Making Space for Aesthetics in the Arabic Rap Scene
By Dr Cristina Moreno Almeida
Rappers in North Africa and the Middle East received a great deal of attention during the popular uprisings that swept the region in 2010-2011. Throughout what has been called the ‘Arab Spring’, frequent articles in international media referred to rappers as the ‘voice of the people’. While these reports shed some light on rap music in the region, they paid little to no attention to the aesthetics of rappers’ production or their rap skills. Rhymes, punchlines, beats and flow, to name but a few techniques, have been dismissed as uninteresting in favour of lyrics that challenged power through capital-P politics. As such, rappers jailed due to open criticisms of governance during the Arab Spring such as the Tunisian rapper El General or the Moroccan rapper LHaqed have received a great deal of attention while the role of radical aesthetics that go beyond political lyrics in rap music has been entirely overlooked.
While commentators expect rap to be the tool to express discontent and grievances this is not necessarily the case in every Arabic-speaking country. Other local music genres – especially shaabi [popular] music – have and still are playing this role. These vary in aesthetics and meaning across the region but are traditionally used to denounce corruption and express class inequalities, as well as being the music of choice at weddings and parties. The emergence of rap in the region thus cannot simply be explained as a genre that fulfils a void for youth to gain a voice.
With this in mind, rap has flourished in some Arabic-speaking countries for reasons which may or may not comprise political lyrics. We often forget that rap appeals to audiences and practitioners for myriad and often contradictory reasons, including its commitment to unveil the untold stories of everyday urban youth lives, its use of local and unofficial languages, the political, social and aesthetical appeal of hip hop culture, or its commercial success within cultural industries. Consequently, the overwhelming attention to dissenting music conceals a variety of important narratives that involve rap music in Arabic. Moreover, it fails to report on those rappers who local youth actually listen to.
The focus on political oppositional lyricists therefore pressures local rappers to satisfy narratives that present rap culture in the region as a mere ‘protest’ culture. Those who focus on their artistry are simply not considered interesting enough as they cannot be read as allegories of the nation, to borrow Frederic Jameson’s words (1986). Rappers’ artistry is essential in establishing an emotional relationship with their audiences and therefore, in order to actually understand the historically and geographically diverse role of rap in the region, we need to break from the straightjacket of deterministic representations and consider that rhymes, flow, punchlines, beats, music videos, live performances and lyrics all have a role to play in creatively telling North African and Middle Eastern youth’s stories.
Dr Cristina Moreno Almeida, September 2017
Fredric Jameson, ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’. Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 65-88.
Dr Cristina Moreno Almeida is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London and a visiting fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her book Rap Beyond Resistance is available now.