BEIRUT: Sitting on the fringes of upheaval in the Middle East, Lebanon’s capital Beirut has become the scene of experimental music-making by Khat Thaleth (Third Track), a group of rappers out to take the revolts that started during the Arab Spring to the next level.
The collective has members from around the region – from Tunisia to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps – and vocalizes the realities of a new generation carrying the baggage of the past.
The name Khat Thaleth is a metaphor for an alternative take on the region’s polarized societies and politics, and a reference to the Hijaz Muslim pilgrimage railway which once connected the Arab world.
“We’re not doing rap,” said Homs-born band member Al-Sayyed Darwish. “This is not the same as American or French music. It has to do with our culture, our history.”
The 24-year-old Darwish said the protests which have swept the Middle East and North Africa since 2010 lit the fuse for the collaboration which he describes as “a first of its kind.”
“People and the street are so far ahead of us,” Darwish said. “We need to catch up with them.”
As Syrian hip-hop developed alongside the nearly 2-year-old revolt against the regime, he continued, “people started to listen ... and it became more direct.”
On the morning of a concert in early February to plug the rappers’ album release, Darwish said he was well aware that much of the audience would be expecting the Syrian rappers to speak of the struggle in their country.
“It’s a big responsibility that you have 250 people [at] a concert,” Darwish said. “And they are expecting you to give them something to relieve them ... So it’s a big responsibility, a big pleasure and a big honor for me to be a representative for my people and my revolution.”
Though Khat Thaleth’s members come from similar backgrounds, they do not shrink from belting out sharply divergent views – even on the same track. On “Souret Souriya” (Verse of Syria), El-Rass, who hails from the Lebanese city of Tripoli, goes head-to-head with Paris-based Lebanese artist Hamourabi on the Syrian revolt.
“El-Rass is talking about the revolution and how the rebels are moving, and Hamourabi is saying they are terrorists and it’s a conspiracy,” said Darwish, yet “they’re on the same track, and it’s great to have this diversity.
“We would love to show people that you don’t have to kill each other for having different points of view.”
Those points of view pertain to big subjects. The song “E-stichrak” (Orientalism) borrows its title from Edward Said’s iconic study of how Western imperialism used caricatures of Islamic culture to justify colonialism. Here El-Rass and Palestinian-Jordanian El-Faraai bemoan contemporary imperialism.
“They brought the dumbest American to come teach me my human rights,” the lyrics of “E-stichrak” say in translation, “while a Sudanese engineer gets stopped at the border and thrown in a cell.”
Darwish and veteran Palestinian rapper Tamer Naffar, meanwhile, both criticize the stale anti-Western rhetoric of Arab regimes on the track “Kursi Aatiraf” (Interrogation Chair).
“Don’t keep telling me about the colonizers and occupiers,” they rap. “Look how [well] they treat each other, the ones you despise. Then look how we deal with each other and start to be jealous.”
The raw poetry of the young rappers has earned them a devoted audience since the start of the project in March 2012. At the concert, fans said the artists get right to the heart of the issue.
“They speak about the pulse of the street and social themes,” said 29-year-old Hasan, a videographer. “Their goal is to better the current situation.”
“French rap or American rap doesn’t talk to me or represent what I feel or live,” said Mira Minkara, a manager at the Beirut Arts Center.
“When I heard Arabic rap, it really spoke to me.”
Mohammad Sayyed said he went to the concert to hear the rappers’ take on current events in the region.
“They sing about our fears,” said the 26-year-old chef, “about the politics, the things we always think about – they are the ones who say it out loud.”
As they perform “Min al-Awwal” (From the Start), the Touffar duo from the Bekaa Valley warn the audience not to be complacent about change the Arab revolution has brought.
“There are thieves making a living from the revolution, and other thieves waiting in line,” they blast. “The victory of the revolution takes two revolutions: One against the regime strangling freedom, another against those awaiting its victory to steal.”