Interview November 11, 2013
Interview: Jackson Allers on Arab Hip Hop
Jackson Allers is a cultural journalist and filmmaker who's work in the Arab world has centered on music sub-cultures - namely Arab hip-hop. From his base in Beirut, Lebanon, Allers has studied the evolution of Arab rap throughout the region, from Iraq to Tunisia, but has focused the majority of his focus on the Levant. He runs the cultural blog Beats and Breath (http://jacksonallers.wordpress.com/about), and his work has been cited frequently in academic circles Oxford University Press). He continues to make film and radio documentaries including a recent commission by the BBC to do a 30-mins documentary about Arab rap. Banning Eyre met Allers at his house in Beirut. Here’s their conversation. B.E.: To start, introduce yourself. J.A.: My name is Jackson Allers. I have lived in Lebanon for the last seven years. I am a music journalist. I'm also a filmmaker. And increasingly I've been moving my media work more towards multimedia storytelling. I am also working on a book. The idea for the book came in December 2007, after I had spent a year-and-a-half or two in the Lebanese hip-hop scene. It seemed imperative to the development of this cultural phenomenon to write a book. I still don't actually know exactly how to finish that process, because it is so hard to tell where this music is going. You can't really do a definitive history of Arab rap because it's still such an evolving phenomenon. So that's not my goal. I've spent a lot of time with the key elements of what I would consider the core of the Arab Middle East—that is Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. I felt like this was the crucial area as I learned more about the evolving history of Arab rap. Because, let's be honest; it started in the Maghreb—Algeria Tunisia, and Morocco. That’s because of the French colonial influence. France has the second-biggest hip-hop market in the world, so it was sort of natural in the late 80s and early 90s, considering Maghreb Arab suburban populations of Paris and Marseille, that this music would filter back to North Africa and take root there. But the real Arabic language rap or hip-hop that evolved started in the region that I'm talking about, specifically in Palestine and Lebanon more than anywhere else. Although most people acknowledge the first rapper in the region as Abu Yusif, who was from Jordan. What he did was more in the shaabi, tarab tradition; it wasn't really rap as we know it with this movement now. But my concept for this book really has to do with personal anecdote as it relates to the overall analysis of what's going on, for example, with identity issues in regards to the use of aliases. Those aliases become vehicles for expressing things in areas where you might have to worry about censorship, which has been the case in the Arab world for so long. So it has to do with identity. It has to do with linking to past poetic traditions in the Arab world, the 13th century poetic tradition of zajal, which a Gulf Arab tradition that moved up into this area I'm talking about. Zajal was really the first, Arab incarnation of battle rap, if you want to call it that. It's Arabic in the local dialect, town criers and poets with full bands backing them, sort of going at each other poetically. These are traditions that some of the Arab rappers are focusing on as things that they can look at in much the way African Americans look to West African griot traditions. So the Arab rappers of today are looking towards other older Arabic poetic traditions that they can grasp onto and make their own. I’m writing about the Arab hip-hop or Arab rap movement, although the practitioners are not so keen on describing it as such. They want to call it something brand-new. I've discussed this with one of the Syrian American producers who lives in Beirut. His name is Ahmed Khoujah, and he’s the key person behind the Khat Thaleth, or “third way,” Arab rap compilation. They also call him Dubsnacker or Munaquresh. The idea is: why would you call something Arab hip-hop or Arab rap when you can't even pronounce the letter “p” in your language. You can't call it Arab "rab" or "hib hob." But they want to call it something. Arab rap is the closest thing because it's rhythm and poetry over music. But they are not necessarily identifying with hip-hop as a culture. They're trying to do their own thing, which is an inclusion into this idea of Arab hip-hop culture globally. That's how you enrich it. And that's how they're looking at it. And it's the biggest homage to hip-hop as a culture that that's what they want to do. B.E.: And there were those who said that when the rappers who are being very political in Tahrir Square start collaborating with these hip sounds coming out of these poor neighborhoods, techno-shaabi, that's when you're going to see the new Egyptian music. But now, here we are, a few years later. Has it happened? Because the music from those weddings was not political. It was about sex and partying. J.A.: I think that's the wrong approach to understanding the marriage. It’s a misunderstanding that these things can't come together. Part of what I'm grappling with right now is the limited