A young rapper wearing a baseball cap and a large chain around his neck shouts “Raise your hands in the air! Make some noise for Mr Passion!” in a scene that could easily have been in New York.
But in fact this was Baghdad, and one of Iraq’s first rap concerts featuring his fellow lyricists J-Fire and Nine-Z. Together the three of them make up DZK, or Danger Zone Killer, and they are self-labeled “Iraqi rap royalty.”
Performing in the Iraqi capital’s National Theater, the trio did all they could to mimic their American “gangsta” counterparts, clad in baggy jeans, bandanas and T-shirts emblazoned with the likeness of rap icon Tupac Shakur.
The group, which was brought together by Mr Passion — real name Hisham Sabbah — performed for its audience in the city’s central shopping district of Karrada, a frequent target of attacks and bombings by insurgents.
The 22-year-old first began rapping in 2004, a year after a coalition force dominated by the US invaded Iraq to oust former dictator Saddam Hussein.
In the five years since, many Iraqi buildings have sprouted satellite dishes that were banned by the now-executed dictator, beaming the latest songs and Western music videos direct into Iraqi homes.
“We were among the first to begin rapping in Iraq,” Mr Passion declared, wearing a flak jacket, a large “NY” (New York) necklace and a T-shirt bearing his stage name. “We are the real rappers of Baghdad.”
He added that he does not wear the flak jacket because he fears for his personal safety or because of threats from religious extremists opposed to his music.
It has more to do with the reasoning behind the group’s name: “It’s because young Iraqis like violence,” he said. “They love rap because it’s their kind of music.”
Much like their counterparts in the US or in the Parisian suburbs in the 1980s, the group’s members turned to rap because they found it helped them to put across their anger, their fears and their hopes.
“We want to discover a new art — the routine of other forms of music is over,” said J-Fire, whose real name is Ahmed Farouq and who returned to Iraq around six months ago after living in Egypt.
“Traditional Arab music only talks about love or patriotism,” the 23-year-old added. “But with rap you can talk about everything — politics, youths being kidnapped, everything.”
Mr Passion’s favorite song, which he wrote only recently, is called Iraq Is the Flag.
“It talks about kidnappings, about young people being killed, about those who had to flee the country, about the sectarian violence between Iraqis,” he said.
In another song, called Take Off Your Headphones, the trio angrily shouted: “We are the rappers of Bilad al-Rafidain!” referring to Iraq by another name in Arabic that is often used by al-Qaeda.
The lyrics then declare “Al-takfir huwa al-khatir,” which means that to declare someone an infidel is the real danger.
In the concert hall, some 150 fans sang along to DZK’s lyrics, danced and shouted in English, “Yo, that’s it, bro!”
“It’s great to attend a rap concert in Baghdad,” said 21-year-old Mahmoud Riyadh. “The world must understand that we’re no different to anyone else.”
To the information technology student, rap is a “positive aspect” of the US invasion.
“It’s true that the occupation has a dark side — it has destroyed a great deal. But now we have freedom, and also this art form,” Riyadh said.
Asked whether he feared such concerts could become a target for Islamist extremists, he replied: “Of course, they are against this 100 percent. They say that this is something that is banned by religion.
“But I do what I want to do — nobody can tell me what to do.”
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