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Mideast rappers take the mic

From Egypt to Iran, youths infuse hip-hop with their culture, dropping rhymes and even doing time when the state objects to lyrics. But these homies sling verses about injustice, not sex and bling.

April 07, 2009|Borzou Daragahi And Jeffrey Fleishman

TEHRAN AND CAIRO — The police were polite but firm as they arrested Shahin Felakat, a lanky teen whose mussed-up strands of dirty brown hair reach in all directions, and charged him with singing lyrics that threatened Iran's Islamic order.

After a few days in jail, the 18-year-old rapper ran back to the studio to rejoin his homeboys.

"The authorities have a very negative view of rap," Felakat says. "They say rap has a corrupting influence. When you say the word 'rap,' they think it's about addiction, someone without parents who's only thinking of drugs and sex."

Another day, another hardship, another inspiration for the young men and occasional woman who turn out the lyrics and rhythms that are rapidly becoming the soundtrack for Middle East youths.

From the 021 to the 961 to the 962, the telephone codes for Tehran, Lebanon and Jordan, the vernacular of American rap music and street culture has infiltrated the lives of young people. These kids of the Middle East have adopted the beats and hyperbolic boasts of hip-hop, but they've also reshaped rap to fit their own purposes, tapping into its spirit of defiance to voice heartfelt outrage about their societies.

Iranians rhyme about stifled lives and street-level viciousness born of economic hardship. Lebanese rap subtly about sectarian blood feuds. Palestinians sling verses about misery in refugee camps and humiliation at Israeli checkpoints. Egyptians lament the fragmentation of the Arab world.

"The main theme is bringing about Arab unity, becoming one nation rather than being divided and conquered," says Sphinx, a rapper for the Cairo-based Arabian Knightz who grew up in Wilmington, Calif., and whose real name is Hesham Mohammed Abed.

The Arabian Knightz tone is spiritual, not religious; message-driven, not pious. It is the rap not of the gangsta and his trove of drugs and half-naked women, but of brash young men whose defiance coexists with tradition.

To connect with a Middle Eastern audience, Arabic and Persian hip-hop often weaves the beeps, bops and booms of Western rhythms into the distinctive rolls, punctuating clangs and soulful background singing of Asian pop. Producers sample clips from traditional horns and string instruments like ouds as well as electric guitar and synthesizers.

"To the extent that we can, we try to rap to Iranian rhythms," Felakat says.

Just as young men vent the pent-up rage, frustration and brutality of urban America through hip-hop music and graffiti, rappers in the Middle East mold ferocious rhymes and staccato rhythms into passionate odes to injustice, poverty and violence.

"We're struggling," says Lynn Fattouh, also known as Malikah, a 23-year-old Lebanese rap star who is one of the most famous female artists in the Arab hip-hop world.

"We're living a very hard life," she says. "We're witnessing war. We're witnessing hunger. We're living in countries where they don't even follow human rights. All the pain and all the stuff happening around us pushes us to express ourselves."

All eyes turn to Malikah as she hits the stage. Her taut frame, exuding toughness, sways hard back and forth, her fist curled tight around the microphone as she flows in Arabic:

I am talking to you woman to woman.

It's time to face up

It's time to plan.

Cry out for freedom . . .

Men have decided to manage your life and destiny.

Don't live in despair.

Go out and work and earn your dime.

Walk with me along this path.

"Onstage, I don't know what happens," she says. "I just flip. I can let go of all my stress and my anger. It's a part of me. It's the angry part of me. I can talk about politics, economy, social life, religion. I talk about me. What I see in the streets. It's the point of view of a Lebanese girl who lives in the Middle East."

Angst and anger drive much of the music. Rappers in the Middle East cite influences such as Eminem and the late Tupac Shakur, artists who tap wells of personal sorrow for inspiration.

"My songs have different subjects from love to drugs and street issues and social issues," says Felakat, part of an emerging crop of Iranian rappers. "Everything I write I try to incorporate aspects of my life. Otherwise it becomes empty."

Drugs and partying are an important part of the hip-hop scene.

Lebanese smoke hashish while Iranians use crystal methamphetamine, called shisheh, or glass, to stay pumped during overnight recording sessions.

The rappers are driven by the crumbling cityscapes that drove American hip-hop before it became all about glitter and cash.

"I rap about love, gangs, hitting, killing and stealing," says Mahdad, a boyish Tehran rapper of 19 who also goes by the name Maff.

"It's a joke of a city," he says of Tehran. "It's an absurd city where a bunch of limitations have been placed that don't allow anyone to live easily."

The young unshaven man speaks sparingly, sucking hard on cigarettes, batting away questions with one-word replies.

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