Hip-hop's Arabic-language kin
Lebanese rap artists take genre back to its socially conscious roots in a society deeply divided.
The unusual sound of a hip-hop beat and a funky bass line thudded out of a sandwich shop in a trendy Beirut neighborhood last summer. As one patron bobbed his head and a teenager with slicked-back hair flipped another piece of flatbread onto the sandwich shop's stove, a gravelly voice began rapping earnestly in Arabic.Skip to next paragraph
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"Who is that?" a passing foreigner asked. "What's he saying?"
"It's the rapper RGB," said the man in broken English. The song, he explained, was about the situation in Lebanon – the violence, the corruption, and the poverty.
RGB is one of several Beirut rappers whose discs are passed around among a visible segment of Lebanese youth. Unlike most of the flashy pop music that Lebanon exports to the rest of the Arab world – think singers like Haifa Wahabi and Nancy Ajram – these rappers' music usually comes with a social message. Their core fans in Beirut have adopted hip hop, from its music to its style of dress and graffiti, as their chosen mode of expression.
In Lebanon, foreign music is nothing new. The country's huge number of emigrants – far more people of Lebanese descent live outside the country than within – means that music from all over the world finds its way to Beirut, from salsa to samba, jazz, punk, and heavy metal.
But unlike much of Beirut's music scene that draws heavily on foreign influences, rappers like RGB are fiercely Lebanese in everything they do. They talk about personal experiences in which they see the same kinds of injustice, violence, and lack of forums for addressing social problems that were the impetus for early African-American rap groups with a political message, such as Public Enemy.
"It's black music, in my opinion," RGB said in an October interview posted to YouTube. "But I feel like it doesn't have to be specifically just for blacks.... It has messages, stories of using your smarts, and a people victimized. It has power."
"I take hip hop like it's a big school and I'm learning from it," he added.
Rayess Bek, who is something like the father of Arabic-language Lebanese rap, helped start the trend of hip hop as social commentary. "I lived the war.... I've been taken advantage of.... I'm speaking in silence," he sang a few years ago over a beat every bit as ominous as the shell-shocked landscapes of some Beirut quarters. A newer music video features him rapping against the backdrop of buildings destroyed by Israeli bombs in 2006.
"Most of the artists here are from the streets, they live in a very unfair system," music producer Zeid Hamdan says by phone. Mr. Hamdan produces and promotes several different acts, including Malikah, Lebanon's best-known female rapper. "They use hip hop more to express themselves than as a source of money," he adds. "[Lebanon] is a good ground for hip hop. The 'bling bling' hasn't arrived yet. The bling-bling scene is in the pop music."
Hip-hop beats, which are quite different from traditional Arabic rhythms, have not caught on with an older crowd. But there are strong connections between hip-hop lyricism and Arabic's heritage of poetry. For centuries, writers who mastered the art of self-expression in Arabic have been folk heroes. According to Joe Namy, a Lebanese-American music producer and a fine-arts graduate student at New York University, that heritage has converged with the current social dimensions in Lebanon.