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Arab rappers turn poetry into hip hop anthems

posted 18 Oct 2010, 06:34 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 18 Oct 2010, 06:36 ]

Arabic hip hop artists from North Africa and the Middle East use 6th century Arabic poetry, known as the Mu'allaqat, as their lyrical launch pad.

Hip hop artists from the Middle East and North Africa took to the stage on Saturday (October 16) at London's Roundhouse, bringing Arab hip hop to the British capital.

The venue itself has seen stars like Robbie Williams and George Michael perform to huge crowds. This performance focused on artists who are used to playing to smaller crowds, yet they still managed to get the audience dancing and responding to their Arabic hip hop tunes.

Music performed at the event, called 'Lyrical Alliance,' is a collaborative effort between the artists, who used pre-Islamic 6th century poetry as lyrics for their tracks. The event was organised by Dash Arts, who wanted to celebrate 'Arabic artistic identity' by challenging 'preconceived notions of Arabic culture'.

Dash Arts is a London based organisation which aims to introduce and develop new talent in the theatre, music, art and dance in order to 'challenge' the way that people view the world.

The poetry, known as the Mu'allaqat, is seen as being among the finest literary works in Arabic literature. The works consists of seven long poems which draw on issues ranging from love, war and spirituality.

The pre-Islamic verses are believed to have been used as a foundation for other poets, including present day hip hop artists.

The event's associate producer Khadija El Bennaoui said the historic verses are still relevant in today's society, especially where hip hop is concerned.

''We used the theme of the Mu'allaqat because we felt that there were similar points between the rappers in the arab world and between the poets who wrote the Mu'allaqat, because they were like spokesman for their societies,'' said Khadija before the performance.

Having met up with around 100 artists, it took El Bennaoui around two years to find the performers for Lyrical Alliance.

The artists taking part in the event came from Algeria, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Hip-hop artist Rabah Donquishoot was born in Algeria, he left there for France when he was 22.

''Everyone in Arabic hip hop talks about the same things, sadness, war, all the things that we lived through. We've all lived in sensitive regions, in Algeria and the war of the 90's, in Palestine and the Palestinian cause, Tamer and Rayess Bek and the Lebanon war of 2006 and all of these things that have created a rhythm in our lives, and each one of us tries to draw on these experiences in our lyrics,'' said Rabah, who was also the group's main artistic leader.

Joining the predominantly male voices on stage was female Palestinian and London based singer Shadia Mansour.

Shadia Mansour kicked off the show by welcoming the crowd with the Arabic greeting 'Assalamu-alaikum'.

Mansour said she hopes the performance will put Arab hip hop on the map and build bridges with the west.

''I hope that after tonight the west will understand more about what Arabic hip hop is about, because everyone comes from a different part, each person has their own message. And I hope that we can build bridges, and that there will be more Arabic hip hop in the west, and in western and european countries,'' she said before going on stage.

As a Londoner and an Arab she said being able to perform in Arabic also enables her to show who she is and what she stands for.

''I hope that through music and my songs people can see the situation and the message that I'm proud to be an arab, proud of being Palestinian. And I'm defending the arab identity, the Palestinian identity, especially because of the Palestinian diaspora. You can't escape from these things, hip hop, and the point of hip hop is originality and to show what's true. And that's it really, I'm Palestinian and the songs are a symbol, a symbol of my identity,'' she explained.

The Mu'allaqat tap into human feelings, nostalgia and a yearning for home, themes that the performers used in their own poetic hip hop verses.

But as well as war and sadness, they also sang about joy and celebration.

The hip hop stars said they were particularly influenced by Amr ibn Kulthum and his poems, naming one of their songs 'Wine and microphone'. The first eight verses of one of Ibn Kulthum's poems is in celebration of wine.

Dash Arts hopes to take Lyrical Alliance to cities in the Middle East.