Arabic has found an unlikely ally in the preservation of the language: battle rap. Not to be confused with rap or hip-hop, battle rap is a genre all its own. And its reach is gathering pace across the region, helped in part by The Arena, the largest battle rap series in the Middle East.
What is The Arena?
The sixth season of The Arena opened earlier this month for a six-week roll-out of some of its best content.
Before the doors opened on a warm spring day in Beirut, a line of young men in jeans and flat brims waited outside KED nightclub. They'd been counting down the days until the event, streaming past videos to get up to date on their favourite rappers and prepping for the after-show debate.
As they milled around the performance space, the red lights sweeping the stage, the excitement was palpable. It had been nearly a year since the last league event in Lebanon.
When you step into your first battle rap show, the atmosphere is immediately different to your typical hip-hop performance. For a start, the audience is encouraged to be silent during each round, which could sound like buzzkill, but for these rap aficionados, it's anything but. In the match between Kalash and Al Darwish, you could hear a pin drop during the silences between rappers' cyphers. For diehard hip-hop-heads in the audience, this is what they'd paid 20,000 Lebanese pounds (Dh48) for: front-row seats to hear their favourite artist take down their opponents using only their words. Background noise would just be a distraction.
There are also rules around recording performances. Those in the audience are only allowed to make 30-second videos, as The Arena later uploads its own recordings to its YouTube channel in the following weeks. It's a way for their following to grow, and to ensure the content coming out of the event is top-notch.
A lesson in democracy
The overarching principle of battle rap is democracy, in the purest sense of the word. There are no judges; the audience will decide a winner, their cheers and jeers acting as point accumulators as two performers go head-to-head in a clash of wits and wordplay. As the rappers step up to diss each other for three rounds, the crowd push closer and closer to the stage. With each successive round, the tension mounts, as rappers insult each other's talent, skill, country and sometimes even mothers. Call it a lesson in ego.
The audience is there to watch a performer being torn down; all of the things they care about or stand for being publicly mocked. Grown men have been brought nearly to tears, and there's often a sense that a fight might just erupt.
"Whatever is said in the event, if you don't address it in that battle, that will be a fact for your life," says Chyno, a co-founder of The Arena.
So far The Arena is the only international Arabic battle rap event where artists from other countries can take part. Thanks to Lebanon's relatively liberal freedom of speech laws, international rappers can compete against each other without fear of breaking libel laws. Egyptian artists can take down those from Syria, while Palestinians can debut their Arabic skills against Lebanese street rappers.
Battle rap's popularity has grown rapidly across the region in the past five years, as other local leagues spring up. Although the art form is originally from America, fans say that in the past few years, Arabic language battles have been taking off. "The Arena introduced battle rap to the region in general," says MOE, 22, one of the night's performers. He originally came up through The Arena's boot camp, a programme aimed at developing younger local talent in Lebanon. He is now performing on the main stage, and this year went head-to-head with XZE. "We see new faces in The Arena every year. It's upgraded," adds Kalash, this year's headline act.
One of the most popular rappers in Lebanon, he performs exclusively in Arabic and is known for his metaphors and beautiful rhymes. Although Arabic rap was popularised more than 20 years ago by Palestine's first hip-hop group, DAM, for many years Arab performers rapped mostly in English or French. Not only was it seen as the language suited for the art form, but it also seemed more marketable. But now, with the success of Arabic-only rappers, younger performers are realising they can sing in their native language and find an audience for it. It also makes them more relevant to their local communities.
Lebanon versus Syria
"To be an Arab artist and rap in Arabic is important. It's your identity. It's within you," says Kalash, 26. "You're in Lebanon how can you affect your surroundings if you only rap in English?"
Kalash made his battle rap debut at last year's The Arena, in a performance that stunned the audience. Although his musical career has been built on smart witticisms, at the time, many weren't sure how that would translate into battle rap, or if he could adapt to the performative element of it. In short: not every rapper can battle rap.
Riding off last year's success, Kalash went head-to-head this year with Al Darwish, a well-known Syrian rapper. It was the headline battle of the night; the audience crushed around the stage as they took their spots in the centre. Many were framing it as Syria versus Lebanon, and as political tensions between the countries continue to rise, many were wondering how heated the battle would actually get.
The two men were well matched – Al Darwish's intellectual barbs paired well with Kalash's wordplay and wit. During their repartee, the room of 300 people was almost completely silent, then quickly roaring in approval when a barb hit or an insult worked. "We come from a background as Arabs that take pride in our languages," says Chyno."We've had that art form regardless of [whether it's] battle rap or not. This is our generation's way of using wordplay."
As battle rap leagues continue sprouting up around the Middle East, many enthusiasts are excited to see the Arabic-specific culture that could come out of it. Some people want to steer clear of the misogynistic insults against mothers and wives often heard in the genre in the US, and try different topics instead.Lebanese rapper Muhandas, 25, says they're simply creating their own version. "In the beginning The Arena was influenced by American rap," he says. "Slowly, it's becoming more authentic, more genuine."
Illiam, a 23-year-old Palestinian rapper, says: "For me, [The Arena] is the only place for freedom of speech. In Jordan, you couldn't do this."
That said, this year's event almost didn't even happen. Less than a week before the show, two of the main acts pulled out due to visa issues. Vandeta9, from Egypt, was unable to get his passport to travel to Lebanon, while Muhandas, from Lebanon, was stuck in Berlin waiting for his student residency in Germany to be processed.
In battle rap, performers are given weeks to prepare their verses against each other. Since Vandeta9 was slated to go up against The Synaptik, a rising Palestinian-Jordanian hip-hop star, and Muhandas was facing Edd Abbas, an established Lebanese-Ivorian rapper, both performers pulling out meant their opponents were out, too. Organisers worried that if they cancelled two of the show's five battles, fans wouldn't show up. While the event is sponsored by Red Bull, it relies mostly on ticket sales for funding.
And so, with one week left, Chyno and his co-founder, Joe Hajj, considered pitting the remaining opponents against each other, but decided it wasn't fair to the rappers – or the fans. With an online following of almost 20,000, avid fans expect a certain level of play. So there were only three duels, and two of the main battles were postponed until September as a compromise of sorts.
"To have one of our main rappers not be there and still that many people come, it shows you how strong our following is," says Chyno. "People are hungry for this. They want that energy. They want that vibe."