From time to time, Awl Music will be bringing you a themed playlist, which can best be enjoyed on the Awl Music app for iPad.
Early adopters in countries like Morocco, Algeria and Palestine have a more strongly developed and time-tested hip-hop scene—but across the greater Arab world, hip-hop has risen up alongside folk anthems as a revolutionary soundtrack.
And in the Western world, Arab diaspora rap preoccupies itself with questions of Eastern and Western dislocated identity. These artists take a great deal of inspiration from some of the greats of politically conscious rap in the eighties and nineties in the United States, particularly Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. They also draw from the long history of Arab poetry and artistic political dissidence, from Khalil Gibran to Mahmoud Darwish and Ahmed Fouad Negm.
Here is a handy starter kit for listening to Arab and Middle Eastern rap and hip-hop music.
The inherent "roll off the tongue and into your brain" qualities of Arabic itself is a critical part of what makes this music so powerful. One of my favorite examples of this is the first verse of "Rebel" by the Egyptian hip-hop trio The Arabian Knightz. The song, which samples Lauryn Hill's 2002 MTV Unplugged performance of "I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)," was released during the eighteen-day revolution in Cairo and the opening verse is a great example of how fabulous Arabic sounds when used in rap music.
Revolutionary musical acts really found an audience in late 2010 and early 2011. Also from Egypt are a number of highly talented revolutionary performers, like MC Deeb or MC Amin. One of my favorites is Ramy Donjewan's "Rasala Ila Almoshir Tantawi (Message to Field Marshal Tantawi)," for the impressive, thundering forcefulness of the rapping. It was written not against Mubarak but against the post-Mubarak rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, whose martial law engendered just about as much bad sentiment as Mubarak himself.
MEET THE INDIGNANT AND THE GENERAL
Two of the most politically important figures in rap and hip-hop associated with the recent revolutionary period in North Africa are Tunisia's El Général and Morocco's El Haqed. El Général (real name: Hamada Ben Amor) had found popularity with his anti-regime lyrics prior to his arrest, but when he was detained by now former president Ben Ali's security forces, his fame skyrocketed. Efforts to silence musicians like El Général, whose "Rais Lebled (Mr. President)" directly challenged Ben Ali for the injustices faced by the Tunisians, have traditionally backfired for regimes, serving only to propel them to figurehead positions within movements.
El Haqed (which means The Indignant, and whose real name is Mouad Belghouat) is a Moroccan dissident rapper whose most well known songs are "Baraka Men Skate (No More Silence)" and "Kilaab Addawla (Dogs of the State)." He is currently imprisoned for insulting the police in the latter song.
Belghouat's arrest has served to highlight the false nature of the Moroccan monarchy's reformist attitudes and to bring international condemnation to the suppression of freedom of expression for February 20th Movement activists. Some other important revolutionary rap songs include Libyan Ibn Thabit's "Call to the Libyan Youth," and "Bayan Raqm Wahid (Statement Number One)," by a Syrian group, anonymously posted for fear of retribution.
THREE LADY M.C.s
There are a number of potent female and women's rights voices in Arab hip-hop. Soultana's first solo single, "Sawt Nssa (Voice of Women)," is a narrative of the struggles of Moroccan women, particularly in the context of broader economic injustice and the experiences of poor women mistreated at the hands of those she challenges as false Muslims ("She's selling her body because you are the buyer/And when she's walking by, you act all Muslim.") Her storytelling style and her complex attacks on cultural and political stasis and oppression are the product of a great deal of talent.
Two other acclaimed lady MCs include Palestinian Shadia Mansour and Lebanese Malikah. Malikah's "Ya Emra'a (Oh Woman!)" echoes Soultana's "Sawt Nissa," calling on women to challenge double standards and confront patriarchy (lyrics). Shadia Mansour is most noted for "Al Kuffiyeh Arabiyyeh (The Keffiyeh is Arab)," a song claiming the political power of the keffiyeh and rejecting Western attempts to appropriate it as a fashion accessory (English lyrics available here).
THE POLITICS OF PALESTINE
Palestine has a number of pioneering and influential hip-hop acts like DAM and Ramallah Underground. DAM is a group of Israeli Arabs who sometimes rap in Hebrew or English as a means of broadening the audience for their political message. Their music includes "Who's The Terrorist?," which challenges a common stereotype of Arabs and Muslims, here specifically in the Palestinian context. A newcomer on the Palestinian political hip-hop scene is MC Gaza, with songs like "The Story Isn't Worthless."
SONGS OF SOLIDARITY
If you like your hip-hop to reference everything from Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet" and Edward Said's Orientalism to poetry by Langston Hughes and speeches by JFK, then you want to start listening to Arab diaspora rap. Artists like Syrian-American Omar Offendum and Iraqi-Canadian The Narcicyst stack an incredible amount of context into their wordplay. Solidarity songs are one of the major categories of Arab diaspora rap, starting with Palestine and ramping up with revolutions and civil wars elsewhere in the region.
The most notable is "#Jan25 Egypt," which is a collaboration between Omar Offendum, The Narcicyst and a handful of others, and which cornered some serious YouTube popularity.
I personally like Omar Offendum's solo solidarity song, "#Syria," even more. It resonates particularly because the audio of crowds in Damascus chanting "The people want the fall of the regime" is chilling. Offendum also has a solo album called "SyrianamericanA," which is political, but not a strictly solidarity-themed album, and is a start-to-finish winner. The top track off that is "Destiny" ("It's hard livin' in the West when I know the East got the best of me…"). The Narcicyst has an extensive and wide-ranging body of work, with a number of albums, many of which are free for download. One of the songs that really showcases his speedy, powerful wordplay skills is "P.H.A.T.W.A," which focuses on another central theme for Arab diaspora artists: stereotyping and harassment in the West, particularly in airports.
The playlist really just scratches the surface of what is popular and important in Arabic and Middle Eastern hip-hop, and shouldn't be considered a replacement for a real hip-hop history lesson—but this selection demonstrates nicely the political and lyrical strengths of the genres.
Torie Rose DeGhett is a freelance writer, Arab rap enthusiast and arts and culture contributor for Aslan Media.