this was the one and only episode of an interview series featured on World hip hop Market in March, 2013. this exclusive interview was with syrian-american producer Ahmed khouja who produced the arab rap compilation ‘khat thaleth’ (Third rail), released worldwide in the spring of 2013. It was unfortunately a short-lived project that reflected a greater discord in the ranks of the rappers involved in the wake of the arab revolutions. the interview still reflects an important time in the development of the greater phenomenon of arab rap in the historical levant.
BEIRUT – Syrian-American producer dub Snakkr is the founder of the San Francisco-based record label Stronghold Sound. The interview was conducted before the worldwide release of a massive 23-track Arab rap compilation called Khat Thaleth or The Third Rail. dub Snakkr was the main architect behind Khat Thaleth, which came one year after Stronghold Sound’s release of the critically acclaimed Guinean hip-hop reggae compilation Sembeh Ma Fa Fe– which Snakkr also produced.
In the interview, Allers and dub Snakkr discuss the meaning of the album’s subtitle, ‘The Initative for the Elevation of Public Awareness,”the future of Arab rap, and why young Arab rappers are so keen calling Arab hip-hop by a new name!
Khat Thaleth is a rap compilation with no precedent in the Arab world. 12 MCs. 5 producers. 2 turntablists. 5 instrumentalists – all hailing from the Arab world. 8 Arab countries in total with the presence of only one MC from the Arab rap Diaspora.
While there have been other Arab rap compilations in the past 4-5 years – notably the Nomadic Wax album Thawraand the two DJ Lethal Skillz albums New World Disorder and Karmageddon – none has had the power and indigenous resonance of Khat Thaleth – from both a production standpoint and a lyrical one.
Khat Thaleth is direct in its lyrical approach – creating a juggernaut of incendiary diatribes and stories related to the Arab uprisings. As well, the poetic possibilities of the Arabic language are on full display in Khat Thaleth with rappers in top lyrical form – spitting about their anger, and their grief, and their general mistrust at the various ways the revolutions in the Arab world are being manipulated.
I’m afraid to work for the revolution and turn out to be working against myself
From the song “The New Middle East”
I remember the neighbor’s voice shouting at her children, shutting her doors because the war had neared/ Listen – I’m not telling you a story to amuse you/ I’m stating a reality to wake your conscience./ I left the circle of death and I lost my face./ I know where it is. I hid it with them.
From the song “Ya Deeb (the wolf)”
Khat Thaleth has emerged during an unprecedented time – where artistic expression in the Arab world is both exploding and being suppressed in new ways, and producer dub Snakkr was aware that the window for this freedom could close as abruptly as it had opened:
“To me – my initial reaction to the revolutions was that we have to grab as much of the space that was carved out by others as we can…the artistic space that was sacrificed for! And that is particularly important for those who feel silenced now or feel threatened – a renewed threat. It’s simple – if we lose that artistic space then it will really feel as if what has happened in the Arab world (these past 3-years) was in vain.”
The entire album is in Arabic with an online linkto a meticulously translated lyric sheet (Arabic to English) – a monumental undertaking considering the complexity of flow and content that is on the album.
Khat Thaleth iconography
One interesting note about the symbolism of Khat Thaleth, the album is also a reference to the “Hejaz railroad” that used to connect much of the Arab world in the early 20th century – a time when the borders were being imposed on Arab populations by the colonial West.
Khat Thaleth is at the end of the day a suggestion that the borders come down first artistically.
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT START
JACKSON ALLERS (ja): I want to start with the subtitle of the album, which is “The Initiative for the Elevation of Public Awareness.” Who is the public in this phrase, and what does the “third rail” imply?
dub Snakkr: Well let’s start with the Third Rail – it’s kind of a response to the climate in the Arab world that has been building for two, three years even more – where before you could say there was one path – or one line – and you know you could take it or leave it. That’s what was going on. There were regimes in place and nobody could really do anything about it.
Then once the Arab awakenings began – over the past near three years – an opposition emerged and there was a second line or a second path for expression and for thought. And you know that caused a lot of conflict and a lot of polarisation in general in Arab society. We really started to see that that polarity – that kind of opposition between the two sides – you’re either with or your against – and so on – was really not helping to move things forward.
There was a lot of justified criticism in both directions. Obviously I think in the end it’s still unfair to equate a regime with people who are trying to organise and create an opposition. Still, there were subtleties and criticism that should be spoken about.
And so that’s where the idea of a third line or a third rail came in – an unaligned position to sort of criticise both perspectives and maybe suggest a line of thinking that is more subtle and maybe goes between them.
ja: Discuss your motivations for managing this whole project?
dub Snakkr: One was that we saw in several cases – from Tunis to Libya to Egypt – that regardless of what you may have considered regarding the aftermath of the changes that happened and with the regimes that were falling – a definite and clear result was an increased ability of people to express themselves -to criticise, to protest and to feel like their voice had more weight than it had before, and more freedom than it had before.
To me – my initial reaction was that we have to grab that. We have to grab as much of the space that was carved out by others that sacrificed for that. Maybe others who now feel silenced or feel threatened – a renewed threat. We have to take as much of that – occupy as much of that as possible so that regardless of what happens next, at least we’re not going to lose that. Because if we lose that then it will really feel as if what has happened in the Arab world (these past 3-years) was in vain. In every location that it happened. If you lose that – sa7it ta ta’beer – that space of expression then we’re going backwards and that’s a real shame.
ja: As Arab rap has been developing over the last ten years, the production palettes of Arab hip-hop producers has also gotten so rich – like the rest of the world. So tell me a little more about the direction of the album musically and what separates it from other Arab hip- hop offerings.
dub Snakkr: There’s really not one perspective of what makes a hip-hop beat…I think it strongly has an urban feel because there’s a mix of a few different rhythms, tempos. You have things that start to resemble a reggae feel – not in an obvious way.
I’ll be honest, I’d say I’m more in a reggae camp than I would be in a hip-hop camp. But my name is the Snakkr because I kind of mix everything together and I take bits and pieces from all over the place.
Me myself – the beats I was working on, I was really pulling from a lot of different things. I was pulling from old Arab records – Ta’rab records. Sampling everything from Um Kulthoum, to Abdel Wahab. So all of that kind of mixed together. That’s been happening already. It definitely happened on this album, but it’s been happening in many other artists’ music.
It was interesting for me and exciting for me because I’ve always found there to be an interesting connection between folkloric music or very specific cultural dance movement from different places, and how many of the rhythm sections are similar. In my opinion I see a kind of connection between dancehall reggae and Huwara dabke music (*local folk music to Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) and Punjabi bangra music. There’s a similar tradition even between bangra and Huwara and how the type of drum and how it’s played and so forth. So it’s kind of interesting for me to explore that and innovate along it.
There’s other examples of the traditions – if you’re talking organically as to what its referencing in Arab culture – its not just a new thing to have poetry on top of rhythm.
ja: Zajal is a 13th century battle poetry session…
dub Snakkr: Yeah it’s kind of an old school, very organic form of battle poetry. You have people with a full-band behind them kind of saying a verse and another one kind of responding and the crowd kind of oohing and ahhing as they kind of one-up the other.
ja: Head-cutting in hip-hop terms…
dub Snakkr: Exactly!
dub Snakkr: Well El Rass (Lebanese MC) has a good perspective on this – and I think many other artists would agree as well. It’s a little odd to use a term for the art form that you’re doing when the term itself has letters in it that you can’t pronounce in your language.
In Arabic – there is no “p.” There’s a “b”
ja: (pronouncing the word rap) “Rab”
dub Snakkr: So you end up doing this bastardisation of the word where it’s “Rab” or “Hib Hob.” And you know rap I think comes off a little easier than “hib hob.” But it’s funny! And you can understand their wanting to innovate. And even Syrian rapper Al Sayyed Darwish who teaches classes to Syrian refugees in the Beirut Palestinian refugee camp Shatilla, They began telling us – “We don’t want to call it hip-hop.” And so they started thinking of different names they could call it.
I think they – yeah they ended up calling in “Shiiq.” They called it Shiq because it’s shaar – which is poetry – and iqaa3which is beats. They took the first half of each word and so in Arabic – they took the “sh” from shaar and the “Iq” from iqaa3 and they said it was “Shiiq” – Shiekh.
And we both had a blast with how they got it on a certain level that …It’s yours! Do what you will with it. And I don’t think any kind of really self-respecting rapper from any part of the world would not understand that.
ja: When we’re speaking about the future of Arab rap or whatever they might want to call it…
dub Snakkr: Shiiq! (laughing)
ja: The idea is that this is kind of what happens with the movement of this cultural form as it goes from place to place.
dub Snakkr: I think it’s an honour – and the ultimate respect to hop-hop for a culture to want to take it on – to really innovate it in their own way, and not to just do a formulaic application and stay within the same sounds – you know to really contribute something.
In the larger scheme of things, I hope that the compilation and the work in general that everyone is doing gets placed so that we can look back and say this is where art and thought and action came together at the time it was needed!
Kuwaiti electronic music producer and multimedia artist Zahed Sultan continues to leak tracks from his second full length album – eyeamsound – MORE THAN 3-years after the success of his debut LP. This time around Sultan has expanded his live repertoire with a revamped set-up that has allowed him to present an entirely new interactive, live band-format, audio-visual experience for his fan base. we take you back to january 2014, and the audio kultur article written before a whirlwind 2014/2015 touring schedule for sultan. it marked the beginning of an entire year of artistic collaboration between beats and breath, red bull, audio kultur and sultan!
The interview was conducted over a Skype call – Zahed Sultan in Kuwait City on one end and me in Beirut on the other – the video turned off to avoid the inevitable audio glitches that come with dodgy (internet) connections in Lebanon.
I had my notecards present, and I knew I was asking a somewhat loaded question: “Can it be said that you started a social movement in Kuwait?”
There’s a pause on the other end. “Truthfully, I feel hesitant to answer your question,” he says, “Because the field of civic development shouldn’t be about the individual – it should be about the collective. It isn’t and should never be about me.”
Sultan is a socially conscious entrepreneur who’s alter-ego –the electronic musician and multimedia artist – has garnered international acclaim within the house and ambient DJ cliques in Europe, the US and the Arab world.
Since the release of his debut LP Hi Fear, Lo Love in 2009, he’s produced a healthy catalog of edgy EDM tracks, joining a new generation of live electronic producers in the Middle East along the likes of Maurice Louca (Egypt), OkyDoky (Lebanon), Munma (Lebanon), Wetrobots
I first met Sultan at the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) Bass Camp in Dubai last September. He was one of 31 regional artists -producers, musicians, vocalists and songwriters – who participated in three days of worships, studio sessions and guided lectures with music heavyweights such as Kenny Dope (*Masters at Work), Gareth Jones (*produced Depeche Mode, Nick Cave), Just Blaze (*produced Jay-Z) and Derrick May (*godfather of Detroit techno).
I recount the first time I heard his music on the opening day of RBMA Bass Camp. He was among a select group of stand-out producers whose message seemed to resonate with everyone. No doubt part of the reason was that he made it very clear that his music was inextricably linked to his life as a “socially conscious actor” in the Arab world – Kuwait in particular.
The track he played was his single “Like this -ha ka tha,” from his release The Reuse Me-EP (2012). It featured live doumbek samples that advanced over a range of electronic sounds. The entire track had a running synth loop, creating a melodic drone for Sultan’s modulated Fusha (*classical Arabic) diatribe. As he explains, “I’m calling for Arabs to stand in unity, against tyranny, and with a sense of civic pride.”
According to Sultan, the track was a testament to the social frustrations that plagued the Middle East and North Africa prior to the onset of the Arab revolutions in 2011.
Knowing all of this, I continue probing in our Skype interview. “What your social development organisation, ‘en.v’, does – helping to instill the idea that social responsibility is, as you say, ‘The shared responsibility and collective duty of all.’ I mean the effort to build a social movement is there – and your music bolsters the process, wouldn’t you admit?”
“It is a part of me,” he explains, “I feel that when I express myself through the different mediums – be it through social development or music – I kind of want to be ‘grounded’ in something that I can relate to as an individual and hopefully build a kind of network – you call it a movement. I call it a ‘network.’ Truth is there is a growing population that is so enamored by social media that they are absorbing pop culture all over the world because they’re receiving it at their fingertips or their phones. Why can’t we – as Arabs – be a part of that dialog?”
Sultan is a part of that dialog, utilizing an arsenal of digital tools to get his message out to the world. I was turned on to his music catalog through hisonline aggregator – Mouse Music (dot) org – that documents all of his artistic exploits. Mouse Music is a single webpage that is linked to nearly every online broadcast medium possible – YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, etcetera. It is a complete exercise in branding.
Indeed, Mouse Music and his social development org en.v are under the umbrella of the El Boutique Creative Group (EBCG), a “multidisciplinary organisation” he founded in 2006 to harness the power of creativity in civil society. It’s a holistic approach, he tells me, that marries civil society actors and social development projects with relevant cultural production.
But in Zahed Sultan’s cosmology, the social movements he is involved with and the music he is producing are in nascent stages of growth, and “need room to breathe,” he explains.
It’s a process he says started over a decade ago after graduating with a business degree from Boston University. Sultan knew he wanted to help facilitate positive changes in Arab society through social entrepreneurship. Equally important, however, was his desire to have music be a part of that process. So after business school, he took a one year sabbatical and got a degree from an audio-engineering school in London – without a real understanding of how the seemingly disparate worlds of music and social entrepreneurship were going to intersect.
Roughly fives years after graduating from audio-engineering school, and after en.v and El Boutique had grown to a point of relative sustainability, he began gearing his studio time toward the production of his first album. He tells me that in the four years prior to jumping into the studio to produce his album, and during the course of his work with en.v and El Boutique, he found himself getting away from his original intent of producing a new brand of electronic music.
“At that time,” Sultan explained, “I was dipping my hands into more corporate-related sound work. I had a division of El Boutique that was outfitting commercial spaces with sound systems, and the music I was producing in my studio used to go in them. And the work was kind of sucking the soul out of something I loved.”
Understanding that he didn’t want the artistic aspects that were tied into his social development work “corrupting” what he described as a sacred part of his own personal artistic experience, he began to rededicate his studio work towards his independent musical identity.
Sultan tells me he also believed in the idea of mentorship, and actively searched out people in the region and internationally who had achieved a certain degree of success in music production – people that he could “shadow” in order to push himself to that next level artistically.
Perhaps it was a bit naïve to think that artists would consent to this kind of teacher-student relationship. “I didn’t find those people,” he said, adding, “I’d looked for the same mentorship opportunities in my social development work.” In both cases, he found himself on his own, forging new paths without a blueprint for success.
When he finally did sit down to record his first album, he’d spent years conceiving of what he wanted to make musically, his ideas had become more complex, and he was finally able to embrace a new, more mature self in the studio.
In 2009, he released Hi Fear, Lo Love – an 11-track LP that showed a wide range of musical influences, and was made up of what he told me were “all the bits and pieces of music I was working on over the years.”
The album had an edgy pop-sensible electronic feel without being mainstream. It showcased musical and lyrical influences from his dual heritage – his father is Kuwaiti and his mother Indian – and was geared towards a generation of Arabs who had become indifferent to traditional forms of Arabic music because “it had become so formulaic and processed.”
“I thought – how could I create a sound that harmonises our experience being abroad and our experiences locally so that – like with a popular Spanish song – people would find it beautiful. Why aren’t people listening to an Arabic song and also finding it beautiful – worldwide – even if people don’t understand the lyrics?”
The albums first single “I Want Her But I Don’t Want her,” – “the most experimental song on my first album” – was picked up by Parisian Dj Stephane Pompougnac for his acclaimed compilation Hotel Costes.MTV Iggy singled out Sultan’s track “Walking Away” as the sign of an emerging global artist to be on the look-out for.
Sultan tells me that he learned some very valuable lessons during the making of the first album, namely embracing the process of creatively opening himself up to the public creatively without fearing the consequences. “To write music, I personally believe that you have to be vulnerable and you have to be open to being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability. And so what happened during my first album was I was forced to expose myself creatively,” and he says, “I stayed vulnerable from that point onwards.”
Now Sultan’s second as of yet unnamed full-length album is due to be released by early spring. Almost three years in the making, Sultan returned from a stint living and working in Los Angeles last summer with much of the material for the new album in the can. Upon his return from LA, he tells me that he decided on a criterion for whittling down 14 produced tracks to the eight that are now on the album.
According to Sultan, we can expect the same “ingrained electronic sound” that he’s been developing – especially through his live performances the last couple of years. Secondly, he’s intent on reproducing the “live-sound” experience on tape so that it lacks that almost perfect, almost sterile syncopation that occurs when using software-hardware interfaces like Ableton. (“I don’t want everything to be perfect when I produce.”)
Lastly, he wants to push the elements of creative mixing that will give listeners a feeling of immersion within each track, making it almost “experiential” by using dynamic panning processes. “We do have two ears,” he says, adding that the effect of the album will be different depending on the broadcast source – car, home stereo system, studio monitors.
Sultan is also introducing a new element to his live shows in 2014, with a gig in Kuwait City in April that will feature the work of a team of visual artists from India whom he is working with to projection map an entire theatre. He’ll be taking that “immersive” audio-video experience on tour with him, and throughout this process he explains, “The way it sounds live is going to evolve – the way I present it visually is going to evolve – and that’s when I think you have to kind of be open to change and being adaptable to the different types of contexts I’ll be in.”
In the end, whether its through his work as a social entrepreneur or a musician and multimedia artist – his main goal is to give himself a chance to connect with people.
“If I can give this body of work to someone who doesn’t know who I am –and in some form or manner it resonates with them, then I’ll feel like I will have done something important.”
To pave the way to this year’s Paris rendezvous – Red Bull Music academy is setting up a series of sessions and club nights around the globe. One of their initial stops in 2015 was in Kuwait, for the music festival, Kuwait Rising.
Kuwait City – It was a dynamite weekend filled with the best musical prospects from Kuwait at the first ever RMBA Kuwait Session (January 30-31, 2015). Los Angeles based multi-genre DJ and producer Bei-Ru, and Syrian-American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum represented with their blends of electronica, beats and Middle Eastern influences. Red Bull Music Academy graduate Hasan Hujairi added some ethnomusicology and analog synthesizer lessons for his portion of the talks, and fellow Music Academy alumni Zeid Hamdan led some 25 local Kuwaiti participants in a recording session that was conducted live in one of two workshops. Zeid played alongside Egyptian vocalist Maii Waleed on Friday, January 30 at Yarmouk Cultural Centre alongside Bei-Ru, Omar Offendum, and Hujairi who were also joined on stage by up-and-coming electro-soul duo Z The People and El Jehaz, both part of the new Shaabi electro crew 47 Soul.
The Sadu House daytime RBMA Sessions were hosted by Zahed Sultan and Jackson Allers. Check out the Red Bull Music Academy/Red Bull Kuwait film about the event directed/produced by Jackson with Editor/2nd Camera Timothy Carr of TJC Films. CLICK on the picture to go to the video.
After the 2010 release of Lebanese indie rock band Lazzy Lung’s debut album Strange Places, I featured an interview in umen magazine with the band’s frontman – Allan Chaaraoui. Shortly thereafter the band blew up, winning a legion of regional accolades that included the Rolling Stone Magazine ME’s ‘Battle of the Band’ contest in 2011; the 2011 ‘Musicians of the Year’ award in Esquire Middle East; and the 2012 Ray-Ban/triplew.me “Homegrown to Hollywood” contest and a trip to record at Capitol Records, Los Angeles in Studio A with legendary engineer Charlie Paakkari. Nearly 4-years after their debut release, Lazzy Lung is preparing for the official May launch of their sophomore album Sailor’s Delight. i sat down with allan to discover what went into this album – a raucous, free-wheeling, hard-driving, kick-ass rock-n-roll ode to the seductive nature of Beirut.
“Beirut’s charm is a cruel diamond – a treasure that’s got decadence and decorum all rolled into one. We live here in this glitzy, seedy metropolis. Salty and twisted in a romance filled with bars and bedrooms and uninhibited late night howls – each day a reckless experiment in survival with no idea of what’s around the corner. We drown out the war drums with our own waves of sound. We know the future is stormy, but she offers a promise for the high-life that excites like no other city in the world. There is no morning for us – and no safety nets where we’re going – say your farewells – a sailor’s delight.”
Muqata’a aka Boikutt – has been at the forefront of the Palestinian Rap scene since the mid-2000’s. One of the original members of the seminal rap crew Ramallah Underground, he has just released his long-awaited solo album, Hayawan Nateq; it’s an album that was 2-years in the making, and BEATS AND BREATH is proud to present this exclusive feature and interview with Boikutt as he BEGINS his 2014 touring schedule!
Boikutt at the Voice of the Streets event in Cairo – Nov. 2011. Photo: Laith Majali
Diran Mardirian is the owner of Video Chico, a dvd shop that was established as a record store in 1964 by his father Katchik. It was once a mecca for vinyl collectors that continued to sell vinyl up until 1982 when the shop “shook off the dust of the Israeli invasion and switched to videos.” Now, after more than 30-years of serving the video renting community, Chico is aiming to once again be the mecca for vinyl sales in the region. Beats and Breath caught up with Diran, the man behind Chico’s success, on the eve of an interior renovation that would transform the place into a proper record store. (*Note: This was published in November 2013.)
