A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
More than six years have passed since the Yemen war isolated it from the world. However, some of the arts managed to escape this isolation and, at times, these have become effective tools for communicating war propaganda as well as anti-war messages. Different warring parties have taken advantage of the various forms of audio-visual arts to deliver their messages, especially the various audio arts that have become popular in common circles, such as the art of al-Zamel. This traditional art has been appropriated to accompany the sounds of gunfire and thunderous canons in order to rally the fighters and attract civilian recruits. Over time, al-Zamel took over spaces that used to include other folk arts that would delight music fans at home, in the streets, in cafes and on public transportation.
The longer the war continues, the more it becomes the dominant subject of many arts. Nonetheless, dozens of Yemeni artists have managed to overcome this dominance and found their muse in the rich Yemeni music heritage that is celebrated nationally, regionally and globally. This has been made possible, to a great extent, thanks to technological advances and the popularity of social media, where these young Yemeni artists found affordable platforms to share their work with Yemeni social media users. In general, music remains an important part of Yemeni daily life, regardless of ideologies and political orientations.
Before the war, there were also other musical arts that enjoyed a degree of popularity before gradually losing momentum. One example is Yemeni rap music, which used to attract many teenagers and youth across the country. Over time, this genre of Yemeni music began to decline, leading to questions about the reasons behind this decline, whether the war contributed to the difficulties for the production of Yemeni rap, and how Yemeni rappers are doing after six years of war – questions that we address in this article.
The emergence and spread of rap globally
Rap is an English word with many meanings and uses. In North American slang, for example, some use the word to talk or discuss something openly and freely, while others employ it in reference to ‘poetic rhythm’. The Cambridge Dictionary defines rap as a genre of popular music with strong rhythm in which the words are spoken, not sung, distinguishing it from songs with a traditional composition where the performers are committed to the melody. Rap depends on a type of music known as Hip-Hop, with its bold word-of-mouth clips that are repeated while adhering to the rhyme, yet not restricted to a specific melody.
Rap music is historically traced back to the griots of West Africa, who were historians, storytellers and poets who relied on oral narration to chronicle their past. They told the younger generations of specific historical events by reciting rhythmic stories to the beat of drums. This tradition continued to be passed down from generation to generation, ultimately making its way from the African continent to the American continent through slavery, when millions of Africans were transported by ships to Europe and North America. African-Americans began this style to speak of the injustices committed against them, and of the pain they suffered during their enslavement.
Rap music, in its early years, was generally unknown to the wider public. The art form developed in the poor neighborhoods inhabited by Black Americans, such as the Bronx in New York for example, in the early 1970s. During that time, rap was focused on parties and fun, but gradually the lyrical style began to express hostility and resentment against other groups, often expressed in the songs as insults and profanities. As a result, some factions of society formed a stereotypical image about rap artists where they became associated with negative and violent behavior, which was reinforced by rappers’ outfits and manners of performance. Despite opposition to this music genre at the time by certain groups in American society, who saw it as an intrusion on the music scene, rappers succeeded in sharing their new art, going so far as to take up an important place in the history of American music. Among the names that brought rap to fame is DJ Kool Herc, an American of Jamaican descent, considered by many as the founder of modern rap. Herc developed a new method of conveying stories about impoverished workers and the racism they encountered, while his other songs glorified gangsters and drug dealers.
From the early to mid-1980s, rap became more widely recognized as a music genre and found its way to the global scene, eventually reaching the Arab world, specifically Morocco, then Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon. As the art form developed, the Arab Spring was a golden period for famed Arab rap performers in their countries and the wider region. Arabic rap became a fertile topic for discussion on many internet platforms, especially with the spread of songs containing revolutionary lyrics encouraging young people to protest injustice, tyranny and the infringement of their political and economic rights. Among the most prominent Arab rappers whose popularity remains steadfast in the Arab world are Egy Rap School, Al Hermel, Al Tafar, Mazen al-Saeed nicknamed ‘Head’ (Al Ras) and Bu Kolthoum.
Rap in Yemen
Young Yemenis residing in the country began to get acquainted with rap in a relatively broad way after Yemen was introduced to the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hajjaj Abdul-Qawi, or ‘AG-Arabian Gold’, was among the first Arab and Yemeni youths to rap. He began writing and performing in the early 1990s in the United States (US), where his father immigrated in the 1970s and settled with his family. When Hajjaj began writing and performing his own raps, he became widely recognized in the US for his innovative rapping style that incorporated fast Western rhythms with traditional Yemeni melodies. Because of the fame he achieved in a relatively short time, a number of top Arab rappers collaborated with him.
