It’s tough to make hip-hop in the Middle East. Commercially, it’s one of the few places in the world where you can possibly make a decent living working in the scene. Artistically, artists face constant criticism that they are merely mimicking the West.
American and native fans alike have a tough time taking hip-hop from outside the US seriously. Either because it’s in a language they don’t understand, the production value is poor due to lack of commercial revenue, or people simply can’t wrap their heads around the concept of hip-hop that’s not made in the country that gave birth to it.
Comparative labels are par for the course, as writers and fans attempt to compartmentalize artists. “Oh he’s the Bosnian version of Method Man,” or, “They’re the Senegalese De La Soul.” It’s human nature to seek comfort in the familiar; we rationalize new ideas by comparing them to things we know.
It’s undeniable that the Arab world has its own hip-hop culture; one that is held by its adherents to be pan-Arab in nature. Lebanese rappers discuss rappers in Tunisia and Morocco like they live in a neighbouring borough. The narrative that Arab hip-hop was the fuel of the Arab Spring is somewhat convoluted, but rather the Arab Spring seems to have fuelled hip-hop in the region. In the spirit of the Spring, Arab rappers like to view the entire region as one entity that’s not divided by colonial borders.
But the challenge is to create hip-hop outside of America that’s not bound by these comparisons, given how steeped the genre is in American culture.
There’s an argument that the sheer process of making hip-hop outside of the US is enough to make the music its own. An Arab living in Beirut, Cairo or Damascus is making hip-hop that is by definition unique as they can only discuss their personal experiences. Whether or not they are paraphrasing their favourite Eminem lines is irrelevant, the identity is born out of the creator, and not the content.
Jackson Allers, a journalist who has been documenting Arab hip-hop for eight years and is currently writing a book tentatively titled ‘Shiq’ – Arabic Rhymes over Beats argues that Arab hip-hop is inherently unique because it’s made by an Arab in the Arab world, “You are an Arab and you can’t do anything else but channel what it is you’re doing through your perspective. You’re not in America, you’re not in Europe. You’re in the Arab world … Everything is in your context. It doesn’t exist in America.”
One of the easiest ways for an artist to separate himself or herself from the American status quo is to rap in their own language. But even this is not quite as simple as it seems.
It is one thing to rap in another language, but in order to truly be distinct; the artist has to move away from simply translating the clichéd references used by their favourite American artists in to their native tongues.
This is what rapper Nasser Shorbaji, aka Chyno, a member of the Beirut-based group Fareeq El-Atrash, strives for. Chyno raps in Arabic with Fareeq El-Atrash and English during his solo work. He’s currently working on his solo album Making Music to Feel at Home, In order to avoid clichéd comparisons, he’s very careful about what references he uses in his raps, and even with his accent.
“I try real hard to not have any specific American or British accent when I speak English . I try not to use any typical hip-hop language,” he says.
“We have to reflect on different things, even if we’re talking about really normal shit. I would use metaphors of me and this girl separating like Gaza and the West Bank or coming together like Iran and Hezbollah.
“When I go to America I always say that all your references for all your raps are usually pop culture whereas our references are politics. That’s our pop culture.”
One of the most common tropes that a lot of rappers outside the US seem to fall into is the appropriation of the hip-hop gangsta.
Much to the dismay of purists, the story of the hip-hop gangsta has largely been commodified by corporate America. The gangsta character encapsulates the allure of the dangerous urban male who has escaped the ghetto while driving a cream white Buggati and wearing a 700-carat gold chain, all the while maintaining an air of nobility as he abides by the laws of the streets. While this narrative carries an air of truth for a lot of Americans, it has been watered down and packaged, to be easily marketed to the masses.
Along with hip-hop, this character has also migrated throughout the world and the story of the hip-hop gangsta has been translated into many languages. Think France’s Booba, Germany’s Bashido or even Saudi Arabia’s Slow Moe, formerly known as Saudi Thug.
While we can never know how close their day-to-day lives are to that of 50 Cent’s, it is fair to say that rappers around the world have a more diverse set of experiences to draw from rather than parroting this cliché. This is the key to creating a scene that is truly unique to a region. It’s not in translating the broad ideas of the music that inspired them, but reflecting the nuances of their respective societies.
Emcees around the world have struggled to avoid looking to the West. Given its relative immaturity in the Arab world, a love of hip-hop often starts with a love of Western hip-hop. Problems emerge when rappers imitate their favorite artists with the hope of being embraced by the West.