Beats and Breath features this huge profile written for Communicate Levant magazine (*affiliated with Advertising Age) on the real engine that makes the region’s Television Commercial Industry run – the Production Equipment Rental Houses or PERCs as I termed them. massive thanks to Joseph Al Kadamani (Gamma Engineering SARL), Chant Etyemezian (Platform Studios), and Samer Dadanian (Final Cut) for their candidness about the in’s-and-out’s of their businesses.
CLICK THIS LINK – PERKS OF PERCS – FOR ORIGINAL ARTICLE – WHICH IN THIS AUTHOR’S HUMBLE OPINION IS MUCH BETTER THAN WHAT APPEARED IN COMMUNICATE LEVANT!
In October, 2013, Red Bull Music Academy Radio launched Quarter Tone Frequency. This was the first episode of season 1 – with eleven (11) monthly episodes following. 4 hosts from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE were tapped to help bring the vibrations of the independent music community from across the Middle East to wider audiences – regionally and internationally. Beats and Breath founder, Jackson Allers, anchors the Lebanon segment.
Welcome to Quarter Tone Frequency, an exploration of authentic oriental sounds, tracking the vibrations of the independent music community across the Middle East. Quarter Tone Frequency broadcasts an hour-long show every month, combining some of the Middle East’s best alternative sounds. Split into four segments of 15 minutes each, the show will transport listeners to the vibrant underground of Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, each segment hosted by local voices providing insights into each scene. In the UAE, we’re guided to new sounds by radio host and DJ James Locksmith, while veteran presenter and all-round musician Safi takes us through the cultural hotspots of Egypt. Music lover and personality of the Jordan airwaves Tamer Gargour delivers the finest new tracks from the Hashemite Kingdom, and finally, crate-digger, broadcaster and music journalistJackson Allers serves up what’s good from across Lebanon. It’s the sound from the Middle East underground.
Volume 1 – click image below to go to RBMA Radio page
Mohammad Zakaria is one of the pioneers of Jordan’s skate scene and a veteran of the pan-Arab skateboarding scene. A Palestinian-Jordanian who basically adheres to the Field of Dreams school of thought – “If you build it, they will come” – Zakaria co-founded Philadelphia Skateboards in 2009 on a shoestring budget and the hope that if you imported the best boards and the best hardware in the world, quality would distinguish you from all others that followed. It’s a formula that has worked – with Philadelphia being recognised as the gold standard for boards manufactured in the Middle East that in turn has helped grow a roster of talented skaters both in the Arab world and in the West who call themselves part of Team Philly. This piece was originally published in September 2013.
Beats and Breath spent a day with two filmmakers (director/editor Tony H. Khoury & producer/director Karim Koleilat) and two extremely talented songwriters – Allen Seif known as Oak – and Julia Sabra from the Beirut Indy band Postcards. The result was the video for the song “History has found me” – shot and recorded on-location in the West Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Below the video is a little description I wrote up detailing the magic we all felt on that day.
Video Directed/Edited by Tony H. Khoury – Additional Camerawork by Karim Koleilat and Jackson Allers
By Jackson Allers
Our goal was a simple one – take a small team of filmmakers and trek to the West Bekaa valley to shoot a live video song-session with solo artist Oak and Julia Sabra from the group Postcards. The song – “History has found me” – was one of Oak’s compositions, and was now a duet.
As we made our way out of the city towards the West Bekaa valley on the Chtaura/Damascus highway, it began to sink in that this was an important day for everyone involved.
We left the pollution that hung like a brown pall over Beirut, and as the air got more fresh, the windows in the car remained open. It was more than an analogy: we began to breathe deeper and everyone in the car got more relaxed.
All of us enjoyed the beauty of the ride particularly when we caught the first glimpses of the valley below us.
Our search for a location ended in an expansive green field of new wheat between Hauch ed Dibs and Sahret el Qach – a short ways from the Aammiq wetlands, and a few kilometres from Chtaura.
The Syrian border was in walking distance. We were surrounded by the snow covered peaks of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range on one side, and the closer foothills of the Lebanon mountain range on the other.
The wind stirred up the wheat in water like waves, and the occasional tractor or pick-up truck filled with workers rolled by our little encampment; there were no sounds of the war nearby.
What filled us up that day was song and the company we kept. Julia’s shaker. Their harmonies. Oak’s guitar. The late winter sun. The clean northern air. The bedouin families bedded down along the highway nearby tending their flocks.
We smelled the first stages of spring, and the dampness of old snow.
“Cause home is where I am free And where I am free is here, near you This mountain climb, this moment in time”
When it was finished, and all the b-roll was shot and the last note was sung – as the sun quickly vanished behind the Lebanon range – we packed up our equipment and walked euphorically to our car.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that we all felt lighter; more fulfilled. For a brief moment we got to put aside our cares and exist in a utopian musical and filmic moment.
Beirut felt different when we returned.
“History Has Found Me”
History has found me why has she
Images behind me,
will I ever know where I am gonna be
Washing of the water can you wake me
Current of this river could you take me down to the sea
Cause my heart is where I am free
And where I am free is here, near you
This mountain climb, this moment in time
Hey, sail my thoughts sail , I see myself in you
History has found me why has she
Images behind me,
will I ever know where I am gonna be
Shimmer of the morning waken my heart
Velvet of this evening don’t let us part before we start
Cause home is where I am free
And where I am free is here, near you
This mountain climb, this moment in time
Ohh, flow river flow, I see myself in you
Grow baby grow, I see myself in you
Sing nightingale sing, I see myself in you
When you smile lover smile, I see myself in you
History has found me why has she
Images behind me will I ever know where I am gonna be
An exclusive interview with the Beirut-based blues-rock-revival band The Wanton Bishops and Beats and Breath founder Jackson Allers. It’s Part 1 of an interview THAT WAS released in early 2013, and was conducted in december 2012 right before the launch of their first album – sleep with the lights on.
Voice-over introduction : “A musical anathema from Beirut rises like a sweaty, humid late August day in Biloxi, Mississippi or Houston, Lake Charles, New Orleans, Gulfport, or Huntsville. Stomping music. Real humid. Real raw. Two musicians. Two guitars. A Gibson Epiphone. A Fender Telecaster. One harmonica. Effects pedals. One banjo. They are The Wanton Bishops. Bred in Beirut. Established in 2011. They’ve crafted a powerful underground following in Lebanon….”
Produced/Interviewed by: Jackson Allers
Thanks to: Nader Mansour, Eddy Ghossein, Fadi Tabal, Tune Fork Studios, & Tico Tico shawerma stand
Is Qatar’s arts and performance community – the Katara Cultural Village – a neutral ground for the arts in the 21st century as the country’s cultural stewards claim? Or is it just a sham? Beats and Breath took a look at the mission of the Cultural Village through the lens of controversy. (Note: A version of this article was originally published in February 2013. This presents a much more critical view than I was able to provide for the B’qatar version.)
IN DECEMBER OF 2012 – beats and breath sat down with what has turned out to be Beirut’s hottest musical export, the blues-rock revival duo The Wanton Bishops – NADER MANSOUR AND EDDY GHOSSEIN. the interview was conducted right before the official launch of their first album – sleep with the lights on. as i retroactively publish this feature – the boys are preparing for a stop in my home state for the south by southwest music festival (*march 2014). they’ve since repeated much of what was contained in this interview for other sources – but I think this article and podcast represents the first (*significant) candid interview with the Bishops. thanks to nader and eddy for the time! Good luck in texas fellas!
For nearly three months between the end of July and the first week of October, a group of Serbian digital activists known as the SHARE Foundation planted themselves in Beirut, and with Beirut-based digital rights activists, cultural producers, production and media companies, and other civic stakeholders staged a wholly unique conference aimed at promoting the tools of freedom in a digital age. The conference – known as SHARE BEIRUT – proved to be a mind-blowing weekend for the more than 3,000 people from the Middle East, and North Africa who attended the event from October 5-7, 2012. The production was on a grass-roots scale the likes of which are rarely experienced in Beirut.
The following are excerpts of an exclusive interview conducted by Beats and Breath|with SHARE Foundation organizers Vladan Joler and Filip Milošević at online/cafe – Radio Beirut in the lead-up to the event.
BEIRUT – Modelled on the SHARE Conference that began in 2011 in the Serbian capital Belgrade, SHARE BEIRUT Conference was a free, non-commercial hybrid event that blended Internet culture and technology-related daytime conference events with a dynamic cutting-edge music festival by night. SHARE BEIRUT brought together Lebanese organisers and paired them with dozens of individual bloggers, tech geeks, alternative artists, musicians and cultural producers in order to facilitate a massive exchange of ideas, knowledge and creativity.
At the conference, some 200 lectures and workshops were delivered by leading internet development figures from around the world including Ji Lee (Communication Designer for Facebook), Thom Cummings (Soundcloud), Michelle Thorne (Mozilla/Creative Commons), Stanfard University’s Elizabeth Stark, Rebecca Bowe (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Peter Sunde (Flattr).
While the reverberations of the event are still being felt and won’t be know for some time, it was clearly a 72-hour period that showed Beirut and the Arab world what was possible when a passionate group of 21st century cultural creatives get together to have fun.
The following is the interview shot on location at Radio Beirut – edited transcript of the video interview below:
BEATS AND BREATH: What does the SHARE conference mean?
VLADAN JOLER: That’s a very tough question. I always wanted to do something – to create an impact on society. And somehow when we (the SHARE organisers) really looked at the world today – we realised that the internet and internet culture were really important to all of us. So we thought it was important to develop something to help protect the internet as an open, neutral, decentralised place for communication, and a place to exchange things. We wanted a tool that could help bring us somewhere else.
You see we’re surrounded by things in society – media – that is closed or controlled by our governments or the corporate sector. These are things we cannot approach anymore as human beings. So SHARE was a way of creating a safe outlet to do something as an alternative to this phenomenon.
FILIP Milošević: SHARE conference for me is mostly about using new media and the internet for social impact – for social change. There’s are lots of good examples around the world of people doing this – and many people heading these things are the speakers that have been coming to our conferences (the last two years in Serbia). They share their experience and knowledge to lots of young people that come to the conference, who then get inspired by their work – and hopefully they begin thinking about how to change things in their own societies.
SHARE is concerned with the impact of digital communications on everyday lives and human rights, the goal of the Share Foundation is to fight for the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights, in the areas of privacy, free speech, government transparency and efficiency, surveillance and human rights.”
BEATS AND BREATH: Tell me a little about the social quotient of the conference. How will you incorporate the social activist side of things in this conference here in Beirut?
VLADAN: We are taking this social activist side of things from a really wide angle – because social activism as a profession is misused by the ngo (non-governmental organisation) sector. From this perspective social activism is something that you need to do as an organisation and you end up turning it into some kind of business model or some kind of industrialised model.
What we are trying to do is to find activism somewhere else; to find activism in some kind of real grassroots movements – like people who are doing activism in their homes for example. Perhaps by fighting barriers that exist around them. It could be activism as some kind of distribution of music or distribution of information. It can be lots of different points of activist methods – it doesn’t have to be visible in a way – like let’s gather on the street and make protest banners etc.
We’re trying to explore some kind of basic grassroots activism and then try to connect all of these people – first we try to bring all of these people together in one place so that they see that they are not alone, and that there are lots of people around them that are doing similar stuff. And then we try to connect them to introduce the local activists to other activists that are doing similar work around the world – to that it’s some kind of platform or live social networking platform.
BEATS AND BREATH: Social activism as a means of change in the Arab world or a tool for change in the Arab world – clearly SHARE has a relation to that kind of reasoning – even though many in the Arab world feel that internet activism has been a mixed bag. But why choose Lebanon – country that has clearly avoided so much of the revolutionary change?
Vladan: This Arab Spring and idea of the social media revolution is a bit hyped as a term. In a way it has been misused. I am not really fond of calling revolution of any kind recently as a Facebook revolution because Facebook is one company – a private company So how could such a company be considered part of revolution really? And it’s also a bit scary to see a corporate sector of being part of some social resistance.
Then on the other side of this analysis is the media sphere and how really what we’re talking about is that the media sphere has been decentralised. It’s not that I’m having one TV station and I’m putting on a program that is brainwashing the masses. No – the process is decentralised that can be shifted to a lot of different points of media.
In this way there is a big shift in communication that allowed us to easier gather and act on some issues or problems. But still the position of Twitter and other companies like Facebook is too high as some kind of model of resistance. Then you have this phenomenon on Facebook of the number of likes that doesn’t mean anything really that doesn’t appear in its physical manifestation.
FILIP: Actually prior the first SHARE Conference in Belgrade we were thinking of naming it Belgrade Spring- and it predated the Arab Spring – so somehow the politics between the first and second SHARE conferences were often related to these happenings around the world. And also around the world there were other things happening in the areas of internet and social activism. And there are all these different kinds of lower revolutions – if you want to call them lower – the revolutions that are happening that aren’t always in the news or that fly under the radar of the media. They are happening no matter what – cultural revolutions or music revolutions or any other things that are helping to change things in society over time.
For me one of the things that drew me into Beirut was that I found it very similar to Belgrade – especially when it comes to the diversity here – both cities in both countries have gone through some very volatile histories in the last two decades. And both cities you can see this manifested in the music scene – both are the hubs for the whole region for the alternative and the underground scene.
BELOW are a few videos from participants at the SHARE BEIRUT Conference held in Beirut October 5-7, 2012. The entire line up of amazing participants can be found on the SHARE BEIRUT website at this link:
He’s performed in over 25 countries, released records on Soul Jazz & Tigerbeat6, DJ’ed in a band with Norah Jones, done two John Peel Sessions, and was turntable soloist with the 80-member Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. Rupture’s fans include that hot person you saw on the street yesterday but were afraid to talk to. Jace Clayton is an interdisciplinary artist living in Brooklyn. Clayton’s practice has evolved out of his work as a DJ, built around core concerns for how sound, technology use in low-income communities, and public space interact, with an emphasis on Latin America, Africa, and the Arab world. Clayton is currently developing Sufi Plug Ins, a free suite of audio software tools based on non-western/poetic conceptions of sound and alternative interfaces. In winter 2013 he will debut The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, a performance piece that restages three Eastman compositions using pianos and boomboxes, accompanied by a new libretto about the job search for a Julius Eastman impersonator in New York City.
Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”) uses the concept of crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability, serving as an initial model for what has been coined as ‘activist mapping’ – the combination of social activism, citizen journalism and geospatial information. Ushahidi offers products that enable local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the Internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events. It all began five years ago when Ushahidi created a website in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election that collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message and placed them on a Google map. Henry is a software developer and Java instructor living in Accra, Ghana. He is passionate about open technologies and has been instrumental in the evangelism and advocacy of the use of Free and Open Source Software in Ghana.
Covering topics ranging from pollution, electricity cuts, real estate pricing, to politics and social taboos, Maya Zankoul illustrates everyday life through the Lebanese webcomic blog, Maya’s Amalgam.>Her depictions of daily happenings, largely in English and Arabic in Latin lettering, resonate with segments of the Lebanese population, allowing for cathartic entertainment and engagement with social critique through humor.
Beats and Breath presents this interview with Lebanese filmmaker Wissam Charaf soon after the Lebanese premiere of his documentary film It’s all in Lebanon. With a chronological view of the Lebanese psyche from the end of the Civil War to the present, Charaf’s film is a romp through the competing media narratives of the country’s three H’s – the pop lust culture of Lebanon’s video world represented by mega-sex kitten pop star Haifa Wehbe; the media gamesmanship of the slain prime minister and billionaire (Rafik) Hariri and his enduring empire after his death; and the power of the propaganda coming from the Lebanese resistance – Hezbollah – as typified by the media stardom of its leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah.
BEIRUT – “The politicians in Lebanon terrify me. They terrify me with their irresponsibility and their inability to achieve any real progress,” says Wissam Charaf, director of It’s all in Lebanon. “You know I don’t think we need to count on this generation of well-paid warlords to achieve something for Lebanon.”
Never one to mince words, Charaf is a thirty-something post-war generation filmmaker that is compelled to ask existential questions about why Lebanon and its people continue to run on a treadmill of internecine antagonisms – political, religious, and economic.
It’s all in Lebanon, is an hour long assault of pop music video clips, Hezbollah video anthems, and fascinating social commentary, is uniquely Charaf’s take on the ills of his generation and their inability to deal with the memory of the Civil War 1975-1990 that claimed upwards of 300,000 lives and did inestimable societal damage beyond that. It’s a problem he says his peers have inherited and passed on through video culture specifically.
“In this film I put the finger in a very simplified manner on the questions that we Lebanese don’t like to ask because of our amnesia,” he explains from Paris, “It points to my generation’s failure to transmit to the following generation that they have the right to think for themselves. And they have the right to put the nation above the ethnic, religious, tribal, familial belongings.”
Charaf’s sense of nationalism is not extremist, as he stays, it’s just a first step to seeing what dosage of nationalism would be right. It obviously implies that all of the 18 confessions that make up Lebanon have to, like the esteemed Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi says, come up with a common version of Lebanese history – particularly where the civil war is concerned.
I’ve known the filmmaker for nearly 5 years, and unequivocally I see in Charaf a consummate journeyman and alpha multi-media story-teller who is literally a one-man production crew for his day job as a reporter for Arte. What’s more, when he’s not reporting he’s making films, and balancing with that a life as father of two. In fact, it is his job as a reporter -in an increasingly devalued profession I might add -that keeps him bounding back and forth from his home-base in Paris to Beirut -and many hot spots in between: Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and of course Lebanon during the 34-day Israeli offensive in the summer of 2006, the Nahar al Bared Palestinian camp seige in 2007 and the fierce street fighting in 2008.
It is why he of all people is uniquely qualified to bring a fair and balanced look at Lebanon’s media propaganda war. Charaf explains, “I’ve been covering stories in Lebanon as a journalist since 1998. So there was the 2000 Israeli withdraw from South Lebanon and there was the 2006 War with Israel. And between those events there was a lot of propaganda that I was able to watch on Hezbollah TV – Al Manar. And I found this propaganda fascinating. It was unique,” and it was the inspiration for the film.
It’s all in Lebanon is a study on the collective amnesia fostered by Lebanon’s monolithic pop culture video clip market with its flesh driven, apolitical flights of aesthetic decadence that has served to wash away the post-traumatic stress of the war generation and their heirs.
When you add that to a barrage of images and archival footage shot over the last 25 plus years, and then spice it up with well shot footage of two separate groups of men sitting in Beirut cafes providing commentary about Lebanese society, and about video stars like Haifa and Nancy Ajram – you realize the added ingredients that make It’s all in Lebanon a gem of a film whose timing couldn’t be more perfect. [Note* – I liken these two groups of men to the Greek Chorus in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The characters ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) giving all the right touches to the street perspectives that are on the block.]
My one major criticism of the film are the sequences in which Charaf is sitting in his living room controlling the TV – and thereby the narrative – with his remote control. The scene acts as a vehicle to advance the story, but the production values here cheapen the film when viewed in comparison to the film’s precious archival footage, well shot street and cafe sequences, solid interview segments, and slick editing. I understand the intent behind the living room footage here – I just don’t think Charaf pulls it off to the benefit of the film.
The following was an interview conducted with Charaf from his home in Paris via Skype on the eve of his films screening at the Frontline Club in London.
JACKSON: So triple H rules Lebanon. That would have been a great name for the film. But I have to say that It’s all in Lebanon is an incredible name for a film. How did you come up with that?
WISSAM; I hijacked that. It’s all in Lebanon is the official slogan of the Ministry of Tourism in Lebanon. They use it in their videos to say, you know, it’s all in Lebanon – the mountains, the sea, the water skiing and the snow skiing. The mosques and the churches. It’s all in Lebanon. They describe the mix of the cosmopolitan aspect – the multicultural Lebanon. And I hijacked it just to say that, “Yeah. We’re multicultural. But we’re also multicultural in our catastrophes. We’re multicultural in our opposing philosophies.” And in fact we’re too multicultural. We’re so multicultural that we can’t come up with a common idea. That’s our problem.
Some countries have an excess of nationalism. We have a lack of nation. At least let us get a nation, and then we can see how good the dosage of nationalism is.
JACKSON: Talk to me about about amnesia and tell me how your film relates to the concept of amnesia.
WISSAM: The problem with Lebanon is…listen I come from a generation that witnessed the war and that had many aspirations after the war. One of them was the idea that there would be accountability, that we would punish, at last, the people who were responsible for all of our suffering. And after the war we noticed that nothing like this was done. We saw with horror – my generation of conscious people – you know of people who gave a small thought – we saw with horror the same faces of war taking power again and sharing the cake. Then telling us “War is over.” Point. Forget it. Do something with your lives. Live normally, as if nothing had happened.
JACKSON: Tell me about how you developed the critique of the use of propaganda and media by Hezbollah.
WISSAM: By opposition to how the pop music has become propaganda, the propaganda of Hezbollah has become pop music in the minds of the Hezbollah supporters. You know when you see those girls and those young boys in a Hezbollah gathering singing songs of war and acting as if John Lennon was on stage, you can measure the scope of the impact on the youth of Hezbollah.
JACKSON: “It’s all in Lebanon” is quite prophetic with questions like “who was responsible for the Civil War,” and “how can one prevent it from happening again?” What do you want by asking these questions?