In the mid-2000s, Hajjaj returned to Yemen to perform songs in the same artistic style he used in the US, but he added Arabic words in the dialect of the Jeben region, located in al-Dhale Governorate. Hajjaj achieved such great success that he applied this style to some of his other songs, and Yemeni record labels flocked to sign him. At that time, Hajjaj, who had selected the city of Sana’a as his headquarters, also helped many talented young Yemenis release fast-paced songs, such as Jabba Jams and Shaheen, known as ‘Kawi’ and ‘Walid and Raad’. The latter group became known as the Yemen Monsters, achieving remarkable success. Yemeni teenagers and youth bought Yemeni rap CDs by Hajjaj Abdul-Qawi and the Yemen Monsters, who performed rap in the same style as Hajjaj, which differed from US rap in terms of performance as well as the absence of profanities.
In 2009, I met Hajjaj in Sana’a, and he told me about the challenges he faced in the early days when rap was not accepted by those over the age of 30 in Yemen. He also told me of the middle to upper class Yemeni youths more willing to listen to rap, which came as a surprise as rap came from the oppressed and toiling lower classes. This encouraged him to continue performing in Yemen, and to help Yemeni artists such as Hussein Moheb, who collaborated with Hajjaj on the song ‘Yemen My Great Country’. Hajjaj and his fellow musicians held small free concerts in the Cultural Center in Sana’a and in Al Sabeen park and some café yards, as well as at institutes and gardens in the Sana’a capital. These concerts were attended by many young people.
In the year between 2009 and 2010, the number of young Yemeni rap fans increased, especially among the Yemeni expatriates in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a number of Gulf countries. Yemeni state television began broadcasting rap by a number of Yemeni youths for the first time, including the song ‘My Country, the Republic of Yemen’. The song welcomed the tourists in Yemen who came during that time to attend the twentieth Gulf Cup tournament of Arab Football, which was held in the stadiums of the governorates of Aden and Abyan.
On 11 February 2011, the youth revolution broke out in Yemen. Among those participating in the movement in the Freedom and Change Squares were young supporters of rap, as the revolution made room for the emergence of a lot of young talent. Some of these talented people saw rap as an outlet to express their anger and their revolutionary activities at the squares and on social media, where they could broadcast their work.
From that period until 2015, young Yemeni names broke out onto the rap music scene. Their songs were broadcast on social media sites, receiving millions of views. Among those names was Sari Killer, Cycle, Taher X, Mr. wAwi, DJ Yasser, Legend Killer, The Young, and Rander. The majority of these artists were Yemenis residing in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states. There were also other artists who achieved wide fame, like MC New, Muhammad Sael, Imad Nader, Abdul-Raouf Al-Matri, Amir Modhesh, Sakhr Ghaleb Al-Adani, Jamal Al-Atami, Ahmed Saddam, and many others who stood out by performing their songs alongside hip-hop dance shows at public school graduation parties and at wedding parties in Sana’a, Aden and Taiz. That period was considered the golden period in which rap flourished in Yemen, due to the large production of rap and the many followers of this new art inside and outside the country.
Regression and relapse
When the war broke out in 2015, many young Yemenis left their country in search of safety and security, including dozens of rap artists. Those who remained in Yemen were either arrested or persecuted, while others continued to carefully produce raps that met the approval of the authorities, whether in the northern areas controlled by the Houthi group or in the southern and eastern regions controlled by the Southern Transitional Council and the internationally recognized government.
In Hadhramaut (eastern Yemen), the band South Coast that includes five young men from the city of Mukalla were persecuted when Al Qaeda took control of the capital of Hadhramaut governorate in 2015. Al Qaeda prevented any artistic activities, including producing raps and holding private concerts. After the liberation of the city of Mukalla, South Coast resumed their performances by reviving concerts and festivals, most of which were organized by volunteers.
At one of South Coast’s concerts, government security stormed the band’s own security crew and arrested the band members, who were later charged with the crime of performing rap and hip-hop. They were only released after the members signed written pledges to cease performing.
During my interview with the rapper and hip-hop artist Muhammad al-Amiri, who lives in Hadhramaut, he said: “Rap and hip-hop are not just some performance that anyone could watch then move on. For myself and other young people who love this art form, it is a way of life, a sublime message we use to express ourselves, our experiences, our suffering, hope, present and future.” One rap producer in Sana’a stressed the intensity of the harassment he had to endure by people who deemed rap as opposing religion and Yemeni customs and traditions. Fearing for his life, he decided to retire. Amani Yahya, the first Yemeni rap girl, left Yemen after receiving threats that accused her of the crime of rapping, which is outside the norms of Yemeni society and religion. She gave many press statements on her experience to international news outlets.
War in Yemen has crippled artists in different ways. The fate of Yemeni rap remains unknown, especially as it remains a relatively young art form in Yemen in comparison to other arts. Consequently, it has yet to reach as wide an audience as it could have before the war. However, it seems that there are some who still believe in the importance of this art and seek to create a place for it in the midst of the destruction. Perhaps the artists’ persistence in performing this art is in itself an act of defending the right to a different life, which the war has denied them.
 Al-Zamel is a type of poetry performed at special occasions, such as weddings and tribal arbitration events. It usually comprises two verses and is recited by a group.
Translated by Nicole Fares