Stepping into the spotlight
Yemeni rapper takes on conservative society
After entering a Yemeni high school as a senior three years ago, Amani Yahia was frustrated and felt alienated from her classmates. The young girl, now 20, had just returned from Saudi Arabia where she had been schooled since the first grade. Her dialect and way of wearing her hijab (head scarf) and abaya (full body dress) were reflective of Yemen’s neighbor to the North, setting her apart from her peers, who she says were not accepting of the new diversity.
“I tried to change the way I spoke, but it was in vain,” Yahia lamented.
As a student, the young girl grew used to hearing derogatory comments about those who travel outside of Yemen to work in other areas of the Gulf.
“You are Saudi and coming to destroy our country with your bad attitudes and behaviors,” was one such remark that Yahia recalled hearing from a classmate.
But now, Yahia is a rising rap star, using her past experiences to fuel her push to succeed in Yemen’s largely underground rap scene.
In a few short years, Yahia has established a reputation as a girl challenging gender stereotypes and conservative values in Sana’a’s youth circles. Her music has aired on the Yemen TV channel as well as YouTube.
While the songstress originally began exploring her creative energy through poetry “mostly filled with anger and animosity toward the people who used to hate” her, Yahia says she now has a different direction.
“I began to focus on expressing love, and my dreams and hopes through my poems,” she said.
Her poetry—written in English despite a lack of formal education in the language—soon made its way to the stage thanks to the encouragement of some friends.
One night Yahia was invited to a Yemeni Knowledge Exchange Forum meeting on Al-Khamseen Street, near her home in northern Sana’a. There she met other talented young performers, who got together to dance, play music, recite poetry and sing once a week.
“I was so impressed by their performances that I decided to attend their shows every Thursday,” Yahia said.
By day, the budding artist enrolled in dentistry classes at Sana’a University in line with her mother’s wishes, but at night and in her free time, it was all about her creative passions.
Slowly Yahia made her way onto the stage. She began setting her poetry to music and performing for the forum’s ever-expanding audience. In addition to her original numbers, Yahia also enjoys performing songs by some of her favorite artists including Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne.
“All I really needed was to create my own style of rap, and I have accomplished that,” she said.
Most recently Yahia met some guitarists, with whom she has collaborated to produce an original show. Two of the songs the artist is most proud of—one about child marriage and one about a woman’s uprising—have now been recorded and aired on Yemen TV.
Despite a growing fan base, Yahia’s performance career has set her up for criticism.
The young artist typically puts on shows wearing trousers and a blouse, rather than the local traditional dress of a floor-length, black abaya. The unique style is considered immodest by many.
To test the waters, Yahia’s friends created a survey on the social-networking site, Facebook, asking whether Yahia’s unconventional style was justified or whether she was a girl just trying to break some rules.
“Almost 70 percent of [the people who responded to the survey] see me as an ill-bred girl, and that is frustrating,” Yahia said.
Mohammed Saeed is a young Yemeni who criticized the rap artist in the Facebook survey.
“Amani imitates international singers and wants to bring an exotic, foreign culture to Yemen,” complained Saeed.
Ruqaia, one of Yahia’s closest friends, said that it is very difficult for girls to display their talents in such a conservative society, in which women are still considered inferior by many.
“But [she] has a dogged determination to carry through with what she has begun,” Ruqaia said.
Yahia has just finished recording three new songs at a private studio in Sana’a. Shaking off her critics, Yahia says her goal is to become a household name.
“For me, it is also motivation to push ahead,” she said.