Hip, hop, but not HURRAY yet

Filed on May 3, 2009

It is hip, funky and it is in Arabic. Hip hop or rap, typically perceived to be the voice of the oppressed and the angry, has been growing in popularity in the UAE and the Middle East. The UAE has its own breed of Emirati and expatriate talent rapping in Arabic, English and, more often than not, in what is considered a fusion of the two languages.

Though rappers here have, to their credit, evolved an individualistic style, unique to the UAE and the Arab world, many look up to the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Eminem for inspiration.

If slums of the United States became the springboard for Afro-Americans to speak their minds, it was the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 in the US that led to the growth of Arabic hip hop. Angry and frustrated at being typecast, many young Arabs turned to hip hop to vent their feelings against terrorism and Western stereotypes. The Palestinian struggle has also found its voice in this form of rhythmic poetry.

Today, rap music is over 30years old, and it is no longer confined to an American audience. Technology such as CDs, satellite television and certainly the Internet have resulted in the music form transcending borders and teenagers worldwide have become clearly captivated by it.

Even German, French, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Nigerian youth are all rapping in their own languages, and interestingly, even the Gulf has not been untouched by this expressional yet literal music.

Last year, MTV Arabia hosted a show, HipHopna, where middleeastern rappers aged between 18 and 25 were invited to compete for the best rapper in the region. Two of the eight members on the show were from the UAE.

So how is hip hop perceived in a country known to be a melting point for cultural pursuits? Sadly, it is looked down upon by a major section of the society, say rappers. They are up against a range of issues from social acceptance to companies willing to sign on artists to finding a platform to play and getting permits to perform anywhere in country.

The genre is importantly still struggling for recognition in the emirates, despite the fact that it has been seven long years since the first Emirati group, brothers Salim and Abdullah Dahman, popularly known as Desert Heat, took to the stage. Though hip hop artists and rappers in the Arab world are renowned and even enjoy an international appeal, many believe the nation still has a long way to go before it embraces them whole-heartedly.

Unlike Egypt or Lebanon, where the vibrant cultural scene makes it conducive for hip hop to flourish, rappers in the UAE prefer to remain underground. This is largely due to the stereotyping of hip hop, where the genre is believed to be synonymous with drugs, alcohol and gangster-rap.

“The entire hip hop culture is not respected in the UAE because anybody who raps is automatically considered an African American impersonator,” says Abdullah, an Emirati rapper, who declined to disclose his last name for fear of being ostracised.

Known popularly as Wolfy, the local rapper organises private hip hop performances across the emirates. “I first heard rap music on radio. I was immediately taken in by the thumping music and the electrifying lyrics. I eventually bought equipment and began recording my own songs in my bedroom,” says Abdullah,a student at the American University in Sharjah.

UAE rappers Mohammed al Sawi aka Brooklyn, Ayham Nassar and Sheikh Saqir Khalid al Qassimi, popularly known as Saj, say that hip hop music is extremely restricted in the UAE and getting permits is really hard.

“If you want to perform hip hop songs in a nightclub in Dubai, you need to get a licence. There is almost no chance for an upcoming artist to acquire one (licence) since clubs would not want to pay for it unless an artist is very popular,” says al Sawi.

Al Qassimi adds, “It is hard for a local artist to become popular since the UAE has a very weak hip hop industry. We do not even have a hip hop musical engineers who can record our songs and make them sound professional.”

Nassar, on the other hand, observed that recording, mastering and distributing music costs a lot of money. “Unless someone sponsors the music, every local hip hop artist will have a hard time convincing club owners to purchase a licence for them,” he said.

The three maintain that the reason the music form lacked strong backing was because of the content. “Hip Hop in America has valuable content because it addresses social problems which are corrupting the youth, while in the UAE the youth are not really struggling socially or even financially. Even the elders view hip hop artists as criminals because of the way we dress, which they are accustomed to seeing in poor Americans,” said Nassar, adding, “Unless we find a way to break that misconception, we as artists will always face problems nurturing this art.”

Al Qassimi laments that older Emiratis consider hip hop as a Western trend that will eventually fade away.

“They do not understand the drive or the wave of hip hop. We are the hip hop generation, and it is universal.”

What’s Muffling Rappers
Arabic hip hop largely draws from the American version, except for the lyrics, which is often political in nature. While the Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and Jordanians rely on the medium to voice serious political concerns and struggles of the Arabs, the hip hop in the UAE is considered less intense and more mainstream. It is mostly a combination of beats and Arabic lyrics, loosely based on Americanised tunes.

Fredwreck Farid Nassar, American-Palestinian record producer, says the music scene is just ripe in the UAE and the Arab world is in the ‘cusp’ of a music revolution.

“The hip hop here reminds me of the US where people are using the genre to convey messages. But artists have to make songs that anybody can relate to. The UAE is a bit more different than Cairo or Beirut where the scene is social and political. However, Arabic hip hop is yet in its infancy,” adds Fredwreck, currently A and R Executive with the MBC group, where he is producing a new reality show — ‘House of Hip Hop’.

According to him, several Arabic singers love and listen to hip hop, and would love to incorporate hip hop music with Arabic. “But they’re too afraid to experiment and their record companies do not want them to. So, that’s why they keep repeating the same thing,” he notes. “Arabic music needs to evolve, and hip hop is the bridge. Rap is getting bigger every year,” he says.