WISSAM: If I can bring the viewers to open their eyes up to these questions and to take a step back from the massive amounts of propaganda that they absorb everyday, then maybe the film can achieve something.
I want the audience to ask themselves, “What do I want as a citizen? Not as my master’s voice or my political leaders voice? And what’s good for my country and not just for me and my political and/or religious affiliation?” Only then will this film be really useful.
But I think we have to start back from the base and educate every Lebanese how to be a responsible citizen. Counting on the politicians won’t do. They have had enough time and enough salary to prove that they were useful people, and unfortunately they’re not. What’s happening today proves that they have failed dramatically.
In a sea of otherwise unappetizing pop-market Arabic musical fare, the alternative music scene in Lebanon has produced yet another artistic gem, this time with a collaboration that straddles the highly progressive but insular experimental works of the Beirut-based label Ruptured with the vocal skills of the poet, journalist, MC – Mazen el Sayyed aka El Rass. Beats and Breath takes an in-depth look at the rapper in an interview conducted shortly before his debut album release Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden. Beats and Breath founder Jackson Allers writes:
“With the February release of his debut album, Lebanese MC, poet, journalist and musician Mazen el Sayed aka El Rass has emerged as a lyrical soothsayer for a new school of Arab hip-hop.”
(NOTE: This originally appeared in the global hip-hop news and culture website of record – World Hip Hop Market (est. 2004).)
By Jackson Allers
BEIRUT – Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden was released last February on the Beirut-based independent record label – Ruptured. Founded by Lebanese producer, music critic and DJ – Ziad Nawfal – it is a label which breaks musical boundaries as a rule, and has become renowned internationally for its high-quality production values and its championing of the independent and alternative music being created by a small niche of producers and musicians in Lebanon and the region.
With that said Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the hidden is still a unique offering on Nawfal’s label roster, and equally indicative of the unchartered musical territory that is being forged as the Arab world reels from 2 years of popular upheaval. El Rass’ production partner for Unveiling the Hidden is Jawad Nawfal aka Munma (http://soundcloud.com/munma), the brother of Ruptured’s founder Ziad. Munma’s main body of work began in the aftermath of Israel’s (2006) war on Lebanon, and 6 years on, Munma has become synonymous with Beirut’s avant-garde musical community that counts names like Neo-Futurist Lebanese composer Tarek Attoui, and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj among his ilk.
On Unveiling the Hidden Munma demonstrates his uncanny sensibility for elaborate broken beat, ambient synth musical layers (think the Anticon label, Shabazz Palaces, Aesop Rock) and traditional musical underbeds as a perfect compliment to El Rass’ provocative word play.
El Rass himself is unique within the burgeoning Lebanese hip-hop massive. Styling his lyricism in classical Arabic (Fus7a) and peppering it with words and phrases of the Beirut-street, el Sayed’s verses are perhaps the most loaded in the pantheon of established and up-and-coming Arab MC’s, requiring study from even the most erudite Arabic speakers.
It is hip-hop that appeals to thinkers, young revolutionaries, Arab hip-hop connoisseurs, journalists and perhaps ironically to the religiously inclined because the verses are so loaded with classical Arabic meaning. But I dare say it is not music for the masses. With images of turtles running on treadmills and cocaine addicted politicians given power solely by birthright, El Rass’ flow cuts directly into the political and social inequities of Beirut life, and verses like the ones from his song “Borkan Beirut/The Volcano of Beirut.” hint at what is boiling under the surface of the Beirut street:
“Beirut suppressed the seed of the revolution/
the one that sprouted/
When our spirits were foiled from (social) immobility,”
“Luxury and distress/
quality and quantity/
Prostitution and modesty:/
The science of Beirut city.”
In the 2 years I’ve come to know him, El Rass has become a beacon for change in a society that has resisted the calls for change in large part because Lebanon is made up of many dictatorships – the product of its highly sectarian society that is unmatched in the Arab world. The following is an interview I conducted for World Hip Hop Market in February prior to the release of Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden. It is I feel a timeless interview that is as relevant today as it was when the interview was conducted.
BEATS AND BREATH: Referencing the ‘mutant hip-hop outfit’ Shabazz Palaces, as well as Kode9 and The SpaceApe in your press kit – these are references for a Western audience – musical references that the writer (Ruptured label head/founder Ziad Nawfal) is using to conjure up some musical connotations for new listeners presumably?
EL RASS: Definitely. For someone who listens to music and who knows music, it’s not about right or wrong. He focused on certain dimensions of resemblance, and he made these connections. I personally wouldn’t see these – y3ni – in my auditive experience, Kode9 and Shabazz are not references for me – are not real influences for me.
BEATS AND BREATH: But we’re clear here – he’s not saying influences. He’s saying references.
EL RASS: Of course. That’s why I am saying this. I saw what was written before it went out to the public and I agreed to keep it in because he has the right to express how he sees things with this album. And at the same time it is smart and could be a reference for a certain audience. Thus, it might be meaningful for them.
BEATS AND BREATH: If you were going to make your own comparisons or things that you could draw from – it might be difficult because there isn’t really a precedent for your album.
EL RASS: Look. In my intention is that there shouldn’t be anything that resembles this. My intention is that I want something unique. Which is not something I can affirm – that I succeeded in doing. But this is what I’m hoping for. And I’m quite satisfied with what I did. It definitely did something new, and what is really interesting for me and for the process – it was a priority for me, the process – was not to be doing some European or American style in Arabic. It’s not the point. The point is to consider ourselves as universal individuals that used all their background and all of what they know how to do in order to express themselves and be creative – without any kind of cultural repetition.
BEATS AND BREATH: Which is actually what the hip-hop movement was doing when it first started. They had other precedents that they could draw on, but let’s say that the people that were doing it first in the late 1970s and early 1980′s (before it was called hip-hop) – from Kool Herc on…the idea was that these guys had Gil Scot-Heron and the Watts Prophets and the Last Poets and all of these amazing Black griots and revolutionaries before them – they weren’t referring to them when they were trying to make their music. They were trying to do their own thing. Not that the traditions weren’t there. And in hindsight we can all look at them and say, “Hey. There they are.” But when they were making the music back, they weren’t saying explicitly, “We’re taking this tradition from Gil Scot-Heron and trying to build on it.” Like you and the Arab MC’s are saying, “Yeah we’re trying to take Zajal (13th century Arabic poetic form of battling) and crafting my rhymes to build on that!”
EL RASS: Exactly!
BEATS AND BREATH: So you’re doing it in your context. In your way. Making it the way you want it to be to have no reference to anything else. Is that fair to say?
EL RASS: This is in some way – a way of being honest in your artistic creation. A way of bringing the minimal amount of pretensions toward what your identity would look like. I think the focus should be on the content of what you’re saying, if you’re doing this kind of music. And, the innovation and the amount of personal implication in the work. Now I think this is why I would always love this album, no matter how the public reaction is to it.
WORLD HIP HOP MARKET: Looking at things from a macro-cultural perspective. I think the birth of the Arab hip-hop movement occurred – the physical birth of it – happened in Egypt last November with the Voice of the Street event. (Editors note: I wrote about this event for WHHM last January – at this link)
It brought all of these rappers together in the same physical space for the first time – all at one point. They’d all known each other by reputation or virtually or in sporadic performances here and there. But in November it was the first time they physically saw each other – spoke to each other in one place. The idea – not even that the show was the best Arab hip-hop show I’d seen but it was more like, “I know you. I see you, now.”
EL RASS: This is a big part of what’s happening right now. Specifically what’s happening to this kind of music is that it’s having its own kind of revolution. First it because this phenomenon happened on all levels in the Arab world – including on the musical level and artistic level – what I’m speaking about is that we started to get to know each other and to realize how close we are to each other. And how the things we feel and the things we have to say are similar. How we feel besieged on all levels – by the same things. And confronted with the same challenges.
So it’s like we’re all having this sort of round table where all the MC’s are collaborating or are putting on the table what they have to say from this perspective. And there’s a dialog going on without any rules besides the artistic rule. And the will to do great things that touch people, that enlighten people and give people more awareness towards how they experience what they’re living and their surroundings.
BEATS AND BREATH: Is that how you feel about the album – that there would be some sense of enlightenment or sense of awareness for the people that would listen to it?
EL RASS: Look, the title of the album is Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden. First it’s the name of one of the most important Sufi books that have been written until this day almost 9 centuries ago by a Sufi master (Ali Hajvery) that is now buried in Lahore, Pakistan. To make it simple, the idea of the veil in Sufism is the fact that we tend to be pushed away from reality by a lot of veils by a lot of barriers. Barriers like manipulative media. Barriers like frontiers. Barriers like cultural stereotypes and mutual fears.
And order to aspire in any way for a better future or for a better world for us and for our kids and our grand kids, we have to destroy these barriers in order to meet each other in a proper way – in a loving way – we have to break down these barriers. We have to break down the fear of the other. And in order to let go of the fear, we have to learn. And in order to learn we have to have dialog. One very important necessity of dialog is being rigorous towards what you have and what you produce and what you say. If you don’t test your thoughts before putting them into dialog you’re not really participating. So this whole process for me is what I tried to do in this album. And this is why sometimes I might even sound like I’m contradicting myself, and on some tracks of the album.
BEATS AND BREATH: What specific tracks? Explain.
EL RASS: Like “3sha2″ whose Latin name is “Islamology.”
This track was meant to – on the first level – was meant to express the way I interact with Islam – the way I see Islam and the way I understand it. It goes from the total state of spiritual relationship, which is a passionate relationship about the idea of the absolute and god – a loving relationship – a poetic relationship in the Sufi most poetic sense of it. And moving all the way to the ethical side of my interaction with Islam which has to do with refusing injustice – with being loyal to ideas and ideals and aspirations no matter what reality is.
And no matter what price you have to pay, it is because righteousness is not questionable.
It (righteousness) has nothing to do with the price you pay or how much you’re being able to take back to see the fruits of your acts. Your acts – you are doing them because you have to do them because you think this is the right way to go because when you respect someone and you believe in peace, you can be killed and still believe in peace. If you believe in resistance, the whole world could be against you and you will still resist even if you are alone and even if you know you’re going to lose the battle. But, you still resist because this is the right thing to do.
So, this one seeming contradiction in the track “Islamology” because a part of it I have a kind of aggressive tone and provocative tone, and the other part of the track which has a longing tone -someone that is talking to his beloved and is waiting for it, or for her or for god or whatever – to be joined with god again.
Another track like “Yoga,” which has a contradiction between the name of the track and the content of the track.
The track in its appearance is a total and complete call to violence. It’s an appeal to take action in a violent way. And on different levels – in a disciplined way. But the real meaning of this is not about encouraging violence as an act. You have to view the entire track in light of the introduction of the track that says that in the way letters and language has its rules – the causality of violence has its rules. If you act violently you will have violent reaction.
BEATS AND BREATH: Live by the sword. Die by the sword.
EL RASS: Exactly. And if you encourage hate then you cannot expect anything but hate in return. So it’s to say again that on another level between theory and reality you can both navigate in a theoretical world where this is always what you’re looking for. And at the same time be well-grounded and know very well the reality that your living in. These kind of contradictions are techniques that are used in all cultures since forever to put things – to shed light on certain realities. Because when you confront contradictions you can understand the the third reality which is always closer to the truth. It’s not on any side of this duality. This is a big dimension of the whole album.
BEATS AND BREATH: It’s clear that you’re not shying away from the political realities as they exist here in Lebanon. And you’re definitely saying things poetically that are specific to Lebanon. How do you want that to be perceived?
EL RASS: Well. On this level I tried to be as clear as possible. And again you can find the same pattern – where my position is to deconstruct the rhetoric of both sides of the Lebanese political duality. It’s to prove that in their essence, they are exactly the same. Their practices are exactly the same. What changes is only the appearance in order to confuse them and separate them and to keep on the stealing and the injustice and the corruption and the non-functioning state going on and on and on.
BEATS AND BREATH: But that’s how they exist.
EL RASS: Yes it is! And the point is that only way to stop the persistence of such an existence is to make people aware – is to free people from this scheme and say, “Look. You’re being manipulated.” And I can prove to you that these two things, these two heads are actually one monster that has two heads. If you actually kill this monster, you will free yourself from this illusion.
BEATS AND BREATH: People are afraid though because there’s a certain sense of order from being passive and not confronting. Let’s bring it to hip-hop. You have Arab hip-hop heads who will listen to your album. There was this young Saudi writer – Hamza Kashgari – who fled to Malaysia because of his love of Islam – he wrote, “I shake the prophets hands as an equal. I hate him as much as I love him.”
EL RASS: People like this guy this is the real change. It’s not a coincidence that such a guy – a writer – writes something like this in these times. It’s not a coincidence.
BEATS AND BREATH: He didn’t think he was being blasphemous when he wrote it. He really thought it would be accepted by people.
EL RASS: Of course man. The question of Islam is very en vogue. It’s very like hip and in now to discuss the coming Islam. The bullshit like this. While on the other side, people on the other side that were using the terrorists scare all the time – now they’re using the pro-Islamist thing to their benefit. The real question is not the there. The real question is that if we want to be honest with ourselves, and if we want to see things in a wide-angle perspective, it’s absurd to think that we just – that someone can just extract the Islamic component of this culture or the religious component in general and just replace it with plain secularism? Which at the same time – whether economic or social – in most of the places in the world where it was practiced, it was proven that it’s not the right model for these societies. So why do want people now to follow a model that has proven a failure?
Naturally in my opinion – kaman (also in Arabic) – I work on it a lot and in my album I work on it a lot – I say to people, stop thinking that the only choices you have are the choices that are already existing. You can create your own choices. We are in a conjuncture in a historical moment and socio-economic moment, and a culmination of a human experience and knowledge that gives us the capacity to innovate – to create new models. And these new models can at the same time include a new vision of Islam. A new way to read Islam.
Now, personally, as someone who lives in 2012 and who is immersed in a lot of modern dimensions or our lives today, in the same time I very well attached to the Koranic text to be a big component of Islam. And I’m sure 100 percent that in a very honest, disciplined, scholarly way, my understanding can go way beyond the understanding of Islam 200 or 300 years ago, and I can find a model for understanding Islam that is much more informed…
BEATS AND BREATH: But the way things existed 200 years ago, those discussions then weren’t blasphemous as they are today. Then there was more freedom because interpreting Islam was a means of moving forward. As well, the world then was much bigger and less interconnected than it is today. But how is there is a parallel with this idea musically. As your press packet describes, you have a skill with traditional instruments. And yet the production of this album which combines that sense is with a a very modern digital sense also are things that couldn’t have happened 200 years ago.
So you’re having to take elements of culture that you find traditional and beautiful and reinterpret that as well with the product you came up with. In the context of hip-hop it’s going to open boundaries up because you have producers in the West that decided to break open certain production boundaries, and do certain things. J Dilla who died on February 10, 2006 took traditional black musical forms of recording’s past (jazz, gospel, etc), and while he produced for all manner’s of people, never wanted any credit. His idea was to break open ideas of things in his context. There are some of the same parallels going on with your album?
EL RASS: My relationship with music has always been like this. I want to synthesize and absorb the cumulative experience of the culture I belong to on a musical and artistic level and be a continuation of this culture. And in order to be a continuation of this culture, you have to always have to have a part of view there and a part of view in the next moment.
So you would exactly be in the middle. In the present moment. My intention is never – for example – the idea of simply incorporating an oriental element into the production. It’s more about my vision and how it is – and naturally my vision has some components that resemble a more classical oriental thing. And other components that belong to a more futuristic and beyond any kind of culture.
BEATS AND BREATH: But that’s only a possibility because, in my opinion, it’s only successful to people who really understand and feel that classical root. For example, when you talk about producers like OhNo! and Madlib, and others – they’re taking Ethiopian, Arabic, East Indian, and they’re interpreting it in a way that’s never going to be perceived by people of these regions as being an extension of the authentic. They’ll love it. It’ll be great but the difference is that because of where you come from and the sensibility of how you make it is going to be from here. And that distinguishes as you said – as a furthering of traditions from here quoting a different cultural context, but you’re contributing to it in a new way. So that’s Arab hip-hop. That’s when I put the label on it. The idea is that it isn’t just hip-hop. It’s Arab hip-hop because suddenly it’s something that couldn’t possibly have been created someplace else.
EL RASS: That’s why I think that I use this Arab hip-hop terminology but I don’t really believe in it. As much as I don’t like saying French hip-hop for example. Or German hip-hop. Really this realm of hip-hop is actually like a big universe with different kinds of objects – every object has developed it’s own definition of existence by itself.
The motto’s and the flows and the dynamics and the techniques and the kind of beats and sampling sources in France for example – I am someone who grew up with a lot of French hip-hop – is totally different from the American approach but it has managed to have its strong identity and be there and open a new scale of evolution and creativity and complexity. This is what is happening in the Arab world. Now it’s prime time and it’s at some sort of peak. It’s this. It’s like you have this whole alternative music scene in the Middle East. I always see myself as trying to create something that’s going to be perceived as traditional music a century from now.
BEATS AND BREATH: So that means that people aren’t necessarily conceived of something called a future. That future is going to be like us discovering the pyramids, the ruins, and us interpreting it. Versus the idea of what it was like when it was produced. But getting to Unveiling the Hidden, I want to know is putting it into a context – the idea of hip-hop culture – it is still proper to stick into a hip-hop cultural framework because hip-hop doesn’t have to be about borders.
I mean the idea that there are certain aspects that are universal like spoken word – we can’t get around that one when thinking of hip-hop. The idea of an instrumental backing and the idea that on its own a song can be simply instrumental music -we can’t get away from that aspect of hip-hop. Then you have the idea of performance – some kind of electrical instruments whether they be turntables or the MPC’s and the dude on the mic. There’s no difference there. I’m saying that it’s not a diss to the uniqueness that your album is unclassifiable and yet it still fits into the broad, evolving definition of hip-hop culture.
EL RASS: Look. Their’s nothing that comes from the void. In every initiative whether it’s artistic, cultural, philosophical, there is a part of imitation – an imitative component. And that’s what makes that dynamic of the universal dialog between cultures and how things evolve. Or else every culture would be rigid like it is and digress.
BEATS AND BREATH: That’s the fight you were talking about earlier with how people interpret Islam or how people are ruled by criminals and corrupt governments.
EL RASS: My judgement about Islam is that it is not a religion. And that we can now – even in this sphere of Islam – liberate ourselves from the idea of religion. From the idea of a community, and you have this community and the “other” community. You can just consider it as just an individual philosophy.
BEATS AND BREATH: So the Umma (Islamic community) becomes a much bigger thing at that point?
EL RASS: Yes. And the umma is something you see as the expansion of the idea of the nation as a measure of how much you are liberated from your frontiers – from your veils! Again! Because if I want to put frontiers, why not put them up in my town, and in fact make it smaller – it’s my neighborhood. And we might make it smaller, it’s my family. At some point you see that there’s no sense in this – that there’s no logic in this. There are struggles, but the struggles in their essences are never about community struggles. They are about reality struggles – about political struggles; about existence; about food; about water and oil; about things like this. This is what makes the world go round. The community thing is a political illusion, and a false community.
BEATS AND BREATH: Bringing it back to hip-hop. When I go to hip-hop shows around the world, the same people that will love to see El Rass or Arab hip-hop, are the same people that if you throw them in a different concert in a different country in a different setting and they’re going to love that as well. They won’t necessarily understand anything that the people are saying on the stage. Talking about the lyrics you wrote for this – a combination of Fus7a and 2amiyeh (Arabic dialect), strategically I assume. Who do you think is going to be most affected by your lyrics?
EL RASS: Look I think in their essence there are as many universal messages in this album – man it sounds cheesy – but I mean human messages -things that touch human beings. I mean in the end our experience is a human experience. Especially nowadays, whether you be in Paris, New York, Beirut – we have very similar experiences.
BEATS AND BREATH: We can blame media and technology.
EL RASS: Of course, and because of the economic, international system…all the bullshit. At the same time I cannot deny that I belong to a certain culture; I belong to a certain space. And it’s like a Russian doll (matryoshka doll) where there are many different levels, and at each level there are many different questions that have to be asked. And all the answers to the questions on one level shouldn’t contradict the answer to the higher level neither should it contradict the answer on the lower level. So it’s like a system. It’s like a web of thoughts that you can navigate through to find a certain peace – to navigate inside all the perspectives inside all levels that they have within them.
WORLD HIP HOP MARKET: There doesn’t need to be a negative friction in other words?
EL RASS: No. I don’t think that conflict – that created a zone of conflict with the listener or with any kind of receiver of a dialog – conflict is never a good way to pass a message or to create interaction. But sometimes shock is. Sometimes provocation is. But in the intention – you’re intention should never be aggressive, even if your tool is aggressive. You might have to use an aggressive tool but you have to keep your intention collaborative and cooperative and a part of a dialog.
WORLD HIP HOP MARKET: So when you decry aspects of the political system in Lebanon. You’re not doing that with an agenda per se. You’re doing that to say – this is what’s happening and you can’t deny it.
EL RASS: I’m saying this is what is happening. And you can’t deny it because I’m proving this to you. If you have a way to prove me wrong, please do. And I’m doing it because after I’m telling this what’s happening and I’m telling you – so now let’s see what we want to do. If we can agree on the fact that these things I’m describing are bullshit, let’s see what we want to do.
