that they can be vocal about their cause. The scene has risen from an underground status to a more known and acceptable place. However, it still isn't fully accepted but is trying to find its way.
Have these changes taken different shapes and forms in different countries?
I believe the whole region is experiencing a music revolution. Artists in Jordan were saying the same things as artists in Morocco or Egypt or Saudi for that matter. It's harder for some artists in certain countries in comparison to others but they are all fighting for their music to be heard and they are all talking about personal, social and cultural issues.
You've all been based in the Gulf for many years; what's the hip-hop scene there like?
Hip-hop is growing slowly in the Gulf region. Saudi is surprisingly the most developed and flourishing hip-hop scene in the Gulf. However, in my opinion, for the rest of the Gulf countries they are still struggling to find their voice, but have been using hip-hop and the arts to do it.
Tell us about your next film?
Lyrics Revolt is our latest documentary that looks at hip-hop being the soundtrack of the Arab Spring. We travelled to Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon to film this. We have artists from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Saudi in the documentary.
Do you see a promising future for Arab hip-hop?
A very very promising future. I think it will be a mainstream form of music in the region and later globally, just like when hip-hop began in the West.