Known to the ancient Romans as “Happy Arabia” because of its lucrative spice trade, the area now known as Yemen was controlled by several Arabian kingdoms, then later by the Ottoman Empire, until the British occupied the port of Aden and made it a colony. In 1962, North Yemen became an independent republic and, 5 years later, the British left Aden after an intense rebellion and the area became known as South Yemen. The two countries were united in 1990 as the Republic of Yemen. Currently, Yemen is the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, with relatively little oil compared to its wealthy neighbors, unemployment rates above 40%, and a rapidly-growing population. Since its unification, Yemen has become increasingly unstable, with increased corruption, rampant kidnappings, a civil war in the north, and the expansion of Al Qaeda training camps and recruitment cells, which were linked to the failed plot to blow up a flight over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 and possibly the US Embassy.
Hip Hop has only emerged in Yemen very recently, with a groundbreaking first public concert in Sanaa in November, 2009. Co-sponsored by the French and German foreign missions, the concert featuredrappers and breakdancers alongside traditional acts, in front of a crowd of over 500 screaming youth. The headliner of the show was a Yemeni-American MC, Hagage Masaed, aka. AJ, who’s songs “No Terrorism” and “One Yemen United” had fans cheering throughout the packed theater. In the words of one of the event’s organizers, “you have people who are trying to gain support among the youth for every sort of cause: Al Qaeda, Salafis.… We have to win the hearts and minds of the kids.” I’m very excited to see how this nascent movement unfolds in the next year while Yemen tries to pull itself back from the brink of total political and economic collapse.