BEATS AND BREATH: Is there a song in particular that you talk about that?
EL RASS: The only song that exists in two versions – and it’s called “T5ayel” which we translated to be conceive versus imagine. It starts with a recorded voice of Lebanese philosopher Mahdi Amel – his actual voice who was assassinated in the 1980′s, that we had access to in university. He was a university teacher, and it was at a conference. And fikr – the process of thinking – it always used to be separated from reality and condescending to reality. Always imposing normative views on how things should be without doing anything to it.
He says at one point that the only thing he could do with reality was to “dream” and “imagine.” So what I tried to do in this track is to say – let’s see how we can use our imagination to get closer to reality and not further from reality. How do we do this? By imagining the suffering of every victim of injustice in the world -even if we are not directly aware of it. We do it by imagining a totally fictional corrupt individual that has a lot of look a likes in the actual world, but lets imagine that to and let’s see how we would feel about it. And again link all the pieces together and see. Automatically without – not because of that but because it held its own nature – it got remixed in a totally different dimension musically. The same flow of the lyrics with different production.
BEATS AND BREATH: This is totally free music – abstract for lack of a better word – or experimental hip-hop in which aspects of the production that have also fallen in line with a style of production in hip-hop culture that conjures up artists like Prefuse73, Madlib, Aesop Rock, Dalek, Anticon, etc. In essence, it’s because they don’t know what to call it.
EL RASS: Exactly. The frontiers of what you can call hip hop and what you cannot call hip-hop is very ambiguous. So it’s very interesting to play on these frontiers because if we play with these frontiers you can really enrich yourselves with other kinds of music – with other kinds of people and to really go to new dimensions.
I mean this album has been seriously worked on, and that every track is a different universe! Every track has a different sound we’re trying to reach; there’s a different ambience and a different approach individually. I tried to use the fact that I can perform different voices even on one track on the part that is more conceptual – like conceive – where the speaker is more abstract.
“It starts with the image of a turtle stuck on a treadmill in a gym. It’s a way of saying -imagine a person who is structurally slow going at such a speed that the turtle becomes an absolute victim. I use a different voice at the end, in which a certain politician has suffered a cocaine addiction since going into the university but that people in the street brandish his images because supposedly his father was something, so he must be too.
There are so many political and business figures in the Arab world who are the sons of important people but that become important themselves because they grew up in a luxurious way. It’s actually the same patterns.”
The point was to say that these two realities – one is as important as the other. But they are different dimensions – not only different tonality but a different voice to them. This hasn’t been used in Arab hip-hop (or really in hip-hop in general) but who says we can’t use them? The ultimate judge is the ear. If the you find the product Is harmonious then you’ve done something harmonious. If it’s bullshit, it’s bullshit.
BEATS AND BREATH: There are examples of it happening in hip-hop’s past like Kool Keith, the Pharcyde others – I mean RZA became Bobby Digital. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is unique what you’re doing in this context. But it’s using a trope that if employed correctly, people can imagine it: all these different voices in the same MC – why not?
EL RASS: And what you’re saying with this there’s a different dimension which is the theatrical dimension and the story-telling dimension, and actually there’s one track on this album that I’m particularly proud of because it’s my first storytelling text ever in hip-hop. And storytelling rhymes. I’ve written novels, but never a rap story. In the same track there are two stories that is going to be made into a animation clip that’s going to be finished at the end of February done by Shortfuse Films. Everything on this album including the artwork done by Ali Rafei and Ali is from where I’m from in Tripoli– actually the same building together. We’ve been homies since we were kids. We used to play basketball together.
In early July, this article appeared in Red Bull Music Academy’s Online Magazine. Beats and Breath would like to thank James Singleton, Lisa Blanning, and Davide Bartot of RBMA for the opportunity. More articles to come with RBMA – a great publication.
Lebanon is a complicated place. Historical antagonisms, both internal and external, have shaped its political and social landscape. Its diversity, ethnic and religious, is unmatched in the Arab world, and since the 1950s, its capital city Beirut has become the fulcrum between oriental and occidental, creating the ‘perfect storm’ of influences that has made it the mecca for progressive musical trends in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
The diva Fairuz, her politically charged composer son Ziad Rahbani, oud player and composer Marcel Khalife, and singer-composer Zaki Nassif have all pushed the conventions of traditional Tarab and Dabke (popular folk music forms) over the last 50 years. Less known are the efforts of Beirut-based musicians who, since the devastating Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), continue to forge new Arabic musical directions outside of bubblegum Arab pop, modern Dabke twists or the patriotic anthems of the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah.
Mazen el Sayed (aka El Rass) is a poet, musician, journalist and upstart MC whose debut album Kachf El Mahjoub (Unveiling The Hidden) (2012) on the Beirut-based Ruptured label signifies the unchartered musical territory that is being forged as the Arab world reels from the unprecedented change that has occurred in the last 18 months.
“This phenomenon [of change] is happening on all levels in the Arab world – including on the musical level and artistic level,” El Rass explains. “There’s a dialogue going on without any rules besides the artistic rule – which is to do great things that touch people, enlighten people and give people more awareness towards how they experience what they’re living and their surroundings.”
El Rass’s production partner for Unveiling The Hidden is Jawad Nawfal – aka Munma, the brother of Ruptured label founder Ziad Nawfal – whose main body of work began in the aftermath of Israel’s war on Lebanon. Six years on, Munma has become synonymous with Beirut’s avant-garde musical community that counts names like neo-futurist composerTarek Attoui and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj among its ilk. On the album, Munma demonstrates his uncanny sensibility for elaborate broken beat, ambient synth musical layers – think the Anticon label, Shabazz Palaces, Aesop Rock – and traditional musical underbeds as a perfect compliment to El Rass’s provocative wordplay. With images of turtles running on treadmills and cocaine-addicted politicians given power solely by birthright, El Rass’s flow cuts directly into the political and social inequities of Beirut life.
While Munma fashions himself as part of the sonic dissonance of a post-war Lebanese society, El Rass is a musical cog working in tandem with the youth-driven political and social movements elsewhere in the Arab world. But more than anything else, the album is a testament to years of development within Beirut’s underground scene, which has produced the most iconic Arab alternative musical acts of the last 15 years.
The Evolution Of The Underground
Amidst the apocalyptic, Mad Maxlandscape of post-war Beirut, there was in fact a vacuum that needed to be filled, and around 1993, peace began to feel like a possibility for the first generation of post-war youth eager for something beyond the ruins. Tracing the evolution of what can be considered the birth of the post-civil war underground scene in Lebanon, and arguably the birth of the contemporary alternative music in the region, Zeid Hamdan, the underground’s self-styled ‘gardener’ and the front man for numerous musical outfits since the mid-1990s says, “People began asking themselves, ‘What is Lebanon today?’ There became interest for something else other than what they were used to: the mainstream Arabic music that they had always listened to.”
Prior to that bands like Force and Amnesia joined the progressive Oriental musical stylings of Rahbani and Charbel Rouhana, to become what local music journalist Muhammed Haamdar says were “the trendsetters for Beirut’s civil war alt musical legacy,” that all but faded from view in the initial post-war years as Beirut society focused on vapid pop music to wash away their war weariness. This was the time when a microscopic western-influenced audience, who had been raised equally on Fairuz as with Led Zeppelin and Kraftwerk, rejected the sexually charged ‘habibi’ love songs flooding the radio airwaves, and instead raided black market cassette shops and CD stores in a search for punk, electro, alternative rock and hip hop.
Hamdan returned from the war in the early 90s filled with western sounds in his head – The Pixies for one – and co-founded the seminal electro-Arabic fusion act Soap Kills withYasmine Hamdan (no relation), considered the voice of an entire generation of post-civil war youth in Beirut. Soap Kills self-produced four albums between 1997 and 2005. Their sound was derived from the production influences of Massive Attack and Portishead, and featured Yasmine’s contemporary, if not uninflected, interpretations of classic Arab songs like “Ya Habibi Taala Lhaeni” (“My Love, Come Chase Me”). It was a bold new approach and took more from the classical Arabic repertoire of their parents’ generation than the nominally popular Lebanese rock acts of the 1990s and early 2000s did.
Ultimately, their second album Bater sold 5,000 copies in the Lebanese market, which was unheard of at a time when there was no reliable internet commerce or a viable music industry to speak of. But none of the albums received radio airplay, and as Beirut-based cultural writer Kaelin Wilson-Goldie observed, “For nearly a decade, Soap Kills was held up as the next big thing. It was a band that served as an unprecedented artistic hothouse for live experimentation and studio innovation, a band that was always on the verge of a major record deal but never quite made it happen.” Seven years after their last release and nearly as long since their disbandment (2005), Soap Kills is ironically seeing more airplay now than they ever did during their heyday.
For his part, Zeid Hamdan never left his underground roots, having co-founded his own short-lived independent label Mooz Records (2003-2006) with musician and film composer Khaled Mouzzanar. At its peak, Mooz counted practically the entire alternative music scene as part of its roster, and in May of 2006 Mooz held the Beirut Luna Park Music Festival. It was the largest festival of its kind, but it became a symbol of Beirut’s propensity for false promises. Most of the cultural elite that constituted the alternative scene, and certainly most of the roughly 1,500 festival attendees, were looking haphazardly to the future, ignoring the country’s fragilities and external political actors. Articles at the time reflected the country’s optimism, but on July 12th, Israel invaded. 33 days of bombing later, huge swaths of Beirut and south Lebanon were destroyed. Irreparable damage was also done to Beirut’s alternative music scene, and according to Zeid, Mooz records was forced to close.
The two subsequent years of violence and political instability that followed continued to wreak havoc. Scrambled Eggs was one of the groups that suffered the most. From 1997 to outbreak of war in 2006, the four music geeks that founded the group wore their musical sensibilities on their wrinkled button-up shirts and tight jeans, hammering out smart, hard-hitting post-punk that appealed to a burgeoning fanbase. But they banked on the false promises of peace like nearly everyone else in the alt scene – and in the possibilities of an active, independent, then up-and-coming music industry that had enjoyed roughly six years of peace.
After the war and at the beginning of the group’s denouement in 2007, the unofficial spokesperson Charbel Haber, a talented experimental musician in his own right, was glib when talking to the press, exhibiting a fuck-you attitude that, like so many of his peers from the post-civil war generation, showed open contempt of religion and politics. In a2007 Time Magazine article, Haber extolled, “We do everything as if the world is going to end tomorrow. The Syrians might come back, Israel might attack, Hezbollah might start another war. In a situation like this, you do a lot of self-destructive things,” adding, “At the end of the day, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll means freedom.”
Despite their appearance at South By Southwest in 2008, Scrambled Eggs’ slide into inactivity inevitably opened the door for other groups to join the alt music fray. Between 2000 and 2008, grunge unit Blend signed briefly to EMI, and rock band Meen – alongside electro-pop group Lumi – courted the vestiges of break-out fame afforded to very few of Beirut’s independents. Meen released their last LP 3arouset Bkeseen in 2011, and sing mostly in a Lebanese Arabic dialect, often about mordant subject matter – a marked contrast to the pure pop sensibilities that Lumi represent.
A duo composed of guitarist Marc Codsi (Scrambled Eggs, Zeid & The Wings) and singer Mayaline Hage, Lumi entered the scene in late 2005 and quickly rose in popularity, due in no small part to their 2006 single “Don’t F With My Cat”, which helped them land a major record deal with EMI/Virgin for their second album Two Tears In Water (2008). Like Scrambled Eggs before them, Lumi’s approach was a contrast to the doldrums of Lebanon’s volatile political reality. Embodying the “glamour and chaotic dynamic of Beirut,” Hage told the local paper The Daily Star in 2008, “We wanted to do something popular but intelligent – intense and happy,” while bandmate Codsi saw Lumi’s pop sensibility as a challenge to “do something that could be heard and felt by everybody.”
It’s likely that the most influential regional alternative group to come out of Beirut in the last decade is the seven-member indie rock act Mashrou’ Leila (which translates to ‘Overnight Project’). Formed in 2008 as part of a music workshop at the American University of Beirut, there is little to compare them to musically. With tinges of Armenian folk music mixed with Arab punk guitar riffs, DJ samples, hard-hitting break-beats, gongs and Arabic folk rhythms, Mashrou’ Leila have relied on their original student fanbase, spreading their musical message to college campuses throughout the Arab world through the now familiar, but highly effective use of social media platforms and internet distribution methods. As a result, they’ve managed to expand their influence almost exponentially in the last three years to include not only the Middle East but cities as far afield as Paris, Amsterdam and Prague. They’re a musical phenomenon with unabashedly risqué lyrics that are satirical masks held up to the face of Lebanese society. Both their self-titled debut album (2009) and their EP El Hal Romancy (2011) are tomes to the possibilities of future independent Arabic music.
Rap And Rebellion
While Mashrou’ Leila’s fanbase within the more rock-oriented orientalist circles is growing, their political sentiments and their sample-friendly approach have also gained audience crossover from the alt music scene that has emerged most prominently as the soundtrack to the Arab revolutions: Arab hip hop.
“The revolutions definitely inspired the youth to write about what was going on in their own countries,” John Imad Nasr, aka Johnny Damascus – bassist and longtime fixture of the Beirut hip hop scene – explains. Based in Brooklyn now, Damascus adds, “Cats in Lebanon were writing about what was going on (on the streets) before the revolutions. And during and after,” just like the heads in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan and Palestinian Territories.
Right now, that political reality in Lebanon is looking increasingly grim with the situation in Syria a constant threat to sectarian antagonisms here. But that has only added fuel to the fire with the hip hop community in Beirut, who are consistently organising and producing events in spite of the potential for violence – with voices that stand in clear opposition to the veneer of the notoriously insipid party scene that brings in artists like Flo Rida and Wiz Khalifa, but has no room for homegrown Arab hip hop talent. But according to the Middle East’s premiere turntablist Hussein Mao Atwi, aka DJ Lethal Skillz, “Used to be the only references to hip hop in Lebanese hip hop circles were the corporate acts. But now the young heads are beginning to realise they are their own destinies.
“There’s constant political instability always hanging over your head here in Beirut,” Skillz continues. “Only in the last five years or so are there people you can turn to and say ‘Hey, those are the veterans.’ There was no real historical record in the late 1990s [digitally], so people don’t even remember the  DMC DJ World Championships were held in Lebanon, with heavyweights like DJ QBert and DJ Noise, or that Lebanon’s first turntablist Sweet Lil’ DJ was competing on an international level with the best of them – rest in peace.” (Sweet Lil’ DJ died of a car accident in 1999.)
Skillz has also lent considerable production to dozens of pan-Arab hip hop recordings, and his 2012 sophomore release Karmageddon is a who’s who of the global Arab hip hop movement. With some of Beirut’s best MCs, it includes the lyrical satirist Omar Zeneiddine aka MC Dee; the understated yet highly politically charged writer Edouard Abbas aka (El) Edd of Lebanon’s most well-known hip hop group Fareeq al Atrash; and lyrical savant Ramcess L’Hamorabi, whose self-released, self-produced albumL’Hamorabi was among the best international hip hop offerings in 2011.
Above: Aks’ser w/DJ Lethal Skillz “Safeit bi 3akss el Seir” (1998, perhaps the first Lebanese hip-hop video)
Beyond their solo work, these MCs have taken to frequent collaborations with other rappers from Egypt, Jordan, Palestinian Territories and Syria. The previously mentioned El Rass, Osloob – an MC with the raucous Palestinian crew Katibe 5 (‘Batallion’ 5) from the Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp south of Beirut – and MCs Jaafar and Nasserdyn from the Bekaa Valley’s crew Touffar – a name that literally translates to ‘outlaw’ – represent a new breed of Lebanese hip hop talent.
Osloob’s newest self-produced release “Fasl” (“Separation”) (2012) includes MCs from Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, who all lay down revolutionary verses on one continuous track that Osloob spent months composing. And Touffar, who spit about the AK-47 lifestyle in the Bekaa Valley and their unapologetic antagonisms towards the absentee Lebanese government, is busy at work delivering new tracks for an upcoming pan-Arab hip hop compilation about new perspectives on revolution called Khat Thaleth(Third Rail) with Syrian-American producer Ahmad Khouja aka Munaqresh/Dub Snakkr.
And with nearly unlimited access to music from the net and plenty of sources for cracked sound-editing software, many Beiruti MCs carry that hyphenated rapper-producer credit de facto. Throw in some warped 808 effects with the wealth of sampling material at their disposal – from the decades of classical Arabic record production coming from Lebanon and Egypt – and you begin to understand why Beirut’s hip hop stalwarts are helping to change the very underbed of sound production in Arab hip hop. And increasingly these heads are catering more to their local audiences than to the world at large. This local scene has provided its supporters with their own socially aware soundtrack since the late 1990s with groups like Aks’ser and the crew Kita3 Beirut both rhyming about the realities of urban Beirut life and about social inequity – not in French, as was the case in the Maghreb during that period, but in their native Lebanese dialect.
Labels And Legacy
Despite the problems that surround Lebanon politically and economically, there are some bright spots within the local alternative music market, namely where independent labels and artistic representation is concerned. Zeid Hamdan’s Lebanese Underground and the regional music agency Eka3 are two of the most active where independent music is concerned, and combined represent the majority of alternative musicians in the region. While they certainly don’t have mass appeal, Forward Music label and Ziad Nawfal’s Ruptured label are two examples of independent record companies with business models that are geared towards preserving catalogues and funnelling their artists towards live shows – the bread and butter of any musician these days.
From 2006 to 2010, the label that was the driving force in Beirut’s alternative music scene was Incognito. Nawfal spent two years with Incognito before forming his Ruptured label, and for the better part of 20 years has been charting the evolution of Beirut’s more western-influenced alternative music scene on the state-sponsored radio station Radio Lebanon.
In 2009, Nawfal also co-edited a book with photos by Lebanese-Austrian photographer Tanya Traboulsi called Untitled Tracks On Alternative Music In Beirut that captured a moment in time with Lebanon’s emerging alternative music scene. All of the artists featured in the book have made it on his weekly radio show Ruptured Sessions, and four of Nawfal’s eight albums released on Ruptured were based on live sessions during his radio show. Nawfal’s ninth album will reveal his own proclivity towards Beirut’s exploding electronica scene.
With a mission to elevate Arabic music beyond its pop confines, veteran musician-producer Ghazi Abdel Baki started the Forward Music label in 2001. While Forward Music has assured the increasing relevance of contemporary interpretations of oriental traditions it has also championed hip hop talents like Fareeq al Atrash, former Aks’ser front man Rayess Bek and DJ Lethal Skillz. And luckily, when Icognito folded, Baki kept the discography alive; a sign that perhaps whatever you throw at Beirut’s alternative music scene – civil war, political assassination, socio-economic depravity – it is destined to go on.
In Arabic, the word samidoun comes to mind – literally translated it means ‘steadfastness’. That’s what the scene has going for it. Somehow, somewhere, even in the dusty bins of some backwater garage, you’ll find Beirut’s musical heritage surviving, at least according to the all-vinyl funk, soul, rare groove DJ Ernesto Chahoud, aka DJ Spindle, himself a pioneer in the scene currently working on a film about underground 1980s disco belly-dance recordings.
“For me, the alternative scene in Beirut is like a bunch of outcasts accepted by hardly anyone,” Chahoud says. “The political powers or political players in and outside the government don’t acknowledge them. So, when you have these outcast musicians – or DJs, or artists – that are expressing themselves and nothing but themselves, without care for anything, this is Beirut’s alternative scene. And it is what makes Beirut an underground trendsetter in the region.”
Of course Beirut’s musical history is often subsumed by civil war and post-civil war narratives, but a quick survey of the music coming from Beirut over the past 60 years reveals, as Chahoud says, a vibrancy affected by war and political turmoil with a cadre of musicians “that have always searched for the ‘alternative’ to what was going on,” in both traditional and non-traditional terms.
“My relationship with music has always been like this,” posits the poet-MC El Rass. “I want to synthesise and absorb the cumulative experience of the culture I belong to on a musical and artistic level and be a continuation of this culture. This is what is happening in the Arab world. Now it’s prime time and it’s at some sort of peak. I know I’m not alone when I say this, but I always see myself as trying to create something that’s going to be perceived as traditional music a century from now.”
Other Notable Mentions:
Rayess Bek – A veteran of the hip hop scene, Aks’ser’s former frontman has collaborated as an MC/producer with worldclass talent (RZA, Niles Rogers, Miles Copeland), composed for TV and has released three solo albums – the last, Khartech Aa Zamn (The Leftist Man), with his multimedia musical experiment The Rayess Bek Orchestra.
Lazzy Lung – With one album to their credit (Strange Places, 2010) they won the the 2011 Rolling Stone Magazine Middle East‘s Battle of the Bands contest and a 2012 Ray Ban sponsored trip to Capitol Records Los Angeles last April.
Slutterhouse – The electo-pop duo was formed in 2006 by singer songwriter Raibih Salloum and veteran Beirut producer Nabil Saliba (aka Trash Inc). Their three releases have spawned two European tours and a growing fan base in France and the UK that includes the likes of Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor.
Rima Khcheich – Her recent tribute album to the legendary Lebanese singer and actress Sabah is less of a reinterpretation of the ‘pioneer of popular tarab’ than a revival of a song tradition.
