Hip-hop's Arabic-language kin
Lebanese rap artists take genre back to its socially conscious roots in a society deeply divided.
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"Hip hop is becoming more popular now because there's a lot more frustration," he said. "The music lends itself to this need to express yourself. It's a very visual form of expression."Skip to next paragraph
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Lebanese hip hop reaches across the sectarian divide as well – no small thing in a country that fought a 15-year civil war along sectarian lines and was rocked by factional violence as late as last May. RGB is Christian, Hamdan is Druze, and there are others in the hip hop collective 961 Underground – named after Lebanon's country code – who are Muslim.
A group that epitomizes that diversity is Katibe 5 (pronounced ka-TEE-bé KHAM-sé), whose members hail from Burj al-Barajneh, a rundown Palestinian refugee camp on the south side of Beirut. Burj al-Barajneh is a warren of ramshackle buildings draped with high-voltage wires, the sort of place that can make some poor American neighborhoods look luxurious.
Katibe 5 member OS Loop says by phone that hip hop in the camps had been born out of an appreciation for the struggles of poor African-Americans. "It's another culture, another style of music, and another people's mind," he says. "But the roots are the same as we have here: the same politics, the same black and white."
Many of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon suffer from discrimination.
"For sure, that's why the Palestinians choose rap, because they feel they are like the black Americans," OS Loop says. "They feel like the oppressed."
The group's first album, "Ahlan fikun bil Mukhayamat," ("Welcome to the Camps") was released last year. It tackles social issues head on – and aggressively.
"In the first album, we're talking about the condition of the Palestinian refugees," OS Loop says. "In one song, we are dissing the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], because in Palestinian culture there are too many NGOs, and they are all thieves.... The same goes for some people who work in the Palestinian [political] parties."
But it would be a mistake to see Lebanon's rap scene as a form of Americanization.
OS Loop recalls a concert American superstar 50 Cent put on in Beirut in 2006, before the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese. A native of Queens, New York, 50 Cent often raps about how he survived being shot nine times. But OS Loop isn't overly impressed with that – or the commercial turn that 50 Cent's music has taken.
"Now Snoop is coming, and Akon is coming [to Lebanon], but for me they are all commercial," he says. "I wish 50 Cent stayed in Lebanon for the war," he adds with a laugh. "I wanted to tell him what's the true meaning of gangsta."