The roots of Arab hip-hop

Where does it come from?


Much has been said recently in the press, on the streets, and even in the world of academia about Arab hip-hop, its new found popularity, impetus and influences.  Catalyzed and shot to the realms of ‘serious’ debate with relative haste because of its relationship to the Arab uprisings, Arab hip-hop has already reached a stage it took US hip-hop a long time to get to.  Part of this new-found media attention is a swell in debate about its roots – local or western.


Arab hip-hop is by no means exclusively a product of globalization and/or an imitation of (African) American hip-hop. It’s a medium for advocacy and a means of communicating ideas that are relevant to a whole generation of Arabs, and its roots lie deep in Arab culture.  It all started before el Rass and el Far3i produced Orientalism, before Ramallah Underground dropped kanabel Modee2a, and before DAM shouted fiercely, at the occupation, “who is the terrorist”. Before all this, there was Zajal, and before that there was Al-Mu’allaqat, the Arab literary forefathers of advocacy and the spoken word.
Arab linguists have long used the richness of poetry and lyrics as more than merely entertainment.  They have been a vocal vehicle to address social matters, for painting lyrical pictures relating to time, places, and circumstances.


Lyrical battles in their pre-Islam-Arab form were called Mu’allaqat: The Hanging Poems. These were the best poems chosen to be hung on the wall of Ka’ba Mecca. Later, in a more face to face battling style there was Zajal: a semi-improvised and semi-sung style of poetry which is often performed in the format of a battle/debate between poets who improvise (freestyle) the flow of words. It is usually accompanied by percussive musical instruments (with the occasional wind instrument, the ney) and a chorus of men (and more recently, women) who sing parts of the verse.


In our contemporary age, African-American hip-hop, like (and often through) the internet, made it to this part of the world with the globalization of the 90s. African-American hip-hop artists rapped about the social injustices that they endured at the hands of the white man. Their style of communicating their misery found sympathetic ears and hearts in the Levant: a region riddled with wars, occupation and its own injustice. An influence started to bud and so, from similar harsh circumstances came the resurrection of the Arab poetry made hip: the birth of what we now call Arab hip-hop. Thus followed a natural evolutionary process until Arab hip-hop reached maturity, and established its own style and identity.


Growing up in Beirut, in the mid-80s and early 90s, Sunday was the day the family gathered for the weekend lunch. The TV was fixed on Zajal. Simultaneously, as various militias battled on the streets of Beirut, Zajal provided the only platform for a lyrical battle. But this lyrical battle never appealed to a 10 year old the same way it grabbed our parents’ generation. Back then, it was the groovy beats of NWA, Run DMC, the Roots, and later on the powerful words of Mos Def that got me. The first time I listened to hip-hop, whilst my ears fell in love with the beats, I found it difficult to catch up with the flow of words. Later, it became clear that hip-hop was not merely an MTV genre invading our ears with its catchy, mesmerizing or rousing beats – the secret lies in knowing how to listen to it in order to appreciate the message(s) it carries.


“Not every song you listened to your hearing loved and grooved to/the difference between Mohammad and those after him who issued us Fatwas in their ignorance/ is like the singing of Um Koulthoum and the singers of Rotana”. El-Rass, one of the Beirut-based lyricists, in his track Yoga, compares the prophet Mohammad to the original singing (Tarab) of the late Arab icon Um Kalthoum, and the contemporary commercial singing produced by an Arab music company called Rotana to the various religious groups that diverged from the original teaching of the prophet.


In the context of African-American hip-hop, where a trend emerged for a more shallow form of the music as performed by the likes of 50 Cent,  hip-hop transformed from a vehicle for railing against economic injustice and social inequalities, into a causeless genre advertising cars, bling, guns, and misogyny; urging the young to “get rich or die trying”. The original message of hip-hop deteriorated into the mindless style of 50 Cent and turned into simply club music, stripped of all the revolutionary roots upon which it was founded.   But not in the Middle East. By the time my generation hit its adulthood, Arab MCs who were still influenced by that earlier form of hip-hop started writing verses and composing beats. In the Middle East region there is never a lack of harsh social circumstances which influence MCs to write and rap.


Palestinian MCs were the ones who started using hip-hop to tell their stories of occupation and dispossession, in the hopes of making their cause global. Since music is a world language the hope was that the Palestinian issue would be introduced through a new style/tool of advocacy.  Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian writer and a leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, once wrote: “It’s not necessary for things that are deep to be complicated, and it’s not necessary for naive things to be simple things. The question is: how can one say a deep thing in a simple way”. Arab hip-hop is a spoken language of the street, directed to the people on the street through lyrics that are plain and simple to grasp, and tunes that are hip and familiar to the young.


Emerging Arab MCs are emphasizing the fact that it isn’t about the way an MC must dress and/or look, it’s more about what the MC is trying to offer to society. MC al-Sayyed Darwish, a Syrian rapper from Homs and one third of the outfit, Latlateh, took on the task of addressing the issue of imitative Arab MCs: “Facts about rap”, fact number one: “fitness of the body has nothing to do with the power of words. You don’t need to show us your pecs for us to know you are a rapper”. Sayyed Darwish makes a good point here. While it’s easy to be sucked into the image of African-American hip-hop, being an MC in an Arab-hip-hop scene requires more focus on the content that is being offered to Arab listeners in order to avoid premature judgments. Mimicking African-American rappers with their flamboyant style is likely to alienate listeners. Hard-hitting lyrics along with the way they are served to the listeners is the key to popularizing the genre.
On Saturday January 19 Metro al-Madina will host another gig: Orientalism, an Arab hip-hop concert influenced by the late Edward Said’s study on Orientalism. Artists from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan will flow and enlighten the ever growing Arab hip-hop scene.
While hip-hop in the west took a mainstream, more commercial turn, Arab hip-hop – a genre still in its infancy and on the move – is maturing more in parallel with the sentiments on the streets.



El Far3i on You Tube and on Facebook

El Rass on Facebook and on Soundcloud

DJ Sotusura on Facebook

Al Sayyed Darwish on Facebook


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