The Kordz – A veteran alt-rock band that has a wickedly loyal fanbase and have opened for the likes of international acts like Placebo, Deep Purple and Robert Plant.
La Gale – Swiss-Lebanese MC who splits her time between Lausanne and Beirut – her lyrics are bombastic threats against the system.
The Incompetents – Fronted by non-musician Serge Yared in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Fadi Tabbal, Yared’s off-key voice and awkward arrangements betray the honest artistic intent behind the music.
Irtijal – Experimental music pioneers in Beirut guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and horn player Mazen Kerbaj began the Irtijal music festival 12 years ago to serve an emerging niche of music improvisation in the later 90s.
Acousmatik System – Non-profit cultural organisation founded by electronica promoter and DJ Hadi Saleh – you can find the best of Beirut’s electronica roster on their website.
Extra Inclusion from filmmaker Merass Sadek – who offers a video recap chronicling the Red Bull Music Academy’s 2012 Bass Camp in Beirut
The RBMA Base Camp in Beirut this year brought together a handful of leading musicians, producers, DJs and vocalists from around the Middle East gathered for three days to collaborate in bedroom studios, perform in the city’s best clubs and music venues, and listen to inspiring lectures from DJ Zinc, Jay-Z’s in-house producer Young Guru, composer Ibrahim Maalouf and local underground legend Fadi Tabbal.
IN MAY 2012 – Beats and Breath sat down with Ziad Nawfal -the founder of the alternative music label Ruptured – to discuss what he’s excited about with the next-generation of Arab musicians and the prospects of working as an indIE label in the Middle East. (note: this article was originally published in JUNE 2012)
BEIRUT – It’s hard to decide who producer Ziad Nawfal reminds me of when I think of producers to make comparisons to/with. And while it may be unfair to draw parallels to other Occidental producers when describing the work of a contemporary Lebanese producer, if I were going to compare Nawfal to someone I admire, Trevor Horn (Art of Noise, Grace Jones, Belle and Sebastian) is one producer that comes to mind.
Like Horn, Nawfal’s musical involvement spans genre’s, but unlike Horn who had the UK’s well-established music markets to work his craft, Nawfal is operating in what is no doubt one of the most insular musical communities in the region – Beirut.
Nawfal has managed to parlay his own 20-year history as a radio-host on the state-sponsored Radio Liban (Beirut’s RFI affiliate, 96.2 FM) into a myriad of different titles – producer, events organizer, DJ, and talent scout. But the one that Nawfal admittedly is most attached to is that of facilitator.
The founder and head of the independent Lebanese label Ruptured (est. 2009), he works with some of Lebanon’s most talented musicians and producers, as well as some notable artists from abroad (Stephan Rives, C-Drik) and has released 8-albums under the Ruptured imprint – four volumes of which were based on live sessions recorded during his radio show Ruptures.
Called The Ruptured Sessions, most of his production reveals his own proclivity towards experimental musical forms -Tashweesh (Palestine), Tarek Atoui (Lebanon), Radwan Moumneh (Lebanon), OkyDoky (Lebanon), etc. – but Nawfal has also been an significant actor with several other scenes in Beirut, through his work with Charbel Haber and the post-punk group Scrambled Eggs – one of the two groups he first recorded – with his brother Jawad Nawfal aka Munma -and continuing with his 2012 album release of the rapper, poet, journalist Mazen el Sayyed aka El Rass that Munma provided the production for (see BEATS AND BREATH’s interview with El Rass here).
I caught up with Nawfal at the bookstore Papercup in East Beirut to talk about his label, his role with emerging musical forms in the Middle East, and what’s next as things continue to get harder for record labels in the digital age.
BEATS AND BREATH: Your first label job was working with Lebanese entrepreneur and music aficionado Tony Sfeir’s now-defunct independent label called Incognito (an offshoot of his renowned music store La CD Theque). It was a new model in the region where record labels were concerned. Tell me a little bit about that.
ZIAD NAWFAL: It’s true – labels like this did not exist before. So he broke ground with this. Incognito allowed musicians from different genres and denominations to record to edit to produce and to distribute their music. Incognito’s range was huge – releasing artists like Nidaa Abou Mrad, a very traditional oriental musician, as well as the (post-punk outfit) Scrambled Eggs.
Eventually they found themselves with this huge catalog that wasn’t selling. The label went bankrupt. They shut down the label, and sold the (label’s) catalog to Forward Music Label in Beirut.
When I left Incognito, I was left with the obvious question of what to do next. Founding a label seemed like an obvious choice. I knew the different steps for producing a CD, releasing a CD- how to market it and how to distribute it.
BEATS AND BREATH: But isn’t it a little anachronistic to start a label these days?
ZIAD NAWFAL: Yes, Ruptured is somewhat “anachronistic” in the sense that I started the label in 2009 at a time when no one was producing CD’s anymore. But what you have to bare in mind is that the alternative scene started very late in Lebanon – it’s 10 to 15 years old. Imagine. Soap Kills (Zeid Hamdan, Yasmine Hamdan) debuted in 1996.
Nonetheless, I felt compelled to document what I was hearing. The stuff that musicians were giving me. The music performances that I was seeing. The performances that were taking place at the radio station.
This is how the label started.
BEATS AND BREATH: There’s a sustainability factor in what you do to allow for it to continue.
ZIAD NAWFAL: If at any point this process is not self-actualizing, then I will have to ask myself questions and reconsider what I’m doing. And the time for these questions has arrived. I’ve released 8 CD’s on the Ruptured label. I’ve written about artists. I’ve published a book. I’ve mixed music from inside and outside of Lebanon. And I’ve always felt like it’s not enough. But to be honest I don’t know what else to do.
BEATS AND BREATH: So you’re not a prophet or soothsayer, and you’re involved in a process in which you can’t predict the outcome. Is that fair to say?
ZIAD NAWFAL: Perhaps you’re right but the thing is that I’m asked that question quite often (“What’s next in the alternative music scene?”). Recently, I was asked to write a text for this cultural fund that would put in perspective Lebanon’s alternative scene.
The first thing I wrote in that text was: “I am often asked to put things in perspective and I don’t know how to. How does music in Lebanon affect the Arab Spring and vice versa? How is Beirut’s alternative scene politically?”
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m not sure the artists do either.
BEATS AND BREATH: What are you excited about musically in 2012?
ZIAD NAWFAL: I’m excited about the one aspect that I was the most suspicious about before – which is the hip-hop scene. It’s very easy for artists operating in the hip-hop mould to go into cliches and to go into prototypes, and to have a discourse that is not very interesting to me or their audience.
But I’m optimistic and extremely excited about it because of recent things that I’ve heard and recent things that I’ve witnessed. Something clicked – although I’m not sure the consequence to that. It could be the Arab Spring. It could be something else. But a modification has taken place in Lebanon and consequently in the Middle East and I think it’s a very interesting modification to follow.
Again, I’m not sure where it’s going but there’s stuff happening there.
As Lebanese independent music pioneer Zeid Hamdan prepares for a long-awaited performance with African Harpist/Kora player, Kandjha Kouyate (Guinea) in Beirut on May 17, met Lebanese producer Zeid Hamdan, Beats and Breath has chosen to reblog this post that, while four years old, is equally relevant to discussions of the future of the independent Arab music scene – particularly as the Arab uprisings have opened up an unprecedented space for artistic expression in the Middle East and North Africa. Enjoy!
Beats and Breath features this exclusive interview with Beirut-based musician, producer, composer, and arranger Zeid Hamdan, the pioneer of Lebanon’s alternative music scene. (Editor’s note: In the 2 years since this was published – it is still a relevant discussion of the future of alternative music in Lebanon.)
By JACKSON ALLERS
BEIRUT – Sitting in the confines of Torino (Express) – the bohemian stalwart of a bar in the east-Beirut, SoHo-like Gemayze district – I go through a mental preparation of what to ask Zeid Hamdan, the self-styled gardener of the Lebanese underground music scene.
For me, however, any preparation to interview Zeid Hamdan is less a technical exercise (“Who are your influences?” etc.), and more of a mutual exchange with questions drawn from the near 3 years I’ve known him and seen him work.
I remember the now legendary Mooz Records show (record label headed by Zeid at the…
This was my event review in Rolling Stone Magazine ME of the “Voice of the Streets” show on November 4. The event was shutdown by the Egyptian Interior Ministry only to be revived at an art space *Darb 17 18* in Old Cairo that same night! Stay tuned for the long format version of this piece on World Hip Hop Market that will be re-posted here. There’s more of the story that needs to be told!
Photo Credit: Shadi Rahimi — Members of the Egypt mega-crew Arabian Knightz. Rush (left), E-Money, Sphinx (w/the Keffiyeh), and MC Amin (far right)
Live: Voice of the Streets
By Jackson Allers
November 05, 2011
CAIRO – Last month, 12 of the region’s best-known Arab rappers were set to perform together at a public youth center in the swanky central Cairo district of Zamalek. Organizers billed the Voice of the Streets event as a concert to remind people about the continued struggle for freedom of expression in the wake of the Arab uprisings. But the event was prematurely shut down by the Interior Ministry, who ordered organizers to shut the gates of the municipal youth club where it was set to take place.
Hundreds of b-boys and b-girls, college students, activists and others were waiting to be let in, many having been lured to the venue by impromptu guerrilla rap performances in the streets of Cairo two days prior to the event.
One organizer from the Jordan-based arts and entertainment company Immortal Entertainment said he had invited protestors injured during the revolution to the event, but when they showed up, the Interior Ministry said the event was no longer a hip-hop event and new permits were required. The event was officially canceled.
What happened next will go down as a defining moment for the Arab hip-hop movement, as frantic calls went out to resuscitate Voice of the Streets. A local arts and culture center, Darb 17 18, assumed responsibility and word went out online and by phone. After a herculean effort to get the sound and space ready for an ad-hoc concert that had taken two months of planning, the MC’s played to a crowd of some 300 to 400 people who faithfully migrated to Old Cairo.
MC Amin opened the show with his street anthems “Rap 5aleni Abuqueda,” “Madinat al Khataya (Sin City)” and “The Arabs are the Roots Part 3,” showing why he is widely regarded as the future of Egyptian rap with his direct connections to the Egyptian street – his philosophical turns of slang punctuating condemnations of the government.
Lebanon’s Malikah then took the stage and joined Amin on an unnamed collaboration track. Malikah continued her solo set – lyrical guns blazing – proving to the audience that there are female MCs living in the Arab world who can hold it down in a sea of male energy.
And in perhaps the most fun collaboration of the evening, Malikah was joined on the stage by Edd and MC Amin for the tentatively titled song “Hip-Hop” that included a rousing crowd-pleasing call-and-response of “Cairo City.”
After the trio left the stage it was Beirut-based MC Edd’s turn to show just how good the Lebanese hip-hop scene is. His flow, laid-back but vibrant, was perhaps the most unique vocal style of the evening. In a nod to the Egyptian revolution, he performed “Alamna Marfou3” – a track that had burned up internet airwaves with Arab hip-hop fans – with Egyptian MC, Mohammed El Deeb, a.k.a. Deeb, formerly of the Egyptian crew Asfalt.
“When the people in Egypt heard it, they got the sense that all Arabs were facing the same problems – unemployment, corruption, lack of social and cultural awareness – and were in a constant battle to remember a past before Mubarak” Deeb explained.
The Egyptian rapper’s song “Masrah Deeb” (Deeb’s Stage) was a crowd favorite, not least because of the B.B. King guitar sample that frames the backing tracks. Recorded in the weeks before the January 25th call to protest, the track prophetically talked about the need for people to wake up to the situation in Egypt.
The Jordanian rap contingent proved why they were on the bill, with MC’s Khotta B and Tarek Abu Kwaik (a.k.a. El Far3i) cutting through a gruff, hard-hitting set of political tracks from their up-coming solo albums that are sure to put Jordan on the Arab hip-hop map.
The most polished performance of the night came from Boikutt, representing Ramallah. Having played the Shatilla Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut a month earlier, Boikutt’s set was also politically charged. The liquid clarity of his mic control set the bar for the night as the slight-of-frame Palestinian proved a master at getting his lyrical content through to the audience with a sound system that was pushed to its max throughout the night.
Rounding out the night were local crowd favorites, and Arab hip-hop legends, Arabian Knightz. A crew that rolls around 15-deep at its periphery had all three of its core members on stage – Rush, E-Money and Sphinx, recently back from his stint with U.S. Immigration Services in California justifying his life as a rapper in Egypt.
Their songs “Rebel” with Palestinian singer and rapper Shadia Mansour and “Not Your Prisoner” were the hip-hop soundtrack of the Egyptian revolution. Preparing for the release of their debut LP Unknighted State of Arabia, they performed to a sadly thinned-out, but still hyped, crowd at around two in the morning.
The Arab hip-hop movement has often seemed more hypothesis than cultural fact. In Cairo last month, Voice of the Streets made it tangible.
Beats and Breath/Jackson Allers talked to legendary German graffiti writer and publisher Don Karl aka STONE, fresh off the release of his newly published book Arabic Graffitiauthored by Lebanese typographer Pascal Zoghbi, with essays from a host of calligraphers, graffiti artists, designers, photographers and academics.
BEIRUT – There’s little to compare Arabic Graffiti too in the publishing world. A joint effort of author and typographer Pascal Zoghbi (Lebanon) and Don Karl, the German graffiti writer and publisher known as Stone, Arabic Graffiti chronicles the relationship between past traditions of Arabic calligraphy, modern Arabic typography, “professional” graphic design and the modern interpretations of urban Arabic street writing, specifically graffiti.
While the title is totally unoriginal, it is nonetheless the most researched, well- written, and stunningly photographed book on the subject to date. It is more reminiscent of the previous tomes on the subject of street art like Banksy’s Wall and Piece or Francois Chastanet’s amazing book on graffiti in Brazil – Pixacao: Sao Paulo Signature.
Two other books printed recently are solid attempts at providing insight into the evolution of the Lebanese graffiti scene: Saudi graphic designer and academic Tala F. Saleh’s book, Marking Beirut and Tarek Chemaly’s book Archewallogy/Les Murs Murs de Ville. Both manage to convey intent and thoughtfulness but deal solely with Lebanese street art.
Saleh’s book is “a visual reading of the city of Beirut through the stencils on her walls, an outsider’s view of an internal struggle.” Like Arabic Graffiti it also takes a somewhat academic approach, but also includes an interactive element – with 8 sheets of stencils which readers can practice with. Chemaly’s book is, however, more of an internal reflection on the bandito nature of street art that has only in the last decade taken on some acceptance in the more storied art circles – arguably even less considered in the rarified world of art in Lebanon and the Middle-East. Still Chemaly’s book is thorough.
Other predecessors to Arabic Graffiti like Beirut Street Art by the Art Lounge, and Rhea Karam’s Breathing Walls are specific to Lebanon’s street art scene as well, but both of these books feel extremely rushed in their output, and are but ripples in a pond next to Arabic Graffiti.
According to Zoghbi, “The aim of the book is to document the Arabic graffiti scene and to help develop a stronger connection with the local artists, as well as an awareness of the Arabic calligraphic side of the art, which will lead to a mature Oriental graffiti scene.
In this statement is the implication that young graffiti writers in the Arab world have yet to fully embrace their roots and the traditions that will come to determine the future aesthetic of the burgeoning Arabic graffiti scene. It’s an accurate assessment that in some ways mimics the evolution of the Arabic hip-hop scene that has also developed from the English and French-laced rhymes of Arabic rappers in the mid-1990s to the rhymes of the current Arab rap scene which are predominantly in Arabic.
Of course, it is the sensibilities of Karl that really tie this book together. Having conducted a graffiti workshop called “Bombing Beirut” in 2008, Karl met with Zoghbi and most of the Lebanese graff scene, planting the seeds to what ultimately fomented into Arabic Graffiti.
Karl’s own writing and publishing past date back to the mid 1980’s, and it his knowledge of graffiti history that contextualized the narrative of this current book because he recognized that early graffiti writers in America and Europe had no “millennia-old” paths of tradition like Arabic calligraphers had when devising the rules of artistic engagement – something that young Arabic graffiti writers living in the Arab world have at least limited access to. This is perhaps the biggest revelation of Arabic Graffiti.
“My thesis that style writing is a perfect host for Arabic calligraphy wasn’t wrong,” Karl writes, “And by doing some research, I found more and more artists in different places around the world who were already way ahead with their idea of Arabic graffiti and had completed the convergence.”
Karl uses the example of Japanese graffiti culture to describe the transformation that inevitably comes when graf writers realize that their art must speak to their own population, and not to the prying eyes of the West. In the least that’s where their own public validation lies.
Japanese writers went from decrying a rich tradition of Japanese calligraphy to embracing it as an inspiration. “Calligraphy? That’s for old men!” came the refrain from early Japanese bombers. But as Karl writes in the preface, “Today, less than twenty years later (from meeting them), they have been proven wrong. Japan is rich with beautiful graffiti writings and large scale murals that make elaborate use of the Japanese script.”
Keeping these ancient forms of writing in mind, both in the Arab world and elsewhere, it is fitting that Arabic Graffiti’s opening chapter is titled Arabic Script & Calligraphy. It covers ground from the basic Arabic alphabet to a questionable explanation of the visual aspect of the Arabic script being originally conceived to represent the holy scriptures of the Koran (Huda Smithshuijzen AbiFares) to the connection of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti as being “two daughters of the same parents” – an interpretation written by the Iraqi calligrapher Hassan Massoudy who painted a mural with the French graffiti writer Marko 93.
“I discovered the fluidity of the spray can, which suddenly allowed me to do a continuous gesture of five meters before stopping a stroke,” Massoudy writes.
The second chapter, Public Art and Graffiti in the Middle-East, moves from the calligraphic messages in Bahrain, experiencing some of the Arab world’s most ruthless repression at the moment, to the calligraphic writing on shop signs in the Arab world, a section written by Zoghbi, to the ever-present and highly ubiquitous tradition of calligraphy on the bodies of trucks.
As anthropologue and photographer Houda Kassatly writes, the messages serve “aesthetic and decorative, practical and cultural purposes”, as well as assertions of identity.
“Conduct is art, savoir vivre and courtesty.”
“Don’t drive fast, death will go faster.”
“You want to see the stars in broad daylight? Follow me.”
“May God damage those who damage.”
“She is a beautiful coquette and arrogant.”
The second chapter moves on to more resistance oriented forms of graffiti in the Palestinian territories. Zoghbi and Karl point to the use of classic symbolism – the Al Alqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the Al Kaaba in Mecca – as the earliest forms of street throw-ups. Stencils of religious writings, and the well-known cartoon figure of Hanzala created by the Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali, are lauded as rich indicators of the street art traditions in Palestine that Zoghbi and Karl contend are not inspired by Western graffiti. “We can say that the Palestinian graffiti is a true Arabic urban art intervention.”
Of course this chapter moves effortlessly into forms of street art as resistance and the influence played by outsiders, like Swoon, Banksy, Askar, Blu, and literally dozens of other artists who all had their hands in marking up The Wall that weaves in and out of some 770 kilometers of Palestinian territory.
William Parry, a London-based freelance journalist and photographer for The Guardian that published the book Against the Wall: the Art of Resistance in Palestine about the the protest art on on the West Bank Barrier, concludes in the end that even if local Palestinians misunderstand the purpose of the art on the wall, graffiti writers have never done things to necessarily please people – resigning themselves to artistic forms of dissent as a way of providing their commentary on the world.
The book of course moves on to other places in the Arab world like Lebanon. Saudi academic Saleh writes about the manifestations of street art that emerged as a result of the devastating 1975-1990 Civil War – street art traditions whose influence is felt strongly today. Political stencil art, calligraphic slogans, etc. are “technical and artistic,” theorizing that the “difference between street art and the stencil graffiti in Beirut is that street art is not divided, it is patriotic, localized, colloquial and most importantly found and drawn in Arabic letterforms and typography, something very specific in Lebanon.”
Graffiti in Lebanon, however, was a mark of territory during the Civil War, as it has been in many places around the world that experience forms of urban destruction, dilapidation, neglect and or encroachment from outsiders. According to Saleh, “Beirut’s graffiti (during the Civil War) told the story of division, war and social struggles; it spoke of history in a way that Lebanon’s history books could not.”
In the post-war period in Lebanon, Zoghbi contends graffiti “voiced the pain of people,” and in the late 90s, as the political street writing was going unnoticed new forms of graffiti emerged, in large part because of the underground hip-hop movement that was taking root in Lebanon (and the Arab world).
Their mediums were the multitude of “hidden walls and and surfaces in old, neglected houses or factories and empty parking lots…that were the practice grounds for experimentation” writes Zoghbi in the section Beirut’s Graffiti Writing & Street Art. With notions of private property and public property being vastly different in post-Civil War Lebanon when compared to the West, Arabic Graffiti correctly illustrates that graffiti writers managed to avoid the stigmas as criminals, vandals and misfits assigned to graffiti writers in the West.
But most of the graffiti featured during this initial period were pieces done in latin letters. It wasn’t until the 2006 Summer war with Israel that the first signs of Arabic graffiti began to show up on the walls of Beirut. “Beirut was empty, gray and desperate,” writes filmmaker and graffiti artist, Siska, in the section Beirut Never Dies.
