Though music has always been big in the Middle East, traditional Arab music has been the most accepted. With the growing integration of the world, Arab music is receiving a shot of internationalism. Arab rap grows in popularity every year and, unlike many of the most popular American rap songs, is often a fusion of entertainment and politics. Last year, the LA Times featured an article highlighting the growing importance of rap in the Middle East:
Another day, another hardship, another inspiration for the young men and occasional woman who turn out the lyrics and rhythms that are rapidly becoming the soundtrack for Middle East youths.
From the 021 to the 961 to the 962, the telephone codes for Tehran, Lebanon and Jordan, the vernacular of American rap music and street culture has infiltrated the lives of young people. These kids of the Middle East have adopted the beats and hyperbolic boasts of hip-hop, but they’ve also reshaped rap to fit their own purposes, tapping into its spirit of defiance to voice heartfelt outrage about their societies.
Iranians rhyme about stifled lives and street-level viciousness born of economic hardship. Lebanese rap subtly about sectarian blood feuds. Palestinians sling verses about misery in refugee camps and humiliation at Israeli checkpoints. Egyptians lament the fragmentation of the Arab world.
Of course, the article notes, rhymes are not limited to politics and often include references to drugs and women. But the stage has become an important means to deliver political messages to the people in the region. Ranging from women’s rights to independence anthems, Middle Eastern rap seems to have found a political niche that is often avoided in the West. Sings Malikah, a Lebanese-woman rapper:
I am talking to you woman to woman./ It’s time to face up / It’s time to plan. / Cry out for freedom . . . / Men have decided to manage your life and destiny. / Don’t live in despair. / Go out and work and earn your dime. / Walk with me along this path.
Even overseas, Middle Eastern political rap has hit the big-time. In an article on the Middle East Channel, Joshua Asen writes about Arab Rap and the political enthusiasm he witnessed at a concert in Brooklyn, New York:
…that’s when it hit me that this new Arab League of Hip Hop all-stars has a very clear objective in mind and it’s not just to endorse or reject negotiations with Israelis, nor to criticize or valorize the actions of the U.S. government in their own backyards. Rather, their mission is to rally their own troops, the footsoldiers of their Hip Hop revolution, the millions (yes, I said millions) of young fans, Arab and otherwise, across the globe, who follow not only their music but the messages contained within.
[tweetmeme] But, unlike in the US, Middle Eastern rappers do not have complete freedom in their lyrics. The artists are often stifled by authorities who either view rap as a regenerative, corrupting force or want to suppress the messages that often urge political activism. The rap duo I-Voice is incredibly popular in the Middle East and in Europe, yet have a difficult time touring because of their status as Palestinians. The duo – originally from the Palestinian refugee camp Bourj al-Bourajni in Beirut – is welcomed in Europe, but has a difficult time traveling and performing in the Middle East because of the political status of Palestinians in Lebanon. Malikah – the Lebanese rapper – has decided not to record a political song out of fear of censorship; the Arabian Knightz (from Egypt) must be careful to avoid the censorship pen; and Fadi Abu Ghazallah, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, had a recording destroyed by authorities because it was deemed too political.
(Although rap is not the only kind of music that is facing a tough time in the region. In Egypt, a musicians group is calling for the state to cancel a performance by Elton John because his views on homosexuality are seen as an affront to Islam. From Babylon and Beyond:
“How do we allow a gay who wants to ban religions, claimed that prophet Eissa [Jesus] was gay, and calls for Middle Eastern countries to allow gays to have sexual freedom,” Mounir El Wassimi, the head of the union, said Sunday.
…The 63-year-old performer recently sparked controversy when he spoke to Parade magazine in February of his belief that Jesus was gay and that all religions should be banned, adding that if a woman tries to be gay in the Middle East, she will be “as good as dead.”
Homosexuality is one of the biggest sins in Islam, which is practiced by nearly 90% of Egyptians. Despite human rights activists’ claims that homosexuality is spreading across the country, the issue remains a social and religious taboo. In 2001, 20 people received prison sentences for debauchery and obscene behavior after police raided what was described by authorities as a “gay disco” on a boat floating on the Nile in Cairo.)
Interestingly, the US has realized the political potential of rap, as the State Department sent a group of rappers on a tour of North Africa and the Middle East last year. The groups preformed in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria (though it failed to appear in Palestine).