By: Anum Khan
The youth are gravitating towards hip-hop in a more effervescent way than ever. Not only is rap being used as an art form to express the youth’s opinions about political issues, but as a medium to promote positive change. Some countries are so threatened by this powerful instrument of self-expression that they have banned hip-hop concerts. The hip-hop genre has also done something that hasn’t been seen before, which is transcend the generational gap, unlike before where only the youth were listening to rappers share their lyrics.
Neda Samarst, who has years of experience in the entertainment and music industry with a focus and expertise in Hip Hop, the Middle East and its youth culture, delves deeper into the emergence of hip-hop in the Middle Eastern world and says we must understand the cultural differences in youth expressing themselves. Neda says because “unlike Western cultures who freely express themselves and discuss their personal problems and struggles, the Middle East is more conservative and discussing personal or society’s problems in a song, which can be seen as ‘airing your laundry to strangers or outsiders’ which some judge as a weakness rather than an advancement.” Nonetheless, Middle Eastern hip-hop artists are singing about social issues and encouraging youth to take responsibility in changing their communities in a positive way.
Omar Offendum is a rising Syrian-American rapper who grew up in Washington D.C. listening to all the mainstream hip-hop artists. From the second to twelfth grade, Offendum was exposed to Arabic and Islamic studies at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Virginia in addition to the local Fairfax County curriculum, taught in English. He began experimenting with hip-hop and intertwining Arabic poetry in his music when he enrolled in the University of Virginia. His muses include Edward Said, who has influenced his navigation of the American-Arab identity and Nizar Qabbani, a prominent Syrian poet whom Offendum has translated poetry from Arabic into English in one of his songs. Offendum says this invites the older generation to his music as well as introduces the younger generations to words they would otherwise never hear.
The messages Offendum hopes to get across through his music are ones that promote unity, understanding and positivity. Offendum desires his music to incite fearlessness in tackling important issues that may seem challenging. While Offendum does not want to be recognized as a Muslim rapper but a rapper who happens to be Muslim, he says his music is for people across the world, regardless of any religious background.
Asked about a song meaningful to Offenfum, he responds with “The Straight Street,” named after one of the oldest streets in the world in Damascus. The message is simply about following the middle road, while meeting and sharing experiences with people of different backgrounds. His latest solo album, “SyrianamericA” includes a song with poetry by Langston Hughes, translated into formal Arabic, so the older generation can also appreciate the lyrics. Offendum mentions that Arab rap is not just about politics, but “legitimate grievances and growing up in everyday life that is just as important.”
YAS, an Iranian rapper that sings in Persian, is the first-ever hip-hop artist to have been granted by the Iranian government to create and publicize his music to the general public. Hip-hop music first intrigued him when YAS’s father would bring him albums from artists such as Tupac. YAS tells Elan Magazine, as he translated Tupac’s lyrics, he “realized he was saying something different from the rest.” This empowered YAS to rap about struggles he faced in his own culture and sing about personal pains growing up as the head of the household as soon as his father passed away.
YAS’s musical career officially began after the 2003 earthquake in Iran that took away 50,000 lives. YAS produced the song, “Bam” which was recorded with a former school friend, Mita who was interested in producing music. Together, in Mita’s house, they recorded the song on an old, beat-up headset that was used for chatting on the computer. Even though the quality was not great, YAS remembers seeing tears roll down people’s faces as they heard his song. Once seeing the impact his music had on others, he realized that music is what he wanted to do.
Yet, rap music was not prevalent or widely accepted in Iran and took some time before the genre became more popular and more of Iran’s societies started to embrace the culture. YAS gives insight to why people may not have supporting his music or hip hop in general highlighting that there were not many people rapping and he “couldn’t really blame them either because they had no familiarity to the genre.” Currently, his music is uniting people with fans in the U.S., Russia, Europe, Asia and across the Middle East. How do people unite through music? YAS says it’s through “understanding each other’s struggles and recognizing our similarities and common goals in life.”
Government censorship– Since music can be a powerful tool in galvanizing support from the youth, some countries require approval before you can host your own hip-hop concert. Neda says music in Iran has to pass government censors and if the artist does not have approval from the officials for his lyrics, he may not perform live.
What challenge does this propose? Many of the big-name artists cannot perform in countries such as Iran, and end up doing concerts in the UAE. For instance, Snoop Dogg did his gig in Abu Dhabi and Usher was in Dubai. So music makers cannot always go in places such as Iran or where the fans want them as governments deny them entry.
Female rappers– Neda points out more female rappers also need to enter the hip-hop music industry especially since “women play an extremely important role in the Middle Eastern societies.” Neda says she is not referring to “emulating those female rappers around the world that use their sexuality to get themselves heard, I am referring to the artists who have the power to make a difference and help bring more exposure and show the true strength and potential of the Middle Eastern woman.” There are some women in the industry, but not nearly the same number of men.
Piracy– Americans went through the phases of Napster and finding alternative ways of downloading illegal music and music artists have continued to suffer the most from this. We know the consequences of getting caught and many have faced charges for it, but active anti-piracy law and enforcement does not necessarily exist in the Middle East. It is relatively easy to download music without paying anything for it. This has devastating consequences for artists in the Middle East, especially when the markets are new and producing music and videos are not necessarily cheap. Neda says, “We should depend on our own ethics and morals to do the right thing even if the laws have not caught up yet. Please spend that $1 – $10 and don’t just be proud of their work but play an active role in their success as well.”