“If you stop breaking, you become part of the decoration.”
– from the Volcano of Beirut, by Mazen el Sayed, aka El Rass.
“Yeah, corruption and hip-hop, they have nothing to do with each other,” joked rapper Edouard Abbas (Edd), sarcastically, when I revealed the subject of this article. I spoke with Edd about his work with Fareeq el-Atrash, a self-styled hip-hop band from Beirut. His sentiment was echoed in the discussions I had with other local hip-hop artists. I assume their forgiving frustration referred to the surfeit of articles championing Arabic hip-hop as the voice of the ‘modern Arab youth’: those framed as bold enough to publicly condemn state oppression and corruption in the region. He laughed, “Yeah, yeah. This is what we are doing with our music. We are trying to remove corruption from our society. It’s our broader aim, if you like.”
Even though the diversity in Arabic-language hip-hop might make generalizations difficult, journalists seem to find it fairly easy to celebrate the music’s role in the perceived Arab march for Western democratic values. Titles such as “Is hip hop driving the Arab Spring?” from the BBC, and “Palestinians In Lebanon Find A Political Tool In Hip-Hop” from NPR, are indicative of the potential attributed to this musical genre.
In some ways, Arabic hip-hop is spoken about in much the same way that Twitter, Facebook and NGOs are. With notable exceptions, before and after the revolts in the region, these ‘spaces’ or ‘tools’ are presented as arenas of equal opportunity for public dialogue. Journalists generally gloss over any class, gender, or race fault lines that exist in and out of these sketched-out spheres in the Arabic-speaking region.
Al-Akhbar writes on some Arabic rap groups including Palestinian group Katibe 5 and Edd linking their music to hip-hop’s roots in the United States. “Successful and honest attempts in Arabic rap have emerged from the heart of deprived neighborhoods in various parts of the Arab world. These are neighborhoods that resemble those where rap emerged in the US, and later in Europe,” wrote Muhammad Hamdar of al-Akhbar.
Here and abroad, a history of hip-hop is often recited as preliminary evidence of the genre’s potential relevance to political and social life: The poorest sections of the Bronx were given a voice, a platform for social influence, through lyrical deejays. Since the genre’s release into the mainstream, some performers have remained true to a marginalized cause, mixing social commentary with entertainment, while others were held culpable for the propagation of social ills.
Because the Arab region as a whole is often represented as socially and politically impoverished or behind, the positioning of Arabic hip-hop inside generous odes to democratic ideals and western notions of freedom might come of little surprise.
The faith some have put in hip-hop is similar to the faith placed in the media in general, such as the Internet or even newspapers. It brings to mind myths around certain classes of society that are said to be seeking knowledge; myths that say, once people are presented with certain types of knowledge they will want it, become better citizens and work for the common good. I interviewed a few of the Lebanese rappers written about in the mainstream media.
I’m not Che Guevara. I sing because I believe in freedom of speech.
Can hip-hop fight corruption? I asked. “Corruption is the biggest issue facing Lebanon right now,” said Wael or Rayess Bek, another Lebanese hip-hop artist that spent some time in France. “I don’t have the power to fix everyone’s problems. Music can transmit a message, though. The fight against corruption is not waiting for me to sing a song. But hip-hop is music and music brings people together,” Rayess Bek said. “I’m not Che Guevara. I sing because I believe in freedom of speech. Music can unite people around an issue and raise awareness,” he said.
While The Team of the Deaf (Fareeq el-Atrash) raps about corruption in a lot of their music – the band even sings a song titled Corruption – Edd says they are no heroes. There are nuances in the ways that lyricists put words to beats in the region, and in the way that rappers or musicians that come from the region are addressing different forms of power and corruption, as well as notions of entertainment. Nonetheless, a lot of what we ‘know’ about these musicians, their audiences and their potential impact, is still largely centered around Western conceptions of good citizens, good Arabs and good music.
How does hip-hop affect the people in our society? How intently must lyrics be heard for the music to influence the way people think about a topic like corruption?
