Culture

The Great White North's lone voice of bling-free Lebanese rap

Review

BEIRUT: Are you tired of hip-hop stars bling blingin' about their cars and commodities, grabbing their crotch as they rap about the 'hood and referring to women in a less than chivalrous manner? Then the sound of A.O.K., Assault of Knowledge, may well come as a breath of fresh Bel Air.

A.O.K., otherwise known as Omar Mouallem, looks and sounds more "boy next door" than "big bad rapper." His songs are often thought-provoking and perceptive, with a sweeter, more digestible disposition than many other of his gun brandishing, gangsta-wannabe contemporaries.

What more could be expected, really, from someone who financed his recently released debut album - the ironically titled "If you don't buy this CD the terrorists win" - by writing a book? About cats, as it were. He has also written an article about mut'ah (temporary marriages), which earned him a gong at the New York Sex-Positive Journalism Awards. How many other rappers can you think of that double as award-winning journalists? At only 22 years old, A.O.K. is indeed a man of many talents, influences and interests, and they often shine through in his music.

Mouallem introduces himself on the first track of the album, "Walk Like a Man," a fun take on Will Smith's Fresh Prince of Bel Air rap. Mouallem, whose parents are from Kub Elias in the Bekaa, tells us he is, "Northern Alberta [Canada]/ born and raised/ on the Prairies/ where I spent most of my days." While Mouallem is happy to self-identify as primarily Canadian, there are flashes that his Muslim-Lebanese roots have led to some soul-searching.

Growing up in a small, northern Canadian town called High Prairie, Mouallem told The Daily Star he felt a little out of place. "My family was one of two or three Arab families there. Naturally, people didn't really 'get me.' Although I had a lot of friends, I was viewed as the non-pork eating alien from a funny-speaking family," he said.

"I can't say my family's heritage is a big factor in my music," Mouallem added, though he acknowledged that "it has inevitably shaped my perspective." Echoing a feeling of cultural ambivalentce expressed by so many second-generation emigrants, Mouallem remarked, "In terms of being an 'Arab-Canadian,' I existed somewhere in the hyphen between those words. I think that's why I latched onto hip-hop. I had to cultivate an identity [for] myself, and so I could nab the elements of speaking, dancing, rapping and dressing ... hip-hop, and make it my own."

Over the years A.O.K. changed his hip-hop alias from "Poppa Smurf" to "Justice?", presumably as he tried to forge a comfortable identity for himself. Eventually, as Moullem recounts on his Wordpress blog, he "landed on A.O.K. because, like his music, it is a double entendre. His music [is] both light and heavy, satirical and serious, smooth and raw."

Mouallem's album is indeed a patchwork of different ideas, influences and styles. "For people who don't know me," said Mouallem, "I tell them that I'm more Kanye West than 50 Cent, but I'm more Bob Dylan than Kanye West. I've heard people call it folk-hop, and I can see the elements of humor and politics ... from folk music in my music."

Arguably, A.O.K is more similar to white-boy rappers Beastie Boys or Ugly Duckling than Kanye West, and more Ugly Duckling than Beastie Boys, with his socio-political musings recollecting the underground hip hop-duo Dead Prez. Whoever you choose to liken him to, A.O.K transcends the rigid boundaries of musical genres and will likely appeal to more listeners than just hip-hoppers or beat boppers.

As he says in "Hip Hop a la Mode," the album's fourth track, "I rap for college kids and bookstore pigeons/ Cook-county bitches who look but don't listen/ I rap for Jews, Muslims and Christians/ I rap for any ism in the world's prism/ I rap for politicians and their opposition/ I rap for common-place faces cooking in the kitchen."

On the tracks "Miss Greenlay" and "Coffee Shop Girl," Mouallem delivers odes to the art-school, coffee shop women he loves. In both tunes, the samples used are as danceable and funky as you would expect from Kanye West or his cronies, but not as slickly produced and mixed, giving his songs that rough edge one has grown to expect from underground hip-hop.

An anthem in its own right, "Fake I.D." samples an understated but catchy background beat and takes a jab at gansta-rap "wiggers." A.O.K.'s wannabe rapper-bashing is a theme that repeats itself in such other songs as "Tales from Planet Grolic" or "Walk Like A Man," where he says, "You're a slave to the fakes that they make every day/ Like a factory of phonies/ manufactured homies/assembled in a line/like My Little Ponies."

Three beats later and Mouallem is criticizing religious institutions, the theory of creationism and Western perceptions of democracy in the songs "You are a God" and "Freedom is a State of Mind."

"The Cedar Seeds," by far the most overtly political song on the album, will have special resonance for Lebanese listeners, or anyone with a connection to the country. Penned during the summer 2006 conflict, the tune is primarily an outpouring of Mouallem's feelings as he watched the war unravel on television.

"Surprisingly the song is a big hit in Canada," said Mouallem. "At least with my peer group. There's a lot of angry sentiment among young people in Canada against the Israeli government for that war."

In the song, the last on the album, Mouallem delivers an emotionally charged, angry monologue against Israel's belligerence toward Lebanon. He raps, "Oh yes I'm Arabic/ and I try to stay objective/ but when I turn on the news/ my hearing is selective/ the screaming of a mother is detected/ and so I support the people without a question."

Nonetheless, Mouallem insists the song is not an attack on Jews. "It disturbs me when sometimes people cheer me for 'getting back at the Jews,' and I have to explain that this is not about Jewish people," he said. "This is about Lebanese people and Israeli people ... about people who lived, loved, danced and ate, and were virtually the same as you and I. This is not meant to rally anyone's political, racist or religious views, but try to turn what I saw from my living room into a poem."

Nevertheless, it is hard to listen to the song's traditional Middle Eastern beats and clips of wartime news coverage without feeling a fluttering of the heart. Sadly, this standout track ends a little too abruptly, leaving listeners hoping for more. Then again, perhaps such abruptness is fitting for a song about a 34-day war that came and went like a whirlwind, leaving those it touched reeling and startled in the aftermath.

"If you don't buy this CD the terrorists win" is a strong and encouraging start for someone who only raps "for fun." One listen will make you wonder what all the fuss over 50 Cent or Eminem is about when A.O.K.'s music has more substance, intelligence and an equal sense of rhythm. This hack would choose his raps about politics and religion and light-hearted love ballads over the chauvinistic consumerism of mainstream hip-hop any day.

For more information on A.O.K., see assaultofknowledge.com

 

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