Lebanon marks milestone in rise of rap and hip-hop in Mena region

Arab Fund for Arts and Culture celebrates its 15th anniversary with an eclectic concert line-up

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The usually quiet Beirut Hippodrome came alive last weekend, as crowds gathered at sunset for the Arab rap and hip-hop concert Midane, celebrating the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture’s 15th anniversary.

The open-air concert brought together rising talents from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and the Gulf, representing the diversity of this burgeoning music scene across the region, with genres from trap fused with mahraganat, to pop and electro represented on stage.

“We wanted to celebrate our 15th anniversary and we chose rap and hip-hop because it has become a very popular genre of music and we wanted to reach a younger and new audience,” the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture’s deputy director, Maral Mikirditsian, tells The National. “Rap has always been the language of discontent against oppression and we believe that it was the opportune moment, at such an occasion.

“Afac has also come to represent that through arts and culture, artists are voicing their opinions or they're tackling issues that are very relevant hot topics, that can be taboo or not the usual stuff that we see in arts.”

While this genre of music may not have originated in the Arab world, the rap and hip-hop scene sweeping the Mena has developed its own flavour and melded with regional sounds and styles, becoming its own subgenre.

“The scene that we have in the region is very well rooted; the topics that are being tackled in these songs and the sounds are very local and they're not imitating western sounds,” Mikirditsian says. “That's what we want to encourage. There is of course enormous historical, political and cultural baggage in our region and we want to encourage the youth to work with what we have and to stay genuinely very rooted in our region.”

Founded in 2007, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture has acted as a support system for the Mena region’s young creators, covering cinema, photography, visual and performing arts, music, artistic research and cultural entrepreneurship through nine grant programmes, as well as capacity-building projects.

We always encourage the jury members to take risks as well; we don't always bet on the winning horses
Maral Mikirditsian, deputy director of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture

Through a revolving roster of independent jury members, projects are chosen to receive monetary aid, technical support and mentorship for the creation of new and timely productions, to name a few.

During the worst of 2020’s pandemic lockdowns, the non-profit supported many artists struggling to make a living, as concerts, theatre productions and art exhibitions were cancelled.

“Since 2007, we've supported just under 2,000 projects,” Mikirditsian says. “Except for a few countries that have governmental support for the arts and culture sector, such as Morocco and Tunisia, other countries like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Libya have no state support for the sector.

“Afac has come to represent one of the major support systems for the arts and culture sector, not only financially,” she says. “We have seen the gradual development and growth of the arts and culture scene in the Arab region, in the different countries that Afac has operated in, whether that's by supporting existing scenes or encouraging/contributing to the development of new trends. We always encourage the jury members to take risks as well; we don't always bet on the winning horses.”

Most of last week's concert line-up were musicians who have benefited from the Arab Fund for Arts & Culture’s support at one point or another. Egypt’s Kareem Gaber, aka El Waili, is one such example.

Despite only starting his career two years ago, the music producer has quickly gained a following and likes to combine different music styles, such as Egypt’s mahraganat and shaabi with classical or trap themes.

“I always loved listening to music, so when I decided to compose something and learnt how to use FL Studio, I decided to go to university and study music and production,” Gaber says. “I never expected that I would be a music producer as a professional one, but it happened.

“I think that the wave didn't come because people accepted rap, it was because rap evolved,” he says. “It wasn't like this 10 years ago. I didn't listen to rap 10 years ago. It’s more international now, people are experimenting with it and coming up with new things.”

His next project, Min Mantaqa, backed by the fund, will have him travel to various cities around Egypt — such as Aswan, Tanta and Ismailia — and record raw sound from cafes, streets and other public spaces. He then intends to create music tracks for each city, using these recordings and capturing the vibe of each location.

During the anniversary concert, he collaborated with Egyptian singer Donia Waelll, who hopes to challenge stereotypes by being a female rap and hip-hop singer. In Egypt, she says, some people still find the idea of a woman performing at gigs and rapping an oddity thanks to conservative mindsets. She’s determined to not let that faze her, however, and has already dropped her first EP.

“There are a lot of challenges being a woman in Egypt and there are limitations, certain topics I can’t talk about so have to be careful with my lyrics,” she says. “I think perceptions have started to change and I think social media has helped a lot. People can support you online, people have started discussing topics online that they wouldn’t normally, and art and music has become a tool to express so many things.

“I want when people listen to my music to feel like they’re not alone, that we’re experiencing the same situations in our generation.”

The fund intends to use this 15-year milestone as a chance to review their strategy going forward and look for gaps or issues they would like to address, such as staying connected to the younger generation of creatives.

“The next generation is going to be the one leading, so we are very much interested in expanding access to cultures,” Mikirditsian says. “One of the pillars of our new strategy is how do we get to communities where access to culture is not given? How do we decentralise cultural offerings, so that they're not happening only in the cities, but in remote areas on the peripheries?"

Ultimately, they want to "start growing and nurturing whatever is out there”.

Updated: July 21, 2022, 11:38 AM