A member of the old-school Lebanese hip-hop crew Keta3 Beirut and original graffiti crew member of the REK (Red Eyed Kamikazes) crew- the first generation of Lebanese graffiti writers- his collaborations with French graffiti artist Prime of the TG crew were the first pieces in Lebanon to be done in stylized Arabic lettering, with messages that centered around the word “Beirut.”
“Beyrout Ma Btmoot (Beirut Never Dies),” and “Beyrout in Hakat (if Beirut Could Speak),” which is lifted from Said Akl’s book title If Beirut Could Speak, became brave new entries into the pantheon of Arabic artistic and cultural expression, using a basic Arabic typography to transmit these messages. Zoghbi and Karl are clear to their writers that this is a message they want to convey.
Siska writes, “I wanted to find the font of our city and carefully place the messages in the right spots around the city, which has suffered a long history of being marked by different groups and interests.”
The idea of finding a font to suit the possibilities of Arabic graffiti are aptly suggested with chapters about amazing artists working outside of the Arab world. Writers such as Paris-born el Seed and Hest 1, and Zepha, also born in France, who typify the potential of Arabic graffiti and it’s relation to past forms of Arabic calligraphy – styles that have yet to take such elaborate shape and form with any significant proliferation within the Arab-speaking countries.
That is not to say it is NOT happening through efforts like the Blouzaat collective of Ahmad Sabbagh, a Jordanian graphic designer and typographer, German street artist and graphic designer Michael Schinkothe, and German graffiti writer from the Maclaim graffiti and Herakut crews.
The book finishes with Zoghbi showcasing his own art and use of typography alongside other artist interpretations of Arabic calligraphy, and these are truly impressive uses of Arabic script with modern urban styles. In the end, Arabic Graffiti manages to effectively convey the idea that there is an implied voice and aesthetic that Arab graffiti writers and street artists need to engage in that will draw on the storied traditions of the past in order to reinvent occidental influences and make the act of graffiti something fresh.
For Arab graffiti writers, this is a must have item for their bookshelves.
The 4-piece Lebanese alternative rock outfit Lazzy Lung released their debut album in late 2010, and by all accounts they’re the hardest working crew in the Arab alternative rock scene looking to win their fans over – one listener at a time. Beats and Breath sat down with the band’s co-founder and frontman – Allan Chaaraoui to find out more about Lazzy Lung and their future plans. Note: in the time since the article was published, Lazzy Lung has gone on to win the Rolling Stone Magazine’s ME ‘Battle of the Bands’ contest in February 2011, and is scheduled to complete their Rolling Stone Mag recording session in Dubai in the next two months. As well Lazzy Lung is busy working on a video for their track “On Standby” from their debut album “Strange Places.”
BEIRUT – I always have to ask the same question when I interview members of the burgeoning indie rock scene coming from Lebanon. Is it possible to actually succeed playing rock-n-roll in the Arab world?
Answers vary, but there’s always hope that at least in Lebanon, there’s some amount of space to grow and challenge conventions. Certainly with the proliferation of corporate, English-language radio stations in the Arab world like Spin FM, Radio 1, Nrg, Urban FM, etc, there is a growing Arab youth audience that is being fed a diet of mainstream rock, R&B, hip-hop and bubble-gum Arabic and Western pop – enough so to expect that someday local Arabic alternative rock acts might just get a shot at the big time.
Clearly, young listeners are increasingly turning away from the staples of Arabic-music past and relying heavier on occidental sounds in their I-pods to get them through their days. Of course, throughout the world, in the Middle East as well, techno and electronic music are already staples of the youth music menu. But rock-n-roll from within – indigenous rock-n-roll as it were, well that’s a problem for anyone trying to forge ahead and gain audience share in the Arab world.
There have been precedents. Zeid Hamdan and Yasmine Hamdan’s group Soap Kills, though not a rock outfit, certainly redefined the way Arab youth relate to sounds coming from their own peers. More recently there have been the vanguard attempts of the post-punk crew Scrambled Eggs and the indie rock sounds of The New Government, another Zeid Hamdan project. Then there’s the glam-pop sound of Lumi that had some success touring regionally in Amman, and Dubai.
One has to mention the 7-piece band Mashrou3 Leila, another Lebanese act represented by indie Arab music label Eka3 Records. Theirs is a music that might not have the Western crossover appeal, but they are certainly one look at the future of the Arab indie music scene with a sound that blends acoustic rock with oriental musical influences (Arabic soul/T’arab, Armenian, Spanish/Andalusian). But they’re not pure rock-n-roll.
There is a rock-n-roll act emanating from the Lebanese shores going by the name of Lazzy Lung that has continued to gain notoriety in the last year – at least in Lebanon. Their debut album, Strange Places, was released in October, and has been getting solid reviews by local critics. The 4-piece band has, as one critic put it, “created an homage to the true spirit and grit of those incredibly sweet bands that emerged from the height of alternative rock music in the mid to late 90s.”
To hear frontman Allan Chaaraoui speak about their sound, you’d be more apt to find references to his Canadian background and groups like Ohbijou, Caribou, Best Coast and Winter Gloves rather than Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden or the Foo Fighters. Chaaraoui is from Ottawa and is half-Lebanese. Although he doesn’t like to speak about identity politics, in Chaaraoui’s own words Strange Places is an existential exercise in identity and firmly rooted in the aforementioned alt-rock traditions.
“Strange Places is basically autobiographical – covering a chronological story of about 10 years of my life. Life experiences – lost relationships, unfulfilled relationships, rowdy behavior, moving on – that I wrote down into lyrics, and all 11 tracks, although highly personal, still have a very universal message to them,” Chaaraoui explains.
Indeed, the other 3 members of the band – Patrick Hanna on lead guitar, Hady Oueini on drums, and Imad Jawad on bass – have all professed that the tracks speak to a sort of life arc that they can relate to. I daresay anyone that has been through love and loss can relate to the brutally honest lyrics of songs like “Moving On” which is about – well, moving on from past love:
“I live it every day, from the moment that I wake
Today is another day, to forget
To forget the times that we shared
Place myself in a place that I can focus.”
As for the question of whether he thinks that forming an alternative rock act in the Arab world is such a good idea, Chaaraoui waxes poetic with something he and the band like to tell people: “We know it’s tough trying to do this here. We know it doesn’t make sense. We know that the Middle East is filled with strange places.”
BEATS AND BREATH sat down with Chaaraoui a few weeks after their highly successful album release concert, which drew a packed house of some 400 people to Beirut’s Masrah al Medina (City Theater) to find out about the evolution of Lazzy Lung and the what’s next for the band.
BEATS AND BREATH: Is Lazzy Lung your first band experience?
ALLAN: Actually, I was in a punk band before for about 7 years. A very political band actually named Sunday Riot. This was the end of high school, and into college when I was 17 or 18.
BEATS AND BREATH: What happened to the band?
ALLAN: Funny story – I entered the band in a Battle of the Bands, and we won it. And we got free recording time in a studio and a photo shoot and more. As soon as we won that, the band was like, “Fuck it!”
BEATS AND BREATH: In the true punk sense of things (laughing).
ALLAN: (laughing) Exactly. We were getting to…I mean people started liking us so it wasn’t cool.
BEATS AND BREATH: Tell me a little bit of your evolution playing here.
ALLAN: I started out Lazzy Lung as an instrumental project. That’s why it’s called Lazzy Lung. I was writing some of my personal experiences and using it as an outlet for what was going on in my life.
BEATS AND BREATH: And Lazzy Lung? I mean is it tough being an Arab alt-rock band here?
ALLAN: What’s for sure is that the music we play is definitely Canadian influenced or it’s western music. And this is definitely one of the setbacks or challenges in what we’re dealing with here in the Middle East. One of the things we say is, “We know it’s tough. We know it doesn’t make sense. We know that the Middle East is filled with strange places.”
As I’ve said to journalists before – It’s kind of like we want to be the Olympians of our genre in the Middle East. The Olympians of alternative rock and have everybody say that Lazzy Lung is the tops for this kind of music.
BEATS AND BREATH: So that’s the ultimate goal?
ALLAN: Yeah, the band and I feel that’s the ultimate goal there.
BEATS AND BREATH: There aren’t that many successful models of independent, western-influenced music in the Arab world. You can go into Lebanese independent rock past – there were some bands in the early to mid 1970s (The Cedars comes to mind), and there was Zeid Hamdan’s project Soap Kills that had a big impact on the local music scene. Then recently there’s The New Government, LUMI, and Scrambled Eggs.
ALLAN: Well you see. The New Government is like edgy punk-influenced rock – indie rock. Scrambled Eggs are also more post-punk leaning towards punk and they do those experimental sound configurations of their band paired with other musicians. That’s the whole boxing us in thing – placing us into a genre or giving us an identity. There’s more of a crafted sound and identity to the New Government than we have. We have our sound, but they fit a lot more with a lot of other bands I find.
BEATS AND BREATH: With such a small market, do you look at things competitively?
ALLAN: Actually, I don’t see much of the competition you’re talking about. It doesn’t feel like a competition other than us trying to treat the process like a sport – like I said earlier. You know practicing the Lazzy Lung and competing in Lazzy Lung Olympics of the world – (laughing)
For example, I asked Scrambled Eggs to play a show with us last year. And they were like, “Who the eff are you? And why would we play with you?” But now that we have released an album and gotten a following they’ve actually said to us, “You’re good. You guys are good at what you do.”
Whether or not they want to share a stage with us is another thing.
But on the whole, when it comes to rock music in Lebanon – it takes a steep bend into HEAVY shit. Like heavy – death metal, doom metal types. With that growling four piece band kind of thing – and when four guys from Lebanon get together to play in a band then they tend to play some pretty heavy sounding music.
“We know it’s tough trying to do this here. We know it doesn’t make sense. We know that the Middle East is filled with strange places.”
BEATS AND BREATH: The evolution of the album and the actual composing of the songs now – walk us through the process.
ALLAN: All of the songs had been written and composed by me, but then I would arrange the songs with the guys. So I would come up with a bass-line or whatever drum concept I was trying to go for and they would purify into what it is now. And the producing was the work of Karim Sinno at Mixdown Studios in Beirut. He was co-producer, and was a total fan of our stuff and had heard my instrumentals and wanted to record the work.
But let’s breakdown a song: I will come up with a song that I’ll produce on the computer on my loop station. I’ll let it play and then pick a subject that I want to talk about. And just flow to that. The stories – I pick little parts of what happens to me and put them down in lyrics – as the music is playing.
BEATS AND BREATH: So the music is inspiring different aspects of the musical flow?
ALLAN: That’s right.
BEATS AND BREATH: Did you have percussive elements to the raw musical versions that are changed by the band?
ALLAN: Yeah Hadi (the drummer) had to customize it his own way (laughing). He would say, “That’s good but…”
BEATS AND BREATH; Right. Because there’s a sort of drummer pride there (laughing) [Imitating Hadi]. “You were a drummer then Allan (with Sunday Riot), but I’m a drummer now.”
ALLAN: That’s right (laughing).
BEATS AND BREATH: Do you find the guys generally supportive of the process? They’re younger and very hungry.
ALLAN: Yes. But that’s the part I’ve said before. Whenever it comes to songwriting it always helps for a songwriter to really know where he’s coming from. It’s like ordering a pizza with a group of 7 people. You have to accommodate everyone.
That’s the first album. The second album they are definitely having a more active role in writing the songs. Which takes a lot of pressure off of me.
BEATS AND BREATH: What about distribution? What is your plan?
ALLAN: We have only one point of distribution in Beirut right now. Having it at one location is actually kind of nice because it’s cross marketing. We’re helping each other out. But I want to mostly sell albums at shows. Every time we’ve played a show in the past, people wanted to buy an album. Now, it’s different. I mean even if we play shows for free, it’s ok because we know we’ll sell some albums.
BEATS AND BREATH: The old fashioned method of marketing. It’s the most beautiful direct link to your fans.
ALLAN: I know there’s this whole digital means of getting the album out there.
BEATS AND BREATH: But you’re hip to that?
ALLAN: I am aware but I’m not yet taking part in the process. We’re still too young as a band and haven’t really been seasoned yet. We just released the album and we’re trying to be careful with what we do. And do it in the most effective way possible.
BEATS AND BREATH; You want to tour in the Middle East presumably?
ALLAN: Touring in the Middle East is a bit of a fantasy still. But if there were to be a festival here or a festival there that meets everybody’s life schedule, then so be it. But I don’t want touring to cost us anything as a band. That’s not the point, but we’re not looking to make a living out of this realistically. We’re all students or working at the moment. And I don’t try to convince myself that it could be something to sustain me.
BEATS AND BREATH: Is that limiting?
ALLAN: If I were to dedicate more of my time solely into marketing and networking and pushing this thing on to people – well I’m sort of afraid of that. Because as soon as you push something on to people – they question it.
It’s been a natural growth. But at the same time what else can you do? One thing I want to do is to communicate to colleges and radio stations all over. Start with the students and the people that are keen to what we’re doing.
Trevor Beresfor Romeo aka Jazzie B, the legendary DJ, music producer and founding member of the musical collective Soul II Soul was in Beirut in March for a musical workshop with 44 musicians and producers from around the Arab world. BEATS AND BREATH sat down with Jazzie B to discuss music, his life philosophies and future collaborations in the Middle East.
BEIRUT – For someone growing up and listening to hip-hop in the 1980’s, the mention of the name Jazzie B has definite resonance. High school memories flood back; the vocals of UK-singer Caron Wheeler on Soul II Soul’s top-charting song “Back to Reality (However do you want me)” transport anyone over 30 to those sweaty house-party scenes that flourished throughout the world in 1989 –including my suburban outpost in Houston, Texas.
After meeting Jazzie B in Beirut last month, I felt I was tapping into some deep-rooted part of myself – like meeting a musical big brother whose unassuming demeanor belied that of someone who had produced and remixed tracks for a long list of my musical idols such as Public Enemy, Nas, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Sinead O’Connor, Maxi Priest, Suzanne Vega, and a host of others from the mainstream to the underground like The Fine Young Cannibals, Destiny’s Child, Ziggy Marley, Neneh Cherry and the list goes on.
B was in Beirut as an honored guest of the Red Bull Music Academy’s Bass Camp that brought 44-musicians and producers from around the Arab world together for one weekend to produce music and receive lectures from the likes of Jazzie, as well as Dr. Peter Zinovieff -the inventor of the VCS3 synthesizer that Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk popularized, and Zeid Hamdan, founder of the Lebanese group Soap Kills and the Middle East’s leading independent musical figure.
BEATS AND BREATH caught up with Jazzie B the night before his two-city DJ tour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
BEATS AND BREATH: You’ve had quite an eye-opening experience here in Beirut with all of these musicians from the region gathering to make music together. Tell me about that.
JAZZIE B: This has been – without being too emotional – such a liberating thing for me to do under these circumstances. One of the most amazing things about last night…
B&B: We’re speaking about the showcase performance of the regional musicians last night at club EM Chill in Beirut?
JAZZIE B: That’s the one. I mean last night was no pop-idol thing going on. I mean as far as music goes, when I go to other places in the world it feels so contrived. And that’s not bad because everyone is a victim of his or her circumstances, whether it’s Beirut or not.
But I came to Lebanon 12 years ago in 1999 – I know that the two times I’ve been to Lebanon are most definitely authentic experiences.
I can say that through adversity comes a form of expression and in that expression is where history is made. I’ve been in it. I saw it in Beirut – last night and this weekend.
We say, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” So, I was feeling that last night. I was in the back of the venue just soaking it in.
It was lovely I felt like I was sixteen!
B&B: The things you’ve been able to accomplish as a producer, which are massive, contrasted with what you said this weekend – that you haven’t learned as much from your mistakes as you could have – how then are you defining your success these days?
JAZZIE B: I haven’t really drifted into that area yet because as far as I’m concerned I’m still out there doing it. So the fact is that I’m still on the journey. So I haven’t even bothered to look back yet. I’m still moving forward – still got my ‘Eyes on the Prize’ as it were.
Jazzie B traces his own evolution as a world-renowned producer to his time back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s with the transformation from the sound system Jah Rico – with original musical partner Phillip “Daddae” Harvey – to the soundsystem we know as Soul II Soul –formed after Jazzie met the great Nellee Hooper.
B&B: You come from the time-honored tradition of the “sound system” in the Caribbean. I mean, you were your own music industry, party, and promotional engine all wrapped up in to one package. Given that there is no real music industry to support local artists here in the Arab world, is the sound system model something that could be duplicated?
JAZZIE B: I think so. Because from a sound system’s point of view, for the music that they (music industry reps) were going to hire and license, the people running the sound systems –like myself- started making the music themselves. From making the music themselves, then these were where the new superstars were being formed – coming out of these sound system set-ups.
B&B: Control the means of production and set up the sound system events for distribution and interest?
JAZZIE B: Yeah exactly. That’s part of the evolution of the whole music business. THAT part is where I see myself being involved. That’s my duty. That’s what I’m going out for. That’s what I’m studying, you know what I mean?
What comes from that is what’s made me today. I guess I have the kind of mentality that allows for me to go through the thorns and bushes because I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
B&B: Do you see yourself as a mentor in some way?
JAZZIE B: Yeah, definitely. And it’s a tradition I have taken part in. Really that’s my inspiration. That’s part and parcel for all the ideas of how I make music. I use people like Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway. Those guys were encyclopedias.
I’ve been blessed to work with James Brown – who took me under his wing. I worked with Isaac Hayes and Barry White. So many iconic people who inspired a whole generation, and I had the opportunity to sit in with them and hang with them.
I had the most incredible experience with Fela Kuti who allowed me to hang out and it was just amazing. So I feel it’s my duty to be in a position today where it starts being in that embryonic stage and suckle the child as it were.
As the child grows and I’m able to make suggestions about what particular routes that they take – and you know everybody needs a little TLC (tender love and care) – so I can help an artist in Beirut and all the other little guys coming up.
What’s a trip is that these young artists I’m spending time with now are like two generations away from me. Many of them weren’t even alive when I was doing my shit.
The fact that these young artists and I can meet each other now, on the level, and they’re mentioning songs that inspired them and they don’t even know where they came from. It’s so cool.
B&B: That’s the truth. And there’s not really a textbook for passing on history like this in these ways.
JAZZY B: This is what’s interesting. You know, when somebody posed the question to me in Beirut this weekend – “Can artists get past the whole idea that they’re giving music away in the Middle East?” (Implying they were losing both money and market-share.) We had a really cool conversation about it.
As I was saying to the musicians, when I first came out as an artist, we sold sheet music.
B&B: In the early 90s?
JAZZIE B: In 1988, when our music (Soul II Soul) first came out, I have royalty statements for sheet music.
B&B: For the longest time, that’s how artists have made their money. You owned the publishing right?
JAZZIE B: Exactly. And when I was speaking to the musicians in Beirut during my lecture, I gave a little snapshot of that. Again, everyone wants to understand how they can make this that or the other.
In today’s day and age, now, it’s revolved all the way back to when people were performing – a time when you would go to the theater and you would watch the musicians and then go home and try to emulate them.
Then came technology – the gramaphone, turntable, etc – the radio then started to perpetuate that stuff. When radio first came in – it was about the message. There was no music. It was about information. Then music became the thing that kept it going. I wouldn’t say the fuel, but it was the subculture of radio. When video came along…
JAZZIE B and JACKSON simultaneously: “Video killed the radio star!”
JAZZIE B: Exactly. And then it became MTV. But as you watch MTV these days there ain’t NO music! (laughing hysterically)
Look. All I wanted to do back in the day homey, was have the biggest sound system in the world.
Money? It weren’t about money. I had money because we were hustling.
I had my shops. I had my whole thing going on, and even when I got my first record deal, I didn’t make it like some artists that were in their garage bangin’ away for 20 years. I was playing my sound system and that again was another evolutionary step of the industry.
I took what they were doing when the musicians weren’t getting paid for it, and through the sound system set-up, I was getting paid for it. That was the weirdest thing. My first million that I made, it wasn’t like I had to use it because I was in a tornado of things with my sound system. I was hammering down the hatches.
Then another deal came along – and I was like ok, I’ll buy some more land (in Antigua where his family is from). That’s how the whole thing kind of evolved for me.
It would be the same thing where a musician gets a record deal – they buy a better guitar – they buy a studio…so on and so forth. That’s like the textbook thing to go wrong. That’s not what happened to me.
Our business is the fastest to make the money, and doubly fast to lose the money.
B&B: Back to the concept of mentorship and of opening the doors to younger musicians. The things that characterized the classic community relationship between the elders and the youth of a community – now it’s more global because the borders have opened up and so the identities that exist within these communities have become more spread out now. I think the way you’re describing the possibility of helping some of the cats here in Beirut – this is exactly what we hope when artists of your stature come through. When local artists are able to show you their music and say – “Look at this wonderful thing” and also say, “We need your help in this process to see it through” That’s the best thing that could happen.
JAZZIE B: Absolutely. I couldn’t have put it any better myself. I have my agenda, which is the music of life and let it play on. So I just move like that and it does end up becoming some sort of cliché. But like I’ve said:
LIFE FROM THE BBC
By: Jackson Allers
Editor: Wissam Charaf
Run time: 16 min. | Palestine/Lebanon
This documentary follows two MC’s, Yaseen (20) and TNT (19) of the Palestinian rap group I-Voice (Invincible Voice) from the Bourj al Barajneh Refugee Camp (BBC) in south Beirut, facing constant electricity cuts in their small camp recording studio.
