Hip-hop echoes of an Arab Spring

BEIRUT: Lebanon hasn’t had much in the way of an Arab Spring. In the wake of the popular demonstrations credited with toppling the sclerotic regimes in Tunis and Egypt, in fact, some referred to Lebanon as one of the most stable regimes in the region. A rare thing.

That doesn’t mean that this country’s hip-hop scene hasn’t been responsive to the season. During the anti-sectarianism demos staged on Beirut streets from February to April 2011, protesters could be heard to sing “The people want the downfall of the regime!” – the opening lines of “Thawra,” a then-newly composed tune by Lebanese rap pioneer Rayess Bek.

“To all those standing on the balcony,” he rhymes, “come down. Your people are here.”

For their part, Lebanese hip-hop veterans OMARZ and R.G.B., both sporting the baggy getup of hip-hop aficionados across the globe, express indifference to the “Arab Spring” moniker.

“The term Arab Spring doesn’t represent what is happening,” opines OMARZ, who’s equally adept at rhyming in English and formal Arabic. “There is still so much uncertainty. There are no flowers growing. We are less than two hours away from people dying for speaking their mind.”

He then bursts into an apocalypse-tinged verse inspired by Syrian political crisis: “World ablaze, fallen turbans, broken trebuchets, unjustly murdered men, daily pillages and village raids, knee-less horses, crumbling fortresses, and conquered slaves.”

R.B.G, who grew up in Beirut’s Basta quarter and so experienced Lebanon’s Civil War first hand, concurs.

“We feel their [the Syrian people’s] suffering. We lost friends and family during the Civil War ... We still live with those memories every day. We are not concerned with political or religious creeds. We just support everyone fighting against tyranny.”

OMARZ and R.G.B.’s sentiments reflect those of many within Lebanon’s small but vocal hip-hop community – while the uprisings shaking the Arab world represent an opportunity for positive change, the outcome is still far from clear.

“I’m fighting the heads of state, that allow the people to suffer,” spits Malikah. “These reprobates that don’t deserve the blood of the martyrs.” The female rapper is one of Lebanese hip-hop’s leading exports and a member of the 961 crew, of which R.G.B. is also a member.

“I’ve always supported the power of the people in their struggle to realize their rights,” the Lebanese-Algerian M.C. declares. “I don’t want to see any more blood ... We are all moving towards uncertainty together.”

Away from the bubblegum rap and R&B, the most easily marketed dialectes of “hip-hop,” rap has long been thought of as a voice from the social and political margins. It emerged in 1970s-era New York, influenced by spoken-word artists such as Gil Scott Heron, The Last Poets and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin – whose music had a great influence on the post-civil rights culture of the ’60s and ’70s.

Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Master Flash, and Public Enemy and X-Clan gained notoriety for wedding hip-hop with social activism. This association is particularly prevalent in Arabic rap.

Lebanon’s hip-hop remains on the sidelines of mainstream pop culture and radio airplay, and rappers have represented their music as confronting socio-political ills and corruption and battling censorship long before the Arab Spring. Their underground status doesn’t negate their desire to represent themselves as a “voice of the people.”

“We didn’t wait for the Arab Spring to be revolutionary,” states Omar Zeineddine. “The revolution has been here since day one.” He notes the strong socio-political content of Arab hip-hop since its birth with groups such as DAM, a crew of ’48 Palestinians whose output focuses largely on the Israeli occupation.

“The socio-political content has always been there,” agrees Edouard Abbas – of Lebanese funk-rap group Fareeq el-Atrash – between leisurely drags on a cigarette. “But now it’s closer to the people – they can see the issues we were talking about with their own eyes, on TV and YouTube.”

In the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, Abbas penned a song with Egyptian rapper Deeb titled “Stand up Egypt.” The chorus calls upon people to stand up for their rights.

“The revolution hasn’t finished, it has only just begun,

“Our turn has arrived and you’re still in bed,

“Stand up, Stand up – You don’t have time to brush your teeth,

“Stand up, Stand up – if your system is tearing you apart.”

In “The System is Falling” Katibe 5, comprised of Palestinian residents of Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp, call for an end to corrupt dictatorships across the Middle East. Their lyrics contrast the willingness of one Arab regime to send its army to quell popular uprisings in Bahrain with the lack of Arab will to liberate Palestine.

“The Arab army is ready to start shooting in Bahrain,” they rap. “Let’s take a look at Gaza and the West Bank, we need them there.”

“We were centrally focused on Palestine and the Palestinian community,” explains Osloob (a.k.a. C4) from the crew’s graffiti-adorned Dahyeh studio. “Now I feel Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, are closer to my heart ... They are dealing with their own forms of occupation.”

Politically confrontational content may alienate some local listeners, ensuring that Lebanese hip-hop remains forever clandestine, yet many artists feel a responsibility to use their music to raise awareness of injustice.

“We need to talk about the problems in our societies and how they affect us,” states Osloob. “It is a reality of this world that beautiful, powerful art emerges from pain and suffering ... moving mainstream damages the art and the message.”

“Artists have a role to play. Rap is a social movement,” notes Lebanese-Swiss M.C. La Gale (aka “The Dirt”). “I’m not an entertainer selling dreams, because what we see every day – for example in Syria, is a nightmare.”

Speaking between recording sessions, Zeineddine expressed this sentiment eloquently.

“This is [hip-hop], a monumental culture. Its truth is the fire that keeps it going, and if you lie when you spit, then your spit extinguishes its fire.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 03, 2012, on page 16.




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