Rap, hip-hop, breaking and Yemeni youth
Rap entered Yemen via Hajaj Abdulqawi, a Yemeni who was born and raised in the United States. He was one of the first proponents of rap in the Middle East.
Abdulqawi narrated his first experience with rap, saying, “I inserted the Yemeni music—using the pipe and the lute—into some of the American songs to create a new thing. Some songs largely went famous in the U.S. because of mixing two rhythms in one song. I was speaking of many districts in Yemen.”
“The first song was in 1997 about the genuine Yemeni mores and disciplines; it was presented by means of rap. The title of the song was ‘Yemen: My Great Nation.’ It drew the attention of broad audiences in Yemen and the U.S.”
Abdulqawi's hobby was writing. Thus, he was able to write songs expressing his admiration for Yemen as well as highlighting his personal life and problems facing Yemeni immigrants.
In the past 20 years ago, he’s made seven rap albums and participated in several high-profile American events attended by leading Americans such as former President George W. Bush. He also took part in Yemeni carnivals, including 20 Gulf Cup and various national occasions.
“In the beginning, I was anxious whether the Yemeni society would accept the art I am presenting or not,” he said, speaking of Yemeni attitudes toward rap. “I received positive reactions in Yemen and abroad. I worked with prominent rap supporters such as Radicour. That motivated me.”
“I cooperated with many Yemeni singers and performed rap mixed with the stamp of Yemeni music. The singers I worked with are Hussein Muhib, Fuad Al-Kibisi, Fuad Al-Sharjabi, Ibrahim Al-Taefi, Abdurahman Al-Akhfash and others.”
Abdulqawi said rap is a hard talent and few people can make it.
“Through my experience and my acquaintance with some youth, I discovered some of them are self-taught rappers because there are no institutes teaching this art. These youth fall short of material and spiritual encouragement and the absence of ceremonies introducing people to this sort of art.”
Abdulqawi is currently preparing a program aimed at spotting talented rap and hip-hop performers to help introduce them to the art arena.
Rap a means of change
Twenty three-year-old Nadir Mohammed Haidar started performing rap music three years ago, depending on himself by composing, performing and recording songs on his laptop.
“It is true that rap came from American culture, but it is great to get our message across by means of art—even if this art is unlike ours,” Haidar said.
For Haider, rap doesn’t mean cursing, insulting and sparking violence—characteristics that rap is often associated with.
“Rap is a route to change, and all rap music I have been presenting attracted youth on the websites and forums because I use appropriate, expressive words in society.”
Haidar's most popular songs include “Mother Song,” once ranked third on forum 394—a specialized site for rap music fans in the Gulf region. Other well-known songs include “A'asabak Ya Syad” (Keep your temper, sir) and “Laish” (Why?).
Haidar said his words are select and display different attitudes— happiness, sadness, homesickness, misery.
He is now working on a new song, “Laish2,” about a dead person advising a living person.
The girl and rap
Monika, a young Yemeni girl, says rap plays a significant role in treating many social issues because it presents a clear message through singing.
“We sing for the nation's peace and deliver these messages for anyone who considers Yemen unsafe,” she said. “We also mingle Yemeni songs with English language songs.”
Although she is a Yemeni woman performing rap, she said, “I am proud of being a rapper and a competitor with male youth. What is important is the support of my family and friends. Then, society will gradually accept me.”
Breakdancing drives youth away from qat
Breakdancing—also known as breaking or b-boying—is a style of dance that depends on body expressions and the invention of evolving movements. Rock City is one of the leading groups among Yemen’s dancing b-boys, and their invented dance infuses taekwondo and gymnastics.
Rock City was established four years ago and consists of 28 members, ages 12 to 21.
Farj Al-Badani, a founder member, said, “We started first watching video footage from Arab and western countries. Then we commenced practicing individually. We developed ourselves and invented our own movements. We were not so famous. We only danced for ourselves.”
“Our start rested totally on our personal efforts through collecting some sums to buy the necessary equipment. We used to dance in the street. Leading companies did not accept or support us because they did not care for us. We were kicked out of many places; people did not welcome hip-hop. We continued without frustration.”
Hussein Al-Habashi, another founder member, said he used to spend his time on qat, shisha (hooka) and staying up with friends. But once he met Al-Badani, he started losing interest in qat. He began spending his time exercising to improve his dance performances.
Teens chew qat and smoke cigars because there are no alternatives or ways to use their skills, he said.
“I believe the hip-hop will distance them from bad habits considering breakdancing is a team sport.”
Ali Al-Atab, a Rock City founder, said the team has participated in several hip-hop competitions, winning prizes and certificates; an example was the Sea of Talents competition. The prize money helps the team support their training and development. However, the team says it still needs the support of the government and the private sector to capitalize on their talents, Al-Atab said.
Breaking is not limited to men. Maimona Al-Salami, 19, and Meisa Al-Salami, 16, are professional breakdancers.
“I’ve loved dancing since childhood,” Maimona Al-Salami said. I did not discover my skills but followed the inspiration of my sister. My younger sister is a talented hip-hop dancer.”
“I trained myself by emulating the western hip-hop dancers,” she said. “I started applying moves during relatives' weddings. My performances drew attention; I decided to continue, and I made a lot of money that I never thought about.”
Meisa Al-Salami said her skills developed with the encouragement of her family and her sister. She and Maimona selected a name for themselves, M-Sister. She said they exert their best to juggle dancing and studying.
The sisters dream of one day establishing a special institute for breakdancing with a women staff to cultivate the culture of dancing and aerobics.