scope, overall, scope of what artists are rapping about in what I consider cutting-edge Arab rap. They are concerned with social issues. Civil rights. Corruption. Despotism of leaders. Western influence. Sexual freedom is not as much a part of the Arab rap movement that I'm talking about. The techno-shaabi and the rap elements of those are absolutely that. But if you are going to talk about hip-hop as a culture, then those elements are also part of the culture. So conscious hip-hop, or conscious rap doesn't define rap or hip-hop. It is an element of the culture. Just like any culture has an array of conscious elements and absolutely unconscious, hedonistic elements to it. It's the same. It is not divorced from the culture of critique. We consider Arab rap as it exists now to be conscious rap—and that's pretty much what it is. But my contention is that it is going to need more of the discussions of everyday concerns of sex and boredom and party culture. These are elements that, done in a creative way, can add. It can't always be serious. B.E.: But also, in a world where Muslim Brothers are winning elections in various countries, these issues are political. J.A.: Yes, but so are the social concerns of many of the rappers who might be religious, but there also criticizing and over-Islamization of things. They are criticizing the idea that there's not a conscious move forward to change things, to make it better for the people. So the Muslim Brotherhood isn't exempt from fair criticism. So you wouldn't necessarily even need to take it to the sexual to get flak from some of the more fundamentalist religious elements, who see anything with beats and rhythm as haram, forbidden. So that's another layer on top of this. But the idea is that the breadth of the lyricism, like say we've got Slick Rick talking about these seemingly mundane things, or Common talking about these seemingly mundane things, or name any rapper that's amazing in the United States—that is something that still hasn't quite made it into the litmus test, the sort of self reflective litmus test of what it is to be an Arab rapper nowadays. The forebears of the Lebanese hip-hop scene are people that the youngsters of today have no idea about. None. They don't know that in 1997 there was a Lebanese DJ who is a world-class turntableist who was competing at the DMJ turntable championship that was held here in Lebanon in 1997. He was competing internationally. He passed away in a car accident a year-and-a-half, two years later. His name was Sweet Little DJ. The youngsters have no idea who he is at all. Luckily, some of the guys who were the veterans have stayed in the game. DJ Lethal Skilz, the finest turntableist in the Arab world, who has had to relocate to Kuala Lumpur because he can't make a living doing it here. Then you have Rayess Bek, part of a group called Aks’ser that surfaced in the late 90s and early 2000s. There's a video of them in 1998, the very first Lebanese hip-hop video, with a young DJ Lethal Skilz in it. This is a tradition that if that wasn't there, most of these young kids would have no idea that there was a veteran crew of people trying to do things, and struggling just like them in the same ways. You have Eslam Jawad, the Syrian/Lebanese rapper who had to move to England, and now still collaborates quite heavily with Damon Albarn, former Blur front man, the Gorillaz, the Good the Bad and the Queen, all of his group incarnations. This is a Lebanese American rapper that brought the Gorillaz to Lebanon and Syria in 2010. Most people don't, most youngsters know about him, but they don't really know his history. They don't know much about the group Kita3 Beirut, Sector Beirut, because the idea is, again, now everything is being documented. B.E.: So is that changing the game? J.A.: That is changing the game in the last 45 years. That is changing the game. Since 2008, roughly. 2007, 2008. B.E.: So what is the effect of that? J.A.: The effect of that is to create a tradition, or a sense of tradition that didn't exist before. Though it's sad to say, a lot of these veterans didn't get the props they deserve. And as in hip-hop in America, there's not necessarily the veneration of older emcees from the rappers that are coming up, because they want to be better. Tupak. Biggie. Whatever. The idea is that I'm gonna be the next big thing. There’s a young brand of emcees coming out of Lebanon. There are these little structures that are set up in the way of venues and events, that have popped up. It's less sporadic than it used to be. B.E.: Talk about the performance side of things. J.A.: There's the poetry event called Hekile, which is sort of like the slam poetry events of the United States. It brings poets and emcees into the same room, all doing a form of poetry together. Hekile was run by one of the veteran emcees, if you will. His name is Edda Abbas, MC Ed. He is part of a live Lebanese hip-hop crew called Fareeq el Atrash, which is a play on Farid al Atrach, the singer, composer, actor. Ed is one of the two rappers of that group. Ed started this poetry thing called Hekile, which has grown over the past five years. And then there are other events. The ideas there's a Monday night hip-hop