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Tales from Beirut’s hip-hop trenches
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BEIRUT: Edouard Abbas, one of the founders of the Lebanese hip-hop group Fareeq al-Atrash, is outraged.

“Did you know that last week, Joe Budden and Royce da 5’9” were here in Lebanon?” he asks incredulously. “They were playing at Palais, and they didn’t even advertise for it. When I went to the door, they wouldn’t let me in. I was thinking in my head, ‘I bet 90 percent of the people in that club have no idea who Joe Budden and Royce da 5’9” even are.’ People were actually leaving the club. They were leaving!”

His laughter is not without bitterness.

“I guess people really don’t appreciate art in this country,” he says finally.

Abbas is one of a small and frustrated group of Lebanese hip-hop artists struggling to build a movement, as they see it, without support from the media, the entertainment industry or the Lebanese public. While Arabic hip-hop has received a fair amount of Western media attention – from the mean streets of Casablanca to the Palestinian refugee camps to Tahrir Square – most Lebanese rappers express discontent with the lack of local interest in their music.

Hussein Mao Atwi, aka DJ Lethal Skillz, has been rapping in Lebanon since the 90s, and he maintains that it’s almost impossible to make a living as a hip-hop artist in this country, especially given the strong social and political content of most Lebanese rap.

“The lucky thing for me is that I’m also a DJ,” he says. “I make people drink and dance and forget their problems, and when you do that, it always makes you money. The problem with Arabic hip-hop as a genre is that it’s difficult to sell music that brings you back to reality and makes you aware of the problems around you.”

Mohammad Kabbani, one-half of Ashekman, the well-known Lebanese rap crew that he formed with his identical twin brother Omar, says that the scene in Lebanon has struggled to develop its own identity.

“The Lebanese hip-hop scene has evolved a lot since its inception,” he says. “Ten years ago, there were maximum three or four crews, and now there’s more than 30. Unfortunately, the lack of production houses restricts the hip-hop scene.”

Emigration has long been a fact of life in Lebanon, especially among the country’s educated and ambitious youth, and it’s no surprise that Lebanese rappers too migrate. Atwi says that many local hip-hop artists have traveled overseas in order to pursue their music full time.

“A lot of people left Lebanon, that’s another reason the scene has started to die a little,” he says. “It’s not just the lack of studios that makes it hard to live off this music. It’s the mentality here. It’s very hard to impress Lebanese people. They’re all into these sexy chicks singing ‘habibi, habeitak.’ But [it’s] partly our responsibility to work that much harder to impress our audiences so that when they hear us, they want to hear us again and buy our albums.”

Lebanese rapper Omar Zeineddine is less sanguine. Even when Lebanese artists do their best to make a connection with their audience, he says, they don’t usually get the reaction they’re looking for.

“It’s sad to see the lack of support from the audience,” he says. “I’ve seen a bunch of artists really step up their game technically, and the lack of reaction from the audience has been shocking,” he says.

According to Atwi, hip-hop is a genre that is looked down upon by Lebanese society.

“In Lebanon, people look at rappers as though we’re street kids,” he says. “They don’t understand that real hip-hop, with meaningful content, takes education and intelligence.”

Kabbani says that Lebanon’s mainstream media makes it almost impossible for any kind of music that deviates from standard pop music formulas to be played on the radio and television.

“We don’t have a [royalties] system here,” he says. “In other countries, when your song gets played on the radio, you get paid. Here, you actually have to pay the station to play your song.”

The only media platform that gives Lebanese hip-hop artists a real opportunity to attract a following, Kabbani believes, is the Internet and new media.

“Now with YouTube and social media, underground music has been able to thrive more,” he says. “I call it guerilla marketing. We don’t need the mainstream media as much.”

Abbas believes that, because of the obstacles faced by Lebanese hip-hop artists, it’s the responsibility of more established artists to nurture the emerging talents.

“There are a lot of artists that are here, and they’re young,” he says. “The good thing about them is, they’re picking up where we left off. I do an event called Shabe, where I look for good local talent. Nobody cares about the hip-hop movement in Lebanon, so you have to do your own events. It’s my job to give other artists a chance that no one gave me.”

Commercial recognition has its own dangers. The global music industry is rife with tales of edgy, politically committed young performers abandoning their principles in favor of lucrative recording contracts.

If Lebanese hip-hop does eventually break into the mainstream, Atwi says, it’s the artists’ responsibility to remain true to their roots and not allow their message to be diverted by commercial interests.

“We need to keep it real,” he says. “If someone wants you to hold a Pepsi can while you rap, hold the Pepsi can, but don’t lose the message that was driving you from the beginning.”

Abbas emphasizes the need for hip-hop artists to put themselves and their personal fame second to the Arabic hip-hop movement as a whole.

“It’s not about one individual,” he says. “It’s about the movement that we’re trying to create, and everybody is trying to break that movement. We need to stick together.”

Despite all the problems faced by Lebanese hip-hop as a movement, Zeineddine says he has confidence that it will eventually find its audience.

“There are kids who are 15 years old now doing impressive stuff,” he says. “When they’re 25, they’re going to be really something. I think we are making something here. We’re creating something that people will look back on in 10 years, and that makes me aware of my responsibility to the movement ... It’s not just messing around anymore.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 27, 2012, on page 16.
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