If there is one thing that the coronavirus crisis has taught musicians, it's to keep it simple.
From bedroom gigs to sparse recordings, artists around the world have had to adjust to performing and releasing music indoors.
When it comes to Kuwaiti hip-hop duo Sons of Yusuf, the pandemic has forced them to scrap plans of a high-end video shoot for their new single MashaAllah and instead record it all on mobile phone, mostly in one take and in the span of a day.
The end result is taking a pre-pandemic track and transforming it into a regional quarantine anthem.
“The reception has been crazy,” says Ya'koob Al Refaie, who with his brother Abdul Rahman formed Sons of Yusuf in 2011.
“We recorded this song a long time ago and we wanted to make a really stylish video with an overseas producer,” he says.
“But with the virus happening, we realised that this is a song could be a good one to release now. We wanted to take people’s minds off what’s happening and this song is really about being happy and grateful for what we have.”
Released on Wednesday, April 15, the track has been widely shared on social media and it's not hard to understand why: it's a sunny and rhythmic dose of much needed optimism in these trying times.
Shot in a beachside chalet in Kuwait City, where both brothers are presently isolating with their families, the track is laced with sunny keyboards and Gulf percussion as the duo rap through a list of things they are grateful for.
“If you feel blessed, say MashAllah/ If you're in love say MashaAllah/ We're all here together now, say Mashallah," Ya'koob states in the hook, before his brother chimes in with a verse appreciating the beauty of life's little things, all the while holding his daughter and sipping strong Kuwaiti coffee.
A seminal release of Gulf hip-hop
Not only did they save a ton of money with this off the cuff video, MashaAllah also acts as a great entry point into their recently released debut album Shaykh the World.
Make no mistake, it's a landmark release for the Gulf hip-hop scene and one of the strongest albums to come out of the Arab world this year.
Over the span of 36 minutes, the Al Refaie brothers take listeners on a colourful journey, both lyrically and sonically. When it comes to the former, the songs offer vivid snapshots from 13th-century souqs in Cordoba and 19th-century Kuwaiti sea-faring villages to modern day vignettes of airport security and life as an Arab and Muslim under constant scrutiny.
The depth of the word play is complemented by the album’s expansive and immersive production. Both brothers, who also serve as the album’s main producers, dip into their bag of samples and drop everything from Kuwaiti drum patterns, Bollywood vocal loops and hip-hop scratching.
If you are a long term fan, the album fulfils the long held promise of Sons of Yusuf. However, if you are casual listener, the record marks a great leap forward from their party sounds found in their early signature remixes of Wiz Khalifa's We Dem Boyz in 2014 and the crowd favourite Arabs in Paris, a regional take on Kanye West and Jay Z's 2011 hit.
While acknowledging the development, Ya'koob says the historical and spiritually driven songs in Shaykh the World is the most accurate representation of Sons of Yusuf. The fact that it took nine years since the group first formed to reach this stage was also part of the plan.
“We always approached what we are doing as a long-term thing. The first part of which is to build the Kuwaiti hip-hop community. When we first came out nobody knew anything about hip-hop and people generally had misconceptions about it and that just came from ignorance,” Ya’koob recalls.
"So we needed to build that audience first through some of these party songs. Through these songs they will be exposed more to hip-hop, understand what it is about, and then they will be ready to appreciate the depth of what we talk about in this album. Some of these songs we recorded in Shaykh the World was done years ago, but if we released it then people wouldn't be ready to hear them."
Songs of past and present
That steady approach could be well founded, as there is a lot to ponder on Shaykh The World. In the standout A Night in Cordoba, the brothers reflect on the underappreciated impact of key Muslim figures such as the 11th-century polymath Ibn Sina or 14th-century traveller Ibn Battuta.
“We talk a lot about the modern growth and development in the Arab world but what we wanted to point out is that this didn’t come from nothing. It all comes from our history and particularly during that golden era of Islam,” Ya’koob says.
“People need to understand that at the time we were the intellectual and financial centre of the world. From culture, art and fashion, we were the trendsetters.”
That message of pride is juxtaposed in the album with some of the modern day-to -day struggles facing Muslims today. Born in Kuwait, the Al Refaei brothers relocated to Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Gulf War. While residing between the US and Kuwait, they have endured their fair share of school yard bullies and airport interrogations over the years.
This is detailed in the forceful No Caliphates featuring the renowned political rapper Talib Kweli.
When sending the verse to the New York rapper, Ya’koob recalls how Kweli was taken aback by Sons of Yusuf’s recollections of being treated in suspicion on airplanes and grocery stores.
“When Kweli heard it he told us that he has never heard that kind of perspective from an Arab before,” he says. “Whether it was in school in the US or airports, we experience[d] racism and stereotypes and we needed to talk about them.”
With Kweli joining an impressive list of guests on the album, such as US rapper Cyhi the Pynce, Sons of Yusuf have already become a talking point in US and European hip-hop circles. Unfortunately, a planned summer world tour has had to be cancelled in the face of the pandemic.
But the brothers are not too bothered. They know that the key to their success so far has been down to their patience and long-term plan.
“We will get out there and play eventually,” Ya’koob says of the nixed shows. “Until then we will just keep creating and doing what we do. This coronavirus has taught us to appreciate what is important for us. So we are good man. We have our health and families. Alhamdulillah for everything."