Friday, February 3, 2012

My New Article in Italy's Corriere della Sera

The Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera has just published my new article about Arabic hip hop and the Arab Awakening. 


I want to thank Serena Danna of Corriere della Sera for reaching out to me and asking me to write an article for her newspaper. It's quite an honor to see my work appear in Italy's most respected and widely read daily and I am grateful for the opportunity. Many thanks as well to Ted Swedenburg and Hani of Hot Arabic Music for their input on the article and to Realityexpress for his/her constructive criticism of my "Hip Hop Revolution" piece on OpenDemocracy.net. I think I conflated different Arabic hip hop scenes and movements a little too breezily in that piece, so I worked hard to make my Corriere article's analysis more nuanced, rigorous, and accurate. I had to jam everything that I considered essential to an introduction to Arabic hip hop into 700 words, so sometimes it felt like writing an entire article in haiku form. Fortunately, I was able to say most of what I wanted to say and I let the hyperlinks do the rest of the talking. 

I have a few other updates and things to share, as well:

#1 I have updated my El Général, Hip Hop, and the Tunisian Revolution post with some insightful comments about the Tunisian hip hop scene that SPIN's David Peisner, author of "Inside Tunisia's Hip-Hop Revolution," graciously shared with me. Check it out!

#2 I will soon be posting a lot of new song translations and subtitled videos, so please keep checking back for those. I'm also working on several more pieces about Arabic hip hop for OpenDemocracy.net that will be coming out this February.

#3 For my Corriere della Sera article, I interviewed Yaseen, a Libyan-American activist with EnoughGaddafi.com who has spent a lot of time in Libya recently. Thanks again, Yaseen! Yaseen was the person who selected the songs on the Mish B3eed mixtape that EnoughGaddafi.com released in early February 2011. For more on Mish B3eed, check out NPR's interviews with Abdulla Derrat, who did the artwork and promotion for the mixtape, on On The Media and PRI's The World. Mish B3eed is THE thing that made me an Arabic hip hop fan, so it was a lot of fun to talk to Yaseen about Libya, Ibn Thabit, MC Swat, and Arabic hip hop more generally. The following is a slightly edited transcript of our correspondence:


Yaseen: I want to try to get a Guito'n and MC Swat collaboration. When working on the mish b3eed mixtape, I reached out to Lotfi Double Kanon and he hollered back. I wanted him to work with Ibn Thabit. I think it's the responsibility of rappers in the West to try to help out rappers in Arab countries without resources and empower them by giving them platforms, advice (if need be), and resources. Malik L and Ibn Thabit really stepped up in that regard. 

Revolutionary Arab Rap: How common is this collaboration and mentorship between emerging Arabic rappers and more established Arab hip hop artists in the west and in Arab countries with older scenes (Algeria, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon)? How important will it be in the future? 

Yaseen: I really don't have enough background on the Arabic rap scenes to answer this accurately beyond the Libyan rap scene, and I don't really like Arab-American rappers usually and don't pay attention to it as a result, but I'll give this one a shot.

Here's a little story that you could use somehow (feel free to reword what I said as long as you don't change the substance of it). After I connected with SWAT in Benghazi, I put him and Ibn Thabit in touch. SWAT ended up coming to Ibn Thabits house in Tripoli and they recorded La Shek not long after (Victory or Death was recorded by SWAT on a different beat...beat ended up being changed by the producer which is why SWATs flow sounds like it is off...originally flow was perfect...it was too much effort to re-record so we just rolled with it). I spoke to Ibn Thabit after that first meeting and he said that he felt like Puff Daddy when Biggie showed up at his doorstep... 

As for a connection between rappers in the West and in the East, I don't feel that it is as established as it should be...at all. The disconnect is huge, unfortunately. I mentioned before I don't really like Arab-American rap and it's probably because I feel its more in tune with the things that I don't like about what rap in America has become ridden with in general (the posturing, meaningless clever lines, etc). I think its pretty reflective of our disconnect as Arabs in the West with our brethren back home and its a discord that can be seen in how Arabs in the West often perceive entities in the East, narratives of history, and in how we often align ourselves en masse with groups and ideologies (Leftist) that really are not reflective of the actual aspirations of the people we claim to be in solidarity with. With the Arab Spring, this is changing. We can see it with Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, etc. I could elaborate on this if you would like (I would now, but I'm a bit tired). 

Revolutionary Arab Rap: How important, in your opinion, was hip hop (especially Ibn Thabit) in raising level of political consciousness of Libyans (both in Libya and abroad) since 2009?

 Yaseen: I think that it was important in adding to the culture of the revolution in a way that was more 'shababiya' (hate to use the title of a Gaddafi channel, but whatever). Rap in Libya is pretty unique in that it really isn't as developed as rap in other countries. The Magreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) kind of has a connection to the French rap scene that has helped raise the bar and popularize rap in those countries. Egypt and the Middle East also shares this type of connection with the outside world. In Libya, it really wasn't like that. Libyans didn't really have a working class connection with the outside world, and until recently, the rap scene in Libya was something that was a weak attempt at imitating gangsta rap of the US...it was more like a side goth culture rather than as something that really was thriving. You can go search for this stuff on YouTube...the most well known rappers were really rapping about nothing at all, beefing with each other and cussing throughout the entire songs, often in broken English (see: Double Zero). The only kind of decent stuff to come out of Libya pre-thowra was (Ibn Thabit aside) some of SWAT's old stuff (see: hadha al leebee) and this guy named Toshy/Sheba (those might be two different rappers, but they are the oldest and most well known in Benghazi)...Toshy has a song called al 7aya al saa3ba. Personally, I think they suck...their style is different, more like off-beat spoken word over an instrumental, but it's been marginalized now that Ibn Thabit has become popular. Ibn Thabit really transformed what it meant to be a rapper in Libya. Not that it is a big deal to be one, but it now has a little bit of legitimacy. He raised the bar with his beats, his flows, and his content--he was that connection between what the artform was in the West and he showed the East how it could be done on a large scale, and he (during the thowra) served as that missing bridge that the Maghreb had in their being bilingual and in their relative openness. I'm really excited to see what will come out of the rap scene in Libya in the coming years, once everyone tires of doing their respective Ibn Thabit or SWAT impressions. Anyways, back to the original question, I think it played a huge role with the youth and reminded younger people what this thowra was all about, just like the work of other fanaaneen in Libya. It made younger people feel that this thowra was theirs, and added a dimension to the revolutionary culture that was not there before. I also know that lots of shabaab at the front line would play Ibn Thabit...got a couple friends who kept nadaa' shabaab libya on repeat during the early days during the back and forth between Brega and Ras Lanuf. Prior to the thowra, I don't think Ibn Thabit played a huge role in Libyan culture, and neither did rap, for reasons mentioned above. In Benghazi, some knew the song "Benghazi" but didn't know his name, they just called him 'al tarhoni lee ghunna 3ala benghazi' if they knew him at all.
OK so i'm gonna leave it at that. If you want me to edit it or elaborate on anything just let me know. Salam.

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