event at the venue called Radio Beirut now. That used to happen at a vinyl only bar called the Flip Side, in the same area. Now it's a chance for young emcees to come and showcase their skills, maybe for the first time. So like Project Blowed in LA, or any number of freestyle, the battle oriented free spots. You get the point. B.E.: It's a platform. And it has regularity. What does Hekile mean? J.A.: Hekile is the speech. It's kind of like that. That happens once every couple of months. The Radio Beirut thing happens every Monday. So there are slightly more venues now, and there's more regularity of hip-hop performances happening locally, in cities around Lebanon, and here in Beirut, despite what happens with the political upheaval that occurs here. Actually, that adds fuel to their fire more than it kills their energy. They use this as a classic means of working through the issues that are occurring. B.E.: What are they rapping about? J.A.: You can talk about El Rass, Mazen el Sayyed. He's got a song called "Yoga," which is a sort of a tome on violence. The term itself yoga is meant to imply a sort of peacefulness. And actually, he's trying to show in this song why violence isn't viable, but he does it in a way where if you're not paying attention, you think is an all-out advocate for this kind of violence that is occurring around. And so when you're asking for specifics, Aks’ser, the name of the group, means "do not enter." It's an illegal pathway. So there is a play on words right there. So specific songs, in Lebanon you have intehabet, which is like an election. And then there's Malika, the only working female emcee in the Arab world. She's living in Dubai. But one of her songs "Intihabet" is also the title of a Fareeq el Atrash song, but they're talking about the corrupt system of democracy that exists in this country. They are talking about the sectarian nature of politics in this country. They are not naming names. But, if anyone knows anything about what's happening with the Lebanese state, it's not going to take much to infer. It's not going to take much to figure out what's happening. B.E.: Are these artists facing censorship? Or are these artists so invisible that it just doesn't matter? J.A.: This is the good question, right? And this is the question that I asked them, and I have been asking them for four years. Are you willing to go to jail for your art? I mean, it's all well and good to be talking about this stuff, but it's a put up or shut up kind of situation. And unequivocally, almost all of them have said yes. Now I'm not sure they really understand the ramifications of what I'm asking, or what they're saying that they would definitely do for their artistic integrity. B.E.: Is this because of the invisibility? J.A.: Yes. Let's be honest, this is not a populist movement. B.E.: But if there was that kind of radical guerrilla radio that I was fantasizing about earlier, and it was playing their stuff, and it was getting written about, it was more visible, maybe they would be getting more unwanted attention. J.A.: That's exactly the point. The idea is that as this gets more popular, my contention—and this is part of my book—is that the next battle for the Arab rap movement is the battle of free expression. The battle of free speech. Whether they know it or not, they are heading for that battle. It is inevitable. If just by increments, as their little scenes grow, it’s going to be two times larger in two years, five times larger in eight years. Who knows? Who knows the formula for describing it? B.E.: Tell me about a few more songs you find interesting. J.A.: Let’s look at "Islamology" from El Rass. It's his take on his relationship to Islam, which is more of a Sufi interpretation of Islam. But if you were to go into the actual description, and if you were even remotely orthodox in your in Islamic ideology, or your Islamic beliefs, this would be absolute blasphemy. Because he is saying that his religion is his own. His personal experience with Islam is his own. So he's taking it into a less literal interpretation of the Koran and using the Sufi interpretation of that to mean, it's experiential to me. My God is mine. And therefore, that's what I adhere to. And that is a difficult thing to push. Let's say, in Egypt, that might not go over so well. In Lebanon, because there isn't a groundswell of popular listenership there, that's not necessarily being heard. There's a track by a young Lebanese rapper who is actually one of the more controversial rappers, and probably I consider the most overall talented rapper, producer. Arranger. His name is Ramcees el Hamurabi. Ramcees is in France right now. He dropped his third album, and this is a guy who's incredibly young, 22. But he's been longer on the scene than most, because he was this young whippersnapper of a kid. At 12 or 13 years old, he was unbelievably eager, seeing the older guys, how do you do that and the other. He's got some tracks. Let me give you an example. He’s got another "Intihabet," the idea of the elections process, the democratic process. He's talking specifically about dynamics that exist with the caretaker government, not the Hezbollah side of things, who can now say they