Saudi Arabian artist Qusai raps with 'fear and respect'

The 35-year-old musician has built a niche following for his sex-and-violence-free brand of rap.

Qusai began recording in 1994. Bertrand Guay / AFP
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Making hip-hop in Saudi Arabia is a bit of a tightrope act, says Qusai Kheder, a self-styled ambassador for the genre who has built a niche following for his sex-and-violence-free brand of rap music.

"Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country. This is our culture, our heritage, and we have reasons to respect it," the 35-year-old said before performing to a crowd of mostly Arab, largely female, young fans at the Arab World Institute in Paris this week.

"But at the same time, we don't have freedom of expression, freedom of speech, so we set up limitations in whatever we do - some people for the fear and some people for the respect.

"I do a little bit of both," he said with a laugh.

Known by his stage name, "Qusai", he cut his teeth as a member of Saudi Arabia's tiny hip-hop underground, becoming the first Saudi to make a rap recording in 1994, earning him the status of "outcast, a black sheep, until one day I felt like they are out to get me".

In 1996 he left to study in the US, making a name as a DJ and radio personality. Ten years on he returned to a changed Saudi Arabia, he says, where he now runs his own studio in Jeddah - though with pop music still viewed as a sin by the country's leaders, he said it is a "miracle" to be able to perform in public.

When it comes to content, Qusai said: "Our number-one subject, for all Arabic rappers, is salaam. Peace. Because it's a never-ending battle and we are going to continue singing about peace until we at least smell it."

Peace is the theme of his new album, whose title The Inevitable Change is a nod to the Arab Spring. The album is produced by Platinum Records, part of the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based broadcaster MBC.

One track, Arab World Unite, warns that "most of our wounds are from friendly fire".

But this is no political manifesto: any allusions to demands for greater democracy are veiled, or generic, such as: "My Arabic people are waking up / Trying to see a better day so we can live it up."

"I am not a politician," said Qusai. "I don't attack social issues. That's not my place. I drop subliminal messages for the smart people."