While journalists and academics have written about Arabic speaking hip-hop artists, their impact on society and the people that listen to hip-hop in the region, all of it remains largely based on conjectures. Those that are listening to rap songs have not been studied in any rigorous manner over long periods of time.
I asked Edd who he is rapping for. “Sometimes,” he said, “I’m singing for the people that can relate. For everyone but the upper class. But I’m also singing to Solidere,” he said, offering an example of corruption in the country. “When I’m in downtown, I’m singing to the owners and I think they’re listening. One time when we sang there, the organizers told us they don’t want us to mention this, or that. By the third song we were singing about politics. They asked us to stop but we kept going.”
What happened, then? “They never invited us back. But we had done what we wanted to do. We achieved our goal. We made them hear us. And when they hear our songs, they know that we are singing to them and maybe they will feel some form of guilt,” he said. What causes the corruption in the country? “I think it’s a mentality more than people that are controlling us,” said Edd.
I asked Tripolian native, Mazen el Sayed, also known as El Rass (the head), what he thought. While journalists sometimes situate his music within the category of hip-hop, he dismisses the label. “I don't consider myself a hip-hop artist. Hip-hop is a specific cultural phenomenon. It’s not just rhyming to a beat. Rap as a practice has artistic roots everywhere. Putting rhythmical poetry on musical patterns exists in all cultures. Is it really an imported product?”
I asked El Rass if he thought the music could fight corruption."You don't seem to be convinced by your question," he quipped with a slight chuckle. I explained the evident hesitancy in my inquiry: I would argue that a lot of our politicians use the same kind of rhetoric that our rappers do. Even the politicians that represent certain sects speak against sectarianism. The corrupt speak against corruption (even if they are doing so dishonestly or performatively). Dramatically put, I feel like these terms have been emptied and filled by the powerful with different meanings. The NGOs, the UN, and now rappers are all using the same words.
I did not have to give El Rass an example. “That is why language is such an important part of my struggle. We’re fighting over words when we proclaim freedom to be our fight and then see our enemies using freedom as a banner. And at the same time, our enemies have the advantage of huge mediatic machines capable of employing the meanings they’ve chosen. They have this enormous leverage over people’s thoughts.”
Rayess Bek, in his song “Intikhabet 09” or “Elections 09,” encourages civil marriage. He says the greatest cause of corruption in this country is sectarianism. He opines a sort of vision for Lebanese citizens. Through the institution of civil marriage, they will one day say:
I am Lebanese
Not: I am Shia, I am Sunni, I am Catholic, I am Maronite
They start to say – this boy – I am Lebanese
He tells you, my dad is Druze, my mom is Maronite, my grandmother is Shia, my grandfather is Sunni-Roman Catholic, for example. Whatever it is. Most importantly, it’s a mix.
Not only are there numerous instances of empty statements supporting civil marriage across the political spectrum in Lebanon but the majority of politicians claim to push the Lebanese identity as the primary identity. Arguably, therefore, hip-hop might not being doing much in terms of raising awareness. Rayess Bek did not disagree. He said that issues, such as nationalism, secularism and civil marriage, could be topics people were already aware of but that the music could still serve to unite people around a cause.
El Rass expanded on the importance of language in the fight over words. “And this is why, in the way that I understand rap, what we do is really about trying to be faster and more dynamic than the people we are fighting. It is about inventing new words. It is about inventing new formulas. It is about trying to deconstruct meanings of words in the minds of people and replace them.”
He emphasized the potential of the entertainment element in rap to help facilitate changes in behavior, understanding, or in thinking. He spoke more about his method, “I have a tendency to dislike the option of restating the same things, like ‘we do not want to be divided’, or ‘we want to fight corruption’. I don’t do this stuff. In order to feel like I want to share a piece of work, I want to feel that it has added value.”
“Just repeating the same patterns shallowly might bore people. It could bring detachment which would again give politicians the upper hand,” he said. If hip-hop is to change anything, then people have to listen to it, I assume. Is hip-hop popular in this part of the world? “It’s popular if it comes from the people,” said Rayess Bek. I asked him if he would consider himself ‘of the people’. “I hope so. I think I am because people respond to my music,” he said.