Fredwreck observes that artists are also unable to promote themselves well and usually rely on online platforms like YouTube to upload their music. He says permissions and licences are sometimes deterrents for rappers. “You need permits to perform anywhere in the country. The scene, here, is not culturally set and the infrastructure of the country currently does not support spontaneous performances. Also, artists cannot perform without getting the right permits,” he says, echoing the thoughts of rappers, who face these problems.

The Dubai Culture and Arts Authority is now working on resolving issues of permits so artists can perform with much more ease. The body is working on revising policies and upgrading its framework and said it is aware of the importance of promoting the various components of performing arts as it is an important platform for fulfilling one of its strategic objectives — promoting and nurturing local talent.

“By upgrading the current regulatory framework and creating services that will facilitate the existence of such performances, the city of Dubai will create an creative environment suitable for attracting international talent. This includes a new approach to culture and arts licensing for organisations and revised regulations for cultural events and performances.

“Revising these policies will ensure artists and art organisations can operate successfully and with ease, and ultimately enhance the quality of the cultural offering to the Dubai public,” Yasser Al Gergawi, Manager of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, told Khaleej Times, in a statement.

The body is also working with other government entities as well as the culture and arts community to address these policy areas and will provide regular updates on its plans and developments as they progress.

“We are committed to actively support and drive Dubai’s development as a dynamic culture, heritage and arts centre by creating an environment that facilitates and inspires cultural activity,” added Al Gergawi.

Brothers Give Emirati Tinge to Rap

They defied hip hop when they rapped about their mother’s sacrifices and sang about their love for her. They even shocked the Arab and the rest of the world when their controversial number, ‘Terror Alert’, which urged people to take a peek into the mind of a young Arab and his struggles before labelling him as a terrorist.

The first local rappers, Salim Dahman and Abdullah Dahman, popularly known as Desert Heat, rap in English and Arabic to attack stereotypes and address the Arab and Emirati youth on contemporary issues like terrorism, Western misconceptions, the Arab identity, politics and family.

Desert Heat is a force to reckon with in the UAE. Less than a year after their debut album — ‘When the desert speaks’ — the brothers released their second album on Friday.

Despite setting the stage for other hip hoppers seven years ago, they concede that rap in the country still has a long way to go. “There is a taboo against rap and hip hop amongst the Emirati community. However, things are slowly changing and the community is accepting us now. Some of our songs have helped the process,” says Salim, 28, who works at the Dubai Airports.

The duo has firmly established their presence in the world of hip hop. The lyrics in their songs try and prove that rap need not be synonymous with drugs, women and gangsters. The fact that their rap song on their mother — ‘Under her feet’ — is one of the most popular numbers is evident that they have succeeded to a large extent.

Similarly, the songs like ‘Dubai My City’, which talks of the fondness of the emirate and its leaders, and ‘Intawishlak’ that talks of the simple pleasures of life, have helped in the evolution of mindsets.

“Our rap aims to tackle stereotypes against Arabs and hip hop itself. Hip hop does not necessarily mean rapping about drugs and women. We want to prove that there is a positive side to rap and that everyone can relate to it. Rap can discuss terrorism, history or just about any subject. We want to make kids feel cool to rap about their mom,” says Abdullah, 23, who works at Dubai Islamic Bank.

The two shot, produced and made their own first album and are now open to helping budding artists with production and promotion of their music, regardless of the genre. Salim and Abdullah are helping artists by moulding their talent and encouraging them come out of their shells to showcase their craft.

“We are just a group and we work with everyone. Everyone to us is an artist and our rule from day one is to work with anyone with talent. We don’t care if they are locals or expatriates. If they are talented, we will try our best to help them,” says Salim

“There are a lot of talented people, who have imagination, clever word play and structure but their topics may not appeal to all audiences, in my opinion. Local artists also need to stop blaming. They have to keep on trying and be persistent. Some artists say because we are not Emiratis, people will not accept us. People shouldn’t think that way,” he adds.

The two, who have also faced issues with permits, say government entities are now stepping in to facilitate artists. They maintain that piracy in the industry is a huge setback. “However, things are changing in the Arab world. If you take MBC, they were really traditional but they are opening up. We are on the threshold of change. Recording songs has become cheaper and record companies are opening up,” says Abdullah.

It is the aggressiveness and the freedom of being able to say what is on one’s mind —characteristic of hip hop — that first caught the brothers’ fascination. They also want the medium to change Western perceptions.

“Hip hop in America started with struggle. For us, it was the September 11 terror attacks that triggered the need to use rap to talk to people. The best way to educate is through music and our messages are aimed at the West,” he adds.

The brothers, who enjoy the distinction of being the first local band in the UAE, are extremely comfortable rapping in their kanduras, caps and traditional leather slippers indicative of the subtle message they want to pass. “The youth should feel comfortable the way they are and should feel accepted how they are. Hip hop is just not about music. It is a culture, it is the clothes, the attitude and we are making it our hip hop,” says Salim.

The duo known to make their own rules observes that the only way to reach more Arabs is by rapping in English. “Ironically, we would still be able to reach more Arabs when we rap in English,” observes Abdullah.

Their second album is expected to be more commercial and is not message-oriented, unlike their previous album. However, this would, like the first, have a positive spin on the Middle East youth culture.

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