Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lebanese Hip-Hop

From the Daily Star:

"An American success story, Lebanese style"
Four-day 'Poetry in the Street' hip hop showcase mixes tropes of genre and homegrown touches
By Nichole Sobecki
Monday, March 05, 2007

BEIRUT: While music critics in the West loudly proclaim the mortality of "real" hip hop, a point driven home by Nas' December release "Hip Hop Is Dead," Lebanon struggles to give birth to a sustainable movement. "Poetry in the Street," which began on Thursday and concluded Sunday, was the latest effort, a four-night hip hop event headlined by MC RGB. The beats of MCs Joker, Mo and 6K, the expertly mixed tracks of DJ Lethal Skillz and the Blaze Crew's rhythm-packed breakdancing routines created a multidisciplinary performance rarely seen in Beirut theaters.

"It's fresh, it's young, it's authentic," declares Zeid Hamdan, former member of the Lebanese electro-acoustic band Soap Kills and co-producer of the event.

Playing to a half-full auditorium, the performance opened Thursday with Lethal Skillz laying down beats in front of a graffiti-filled replica of a building facade, designed by French artist Charles Vallaud. Moving between human-sized building structures, the artists performed in Ecko-wear sweats and Timberlands, cornrows and baseball caps. RGB slid onto the stage as a smoke machine churned out the night's atmosphere.

In short, all the symbols of the urban ghetto, common throughout global hip hop, were present and accounted for. So what made the nights performance more "real" than the currently popular and often empty references to b*****s, cars and bling that characterize the popular Western hip hop scene?

As Hamdan explains: "RGB's music tackles social issues such as freedom, national unity, exile, racism and disillusionment that stem from his own experiences."

Growing up on the streets of Beirut's suburbs, Ragab Abdel-Rahman, who goes by the name RGB, started to rhyme and beat-box at an early age. His ascent into the genre began with the formation of Kita Beirut, one of Lebanon's first hip hop groups featuring RGB, Stress, Joker and 6K. Formed a decade ago, Kita Beirut struggled with issues of nationality and citizenship, causing members of the group to be shuffled around, with RGB spending years in France before returning to Lebanon.

The Dubai-based production company LCI Entertainment, which co-produced the Masrah al-Madina performances, has recently signed RGB and 6K.

"Ultimately we would like to reunite Kita Beirut," says Wadih Safieddine, LCI's general manager in Beirut.

Throughout the performance, RGB's lyrics spoke of his experiences abroad and the bitterness he felt upon realizing the immigrant dream was nothing but an illusion.

"What it is this immigration? It is every man for himself and one swindles his brother and it is a vicious circle where each one lives on the treachery of the other," proclaims RGB in a track entitled "Treason." RGB's lyrics often reference political dissension as a backdrop to his own life.

Although RGB's words display a balanced political stance, some saw the sponsorship of the Madina performances by the "I Love Life" campaign to be a less politically neutral choice. Several Beirut merchants refused to display posters for the event in their storefronts due to the controversial nature of the campaign, the logo of which was prominently displayed on the event posters.

Although the "I Love Life" campaign desires to be seen as nonpartisan, the campaign found support among the ranks of the March 14 coalition and the opposition launched its own version with slogans such as "I Love Life, Undictated." For the producers, having invested their personal funds into supporting past hip hop events such as a three-week workshop at Beirut's French Cultural Center (which inspired "Poetry in the Street"), the decision was between giving up on the show or accepting the sponsorship.

Hamdan hopes the reaction to the "I Love Life" sponsorship will be to encourage debate.
"It is not productive to judge and condemn without understanding," he says.

In general the audience seems to understand the motivations behind the sponsorship as well. "If they can get money to make their art then I am all for it," says Firas Abi Ghanem, a Beirut resident in the audience.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Lebanon's rising hip-hop movement will gain the success that so many hope for.

"We don't know if it will turn out that way," Hamdan says. "But if it does it will be an American success story, Lebanese style."

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