TUNIS—Along a dusty main avenue, past worn freight cars piled on railroad tracks and young men smoking at sidewalk cafés beside shuttered shops, lies Kasserine, a town unremarkable in its poverty. Tucked deep in the Tunisian interior, Kasserine is 200 miles from the capital, in a region where decades of neglect by Tunisia’s rulers has led to a state of perennial despair. But pass a prison on the edge of town, and a jarring mix of neon hues leap from its outer wall. During the 2011 uprising against former President Zine El-Abdine Ben Ali, prisoners rioted, and much of the wall was destroyed in fighting with security forces. On the wall that remains, a poem by Tunisian poet Abu al Qassem Chebbi stretches across 800 feet of concrete and barbed wire, scrawled in calligraffiti—a style fusing Arabic calligraphy with hip hop graffiti—by Tunisian artist Karim Jabbari. On each section of the wall, one elaborate pattern merges into a wildly different one. “Before Karim, you might have come to Kasserine and thought, ‘There’s nothing in this town.’ But we’ve got everything—from graffiti, to breakdance, to rap.The kids here, they’re talented; they’ve got passion,” says a local youth who assisted Jabbari in the prison wall project.
Eighteenth-century French revolutionaries marched to
, and two centuries later, rock music spurred opposition to the
Shah of Iran
and Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. It’s no different with the uprisings in the Arab world.
“Arab hip-hop, especially that coming out of Tunisia and Egypt, played a major role in creating the soundtrack to the so-called Arab Spring,” said Joshua Asen, a documentary filmmaker and writer of the
Hip Hop Diplomacy
(Photo by Jeff White – Egyptian rapper El Deeb’s song “Stand Up Egyptian” encouraged protests against the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.)
TEHRAN — With lyrics that tread on ultrasensitive topics and an album cover that shows the dome of a mosque in the shape of a woman’s breast,
is an international rapper who elicits an intense reaction here.
But Mr. Najafi’s latest song, “Naghi,” named after a Shiite saint, has prompted a particular uproar. Opponents of Mr. Najafi are using a
recent fatwa by a leading cleric
, Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi-Golpayegani, which labels all those insulting the 10th Shiite imam, Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi, also known as Imam Naghi, as apostates. An Islamist Web site then offered a $100,000 bounty to anyone who kills Mr. Najafi, who was born in
, raps in Persian but lives in Germany.
Following Chen Lo’s performance, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was asked by
about US diplomacy’s recent embrace of hip hop. “Hip hop is America,” she said, noting that rap and other musical forms could help “rebuild the image” of the United States. “You know it may be a little bit hopeful, because I can’t point to a change in Syrian policy because Chen Lo and the Liberation Family showed up. But I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.”
The State Department began using hiphop as a tool in the mid-2000s, when, in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the resurgence of the Taliban, Karen Hughes, then undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, launched an initiative called Rhythm Road. The programme was modelled on the jazz diplomacy initiative of the Cold War era, except that in the “War on Terror”, hip hop would play the central role of countering “poor perceptions” of the US.
DEF JAM will probably never sign them, but Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré, from a small town about 100 miles southeast of Dakar, Senegal, and
Hamada Ben Amor
, a 22-year-old man from a port city 170 miles southeast of Tunis, may be two of the most influential rappers in the history of hip-hop.
Mr. Touré, a k a Thiat (“Junior”), and Mr. Ben Amor, a k a El Général, both wrote protest songs that led to their arrests and generated powerful political movements. “We are drowning in hunger and unemployment,” spits Thiat on
“Coup 2 Gueule”
(from a phrase meaning “rant”) with the Keurgui Crew. El Général’s song “
Head of State
” addresses the now-deposed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali over a plaintive background beat. “A lot of money was pledged for projects and infrastructure/Schools, hospitals, buildings, houses/but the sons of dogs swallowed it in their big bellies.” Later, he rhymes, “I know people have a lot to say in their hearts, but no way to convey it.” The song acted as sluice gates for the release of anger that until then was being expressed clandestinely, if at all.
BAGHDAD — With his New York Yankees jersey, baggy jeans embroidered with “U.S.A.” down one leg and his casual greeting of “What’s up?”, Ali Jabbar, a rapper and a student in Islamic studies, seems an alien in his own culture.
The Arab Spring is widely known as a Twitter rebellion, but underground hip-hop artists also played a very important role. Robin Wright, author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World,” talks with Jerry Seib about the phenomenon.
In November 2010, a young Tunisian rapper who called himself El General posted a song on his Facebook page and YouTube. He had no alternative.
The government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had virtually banned hip-hop. Its musicians were not on government-approved playlists for state-controlled television or radio. They were rarely able to get permits to perform in public. And most were barred from recording CDs.
