An Introduction to the Arab World’s Best Rappers

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Hip hop is one of America’s most successful cultural exports in the Arab World. From clothes to clefs to chains, the syncopated syllables of Arabic rap songs sound almost the same as their American cousins, except for the obvious linguistic difference.

The success of an Arabic hip-hop pastiche makes sense. For one thing, Arab diaspora communities in the United States act as nodes in an intercontinental cultural feedback loop. More than that, American rappers sing about the same problems many Arab youth endure: disenfranchisement, discrimination, poverty, and violence endemic in their communities. These topics reflect the perspectives of Palestinian, Lebanese, and Algerian musicians in particular. By the same token, Gulf rappers replicate Americans’ songs about how great it is to be really, really rich.

While many derive their inspiration from American rappers and resemble, sartorially and aurally, their Yankee counterparts, these artists represent the latest generation of an art form once thought to be dying: Arabic poetry. Long before the promulgation of literacy on the Arabian peninsula, the Arabic poetical tradition, in its tribal form, took the shape of extended poetry battles between rival bards, reminiscent of post-modern day rap duels. Being a lauded and skilled poet was no minor honor. After the advent of Islam, Arabic poetry took on some religious elements, yet poets yielded nothing in the way of freedom of creativity, writing and singing extensively in different genres and styles. Sadly, sociological circumstances and elite elements’ interpretations of how art “should be” squelched innovation right around the same time Shakespeare took quill to parchment. Arabic poetry hasn’t been the same since.

Happily, with the help of a rapidly globalizing world and an ever-expanding online marketplace of ideas, that august tradition seems to be making something of a comeback. The rappers below are all leading a renaissance of an ancient art form, this time with grillz.

1. Malikah

Malikah (a.k.a. Lynn Fatouh), whose stage name means “Queen” in Arabic, is one of Lebanon’s most popular rap acts, overcoming a traditionally male-dominated scene. Her lyrics highlight the hurdles Arabic women face. The cadence and content of her songs are angry, reflecting the frustration of a modern woman confronting inequality in Lebanese society. Lebanon has been in the habit of negotiating contradictory cultural roles since the crucible of the Crusades. Malikah’s energetic music is the newest incarnation of this tension.

Top image via NOW Lebanon

2. Shadia Mansour

Shadia Mansour, a British-born Palestinian rapper, has toured in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, where she visited Milwaukee and Chicago, cities with sizable Palestinian immigrant populations. Mansour’s music, which alternates between staccato rap and a melodic chorus, doesn’t evince the same kind of unbridled anger as Malikah’s. Rather, she follows in the footsteps of Fairouz, a Lebanese diva. As far as her message is concerned, Mansour declares that she identifies with Tupac’s thoughtful musings on the state of society, as well as Public Enemy’s insouciant style of satire. “Much respect to Biggie,” Mansour said in an interview, “’cause whenever we say Tupac we have to say Biggie, but to be honest I’m not into gangster rap. I would buy it, but I don’t feel I can relate — ’cause I’m not a gangster, I’m not from the street and everything else that comes with it.”

3. Raouf Adear

A talented rapper living Paris, Raouf Adear raps about the alienation and cultural disorientation Algerian youth experience. Growing up in a modest family in Algeria during years plagued by political turbulence and terror, his words reflect a dark worldview. Adear began rapping in 2006 and has released albums in Arabic and French. In this video, “The Lyrics of Pain,” Adear walks around London, alone and pensive, stopping in Hyde Park to hear what appears to be a zealous Muslim street preacher, whose message is incompatible with what Adear is thinking. Easy answers don’t satisfy him. “The street has made me a philosopher, not choice,” he raps.

4. DAM

DAM, a Palestinian group, usually rap in Arabic. In the video above, however, they don’t, translating their lyrics into Hebrew, a language most Palestinians under occupation speak by necessity. This 2004 video was filmed during the height of the Second Intifada and discusses the discrimination by police and others that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship endure.

Perhaps the best publicized of Palestinian rappers, DAM (Da Arabian MCs), whose name is the Arabic verb root for “to last forever” and is similar to the word for “blood” in Hebrew and Arabic, were featured in a documentary about rap in Israel and Palestine called Slingshot HipHop. A long-form trailer includes a quote from a Palestinian rapper that reveals the mentality of these artists under occupation. Denigrated inside Israel and scorned as unwanted refugees by their Arab neighbors, they understand their predicament as parallel to that of African Americans. “We are the black people of the Middle East,” he observes. The documentary also shows the verve and voracity with which female Palestinian rappers have taken up the musical form.

Watch another, more recent DAM video about Gaza below. Its poster expropriates a screenshot from one of Eminem’s more socially conscious videos.

5. Bigg

Bigg (a.k.a. Toufiq Hazeb), a pioneer of Moroccan rap, first became interested in the art form when he heard about the battle between East and West Coast rappers in the United States, which inspired him to borrow his name from Notorious B.I.G. Like his counterparts in the United States, Bigg had his troubles with the law, failing to gain official recognition from the Moroccan government. Absconding to Spain, he found himself in the hands of the Spanish authorities, who detained and then deported back home. Undeterred, Bigg continues his solo work and hopes that one day he won’t be relegated to the “World Music” bin at major record stores.

In the song above, “Itoub,” the rapper displays considerable technical talent, as well as what sounds like a deft melding of Arabic and English. In true code switching, part of the hook goes: “Shoukran [Arabic for “thank you”], Shoukran, Shoukran, man.” The word “man” is definitely English, and the song represents a fascinating example of linguistic intermingling. (For any language fanatics, here is a full translation.)