are the controlling factor in government. But at the time he was writing this, it was the exact opposite. It was the Western backed side of things, represented by Rafiq and Saad Hariri. He's calling out this representation of a political system that doesn't represent the people, the shaabi, or doesn't represent the social and economic interests of the poor, and these kinds of issues, based on the fact that he's from Ras al Naba, which is a very mixed neighborhood that's in constant conflict between the Shiite elements in the Sunni elements. If this stuff is pumped into his neighborhood, it's not necessarily going to go over well with the Sunni elements of this neighborhood. These two songs, "Intihabet" from Ramcees and "Islamology" from El Rass, represent these highly intelligent social critiques of a highly complicated system that is Lebanon. From both a sectarian perspective, and a perspective related to straight up economics. Based on who has and who has not. There are a lot more examples I can give, but when you're talking about the dynamic nature of the lyricism that is coming from the Lebanese hip-hop scene, the litmus test for them is: “Are you aware of this? And are you talking about it from your perspective? And how good are you talking about it from your perspective? Because there's still a scene here. And we are going to critique you.” So. there's an active critique coming from the up-and-coming emcees themselves, as well as the more well-known elements of the scene. To talk about the more well-known elements of the scene from the past, you have to bring up Rayess Bek, who still comes to Lebanon from France to perform. Though he is respected, he's not necessarily seen in the same camaraderie as the people who are based here. He is kind of seen as someone who can talk about highly political issues. That's fine and good, but that's because you are in France. Then, you have to add Fareeq al Atrash. Older than that, you're talking about people like Malika, the female rapper I was talking about earlier. You have also MC Mo, who is in France at the moment, also for work. If you’re talking about other emcees, there is RGB, a rapper who was part of a group called Kita3 Beirut. He had a record contract with LCI. They in essence imploded as an organization and did not release this full-length album with music videos that were shot with high budgets. It died. Absolutely died. So in essence, when it died, RGB had an absolute implosion. He and he's not active in the scene anymore. A lot of these young heads don't even know who he is, and that's a shame. But you have these kind of veteran elements, like DJ Lethal Skilz, the turntable/producer element that was uniting a lot of this together. And then, you have to add Chino, who now raps with Fareeq el Atrash, and represented a bridge between the old and the new. You have El Rass, Mazen al Sayyed. Who else? You have guys like Double A, an English rapper who's part of the scene and does a lot of these hodgepodge freestyles. He hosts the Monday night sessions over at Radio Beirut now. There's another whole tradition that was started here in Lebanon I should mention. It’s called Fus Hop. These are rappers who are rhyming in fus-ha, classical Arabic. The first to do it was a group called Blood Wasted, from the mid-to-late 90s. Particularly a fellow who, as it stands now, is completely inactive, an unknown element of the scene, though he still lives here. His name is Mars or Omarz. He used to be called Curly back in the day, in the late 90s early 2000s. So this is an idea that was put forward by a small group of rappers. El Rass tends to do his rapping in fus-ha, or variations of fus-ha with local dialect thrown in as peppering, or flavoring on top of his lyricism. B.E.: The significance of that is that you're addressing a much larger audience, right? J.A.: You are addressing, theoretically, 22 Arab countries. But again, that's not quite accurate either. It's theoretical. Potentially, it's there. But that's not what the shaabi understand. They don't speak fus-ha. It's like you were speaking Shakespearean English to them if you were to come up to them and rap in fus-ha. And let's be honest. A lot of the Arab world is illiterate. So it's not like even have this classic Koranic understanding of fusha. It's more memorization and such. El Rass is probably the best lyricist in the Arab movement right now. He’s pan Arab, because of the intricacy, and because this guy is a journalist and because he's a poet, and because he comes from a very broad musical background. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8q2DA2UiwIE&list=PLo5lPPYt7M0E_kbEeZCnmAxgCYXKm39vq He's not a producer. He's learning to do that now. That’s another thing is important to understand about Arab rap in the DIY sense. They are now all producing for themselves. They are all learning the tools of the trade. They're all learning that if it's the sound that I want, I think I'm gonna have to be the one to do it. So there's very little that they're not understanding in order to make their own music the way they want to. B.E.: Thanks so much for this. I consider this a beginning of a much longer conversation, and I look forward to continuing it.