Being a Rapper Isn’t Easy when you Live in a Country where Walking a Dog is Considered Edgy
Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly the type of place where you would expect to find a flourishing hip-hop scene. The likes of Public Enemy and KRS-1 could never exist there, because criticizing the government is a big no no. Gangster rappers are even less likely to find their way onto the Saudi airwaves, given the country’s ultra-conservative culture. The chances of a local equivalent to N.W.A. springing up are extremely small in a nation where camera phones, walking a dog and foreign-sounding names have all been banned for ‘promoting immorality’. In spite of this, the country is still home to a small but growing hip-hop subculture. The strict obscenity laws haven’t stopped Saudi rappers from flexing their skills on the mic; the emcees have either ignored the rules or taken steps to ensure that they don’t fall foul of them, which is a difficult task in a country where a fuck load of seemingly innocuous things are banned.
Weirdly, in a climate that is so anti-freedom of speech, one of the most popular Saudi emcees has adopted an Eminem-esque persona and styled himself as the bad boy of Arabic rap. Bedouin rapper Klash amassed millions of YouTube views after posting videos for a number of obscenity-laden songs online. His tracks insulted city-dwellers, referred to non-Bedouin men as homosexuals and called non-Bedouin women sluts, which, homophobia aside, was perhaps a tad unwise in a country where the majority of people aren’t Bedouins and ethnic identity is taken extremely seriously. How he thought he was going to avoid getting into a whole heap of shit is your guess as good as mine. His lyrics resulted in a prison sentence, but gained him millions of fans in the process.
Saudi cultural critic Ahmed Al-Wasel has written extensively about Klash’s rise to popularity in a paper that he produced on the subject for culture and language institute Goethe-Institut. According to Al-Wasel, the rapper’s fame isn’t simply a case of ‘controversy sells’: it is also due to his status as an outsider. ‘Klash became influential when he succeeded in pushing others to be competitors,’ says Al-Wasel. ‘However, he is strong because he lives the role of the oppressed and has different motives for competition. The Bedouins of the southern region are nomads of the mountain. Some see them as just being monkeys that live in the mountains.’
Saudi hip-hop reflects the attitudes of the country as a whole, and is characterised by the same factionalism, tribalism and ethnic conflict that pervades Saudi Arabian society. This has led to a number of different ethnic-based ‘beefs’, including an exchange of diss tracks between Klash and Mooony, an ethnic Hijazi rapper who uses derogatory terms for Bedouins in his songs. It has also led to cultures coming together. Saudi Arabia is comprised of thirty percent immigrants, which is reflected in the nation’s hip-hop scene, making it diverse both in terms of domestic ethnicities and the foreign nationalities that live there. The rap group Run Junxion contains emcees from Yemen, Canada, Eritrea, Syria, Lebanon, Indonesia and the U.S. ‘In Saudi, I’ve met rappers from all walks of life, from the rich to the poor kids,’ says Tim Granite, an emcee from the group. ‘People that don’t even look like rappers are embracing the culture’.
According to Run Junxion‘s Anas Arabi, the ethnic slurs that were exchanged by Saudi rappers in the days gone by died down after Klash’s prison sentence, and the scene is now more focussed upon positivity. It isn’t just controversial rappers who face obstacles though; there are strict rules concerning live performances that make it difficult for even the most innocuous Saudi rappers to showcase their skills. This means that social networking websites play a major role in promoting local acts.
‘In Saudi Arabia, it is prohibited to perform live unless you get an approval from the municipality, which usually rejects live performances unless whoever is having the event is connected with the royal family,’ explains Big Hass, who runs blog and online radio show Re-Volt, which is one of the biggest platforms for underground Saudi hip-hop artists. In spite of this, Hass still has high hopes for the future of Saudi hip-hop. ‘Saudi rappers and hip-hop artists are inspired by other Arab artists who have stronger messages due to the circumstances they live in,’ he says. ‘The local scene will soon witness the rise of memorable, humble artists, who engage with heart-pumping, genuine lyrics. They will create a genre that is derived from the West and amplified by the charm, richness and power of the Arab language and culture. The artists here need to keep putting music out and challenging the culture.’
Big Hass is dedicated to championing Saudi hip-hop in spite of the uphill struggle that it faces. In addition to his blog and radio show, he also runs an Arabic hip-hop magazine and has given a TEDx talk about rap in the region. He is acutely aware of the barriers that limit what subjects Saudi emcees can write songs about, but maintains that rap can still be used as a vehicle for expressing views about serious topics.
‘Rappers here still have to consider the fact that they are under a regime where freedom of speech is not really experienced,’ Hass told me. ‘I believe most of the artists, especially the ones who rap in Arabic, do realize that, and just stay away from certain topics. That being said, we have got some rappers talking about the situation in Palestine, and we even had a rapper talking about the corruption from the government when it comes to the floods.’ The Saudi capital of Jeddah flooded in 2009 and 2011, killing over one hundred people. A local official was convicted of accepting a bribe in return for allowing residential buildings to be built in flood-prone areas. Presumably, the fact that a government member was actually convicted of the crime meant that it could be rapped about without fear of jail time.
Strangely, in a nation with such strict rules, one of the strongest components of the Saudi hip-hop scene is its rivalries and rap battles. Due to the difficulty in performing live, the majority of these battles are waged via diss tracks rather than face-to-face contests. ‘They transferred street battles to social media sites’, explains Al Wasel.
The fact that Saudi rappers are engaging in lyrical conflicts based exclusively upon cussing one another in a country where doing so is such risky business is testament to their passion for what they do. However, Hass is quick to point out that the Saudi hip-hop scene has evolved beyond the stage of teenagers calling each other’s mums’ slags from the safety of their bedrooms. ‘Hip-hop started in Saudi Arabia around 1995 or 1996, with rap starting mainly as a dissing tool between the artists,’ he explained to me. ‘There were no role models to look up to, nor a struggle to talk about. However, the situation has been improving in the last couple of years, as more artists are getting into the scene and the community is starting to accept hip-hop.’
Tim Granite is equally optimistic about the fledgling Saudi hip-hop movement. ‘While the scene is still in its infancy, a lot of great things are happening’, he says. ‘There are aspiring rappers, b-boys, beat-boxers, producers, graffiti artists and deejays, all developing their craft and contributing to the culture as a whole. In my humble opinion, I’d say the scene is maybe at the stage of America in the late ’80s in terms of its development.’
Will there ever be a Saudi Chuck D or Big Daddy Kane? Maybe not, but it’s possible that the restrictive conditions that the nation’s rappers have to deal with will boost their originality and actually prove to be advantageous. In a genre that has been infested with misogyny, gangsterism and obscenity for the sake of obscenity, it’s arguable that an ultra-conservative environment could breed emcees who break new ground and write songs about something other than clothes, bankrolls and hoes. Hass claims that Saudi Arabian rappers lack a genuine struggle, but perhaps they are just so immersed in the struggles that are associated with living in such a prescriptive setting that they fail to recognise them as being genuine hardships. The very fact that the country’s hip-hop artists are enamoured with rap music and live in Saudi Arabia means that they are faced with the struggle of going against the grain in a place that doesn’t take kindly to non-conformity, and the fact that they record songs anyway means that they encapsulate the rebel spirit that hip-hop is all about.