Yaseen and TNT write lyrics by the lights of their cell phones and produce beats to a growing fan base – wracking up an impressive catalogue of music that has earned them a remarkable reputation within the local and international Arab hip-hop scenes. The film follows them as they break out of the confines of refugee life, it is a story about their search for power.
In this post, we’re proud to feature an interview with writer/actor/rapper, Iraqi-Canadian MC The Narcicyst – fresh off the release of his book Diatribes of a Dying Tribe(with writing by Suheir Hammad, Omar Offendum, Ragtop & Excentrik and exclusive Interviews with Cilvaringz, Malikah, Eslaam Jawaad, Members of AK, DAM and Soul Purpose). Narcy discusses the popularity of his co-creation, the song/video #jan25, the state of Arab hip-hop and provides Beats and Breath with a no-holds-barred appraisal of personal identity as an Arab artist living and working in the West. As with most of what Beats and Breath publishes on this site, this is a unique opportunity to view the true intersection of culture and politics that is helping to redefine how youth are interpreting their own phenomenal surroundings.
HOUSTON/BEIRUT – Yassin Alsalman’s rapper alter-ego The Narcicyst has managed to flip the script on the West’s depiction of Arabs for as long as I’ve known him (2009). He’s ill-fitted for simple government identity criteria, decries labeling, and manages to both scare (in a good way) and excite fans with his lyricism. The song “Vietnam” off of his self-titled debut solo LP manages to call up the horrors of war, interventionism, and the bellicose nature of the West’s foreign policy, while throwing in some ridiculously witty pop-cultural references to boot:
“They say Lebanon’s vietnam, Iraq’s vietnam, Palestine’s Vietnam, they wanna see us gone, So far from home but I can feel the bombs close to heart like the death of a being dawned. War made us feel like being free is wrong trying to be man with a child’s fear in song, Lullabies when a brother dies, No merit when a sister perish up America Drilling with loud toys mr.cowboy Bullet riddle the middle east, belittled peace, Giving in to the inner cheat, over dinner feasts Like a winner you proud, oil endowed joy! The same resource you drain, Came from remains of deceased corpses maimed All in plain view like Daniel Day Lewis- I knew it You giving off that kill me buzz… There Will Be Blood“
Three other songs off of The Narcicyst’s first LP – “P.H.A.T.W.A.” “The Last Arabs” featuring an appearance by Syrian-American MC Omar Offendum, and “Hamdulillah” featuring UK-based Palestinian singer/MC Shadia Mansour – are testaments to his brand of cultural insight that has no real equivalent in hip-hop culture.
As an Iraqi (Basra) born in Dubai and settled in Montreal, Narcy is still hungry to define his place in hip-hop culture, and has spent the last near 10-years earning increasing respect from heads in the Middle East and the West. And as he has evolved so has his ability to distill issues of the human condition while also providing keen insight into his life as an Arab artist learning to be at peace with his own exile and sense of home – which he contends isn’t necessarily Basra, Iraq.
His personal website Iraqisthebomb(dot)com has a quote on his “lyrics” page which reads: “This is for the thriving cultures that we were. To the people that could’ve and eventually will.”
I see this as a maxim that describes his knowledge of Arab history and his realistic assessment of what is possible, indeed what he hopes will happen.
The so-called Arab Spring has simply given The Narcicyst and millions of other Arabs living in the Middle East, North Africa and the Diaspora a sense that massive systemic change is possible. I sat down with Narcy in a Skype conversation (Houston-Montreal) to talk about the Arab uprisings, his contribution to the viral video/song #jan25 (named after the trending topic on Twitter for the Egyptian revolution), and how technology is transforming both Arab hip-hop and the expectations of people all over the region.
BEATS AND BREATH: The song #an25 came to you through (Syrian-American MC/rapper) Omar Offendum after he met up with the Palestinian (American) producer Sami Matar?
NARCY: Yeah. We had had the discussion prior to recording the song. And you know the developments in Egypt inspired it. Omar Offendum had been working with Sami for a while. He got in touch and sent me this song and his verse on the song where he said everything that could have been said already (laughing). So I spit a short verse right after it…
B&B: Let’s talk about the residual affects. Clearly this song has brought you a lot of media attention. But did this song expose you to a new audience-base?
NARCY: This isn’t the first time that I release or am part of a release of a song about something going on in the Middle East. When the Israeli Operation Cast Lead was going down in Gaza, I was in Lebanon for New Year’s 2009, and I recorded a remix for my song “Humdulillah” with Shadia Mansour in solidarity with Gazans. We did the hook again where we substituted the name Basra in the original and we put in the word Gaza. And then we put that out. That was like my first time I put out something free for the people that was related to something that was happening. It had a very positive reaction. That was the first one we gauged it with.
I think with Jan25 the difference was the Egyptian experience was being reported internationally as a…well it wasn’t really about Egypt. It was about a people standing up to a government and ultimately overthrowing that government. So we would see it on all of the news networks but also you would see it on websites that wouldn’t necessarily cover things in the Middle East usually. So the beautiful thing about Jan25 was that when we reached out to Vibe magazine and these hip-hop blogs and websites that had nothing to do with politics or the Middle East, they still picked it up.
Part of it had to do with the fact that we had an American artist on it. The other part of it was that it was happening in Egypt and that being that central civilization in that part of the world that people know about – the archetype about what a civilization is. That’s why people actually listened. It definitely added to our impact with social networking followers and it definitely added to our visibility in the world and people in Egypt started hitting us up more and more. It was important to show the people that we were standing with them even though we were halfway across the world.
B&B: I don’t think that you pulled any punches lyrically with hashTagJan25. It could be said that the song opened you up to western audiences in a way that hadn’t happened before. Talk to me about that.
NARCY: It was weird because I had an issue as to what I was going to say on the song. Do I say, “Down down government.” Was I going to write about issues that were going down in Egypt? Was I going spit a 16-bar about freedom? Or was I just going to share my reaction to what was going on?
I think that’s what we decided in the end – that everybody was going to have a different reaction to what was going. I was a bit pessimistic and I saw it as a sign of the times. Possibly a representation of the greater narrative in theology of the end of things and the beginning of things. And finally our people were standing up for things but they were getting killed for standing up.
I was a bit sad. I wasn’t very happy. But also to see that engage a Western audience and to eventually start a dialog with them, I think that was the purpose of that song. Besides that show our people in Egypt that we were watching what was happening like 24/7 on television and we applaud them for their bravery.
I think at the same time it was an example to the West that you know Arab’s could do it on their own. They don’t need the help of the West. I think that was the most important point we made with the song, even when we did interviews about it.
B&B: Do you think that was a message that somehow needed to get out there? That Arabs somehow were perceived in the West of being incapable of orchestrating such uprisings peacefully?
NARCY: No. I think with the example of what happened in Iraq, as a so-called revolution, or a change in the government structure of the country – the way the Western world went about viewing it was that the only way we can free Iraqis from the grip of their dictatorship is by assaulting the dictatorship until it falls.
B&B: And then de-Baathifying everything…
NARCY: Absolutely. And then trying to remove the building blocks and everything that was related to it by bombing the shit out of it, and thinking that was the only way Arabs could go about changing the system. Or creating a so-called democracy in the East. But then as they saw, it was not the solution that they expected it to be.
So I think with Egypt the lesson was that if the people are fed up with the way things are going, they can take it into their own hands. Of course, the people that stood up, and their were secret forces throwing money at things in the background. We don’t know all of those details, but it was a prime example of people power that hasn’t even been exercised in North America – at least I don’t think it has – to the point where it has changed government. It hasn’t.
I think it was a first step for humankind.
B&B: Before the Palestinian cause was a de facto uniting element for Arab hip-hop, but do you think that spirit of these revolutions is able to form an even more solid sense of community – a rallying cry or a more Nasser-esque nationalism for Arab hip-hop?
NARCY: You know people refer to these golden oldies days in the past – where we reference Nasser and the Arab movements coming up as one big Umma – I don’t believe in them because it never occurred. It was nice on paper, but it never happened.
Dictators got put into power. Certain money got into certain governments and certain countries from Western powers. And it became a very almost like thievery of the masses looking back on it and when you read up on what was happening in the Arab world in the 1940s through 1970s.
Between our parents generation and our generation, the biggest shift that could have changed the criticism of the systems that we lived in was technology. Back in our parents day they only had phones, letters and so on. And then faxes in the 1980s. But with this day and age, it is really like information is permeable. You can put out information anywhere and it can soak into any magazine or newspaper as fact. Be read on the radio.
You know I could Tweet something really silly. Like say someone died and that would spread like wildfire. So the power of media became a game changer when it came to power structure within society over there.
I think because the Arab hip-hop community uses new technology as its chief means of production – our means of production is very much a laptop or a computer and a microphone, and a sound board to mix. That translated into the way that we have projected our independent careers online. The way we use the internet, and then eventually the way we disseminate our music online.
The song hasHTagJan25 was a prime example of what we’re trying to do with all of our music. Except, all of our music is not as accessible as Jan25 because it’s not about something that everybody is paying attention to. I think that’s the only difference.
I think the Arab hip-hop movement is a great example of this unity, but then you also have the examples of personal issues within the community. It’s still a very fractured experience.
B&B: Discussions of technology – you’re breaking down borders that have come up since colonialism. Technology as an equalizer against physical borders.
NARCY: Let’s not kid ourselves in this respect. While what you’re saying is true, the internet is also a way of tracking everything. If we were living in a borderless Middle East it wouldn’t be a trackable thing. But everything we do now is trackable.
You can find my IP address and find out anything and everything. What shoes I was looking at? If I have a fetish for something they could find out. It’s a thin line – a gift and curse. I think it’s helped but also it separated us because it’s created this sense of voyeurism. We all watch each other’s moves and know what this or that person is doing…which is already creating like strategic alliances.
B&B: I don’t want to romanticize it. I want to acknowledge that it’s a rarified group of people online. It’s not everybody. I think it’s the mobile-phone technology and not the internet that’s changed the game. Even the poorest dudes have mobile-phones. And do you ever expect the Arab Diaspora rappers to get on those Shabi download sites that get the music into the Micro-buses in the Arab world?
NARCY: We’re working on it! (laughter) Our experience in the West as Arab rappers is unique and new. We’re the first to utilize media in a certain way to communicate our experience to the rest of the world. But at the same time it’s an experience that doesn’t have a history. It’s not like something you’re ingesting for like ten years and they’ve done research on and know how it’s going to affect your body
Our experience is brand new. We can look at the African-American experience as an example, but that had political and social relationships that were birthed out of a completely different situation than ours. Whereas we weren’t moved from our home unwillingly, many Diasporic Arabs moved willingly out of their homes. Our latch on to what home is is as prevalent as the search for Africa in the African-American community. That’s the only thing that could be considered a crutch preventing us from that kind of individual that you’re talking about and being able to disseminate our music like that.
Our experience is relative, so we have to find a way to describing things in human terms as opposed to describing things as Arab-American or Arab-Canadian, Arab-European – whatever. It has to be a human element that everybody can relate to in our music that we can speak about.
And I think we’re getting old enough to reach that level of artistic acceptance.
B&B: Do you think it’s a level of sophistication in language and experience? How do you think you’re getting better at what you do?
NARCY: It’s a level of acceptance. When I was 18 I ran strictly off of emotions. And then September 11th happened. Shit is all crazy with heightened fear all around, so you’re internally and externally doing the same kind of thing. But then as you get older you start accepting the fact that maybe I will never go back “home” where my mother and father are from. Maybe I’ll never belong there again. And perhaps that’s fine. Maybe I don’t need to.
Whereas when I was younger I really had this romanticized vision of my motherland, which really isn’t what it is. Even Iraqis that leave there will tell you that’s not what it is. Where have you gotten this romantic vision from?
It’s not what it used to be, and once I came to accept that it deeply affected my art. It became more free.
It’s funny. You get shackled by nationalism but you also get shackled by wanting nationality. You’re really the freest when you don’t need any of them at all.
Beats and Breath’s interview with Egyptian rapper Mohammed el Deeb aka Deeb released in June 2011 contended that the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa had a galvanizing effect with Arab hip-hop heads worldwide. But has this been the spark for a Pan-Arab hip-hop movement? I put this piece out there in the context of the rap contributions to the current revolution(s).
BEIRUT – In the nearly 5 years that I’ve been writing about and documenting hip-hop in the Arab world, it has become something of a personal maxim to say that Arab hip-hop has managed to develop the trappings of a scene but that it most certainly has not created a “movement” despite hip-hop’s arrival in the Maghreb more than 20-years ago.
Like a scratched up 45, I’ve been dogmatic in writing about the fact that there was (and is still) no rap industry in the Arab world – no labels, no viable record/cd markets, no corporate radio airplay, few credible managers or agents, and except for an elite group of sponsors, no real systemic infrastructure to support the growth of Arabic hip-hop or the top-notch talent emerging.
Of course it’s a contention that has been met with legitimate objections over the years, particularly from artists who are as entrenched in this hip-hop thing as I am:
What about the collective efforts of ARAP, the now defunct Arab Summit (with rappers Omar Offendum, Ragtop, The Narcycist and Excentrik) and the massive crew, Arab League, that counts as members the heavyweight LA-based Palestinian-American producer FredWreck, Egypt’s MC Amin, Deeb and Arabian Knightz with more than 20 rapper and producer affiliates that span the bulk of the Middle-East, North Africa and Diaspora?
Are they not symbols of an Arab hip-hop movement?
I guess the simple answer is, “Yes.” They’re all furthering the idea of what is possible in Arab rap with strong messages and ever more sophisticated production palettes. But scratch the surface and there is nothing that would lead me to think there is a Pan-Arab hip-hop sensibility that is guiding some kind of formal movement within global hip-hop culture.
One is reminded of the Pan-Arab nationalist movement that emanated from Egypt – a movement that has been mythologized and in the larger historical analysis was ??? nominally successful in some areas and massive failures elsewhere, its legacy nonetheless leads me to ask: could the Arab uprisings be the spark to create a larger sense of what Arab hip-hop as a movement could be united under – banners or maxims the likes of the Black Panther movement in the US – a sort of 10-point plan?
Merging political and social reform concepts that have become tenets of the MENA uprisings are certainly places for an Arab hip-hop “nation” to start – philosophically and some could argue artistically. Certainly, the youth-driven Arab uprisings have made that a possibility if in fact Arab hip-hop heads choose to see it in this light. And it’s not like there weren’t precursors to draw from with regards to identity politics and their connections to societal and cultural upheaval.
Before the uprisings, the unifying themes behind Arab hip-hop were a sort of de facto endorsement of Palestinian self-determination or varyingly, a challenge to the Western wholesale stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists and Islamists – with the the video of the song “Meen Erhabi” (‘Who’s the terrorist?’) by the Palestinian rap group DAM being the online viral totem (well over 1 million views) of this revolt against occidental stereotyping at the time of its release in 2001.
And while neither one of these messages has lost their potency -particularly in the last 11 years with the rise and fall of the Second Intifada, the September 11 attacks (London, Spain and Mumbai as well) and the subsequent US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, what I’ve concluded, more than anything else, is that the Arab uprisings have, in the very least managed to break some of the chains of invisibility the movement has experienced over the last 15 years. The uprisings have let people know that there is a thing called Arab hip-hop, particularly in the West that has shown such astonishment at the intensity of the uprisings, in what writer Arian Faribouz says is the West’s lack of acknowledgment of the “deep-seated dissatisfaction felt by Arab civil society.”
As with the Arab hip-hop movement, Faribouz acknowledges this is “particularly true for the younger generation, which has so vehemently rebelled against the suppression of free speech and artistic freedom as well as against the social hardships and the lack of job opportunities in their countries. And this didn’t just come about yesterday.”
In November 2007, I wrote an article that to date is still the only definitive history of Lebanese hip-hop in which the region’s premiere Arab turntablist, DJ Lethal Skillz, directed the message for his first album, New World Disorder (2007/2008) at a western audience. (NOTE: that history has been disputed by members of the Lebanese hip-hop massive – but I stand by that story and its recollection of Lebanese hip-hop history.) It was a move that I questioned at the time, but a strategy that I could not argue against then. (In hindsight I would have advised against it.)
The album contained a smorgasbord of local and regional talent each distilling their rejection of the rampant corruption and social neglect inherent within their societies in witty metaphorical turns of phrase and in very grave tones, lyrically. Lebanese rappers MC Moe and Malikah (961 Underground), Rayess Bek (Aksser), RGB and Siska (Kita3 Beyrouthe), Chyno and El Edd (Fareeq al Atrash), Omarz (Dezert Dragons), Grandsunn and MC Zoog, as well as Ramallah Underground (Boikutt, Stormtrap & Aswaat) from the West Bank – all presaged the messages that were echoed by the demonstrators that took down the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and now threatens the regimes in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
But as DJ Lethal Skillz acknowledged at the time, because Arab hip-hop had no real local market, New World Disorder was made almost exclusively for export. Since that 2007 article things have changed drastically and the creative efforts of Arab hip-hop purveyors living in the Arab world like Boikutt and Stormtrap of Ramallah Underground, Deeb, MC.Amin and Arabian Knightz in Egypt, Palestinian rapper Sam Zaki in Jordan, and Taffar, Ramcess, Rayess Bek and Fareeq al Atrash in Lebanon are all turning inward to stoke domestic musical fires in order to attract larger numbers of local followers – from the inside out and not the other way around. (Note: There are many other rappers I’ve missed in Lebanon, but there will be more articles dealing with these newly emerging talents as I get to know them more.)
As it stands, the only impression that exists of hip-hop for young Arabs is the hip-hop mainstream strewn all over the foreign owned corporate radio stations and satellite music channels. If you don’t have access to those sources, then what could Arab hip-hop possibly mean to you if you’re an Arab who has not been exposed to the genre?
The Arab revolutions have, thus, exposed hundreds of thousands of young Arab brothers and sisters to a new soundtrack they might not have known was theirs before – and this is the most significant thing I can point to when discussing the revolutions affects on Arab hip-hop.
Take for example the first hip-hop salvos that came from Tunisia – the origin point of the uprisings. Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor aka El Général rose from relative obscurity within an already marginalized Maghreb hip-hop scene competing with “more prolific” rap scenes in Morocco and France to upload a song in November 2010 on Facebook called Rayess Le Bled (Head of State).
“My president, your people are dying People eat garbage Look at what is happening Misery everywhere, Mr. President I talk with no fear I’m speaking for the people who suffer Although I know I’ll get only trouble I see injustice everywhere.”
While I can say El General was not nearly as talented as other veterans of the Tunisian hip-hop scene like Balti, Lak3y, or Psyco M, Andy Morgan of The Observer wrote that his song had “within hours lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb. Before being banned, it was picked up by local TV station Tunivision and al-Jazeera.”
He added, “El Général’s MySpace was closed down, his mobile cut off. But it was too late. The shock waves were felt across the country and then throughout the Arab world. That was the power of protesting in Arabic, albeit a locally spiced dialect of Arabic. El Général’s bold invective broke frontiers and went viral from Casablanca to Cairo and beyond.”
El Général went even further releasing a second song called Tounes Bladna (Tunisia, Our Country), and on January 6 at five o’clock in the morning, some 30 state security agents showed up at his family’s house to arrest him – “on the orders of President Ben Ali himself.”
The rapper was held in a Tunisian jail for three days before his release – shaken but more resolute than ever to speak out against the excesses of the Tunisian government, particularly after 26-year old Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation was further cementing the demise of Ben Ali’s regime. (He too was greeted as a celebrity in his home town of Sfax.)
And while the more professionally produced, lyrically diverse catalogs of veteran rappers in the Arab world and Diaspora like MC Bigg from Morocco, Canadian-Iraqi MC The Narcycist, LA-based Omar Offendum, UK-based Lebanese-Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad, and Wu Tang affiliated Dutch-Moroccan rapper Saleh Edin have all managed to garner fan bases in their adopted countries in the West, none it seems has had the impact musically that El Général has had with the Arab street.
In this sense, El Général’s message set a precedent, and Rayess le Bled inspired Arab youth from Tahrir Square in Cairo to the capital Manama in Bahrain where the mostly Shia opposition have experienced the most brutal crackdown at the hands of the minority Suni royal family and the security forces of their Saudi Arabian and Qatari Gulf Cooperation Council allies.
While El Général’s Rayess le Bled has made it to Bahrain, in Libya, songs from 16-year old producer and composer Imad Abbar and his 22-year old rapper partner Hamza Sisi are on heavy rotation in the cars of rebel fighters trying to battle their way westward to Tripoli to end Muammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.
The two-man crew from the rebel capital Benghazi in east Libya admitted to AFP that they were no where near the levels of production they wanted to be, forced to record songs in Sisi’s home, in a small amateur studio equipped with a keyboard and a computer -a rudimentary set-up that perhaps has best defined the conditions of early hip-hop artists – producers, DJs and MC’s –worldwide for the last 30 years, what Candadian-Iraqi MC The Narcycist calls “the permeability of the creative process.”
“All you really need is a microphone and a pair of headphones to record, and then a good engineer to mix it. So, it doesn’t really take much to create it,” Narcy said in a Democracy Now! interview in March. In fact, it is the immediacy of the message of hip-hop and the accessibility of production that has made it such a powerful force for the Arab youth in these revolutions.
