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.
But Soroush Lashkari, Iran’s best-known hip-hop artist, comes alive when he raps. His boyish jitters melt away. His lean frame sways with the rhythm. Electricity flows through the room.
This is Tehran.
That means a city where everything you see provokes.
Provokes your soul into the garbage bin.
You, too. You weren’t a person. You were trash.
Everyone here is like a wolf. Do you want be like a lamb?
Let me open up your eyes and ears a bit.
Though restrictions on hip-hop rhetoric are harshest in the Islamic Republic, rappers in the rest of the Middle East have it tough as well. The Arabian Knightz must be careful when speaking about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The group must submit its albums to state censors; if the censors’ red pens are too heavy, the group’s backup plan is to release its music in Dubai, or possibly Europe.
Though Egyptian rappers don’t name names, they also don’t hide their disgust. In the song “Not Your Prisoner,” Sphinx sings:
Mr. Politician, I got a little question.
How come you’re eating when your people isn’t?
Rapper Fadi Abu Ghazallah, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, remembers the time he recorded a politically charged song about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Security officials arrived shortly afterward at the Amman studio, erased the track and warned Ghazallah to stick to rhyming about parties and girls.
“I was, like, talking about peace in general, about how people should be living together in peace,” recalls the chubby 24-year-old, who wears his hair in a ponytail and sports a goatee. “They told me, ‘If you ever do that again, if you ever do a political track, if we ever catch you doing something like this, you are really busted.’ ”
Even in freewheeling Lebanon, artists censor themselves, refraining from lyrics that might be too provocative or explicit. Malikah, who boasts that “revolution is in my blood,” decided not to record a song she wrote that lashed out at combatants in an outbreak of sectarian violence last year.
“Who is shooting who? Who are the innocents?” say the lyrics. “Some traitors ignited the situation. They should stop financing [the war], stop distributing arms, stop the slaughtering. . . . One group against another. Beirut is burning down slowly.”
Middle East rappers also must adapt their music to traditional cultures and conservative families. At first, Malikah covered her face when she performed, lest her parents find out that she was a singer, an occupation often equated with prostitution in the Middle East.
“We are facing our own culture,” said Sahand Quazi, an Iranian rapper who lived in Orange Country before returning to Tehran, where he roams the streets in a dark tracksuit, his eyes shaded by the brim of a black baseball cap.
“I am facing my grandpa,” he says. “I got to prove to my grandpa that hip-hop is good, that actually it is not bad. It is not corrupt.”
Many of the best rappers have moved abroad, especially those from the Palestinian territories. Hip-hop artists in the Middle East occasionally craft lighter rhymes about partying with their homies, acquiring Dolce & Gabbana clothes or about who’s the best rapper in town. But they return to themes of war, poverty and repression because often they’ve experienced little else.
“We don’t do it like any other culture does it,” Malikah says. “Not like they do it in the States or they do it France. When we rap, we use our language, our culture.”