In late October, the Brooklyn-based live hip-hop outfit Chen Lo and the Liberation Family – known now as
The Lo Frequency
-came to Beirut for a two-month residency in order to establish a Hip-Hop Academy and to perform with local talent (MCs, DJs, and producers). The US embassy initiative was not exactly what they expected.
Beats and Breath
linked up with the Lo Frequency in Brooklyn to discuss what ultimately became a two-month blessing for the Arab hip-hop movement.
OG members of The Lo Frequency fam (L to R: BAASIK, Chen Lo, Ken White, DJ Scandales)
Many prominent Arab hip-hop artists inspired by uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have released music in solidarity with protesters in the region. Though the messages of these new songs are not necessarily new to Arab hip-hop, the urgency and relevance of this new music has gained these artists increasing international attention.While Arab hip-hop started to gain its recognition in the ‘90s, tracing back the history can be difficult in light of the fact that it stems from such a complex fusion of diasporic communities, people, art and culture. In North America, for instance, artists such as Fredwreck and The Narcicyst are cited as pioneers of Arab hip-hop, while groups such as DAM are credited with jump-starting the movement in Palestine.In a conversation with Excentrik, an East Bay music producer, “actionist” (action activist and oud player), he explained, “Yeah, there’s an Arab hip-hop scene, but it’s a global scene, it’s not like a localized scene. Unfortunately, there’s not enough cats doing quality shit that have like a [single] place to go in any of these cities… It’s an esoteric scene, it’s random because it’s so big and so spread apart.” While there are certainly active indigenous Arab hip-hop scenes throughout much of North Africa and the Middle East, the majority of the most celebrated emcees in the global scene are based in North America and Europe, where hip-hop has had a longer history and faces less challenges in terms of censorship.
I’m often asked, “What value does Hip Hop have in the realm of cultural diplomacy?” A film review I read today in the
New York Times about the new German film, “Shahada”
(a thesis project by Burhan Qurbani that has been selected for next year’s
) struck a chord along that theme. Having not seen the film yet, I can’t comment on its merit as a work of art. However, the title and synopsis alone remind me that the word
, from the Arabic for ‘to bear witness/testify’, evokes not only the Muslim profession of faith, but an expression of personal knowledge and belief, which can also take the form of art. This brings me back to Hip Hop, a multi-faceted form of personal expression that serves to bear witness to one’s unique view of the world. It is also a profession of one’s belief that such expression can inspire others, and, in numbers, lead to change.
This explains how the same theme,
, can be used by both Hip Hop artists, such as American rap stars Mos Def and Freeway, who have openly discussed their conversion to Islam, and by jihadists, such as American-born Al Qaeda recruiter, Abu Mansour al-Amriki, who invokes shahada in his
Youtube propaganda videos
In response to those who ask me, “Why Hip Hop?”, I would offer that Hip Hop, in its true form, represents an artistic expression of
not necessarily in a religious sense, but in a personal one, and, moreover, in a peaceful one. It is for that reason that I continue to advocate the support of Hip Hop-related programming by cultural diplomacy organizations, as well as others seeking to “engage the hearts and minds of Muslim youth”. One such organization that seems to get it is the
, who co-sponsored an event this past weekend at the
Dash Arts center
in London that featured Arab Hip Hop all-stars from Palestine (
), Lebanon (
), Jordan (
), Algeria (Rabah Donquishoot), and London’s own Palestinian queen MC,
, and US legend Talib Kweli. The event challenged the artists (many of whom had never met before) to take themes from the 6th century Arabian poems,
, and riff off of them to create new music in workshops, culminating in a tour throughout Europe. I’m excited to see and hear what these pioneers of the Arab Hip Hop movement came up with but I have no doubt that it will be an honest account of the world as they’ve seen it, just like the original Mu’allaqat, which described in great detail and poetry the world of pre-Islamic Bedouins. Shadia describes the feeling of reconnecting with that legacy in this quote from an article on
“The Mu’Allaqat poems… I thought I knew a lot about that era but after reading the poems, I learned a lot about my culture. The poems are about Bedouin life but the crazy thing is nothing much has changed… the traditions, the customs, our mannerisms… even the mentality, the conservative nature of that time is still alive in certain parts of the Arab world. To be honest, being Palestinian, being Arab and coming from a very cultural background I have taken my experience, my upbringing and what I feel and put that into all the songs we’re performing at the Roundhouse. Obviously we are all from different Arab regions and have different upbringings, but what I’ve learned from the poems is relative to how we are brought up and live as Arabs. I think it all made sense in the end.”
What other medium could so meaningfully connect young Arabs with their cultural heritage and at the same time allow them to connect with one another, and with other young people around the world, to bear witness, faithfully and creatively, to their lives at the turbulent dawn of the 21st century? Only Hip Hop, where followers make their own form of
expressing belief in the power of music and poetry to affect change.