Last May, Public Enemy’s front man and legendary emcee Chuck D came to Beirut to deliver a lecture on hip-hop and global culture at AUB. During a sit-down with a select group of emcees at Ta-Marbouta in Hamra, he told rappers not to concern themselves with impressing America.
“Never try to impress the United States or try to be like the United States, they don’t even know what they’re doing … I think that the world conversation of hip-hop is mightier and can diffuse that one sided takeover of hip-hop in the United States.”
But, says John Nasr, bassist and producer in Fareeq El-Atrash, that doesn’t mean not being aware of the genre’s roots.
“We always have to recognize the people that created it, the people that pioneered it, the people that innovated with it, but since it’s art and culture it can be spread in any way and be re-created and re-produced by any other peoples in the world. Sure we’re not trying to make American hip-hop, we’re not gonna front like that. That’s wrong but we’re making great Arabian hip-hop. In our language, talking about our issues, our struggles.”
One of the strongest tools rappers have at their disposal to distinguish themselves is production. Hip-Hop is a sample-based art form and producers pride themselves in sourcing music from the most obscure places. In hip-hop’s formative years, DJs would peel the names off of their vinyl so nobody would know what they were mixing and producers wouldn’t tell a soul what samples they’d used to make a beat.
In the modern day, publishing rights and Google have eradicated all hopes of secrecy but Arab rappers – like all rappers outside of the US – have the luxury of a rich musical culture that most people outside of this region have never heard.
Hassan Dennaoui, aka Big Hass, radio host of Saudi Arabia’s only FM Hip-Hop radio show Laish Hip-Hop, believes that this is where Arab rappers can really make their mark on the culture.
“Hip-hop is based on sampling and this is where I see Arabs influencing this culture,” he says. “We as Arabs are not that far from hip-hop given that it is a form of poetry but with rhythms … I know and believe that through sampling of our authentic Arabic jewels, we will be able to reflect our own struggle, our own medium and our own message.”
Lebanese rapper Mazen El Sayed, aka El Raas, who has just released his sophomore album Adam, Darwin and the Penguin, believes that hip-hop throughout the Middle East is carving out an array of sounds, “For example, Boyka’s production … [Fareeq El-Atrash] bringing in this folk guitar element … people bringing in oriental sampling with heavy synthesizers and very grounded beats. I think we’ve passed the stage where we’re just Arabizing boom-bap beats and now everyone is trying to find his own thing, and I think this is really one step forward in the evolution.”
But regardless of all of these methods, even if you’re rapping in Arabic, using sha3bi references and sampling Feyrouz, will making hip-hop always have an element of imitation? At its core, the artform – the process of rapping over a beat – was not invented in the Middle East, so can Arab hip-hop ever be completely original? Or is attempting to distinguish Arab rap and make it unique a futile endeavour?
El Raas doesn’t think so. “In all forms of art there is this imitation. There is nothing completely original that comes from the voice. Even if you don’t do it consciously, you’re influenced rhythmically and lyrically,” he says. “what I try to do is channel my influences and link it more to cultural backgrounds that are more specific to my culture.”
When it comes to art, nothing is completely original; every artist is merely an amalgamation of his or her influences. It’s the range of these influences and the way in which the artist combines them that makes their work innovative.
Most artists’ journeys begin with them imitating their idols until they grow into their own sound. Allers believes that when a hip-hop culture sprouts somewhere it goes through a similar process, in a series of stages:
“The first stage of it is mimetic, it’s to mime and copy. Then the second stage is your first attempts to making subject matter local and sampling local and then the third stage is you don’t refer to shit that’s going on in the first stage at all, you’ve suddenly appropriated it and your audience isn’t relying on what you do based on your similarities to what happens in America [but as] someone that reflects what they can relate to in their context. That’s how it becomes your own.”
Most rappers agree that the Arab world’s hip-hop is still taking shape but the future looks bright.
El Raas says a generation is now growing up listening to their music that heard about hip-hop through Arab rappers, “A lot of young people now that listen to us actually don’t listen to Western rap. They’re not listening to Arab rap because they were listening to American rap and then it started happening in Arabic, no, there is a whole generation that discovered rap through Arab rap.”
Once rappers emerge from this generation who never looked to America as the template but rather idolize hip-hop in their language, expressing their own experiences, we may end up in a world where Americans rappers are looking to the Arabs for ideas.