Video Inverted Worlds: Arab Hip Hop – Rhymes and Revolution

Like a scratched up 45-rpm/7” record, the purveyors of the Arab hip hop movement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been repetitive about the nature of the messaging. From Tunisia to Jordan, to Lebanon and Libya, from Syria and back to Palestine, Arab hip-hoppers have been producing for their insular fanbase(s) with lyrics that presaged the rhetoric of the so-called Arab Spring. But they developed in the shadows. They spoke more about the theft of Palestine, or the plight of the disenfranchised, and the corruption of the ruling classes rather than the idea of mass rebellion sparked by the selfimmolation of Mohamed Al-Bou’ziz in December 2010. The backbone was their reliance on the beats.

Cairo trio Arabian Knightz perform in Doha.
(Omar Chatriwala | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

And to this end, the movement’s rhythmic signposts grew from the mimicry of the Western, Afro-influenced 4×4 rhythm structure to a very homegrown distillation of the Tarab melodies and beat structures of their musical forebearers – with SP-808 sampler effects taken from the wealth of Arab records made in Egypt and Lebanon for decades prior to cassettes and CD’s. But the revolutions didn’t change the movement. If anything, the revolutions helped the movement serve notice to the West and to the corporate entities that would exploit the talent coming from the Arab hip hop movement – “they need no validation from anyone but themselves and their growing fanbase.”

Indeed, the lyrical and musical litmus tests within the Arab hip-hop movement have evolved to be “about” the social messaging, and about the innovations of homegrown sampling than about money or fame. Who are the main actors in the pan-Arab hip hop movement? Is there a Pan-Arab hip hop movement? What real impact will Arab hip hop have on the shaabi audience or the mainstream? Can it or has it affected revolution in the region? Will the next battles of free expression be fought by members of the Arab hip hop movement? These are all questions that, in the very least, deserve debate. The questions were discussed at the Inverted Worlds Congress by the cultural filmmaker and writer Jackson Allers.

He has spent the last 6-years documenting the alternative and independent musical trends in the Arab world for outlets like The National, Rolling Stone ME, National Public Radio, Red Bull Music Academy Magazine and primarily on his blog Beats and Breath. His work on Arab hip hop in the region has been cited frequently as a reference point in numerous academic settings. His 29-min radio documentary – Rhyme and Revolution – about the Arab hip-hop movement and the revolutions has travelled to three continents and aired on over 200 radio stations worldwide, and his short documentary about the young Palestinian hip hop group I-Voice (Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp) and their search for a back-up generator for their camp studio has been cited by critics as a “non-polemic” look at the legacy of the Palestinian conflict. He is writing a book on the rise of Arab hip hop in the region and Diaspora, and is also helping to document the making of the Arab hip hop compilation “Khat Thaleth” – produced by the Stronghold Sound record label.

Arab Hip Hop – Rhymes and Revolution from Orient Institut Beirut on Vimeo.


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