Hip-hop's Arabic-language kin

Lebanese rap artists take genre back to its socially conscious roots in a society deeply divided.

Rayess Bek: The Beirut-based rapper is considered the father of Arabic-language Lebanese rap.
Erik Sumption/Sipa Press/NEWSCOM
Bombed-out Beirut: Factional violence and the plight of Palestinian refugees have been a focus of rapper lyrics.

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.

"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.

"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."

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."

OS Loop follows the American rap scene closely. His favorite artists are KRS-One, Wu Tang, and Paris. Pictures on Katibe 5's Facebook page show posters of rap icon Tupac Shakur.

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."

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