“I don't want to call it popular. I don't think it’s the right question. What does it mean for music to be popular?” asked El Rass. “I think we're lucky that the mainstream media hasn't developed a huge interest in us. I don't want to be transformed into an object. I would lose my agency. I would just become a mediatic object to be used for whatever idea they want to communicate,” El Rass continued.
Regardless of how little attention is being paid to Arabic rappers, it seems as though coverage has increased in the past few years.“Hip-hop is gaining recognition, especially Arabic hip-hop, in particular after the revolution,” said Edd, referring to the happenings in the region that began in 2011.“The revolution opened people's eyes to hip-hop. They are paying more attention to hip-hop. They want to know more about it, especially the Westerners. They are asking us to translate our lyrics. They want to understand. They want to know what's happening,” he said.
El Rass did not share the same enthusiasm about the attention from journalists, post-2011. Journalists and development organizations alike took an interest in hip-hop artists, in particular after 2011. It was perhaps part of the larger interest in Arab youth that started after the September 11 attacks in 2001. “Why does the Western media – every time they talk about us – always have to link us to the Arab Spring? We didn't start rapping during the Arab spring. I don't even believe in the denomination and a journalist put it in the title of an article about me,” he said.
“Can this kind of music ever be Arab or speak to the real Arabs?”
“Shouldn’t there be some form of respect for me as the person that is being interviewed?” he asked. Questions about popularity are often linked to discussions of authenticity, albeit the questions asked of hip-hop artists in Western nations are a little different than those that are brought up here. People in the region making the kind of music often classed as hip-hop get asked questions like, “Can this kind of music ever be Arab or speak to the real Arabs?”
El Rass responded to this point by recalling an encounter with a journalist. “Don't you think our ears are more accustomed to oriental music?” a journalist once asked him. “We are seen as having this essence of the orient and everything that we do outside of this perceived cultural circle is seen as an imitation of global standards,” he explained.“I’m not imitating the global standards. I want to challenge the global standards as much as I want to challenge what you might call my essential belonging to the orient. I don't belong essentially to the orient. I am the orient. I define it in the way that I am,” he said.
“Isn’t the orient this geographical part of the world? I belong to it and everything that comes naturally from me is from it. In the end, the idea of authenticity only has meaning, in that it asks if you are managing to create a connection with people,” he said. “You might use all the tools that are generically described as a part of your culture and still not connect to people.”
Under the slogan of reconstruction
If his time wasn’t up and his contract finished
Hariri didn’t have to fly and it wouldn’t have become the Hariri airport
Lebanon’s capital keeps balance between two shrines
And on both assassinations, there is a question mark
One sanctifies death but for a reason
And one sanctifies life with lies
from the Volcano of Beirut, by Mazen el Sayed, aka El Rass
Money makes the world go ‘round, and that’s known as fact, it goes way back
Get a loan you'll have a loan to pay a loan, can’t, bail on that
They don’t want half, they want the whole damn stack
Something is happenin’, I think it’s capitalism gone tragic
The nation has a treasury, the treasurer is a banker, but this banker represents a major bank then
Let’s just say, if they need change, they’ll reach in their pockets
from Corruption, by Fareeq el-Atrash
 Solidere s.a.l. is a Lebanese company in charge of planning and redeveloping Beirut Central District following the conclusion, in 1990, of the country's devastating civil war. By agreement with the government, Solidere enjoys special powers of eminent domain as well as a limited regulatory authority codified in law, making the company a unique form of public-private partnership. Solidere was founded on 5 May 1994 by then- Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and was incorporated as a privately owned company listed on the stock exchange.
Anyone deemed 'suspect', including beggars and people from lower income groups, are forbidden from lounging or walking through the open areas, even though they are dubbed public spaces.
The entire space is under heavy surveillance by security guards. Strict policies are in place to make sure the area remains 'pristine' for capital investments and high-end patrons.