Rappers Fight The Power In The Middle East

(No) Thanks to the portrayals within mainstream U.S. media, people from the Middle East tend to be viewed negatively as “terrorists” in the larger society. However, Arab hip hop artists are using their music to thwart that image and share their stories of activism against their own or native governments and all oppressive systems worldwide.

Whether hailing from Egypt, Syria, Palestine, or Iran, these male and female artists talk about issues like identity in the mainstream media, struggles with racial and religious profiling, censorship, and revolution. Those who seek to connect most directly with global listeners incorporate their native language and English into their lyrics, understanding that a diaspora consisting of a growing youth generation might not be fluent in either Arabic or Farsi.

Though, their listeners seem to be fluent in oppression and the need to overcome it. This was prevalent when Arab hip hop music spread through the internet during the 2011 “Arab Spring,” helping mobilize people in North African and Middle Eastern countries to stand up to—and in many cases, crush—decades old dictatorships.

One song called “#Jan25”—a collaboration involving Syrian American, Iraqi Canadian, Palestinian American, Palestinian Canadian, and African American artists—focuses specifically on the day Egyptian opposition protests against Hosni Mubarak were loudest. Accompanied by a heavy bass drum, symbolically resembling a war call, some of the lyrics specifically cite internet-based support and its resulting strength: “I heard them say/the revolution won’t be televised/Al Jazeera proved them wrong/Twitter has him paralyzed/80 million strong.” {youtube}https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCbpiOpLwFg{/youtube}

Less than three weeks later, Mubarak was ousted, the people’s power partly attributed to relentless hip hop lyrics. Other Middle Eastern governments have recognized this power as well, resulting in crack downs on hip hop music and artists in places like Iran.

Already experiencing government suppression, as well as what critics consider to be crippling U.S. sanctions, Iranian hip hop artists usually express more pain and do so more poetically than other Arab artists. A January 2014 Al Monitor article, for example, includes translated English lyrics from “Hich Enghelabi (No Revolution),” by Iran’s first female MC—Salome MC: “We are aware of the Western concerns toward an independent Iran, who is not an ally/ without any foreign military bases, completely free, as it was Mosaddeq’s dream/ The shift of power in the region/ the grudge of an occupier regime with nuclear bombs older than 5 decades/ there is no doubt, people want peace, governments look for power, sanctions, wars, bombs.”

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Lyrics like these are among reasons why Iranian stores will not distribute hip hop records. Fear of government suppression has also driven Iranian hip hop artists to build underground studios and hold concerts in homes. Some artists—like lesbian rapper and LGBT activist Saye Sky—have even fled the country for fear of persecution and sought asylum elsewhere.

Along with—and maybe because of—Iranian artists fearing persecution, there is little—if any—money to be made for them in hip hop. But they are still doing what they do and doing it solely out of passion and a need to voice their stories, their truths. This need is part of a trend, or perhaps a movement in Arab hip hop, something that could push members of the Arab community into the mainstream media in a way that positively identifies them as who they are: humans.

Perhaps, after educating the mainstream about who they are, they can school some American hip hop artists on producing messages of struggle and passion in place of flaunting and fashion.


Ness White is a 26-year-young Black, lesbian, journalist, writer, poet, musician living in Philadelphia, PA. Born and partially-raised in Southern California before living in Washington State and Upstate New York, she has been something of a traveler her entire life, readily observing and striving to connect with anything and everything on her journey's path. So far, no connection has been as intense, as indelible as hip hop. For Ness, hip hop is more than a genre. It is a way of living with the body, emotions, mind, spirit all experiencing its core. In essence, it is a way of being in the world. Through her writing—using the page as a stage—she performs like an MC, capturing your attention with style, swag before touching your soul with the heart of her words. Read them and go where she has been, then take her with you on your own journey.

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