Remixing Identity: Hip-Hop In Arab Culture

“You gotta go for what you know, make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be.” – Public Enemy
Omar Offendum - Destiny (Official Video HD) / londonsfynest (Youtube)
Omar Offendum – Destiny (Official Video HD) / londonsfynest (Youtube)

Among young ethnic minorities, hip-hop is perhaps the most popular medium for challenging the twin burdens of entrenched injustice and pervasive privilege.

Originating in New York City, Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, as well as N.W.A pioneered politically motivated hip-hop. Through explicitly confrontational lyrics, these artists endeavoured to inform the non-African American public about police brutality, racial profiling and minority oppression.

For young Arabs, hip-hop then enables them to express their opposition to governmental and societal power structures pre and post the Arab Spring. Hip-hop’s broad reach communicates these messages to people in and outside the region. And importantly, it amplifies the artistic voices of resistance.

Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American hip-hop artist, is one such voice. Speaking at Sydney Ideas, he candidly states that he is not on an expert on the political turmoil plaguing the Middle East. But his experience as a Saudi born and American raised artist uniquely positions him to comment on issues young Arabs face, including grappling with multiple identities.

In his 2010 debut album, SyrianamericanA, he provided a voice to the thousands of victims in a conflict now closing its fourth year. And with lyrics addressing a familiar struggle for young Arab immigrants, finding an identity, people can relate to Offendum’s brand of political hip-hop.

So What Is Hip-Hop?

Offendum describes hip-hop as “street journalism”, reflecting the daily goings on.

“It’s young people resisting the status quo to effect change for their family, their friends and their country,” he explains. And despite hip-hop grandfathers and the genre being more than four decades old, it is indelibly considered ‘youth culture’. Iraqi rapper, Lowkey, further described using your voice as an intifada – an uprising against what is happening.

Parallels between Hip-Hop and Arab Culture

Internal factions, dictatorships, and persistent sectarian violence characterise the Middle East in popular discourse. Arabic Culture is dismissed as barbaric. But its roots are in poetry, story-telling and visual arts. Similarly, hip-hop is rooted in an African-American cultural and artistic framework. It provided a vehicle for marginalised communities in the United States to stand up and call attention to their presence – African American, Puerto Ricans as well as Jewish Americans.

Offendum goes on to say that although his teachers may not have understood it at the time, there are thematic connections between more traditional Middle Eastern poetry and the imported culture of hip-hop. Middle Eastern poets expressed themselves through their subject material – love, battles, representing their respective tribes. Offendum sees this in hip-hop. The artists, through politically charged lyrics, unpack questions of power, identity and leadership, layering them over beats. British-Palestinian MC and Singer, Shadia Mansour, dubbed the first lady of Arabic hip-hop, collaborated with Public Enemy producer, Johnny Juice. Juice explains in Cultures of Resistance that he has a number of fans that may not be aware of the situation in Palestine. He can then facilitate bridge building between different groups and illuminate a number of issues the American people do not know about. Not only can hip-hop be an education about the past, but also it can candidly reveal hopes for the future.

Arabic Hip-Hop Post 9/11

Post September 11, the world’s attitudes towards Arabs drastically shifted. Violence against Arabs in the United States increased. Offendum recalls making beats as a student the University of Virginia. He moved from being the ethnically ambiguous rapper on campus to the Muslim/Arab rapper. Hip-hop enabled him to speak about his own experiences, which he saw as being misrepresented in the media. The genre speaks to those who are marginalised, stigmatised and systematically excluded. And Arabs fell squarely into this group.

Hip-hop also confronts the use of broad brushes to paint the region and its people as homogenous. The media rarely employs images and sounds allowing viewers to distinguish between the countries. Egypt, Iraq and Syria typically all have youth crouching behind rubble yelling in Arabic, dirt roads, and women fleeing gunshots. The dialects, the terrain and the cityscapes are reduced to this sameness.

Music is then a lens through which people can appreciate and understand these differences. Consider Beirut. Historically a port city, it reflects its long multicultural history through its architecture, its languages and its music. A politically and religiously segmented city, emerging artists represent every aspect, incorporating different traditional elements throughout.

Hip-Hop and Identity

Hip-hop is a powerful platform to express ideas. It enabled Offendum to personally reconcile the different identities that he struggled with growing up.

The media continues to tell the world that young Arabs cannot be both American and Middle Eastern. These two identities then compete, rather than coexist. And the rhetoric is worsening. But, he adds, it needs to get to that place for young people to be fed up and to want to affect change. Artistic resistance is a channel for their expression.

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Offendum participates in hip-hop in the general sense, rather than in a subculture. And in doing so, he acknowledges the shortcomings in artificially classifying someone and their music by reference to one aspect of their identity.

He describes himself as a Syrian-American to give listeners context to what he is trying to talk about. He says that people more easily rally around issues, rather than a group of people or an ideology.

But the reality is the majority of people existing in the polarized experience that is international politics have more in common than they believe. And hip-hop speaks to the disaffected – the young people in the middle. TC mark

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