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Arab hip-hop's El Rass takes on rap and revolution

The rapper draws from the modern and ancient worlds for distinctive songs that target politics and cultures around the world.

March 30, 2013|By Rima Marrouch
  • Lebanese hip-hop artist El Rass performs during a concert for the outcome of the "Khat Thaleth" project on Feb. 8, 2013, in Beirut.
Lebanese hip-hop artist El Rass performs during a concert for the outcome… (Anwar Amro, AFP / Getty Images )

BEIRUT — When Mazen El Sayed, a.k.a. El Rass, picks up a microphone, his provocative phrasings may lock in on any number of targets: Islamic clerics, the West, Arab regimes, social inequities. "We are all made from the same steel," the Lebanese hip-hop artist proclaims, "but the blacksmith is rotten."

El Rass' broadsides are delivered in singular thrusts of the Arab language, resulting in imaginative lines evoking "the optimistic suicide bomber" or lauding "a rebel critical of the rebellion."

Arab hip-hop is a well-established genre, now infused with a new wave of Arab Spring-inspired artists rejecting a long-stifled status quo in culture and politics. But fans and critics say the complexity and depth of El Rass' politically and socially charged texts distinguish the rapper, who has played to packed houses in Beirut and Amman, Jordan, and is scheduled to perform in Cairo in April.

"His forte is the way that he is able to incorporate an understanding of nuance of language perhaps better than anybody," says Jackson Allers, founder of the U.S.-based Beats and Breath blog. El Rass, wrote Allers in the World Hip Hop Market website, "has emerged as a lyrical soothsayer for a new school of Arab hip-hop."

El Rass' signature style is an animated fusion of classical Arabic — an idiom seldom employed in rap — and contemporary wordplay gleaned from the Lebanese streets and elsewhere.

"I'm trying to create a new terminology in describing my music but without imposing it on others," says El Rass, who also works as a journalist and, improbably, was previously employed as a banker in Paris (a job he loathed).

From his viewpoint, there is a kind of continuum of language and purpose from early Koranic verse to today's Arab-language MCs. The Arabic word taaliq (a commentary), he notes, has the same root as the word muallaqat, which refers to the first pre-Islamic poems.

"Arabs first wrote poetry, not prose," notes El Raas, 29, a slim, baldish figure with an outsized head (El Raas means head in Arabic), close-cut beard and thick-framed black glasses. "[Reciting] the Koran is also close to what we do" as rappers.

An emphatic on-stage performer, very much the angry poet, El Rass draws material from the ancient and the modern, the spiritual and the worldly. One of his favorite singers is Abida Parveen, a Pakistani singer well know for her interpretations of Sufi poetry.

The ongoing regional upheavals — he prefers the term "Arab revolutions" — feature prominently in the work of El Rass and other regional rappers. Rap and revolution have proved felicitous bedfellows.

"Our generation started to organize independently while the previous generation was driven by fear," says El Rass, who was reared in a left-leaning, middle-class family in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, a center of conservative Sunni Islam.

On the online music-sharing platform Soundcloud, where he promotes his music and where much of his audience is found, El Rass revels in his Arab identity, the sense of shared cultural experiences from North Africa to Iraq.

He is an equal-opportunity critic, lashing out at the Muslim Brotherhood, radical Islamists, Iran, Turkey, Gulf "tyrants," the United States and various Lebanese figures and mores, among other targets. Playing the part of disgruntled contrarian seems to suit him.

Last year, El Rass recorded a track with Sayyed Darwish, a rapper from the war-ravaged Syrian city of Homs. One couplet seems to question whether all the devastation was worth it.

"When you will see the face of Homs/

You will learn to rebel against weapons before rebelling against a leader."

As a teenager, El Rass attended the top high school in Tripoli, a French lyceum, where he says he sometimes felt alienated among his wealthy classmates. His father, an engineer and left-wing Arab nationalist, was absent much of the time, he says, on the run from occupying Syrian forces.

El Rass says he wrote his first poems at age 11, his first songs at age 15, mostly about the plight of Palestinians, a theme that persists in his work. "It was the first trauma that we could write about," he recalls, speaking in Café Younes, his unofficial office and a bohemian magnet in the trendy Hamra district.

He discovered French hip-hop when one of his teachers gave him a cassette. The politically charged nature of the French rap appealed to him, as did that many French MCs were of Arab origin and used familiar Arabic terms.

After "almost two years in the hell of banking," he returned in 2008 to Lebanon, determined to dedicate himself to music and journalism. His mother, a kindergarten teacher, "still believes that I have no business being here and that I should have stayed in Paris," says El Rass.

In his day job, the rapper works as head of Arab and international news at Al Modon, an online newspaper, launched in February.

He says he earns his living via journalism, not music. His debut CD, "Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden" (the title is from a Sufi master-work penned some 900 years ago), recorded with avant-garde musician Jawad Nawfal (a.k.a. Munma) was released last year on Ruptured, a Beirut-based independent record label. El Rass is working on tracks for a second album.

"My Arabic identity is a digital bedouism," he writes. "No nationalism, no nostalgia, only passion for creating our new identity. This is how I understand our revolution."

calendar@latimes.com

Marrouch is a special correspondent in Beirut. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.

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