There was a time when the only cultural links the Arab world had with the South in the US was our love for the latter's cuisine.
This is changing quickly, however, with regional artists finding success with a new Southern art form that's just as delectable.
A subgenre of hip-hop, trap music has grown to become a force in its own right. Springing from the US southern rap scene in the mid-1990s, the music is more hedonistic in sound and content.
The rhythms are feverish, with stuttering kick drums and incessant hi-hats. While traditional hip-hop, also known as boom-bap, took its instrumental cues from funk and soul, trap music is more enamoured with dance music elements such as synthesisers.
This all came together to make trap music the dominant sound in any self-respecting nightclub and its major acts are now headlining international music festivals.
This year alone, three of the genre's leading lights have either performed or are due to appear in shows in the region. In April, hip-hop trio Migos performed at Yas Island's du Arena, while in July rapper Future took part in the first music festival to be held in Jeddah. On Friday, November 29, Travis Scott will perform as part of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix After-Race concerts.
Trap music is about the vibes
Regional acts have been taking note of this, too, with a vibrant trap music scene steadily growing that stretches from the UAE to Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Palestine.
But what makes this regional hip-hop evolution different is that, for once, Arab artists are riding the wave as opposed to swimming against the tide. With hip-hop now fully embraced in the region as a cultural and commercial force, trap music artists – unlike the previous generation of rappers – don't have to struggle as much for their music to reach the masses.
Social media and online streaming sites have not only provided artists with a platform, but regional acts have also been able to follow and soak up all the latest musical trends in real time. The result is our own spin on trap music being hailed internationally for its swagger and cutting-edge sonics.
For a solid introduction to the style, be sure to visit the On.DXB festival this week, where on Saturday the UAE's very own Freek will take to the stage at Dubai Studio City. The Somali rapper, whose real name is Mustafa Ismail, stays true to trap music's sound, all the while injecting some Arabic lyrical flair into his songs. That his latest track, Wala Kilma, has gained a receptive audience in the UK shows that trap music is not restricted by language.
"First of all, I just want to say that a lot of us need to pay respect to the older hip-hop generations, not only in the UAE but also in the region, because they paved the way for us," Freek says from his Dubai home. "But the thing with trap music, what makes it universal, is that it is all about the vibe. Traditional hip-hop is all about the message of the lyrics. That means you have to know the language to appreciate it. With trap, all I want to do is to create a vibe for you to get lost in."
It is a great description, as the music is indeed immersive. Released in March, Wala Kilma shook up the regional hip-hop scene by gaining an international audience.
Dark and claustrophobic, the track rides on an ominous keyboard riff and woozy synths. Freek's vocal style is reminiscent of Future, the laid-back and almost conversational style disguising its combative message. The song title means "not a word" in English and is an Arabic term to signal the end of particularly heated conversation.
Repeated incessantly, the words form the song's catchy hook. Freek ingeniously turned the hook into a simple and effective dance move in the accompanying video, some of which was shot in the abandoned Soviet Ilyushin IL 76 aircraft in Umm Al Quwain, by bringing his finger to his mouth during the chorus.
"People love that part and they do that when I perform the song," he says with a satisfied chuckle. "That song is basically my reply to people who, I guess, didn't believe in what I am doing. And that includes people within and outside of the industry. The song resonated with others because everyone has felt that and people related to it in their own way. And, of course, it is catchy."
After the song was reposted by the social media channels of influential UK hip-hop platform Link Up TV, Freek released a remix of the song featuring up-and-coming UK grime acts Eyez and Young Tribez. Freek is set to undertake his debut UK tour next month with shows in London and Leicester – a rare achievement for a hip-hop act in the UAE.
A new chapter in Arabic hip-hop
But Hass "Big Hass" Dennaoui says he is not surprised by the relatively swift success Freek has enjoyed in his career.
Dennaoui is an influential hip-hop personality and host of the only radio show in Saudi Arabia dedicated to Arabic hip-hop, Mix FM's Laish Hip-Hop. As a self-described "hip-hop traditionalist", he admits it took him some time to appreciate the merits of trap music.
"I was initially not with it. I went on my journey to appreciate this kind of music, because I always paid attention to the lyrics and what the artist is trying to say," he says. "But after seeing a few trap music shows from Arab artists you realise it is all about the feeling it gives you. Anyone can appreciate a vibe and this is why the music can easily cross over internationally."
Dennaoui says the arrival of trap music in the Arab world heralds a new chapter in regional hip-hop. "Before, Arabic hip-hop was very political and about revolting against the system," he says. "What these Arabic trap music artists are saying is 'we want to party, too. We want our music to be heard in the clubs'. When a trap music artist from Palestine can record a song under occupation that celebrates life, well, that can also be very powerful."
While he is aware of the symbolism, Palestinian-Jordanian rapper The Synaptik, whose real name Laith Hasan, says his music is not too concerned with politics. His comments indicate a clear divide between the new and old school of Arab hip-hop artists.
"I started doing this music around 2014 when Arabic hip-hop was still political, but my background is far away from Arabic hip-hop," he says. "I make the kind of music that I enjoy listening to and that's by people like Travis Scott and others."
Hasan, whose debut album Om Al Mawjat was released last year, says the lack of politics in Arabic trap music allows its artists greater freedom to focus on the creative aspects of the craft.
"It offers a bigger margin for artist to do what we want," he says. "The beats are more intense, so lyrically you can go really dark or up. Also, you can rap, you can sing melodies, you can do whatever you want and that is amazing and I feel that it has expanded the scope and reach of Arabic hip-hop."
Yet despite the dynamic and exciting potential of the music being made, the cardinal rule of hip-hop remains unchanged. "There are so many rappers, generally speaking, that give the music a bad name," Dennaoui says. "At the end of the day, the ones who survive are the ones that are actually good. You need to come to the game with skills, if not, then you are wack."
On.DXB at Dubai Studio City runs until Saturday, November 23; prices are Dh100 (one day pass for today and tomorrow), Dh150 (one day pass for Saturday) and Dh275 (three-day pass). More information is available at ondxbfest.com