Saud Waled Ibrahim raps in a mixture of Arabic and English, a blend that has become a hallmark of a hip-hop scene in search of its identity in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Better known as “SG,” he is recording a new track in his small but modern studio in a low-key part of the Persian Gulf state best known for its glittering skyscrapers and artificial palm-shaped islands.
“There is no country that doesn’t have rap ... but we’re still seen as intruders,” said the 24-year-old, sporting an oversized Adidas T-shirt and obligatory headphones.
In a country made up of residents drawn from all over the world and with little street culture to speak of, the hip-hop scene has yet to find its “sound,” he said.
Growing up to the beats of Tupac and Eminem, SG said that it was the genre’s tradition of free expression that drew him in, even if as the years went by, reality bit.
“As we got older, we realized we are a society with deep-rooted principles, which we can’t violate,” he said of his generation of performers.
Born in the street culture of the US in the 1970s, hip hop has spread across the world and given a voice to young people, particularly those in marginalized communities.
Before making its way to the Gulf, rap emerged as an art form in other Arab countries where performers defy censorship and repression to address sensitive political and social issues.
The United Arab Emirates is considered one of the more open states in the Gulf region, even if its security laws remain stringent.
It has invested heavily in arts and culture, and a handful of home-grown rap names have emerged among those who have settled in the UAE, including Freek and Adamillion, who are both from Somalia.
However, like the wider cultural scene, the hip-hop community is trying to find its place in a conservative country where foreigners make up about 80 percent of the population, and where provocative or explicit topics are taboo.
“Unlike in France, the US, Morocco, Egypt ... we don’t have our own sound because we are more focused on foreign influences rather than our own creativity,” SG said.
Hassane “Big Hass” Dennaoui, a UAE-based host of a radio show dedicated to hip hop, said that although identity in the region is still evolving, one thing for sure is that it is “one of diversity.”
Originally from Saudi Arabia, Big Hass, with his signature bandana and white beard, founded The Beat DXB, which organizes live performances and promotes regional artists.
By drawing performers from all over the world, the UAE is rich in languages and culture, he said, even if many are content to stick to lyrics about life and love, rather than political issues of the day.
“When I talk to a Palestinian rapper, they say how can we talk about love when I have an army tank on the roof of my house?” he told reporters at Dubai’s independent Cinema Akil, a favourite hipster haunt. “In the Gulf, we may live comfortably, but that doesn’t mean people don’t have struggles. As a rapper, you have a duty to represent reality.”
To relay that reality, Palestinian rapper Suhaib S. Alises — who was born in Jordan, but grew up in the UAE — performs in a mixture of English and Arabic.
“This is to reach as many people as possible ... and at the same time drive my message across,” he said. “There should always first and foremost be a message, and rap is an expression of poetry and emotion.”
For him, the genre has evolved from the days of “gangsta rap” that dominated his teenage years.
“It has become a respectful form of expression and adapts to where the person is ... addressing what is happening around the person’s life and their own reality,” he added.
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