But a more concrete Pan-Arab hip-hop movement cannot emerge as long as there are gaps of inequality between the hip-hop movement in the Arab world and the hip-hop movement in the Arab Diaspora, despite innovators like Palestinian producer Damar in Jordan, and Tashweesh who are pushing production values to their ultimate limits, rivaling near anything coming out of the West. That means until the means of production “permeates” an increasing number of disenfranchised Arab youth communities, the idea of a Pan-Arab hip-hop movement will remain a theoretical fantasy.
Fortunately, I feel optimistic that the gaps in production and infrastructure will continue to lessen and that the Arab hip-hop being produced in the Diaspora will ultimately have to reflect back to the audiences in the Arab world to gain credibility. The standard bearers for future production in Arab hip-hop will come from the Middle East and not from the West – and new rhyme styles will emerge from the Arabic world versus coming from Arabs in the West.
What is certain is that the Arab revolutions are certainly focusing attention on the Arab hip-hop artists living in the Middle East and North Africa in ways that have never happened before, and that by all accounts is the best thing that could ever happen for the young Arab MCs, producers and Djs living in the region – youth who are passionate and serious about what they are doing in their attempts to further the evolution of Arab hip-hop that has so far avoided the trappings of the corporate system that will certainly battle for the soul of the emerging culture.
ARTICLE BELOW: Blogger and music scholar Angie Nassar writes on the Beirut-based website NOWLebanon about the government detention and subsequent release of Zeid Hamdan – the self-described “gardener” of the independent music scene in Lebanon, co-founder of the electro-Arab fusion act Soap Kills and his most recent musical venture Zeid and the Wings. (We featured Zeid in a Beats and Breath article in March 2010.)
Hamdan was arrested for his song “General Suleiman” which the Lebanese government found was a direct condemnation of Lebanon’s president. It’s a law clearly enforced in a selective manner considering the amount of slander bandied about by politicians and political parties in Lebanon on a daily basis.
Although I’m not in the habit of re-posting other people’s articles on Beats and Breath, this article is poignant when considering a panel discussion on Alternative Music in Lebanese Culture hosted on Friday, July 29 by AltCity (a media/tech/social impact collaboration space (launching this fall) and organized in collaboration with over 15 community partners) and moderated by local music blogger/musician Omar al Fil.
The panel included Nassar, MC Chyno from Lebanon’s live hip-hop crew Fareeq al Atrash, Mohamad Hodeib a.k.a Walad (guitarist, vocalist, and main songwriter of local band Wled el Balad), writer and urbanist-scholar Jad Baaklini, and Zeid Hamdan in his first public appearance since being released from jail.
Among the things we discussed: “personal” definitions of what “alternative music” means, and further what it means in the Lebanese and Arab contexts; concepts of censorship – both governmental and self-styled censorship; the fact that musicians in the Arab world and in Lebanon will face increasing encroachment by corporate labels and the commercial market as their music takes on more prominence.
This morning I spoke on the phone with Hamdan who talked about the implications of his arrest and the boundaries of free speech in Lebanon.
“This is a big issue, but it’s not about me. It’s about what’s allowed and what’s forbidden in this country… Are we not allowed to go further than this song? This is crazy. This song is so innocent. And if I saw the president today, I would say the same. I truly believe that military power should not interfere with political power. They are two separate institutions. It is essential that we learn that if we want to build a democracy.” (Read more about the song and its lyrics here.)
“If you fear something, express it. Trigger a debate. But don’t be afraid of standing for your ideas. Just look around you. Look at Syria, look at Egypt, look at Tunisia, look at the whole Arab world. People are dying for their ideas,” he added.
Hamdan said he was asked to go to the Justice Ministry for questioning twice last week. He received a third call to return to the ministry on Wednesday.
“I thought it would be more questions. They told me I was going to meet with the judge and that he would decide whether to press charges. I didn’t meet the judge. They just said I was arrested and they put me in handcuffs directly.”
Hamdan said authorities found out about the song after Italian filmmaker Gigi Roccati, who directed the music video for “General Suleiman,” mailed his show reel to Lebanese ad agency Leo Burnett. The DVD never made it to the agency. It was picked up by someone from Lebanese Customs.
“I don’t even think he [President Sleiman] was aware I was arrested, personally, because this is not good publicity for him.”
“I have a feeling that all this is just a mistake. Someone wanting to do good with the president but not being clever or someone wanting to harm the president and give him a bad image. I don’t know, it’s so stupid, you know. This whole thing is too much.”
Despite his detention, Hamdan says he’ll continue making music and spreading his message to anyone who will listen. “I write with inspiration from inside to face something I feel it. As long as I don’t attack someone in an unfair way and I don’t give my music to any political party… I’m trying to say this music is for everyone. This song is for everyone. In Egypt they sing it. In all the Arab country’s where they have issues with the military, they sing it.”
“I won’t be more political or less political. I’m not changing anything,” he said.
Hamdan expressed gratitude to everyone who rallied for his release on Wednesday: “ I want them to know that they played a role in setting me free so that they have a role to play in the country as a voice, even if they’re alone they count.”
He also relayed this message: “I want [the people] to feel free to express or fight for their ideas, whatever they are. And so I just want to tell the people not to be afraid and not to feel lonely because we all want the same things and will all fight together for the same things.”
“I hope any musician will keep on spreading good messages, positive messages for the country or the region.”
As well, the vitriol that has surfaced both on the comment section for TIME and on other social networking sites has been noteworthy. Assuming I get permission to do so, I will also post a comment thread from my own Facebook page between Eslam and other colleagues in academia and the media industry, as well as those who are heavily invested in the Arab hip-hop movement.
Eslam Jawaad has rapped against Syria’s protests but says he doesn’t “condone the handling of the situation by the government in any capacity”
The shaky snippet of video looks like it was inadvertently filmed, as if the amateur cameraman — in his haste to escape the intense gunfire crackling in the background — forgot to press pause and wound up recording his sandal-clad feet as he ran along the sidewalk. It’s meant to look like one of the countless amateur videos streaming out of Syria from an antigovernment protest, capturing the state’s violent crackdown. Except it is not.
Instead, this is the opening sequence in a music video by Syrian-Lebanese rapper Eslam Jawaad. The song, called “Dudd al-Nizam,” or “Against the System,” is also not what its title may at first imply. The system Jawaad, 34, rails against isn’t the Baathist regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which has struggled to quell street protests since mid-March. It’s the forces aligned against it. “You are Syrian/ Keep your head high,” the deeply voiced lyrics declare. “The true men of the [anti-Israeli] resistance remain in the lion’s den,” they continue — a play on the fact that Assad means lion in Arabic. (Watch TIME’s video on Israeli-Palestinian hip-hop.)
While rap has provided the gritty sound track to popular uprisings roiling some of the Middle East’s most entrenched dictatorships, in Syria it has largely supported the status quo. Jawaad’s track (which was recorded a month into the unrest), and some half a dozen others including “Dudd al-Balad” (“Against the Country”) by Murder Eyes, have all been against the protests, although not necessarily supportive of Assad’s brutal attempts to suppress them. “I surely don’t condone the handling of the situation by the government in any capacity,” Jawaad told TIME in an e-mail interview from Dubai, where he recently relocated from London. “But I also see the bigger picture here.”
That picture is one the Syrian government is keen to portray: that protesters who have taken to the streets week in and week out for the past three months, despite a death toll approaching 1,400, have either been duped or are active participants in a foreign conspiracy aimed at punishing Syria for its politics. Damascus has long declared itself the beating heart of pan-Arab nationalism, a lynchpin state in an anti-American, anti-Israeli “resistance axis” that includes the Lebanese militant group Hizballah, the Palestinian Hamas movement and Iran.
In the video for “Dudd al-Nizam,” Jawaad — a burly, bald, bearded young man in Ali G sunglasses surrounded by Assad portraits and canary yellow Hizballah flags — addresses the protesters, bemoaning the bloodshed and warning of a “system” aligned against his country of birth. “Brothers of the soil, I swear you’ll be pardoned/ But it’s time you understand the game/ How much has been paid out; who sold their country, and to whom?” he chants rapidly. “This is their system, the new world order/ The system of the damned Zionists and crooks/ So, take note, I am against this system/ I want the fall of the conspiracy, I want security in the country/ I want reform, that’s for sure; in a beneficial way, not chaotic/ So put your hand in mine; we’ll walk together, we’ll build together/ If destruction is the poison, then reforms are the remedy/ Focus on what is more important: let’s smell the air of the [Israeli-occupied, Syrian] Golan, and by God’s will, we’ll meet in Jerusalem.” (Archive: “How Phat Conquered Palestine.”)
Jackson Allers, a Beirut-based writer and filmmaker who has been documenting the rise of Arab hip-hop on his blog BeatsandBreath.com and is writing a book on the subject, says Syria’s antirevolutionary rap may be as much a reflection of a class divide as it is about a desire to preserve one of the last remaining secular pan-Arab socialist states. Although there have been small isolated protests in Syria’s capital, Damascus, and in its largest city, Aleppo, the populations of these two key middle- to upper-class cities have yet to come out in force against the regime. Instead, the uprising has drawn its strength largely from the hinterlands, from rural, socially and more religiously conservative areas like the southern city of Dara’a, where protests first erupted. The hip-hop artists, Allers says, “don’t relate to that. Why would they?”
There’s still a whole swath of the Syrian population that is either undecided, or (especially in the case of some minorities like the Druze, Christians and the ruling Alawites) too frightened, or change-averse. It’s this huge chunk — this loose middle — that will ultimately play a key role in deciding which way this crisis goes, if it chooses a side. It’s unclear how large an audience Syrian rap has and may potentially sway, or at the very least, tap into. “It’s very, very formative,” Allers says of the scene. Although most of the Syrian political rap that has recently emerged has been pro-Assad, there are a few antiregime songs, like “Bayan Raqam Wahid” (“Statement No. 1”), which, tellingly, was released anonymously on the Internet. “You filled the country with intelligence agents/ Human rights are forbidden/ You don’t know the difference between a nationalist and a traitor,” says the unnamed male rapper.
Jawaad says that he and other “pro-stability” rappers are pro-Assad by choice, not because they are forced to be or fear the consequences if they are not. Still, these days, picking sides in the Arab Spring can be a risky proposition for a musician. Egypt’s pop sensation Tamer Hosny, for example, who pledged his loyalty to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before he was ousted in February, has been all but blacklisted by his former fans. Jawaad says that he and other Syrian rappers spoke out for a reason, but he also seems to be hedging his bets. “If the regime did fall and Syria got better and the people benefited, I wouldn’t be sad that I was wrong.”
Article first appeared in TIME Magazine. All rights reserved.
This article was written by Holiday Dmitri for the website Movements.org.
By HOLIDAY DMITRI
While social media has gotten much of the credit for galvanizing the uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a new radio documentary is paying respect to another influential medium in the region, one that has articulated the frustrations of the marginalized and incited the young to action – namely hip-hop music.
“The artistic responses to the MENA uprisings were so inspiring from the emergence of increasingly incendiary forms of graffiti, to the poetic traditions and music that have always had a defiant tone in the Arab world. But it was the rap response that piqued my interest,” says friend and journalist Jackson G. Allers, producer of the recent radio documentary “Rhymes to Revolution – Soundtrack to the Arab Awakenings.” His 30-minute spot tells the story of the rise of Arab hip-hop and its role in the recent uprisings that began in Tunisia.
As the Free Speech Radio News radio documentary –Rhymes to Revolution: A Soundtrack to the Arab Awakenings– makes its way across the United States and the world, we take this opportunity to release a series of articles, interviews, and commentaries that have informed the research and content that have gone into making this documentary. We begin with an introduction to Egyptian rapper Mohamed El Deeb aka MC Deeb.
Deeb’s EP “Cairofornication” is a tour de force in my mind of what is being offered by the Egyptian rap scene. The two singles Bilady (produced by Arketekt) and Masrah Deeb (Deeb’s Theater produced by Gen K) are amazing examples of Deeb’s lyrical flow and content. I conducted this interview with Deeb during the post Tahrir square fervor in February.
BEIRUT – In hip-hop, “Revolution” is a loaded word filled with visions of Gil Scott-Heron and his prescience as a rap forefather. In his wake, the word – the meaning of the word – had lost much of its resonance; regurgitation blunted the blade. The sharpness had been replaced by Saatchi and Saatchi salesmanship. But this past January and February, as Tunis and then Egypt were set alight by people in the streets -hundreds of thousands demanding an end to decades long despotic rule -at least one sub-culture within the larger hip-hop pantheon was ready for the revolution: the Arabic hip-hop massive.
Consider this. Few events in the Arab world – and that includes the intractable Palestinian issue – have galvanized Arab hip-hoppers the way the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunis have managed to. The outpouring of solidarity and respect shown particularly to the Egyptian uprising by MCs, DJs and producers in the MENA and the rest of the known Arab rap Diaspora became a sort of (Gamal Abdel) Nasserite pan-Arab galvanization. This had never happened before.
I decided to reach out to my favorite Egyptian MC, Mohamed El Deeb aka Deeb on the eve of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s historic departure.
Deeb comes from an Egyptian hip-hop pedigree, having been a part of the crew Asfalt that was selected in 2008/9 to represent Egypt on the short-lived MTV Arabia show, HipHopna (“Our Hip-Hop”) that was fronted by LA-based Palestinian producer FredWreck. Deeb is also a member of the Arab League, a pan-Arab super star crew that includes the likes of Egyptian crew Arabian Knightz, another phenom Egyptian rapper, MC Amin, UK-based Palestinian soul singer Shadia Mansour, Iraqi-Canadian MC The Narcicyst, UK-based Lebanese-Syrian MC Eslam Jawaad, Moroccan-Dutch MC and Wu-Tang family member Salah Edin and Lebanese based turntablist DJ Lethal Skillz among many others.
His latest musical project, Wighit Nazar (“Point of View”) was started in 2007 and includes MC Mohammed Yasser and producers KC and Arketekt. Deeb’s debut album is due to drop in 2011 with two videos already burning up the YouTube hit count. But it was his latest video ‘Masrah Deeb’, released on February 3, in the heat of the Egyptian uprising that became our jump off point to the interview.
BEATS AND BREATH: You’ve just released the dope video ‘Masrah Deeb’ at what couldn’t have been a more perfect time. Tell us about the concept for the video, how it was shot and the message of that song/video?
DEEB: My director friend Mustafa Eck, an Egyptian/American who lives in California, contacted me and told me he wants to do a video for ‘Masrah Deeb’. ‘Masrah Deeb’, which means ‘Deeb’s Stage’ in Arabic, is a song reflecting on my daily experiences; my personal relationship with music; how the microphone is my friend and how it appreciates my honesty when I speak through it. We tried to keep a balance between street shots to represent the true essence of my Egypt (my stage), and the main story, which shows me constructing a microphone, which I later use at a performance. In the song’s hook I mention how I’m trying to wake up my people, which is why we decided to include random faces from the Egyptian society singing along.
B&B: Let’s talk about the revolution in Egypt…How did you feel when Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president Omar Soleiman announced he was stepping down? I mean – in Beirut with my friends – we were going buckwild! Tell me what you thought?
DEEB: I was watching the news, which was interrupted by an announcement saying that a presidential speech is due soon. I thought to myself, “Could this speech be it?” The president already gave a speech the day before, and was not received well by the Egyptian protestors. When VP, Omar Soleiman, appeared on the screen to read the speech, I had a feeling that Mubarak and his regime was over. You could tell by the VP’s facial expression. I was watching the announcement with a friend who doesn’t understand Arabic, and he was asking me what the VP was saying in the speech. It took me a while to reply because I was still in disbelief and my eyes were still glued to the TV. “He’s gone! He’s gone!” I shouted back.
And from there the festivities started. I went downtown to Tahrir square with my friends and partied like there’s no tomorrow. Everyone in Tahrir was in a state of ecstasy and disbelief. I still don’t believe it to this day.
B&B: As the revolution unfolded in Tahrir Square and in the urban centers and rural townships throughout Egypt, what do you think artists such as yourself brought to the table in helping with the struggle?
DEEB: I was out on the streets protesting since day one, January 25th. I heard about the protests from a Facebook event invitation, which was scheduled to be held on ‘Police Day’, a national holiday. I went down to Tahrir Square with no expectations; it was my first time demonstrating. I must say it was a scary scene seeing lines of police cued up to prevent the protestors from marching into Tahrir and ready to attack at any time. That fear disappears when you see the numbers of protestors increase and when deep down you believe that what you are demanding is a human necessity. I also met a lot of actors and musicians who were protesting with the people. I believe artists are very influential in voicing the peoples’ demands as they have a large following.
Pre-Jan25, I feel that I had been contributing indirectly to the struggle by talking about the Egyptian people’s social and political sufferings in my songs. I was brought up in the Gulf most of my life and ever since moving back to Egypt, 6 years ago, I started observing and commenting on a lot of contradictions and social inequalities that exist here. As an Egyptian ex-pat, I had a bird’s eye view on the problems facing the country because I had a nostalgic and ideal view on how Egypt should be.
B&B: I’ve confronted MCs in the Arab world about this before – the idea that what they say can land them in a place where the governmental powers that be, or even political entities, can bare their full might against them as artists -including jail time and even worse. As a conscious MC in Egypt, were you afraid that what you were saying before the uprising could be taken in a way that would get you in trouble with the Mubarak regime? Or was Arabic hip-hop even considered strong enough to invoke that response?
DEEB: Hip-hop originated in the West as an art of expression against oppression and discrimination. Dictatorships don’t allow freedom of speech and they limit it to certain topics and issues. So we can say that the principles of hip-hop conflicts with the policy of dictatorships and namely the Mubarak regime. Pre-Jan25 I wrote political songs but I would camouflage my lyrics with metaphors and general accusations rather than mentioning specific names. There were many incidents where newspaper editors and writers were thrown in prison for speaking against the regime. Today, the situation is different. National and independent newspapers and media are objectively reporting the latest developments with regards to the corruption cases that happened during the Mubarak regime and with the lawsuits filed against officials who were responsible for the killing of the revolution’s martyrs.
B&B: If the Egyptian State Security stays in power, and considering that you and other crews like Arabian Knights are speaking out/spoke out in support of the masses, are you afraid of any blowback from the secret police, that are still likely to be in place even now that Mubarak is out of power?
DEEB: Not at all. Initially, when we went down to the streets, we were requesting three things, ‘Dignity, Freedom and Social Equality’. The army communicated to us that it will act as a guarantor to make sure that the Egyptian revolution’s demands are met. I personally trust the army and I believe that they are working hard not to disappoint the Egyptian people. Freedom cannot be granted with the current state security structure which means that it has to change in the near future. This is why I’m not afraid anymore to speak up. If people get locked up for speaking freely after the revolution, then we haven’t accomplished anything and we will go down to the streets again to demand that right.
I’m positive on the latest developments with regards to the cancellation of the Ministry of Information. This ministry, which was created during Nasser’s socialist regime, was responsible for censoring and controlling the information communicated to the masses. It was also responsible for the state-TVs’ scandalous coverage of the revolution.
B&B: What do you think of the Arab hip-hop response to the uprising?
DEEB: Arab hip-hop was very close to the uprising since day one. Locally, hip-hop artists including Arabian Knightz, Ahmed ZAP, Ramy Donejwan and myself made songs for the revolution. Internationally, Arab hip-hop was present too with songs like #Jan25 by Omar Offendum, The Narcicyst and hip-hop veteran Freeway. It was great seeing my Arab hip-hop family abroad protesting in front of Egyptian embassies in their respective countries in solidarity with our revolution.
B&B: Do you think the recent unrest has the potential to unite the Arab hip-hop movement in a more pronounced way – or do you think that was going to happen anyway? Or hell…do you even think there is such a thing as an Arab hip-hop movement?
DEEB: I believe that there is a strong Arab hip-hop movement with a unified voice. Arabs today are reminiscing on the good old days when borders between them meant nothing. We share similar history, language and culture and so we relate to each other on many levels. Before the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution, Arab hip-hop was addressing other issues such as the occupation of Palestine and the invasion of Iraq. I recorded ‘Alamna Marfou3’ a politically charged song with Edd from Lebanese group Fareeq Al Atrash. When the people in Egypt heard it, they got the sense that all Arabs are facing the same problems (e.g. unemployment, corruption, lack of social and cultural awareness) and are in a constant battle to revive their glory days again.
B&B: What’s on the horizon for Deeb artistically?
DEEB: I am currently working on my second EP, with plans to release an EP every couple of months or so. Artistically, I want to take Egyptian hip-hop to new a place which is why I’m looking to collaborate with musicians doing other types of music (e.g. rock, reggae, and funk). I think this is the best time to be doing hip-hop in Egypt now that we are a free country. Egyptians are sick of ‘habibi (love) songs’ and are demanding to hear music with a strong social and cultural message.
B&B: Any last words now that Mubarak’s gone and you and the Egyptian people have to build a new country now?
DEEB: I’m participating in a social movement called ‘Eed Wa7da’ which is organized by Egyptians who want to help in re-building their new country. This social group is divided into many committees, which includes Education, Political Awareness, Urban Planning, Culture, Healthcare and many more. I joined the Culture committee and we are currently coming up with plans on how we can increase the culture awareness in Egyptians to revive and promote the ideal Egyptian identity in a post-Jan25 revolution context.