ABU DHABI — For many of us, hip hop has always been more than just another music genre, a passing trend or temporary lifestyle. It's a cultural movement with deep roots that highlight socio-economic disadvantages, an accreditation to the advancement of civil rights progress, and, in sociological terms, an ongoing challenge to the status quo.
In order to fully appreciate and understand this ever-growing sensation, one has to know and analyze the contemporary in historical context. Hip hop is a movement that includes various elements: rapping, poetry, graffiti, DJing, several forms of dancing and, perhaps most importantly, knowledge. Historically, it was a voice for the voiceless and an art form for oppressed and disenfranchised people wanting to evoke change in their communities and the world around them.
It started with major influences in the South Bronx, New York City, during the early 1970s. In the late 1980s, its popularity spread beyond the African-American community. And by the 1990s, hip-hop grew into an international phenomenon, bringing people from diverse backgrounds onto one common platform.
Fair weather fans
Hip hop has no color, race, religion or gender. It's an inclusive form of art, expressed either lyrically or physically, open to anyone and everyone who is willing to respect the cultural importance associated with it. But in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I currently live, I see a problem with that.
Most people who listen to hip hop, be it classic, old-school or mainstream, don't know anything about its history and what it stands for. And from my own personal observations, it seems that a lot of people are "ashamed" to admit their admiration for hip hop culture. They openly disassociate themselves from it. I have seen individuals who ordinarily listen to mainstream hip hop on the radio or in their car make fun of and look down on it when in larger crowds.
Unfortunately, the thought that this versatile music genre only represents crime, vulgar language, homophobia and sexism still exists. This has a lot to do with the way young people are brought up in this part of the world.
Without wanting to profile or generalize, I would say that most people who listen to hip hop in this country/region had relatively comfortable upbringings. Most are educated in private schools, spend a lot of time in malls, and take summer vacations in upper-class areas of Geneva, Paris, London, Milan or New York.
Here is where the distinction between "appreciation" and "appropriation" comes in. In countries such as Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine and Tunisia, the hip hop movement is enormous compared to what exists in the Arab nations in the Gulf. Poverty, inequality, discrimination, and widespread corruption breathes on a large scale across North Africa. This is well-known and well-documented. Artists, as a result, find a voice in hip hop and consumers can genuinely relate to those musicians. And although some of these socioeconomic issues might also exist in the Gulf region, they only represent and affect an absolute minority of residents.
The broad conclusion, therefore, is that because people are well-off, and in most cases rather wealthy in the Gulf countries, there is no need for hip hop culture to become mainstream. This is what leads me to believe that hip hop, as it exists here in the UAE, will never be as big as it is in North Africa, despite the talent that evidently exists in this flourishing land.
Appropriation or appreciation?
In a recent interview with music medium Backspin TV, the Berlin-based German rapper Fler questioned the authenticity of most current artists in the scene. "Fake vs. Real" was the theme of the discussion. Fler, who started off as a graffiti artist and became a successful pioneer in the German hip hop scene, argued that an artist's music should be a product of his/her social circumstances. He stated that while being "fake" may pay off on a commercial level, it is problematic on a cultural level because it ridicules the entire scene.
In Germany, Fler pointed out, most mainstream hip hop artists had comfortable backgrounds. They are university educated and have never suffered from poverty, racial profiling and discrimination. Publicly, however, they come out claiming to be the voice of those that are affected by such issues. As a result, real artists who highlight real issues, faced by real people, are labeled as "clowns' while "outsiders' profit by selling a fake image to the mostly white teenage consumers.
Cover of a Fler album — Source: Aggro Berlin
In a discussion that sparked a nationwide online-debate, most people agreed with Fler. That doesn't mean that hip hop is for the socially disadvantaged only. It simply means that people shouldn't represent themselves as people they're not. They should stick to what they know — to what they've experienced — rather than invent an image for commercial purposes.
Unfortunately, this also results in the creation of privileged young people from upper-class households who start to dress, dance and talk like they are from the Bronx. This kind of behavior can be seen as appropriation rather than appreciation. At present, I can see similar patterns in the UAE. While there is a minority of artists and consumers alike who really stay true to their roots and understand the cultural importance of hip hop, mostly, images and brands are created just to make money.
Having said all of that, there has been some improvements in the past few years. Two events that are making progress in the right direction and certainly caught my attention were the Dubai-based Sole DXB and Slam Fam.
Sole DXB started back in 2010 as a platform for news about footwear, fashion and alternative culture in the Middle East. It also hosts an annual lifestyle fair with hip hop as its main component. Now in its fifth year running, with names such as Moto, Pepsi and Cadillac as official sponsors, it is becoming increasingly important and relevant to the hip hop scene across the region. This year, British grime artist and 2016 Mercury Music Prize Winner Skepta headlined the event and Adidas brought a special guest along, Stormzy.
Slam Fam is slightly different. It's a community-driven project uniting people who have a common love for dance. Their passion for choreography is evident and their aim is to grow the hip hop scene in the Middle East. On its Facebook page, the group says its goal is to organize several annual contests to gather international dancers, graffiti artists, DJs, musicians and freestylers.
A group of us recently covered "Sole DXB" and asked attendees what they think about hip hop in the UAE. Of the more than 50 individuals we spoke with during the two-day event, half said they felt strongly associated with the hip hop movement and culture itself. The other half said they don't know much about hip hop and just enjoy certain components of it.
Clearly, given the equal split in opinion and answers, it's a wider discussion that needs to be held, not only in the UAE but internationally … "for the greater good of hip hop."