Yemeni rappers find a voice that echoes traditional styles

The new music on the street of Sanaa continues a long poetic tradition in the region.

Amani Yahya's dramatic and unconventional lyrics are accompanied with provocative language that she often censors. Photo courtesy Rooj Alwazir
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The 20-year-old Yemeni woman is leaning on an old stone wall in front of an ancient door leading to Sanaa’s biggest souk when she suddenly breaks into rhyme.

“I put everything on you, I threw everything at you,” she says.

“I didn’t trust you or believe you after all we went through, I kept assumin’ and accusin’ that’s why I was losin’.”

Merchants and customers alike watch her closely. A military officer approaches, moving people away from her and whispering gently: “Don’t worry, do what you need to do.”

There were only a few of us familiar with the music of Amani Yahya, a rapper from Al Hodaida who is now based in Sana’a.

After a minute of silence, we applauded. But the new style of music and its approach was just too bizarre for the rest of the crowd.

She describes her raps as being “about the struggles of women in Yemen, the pains of what some of us go through, and it also reflects my personal experiences of being bullied in school”.

Her appreciation of hip-hop music began when she was a child living in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, with her parents. Her dad introduced her to the rock music he loved. The day she heard Pink Floyd, there was no turning back.

She returned to Yemen in 2010, hit the hip-hop scene the following year and did her first public performance in 2012 at The Basement Cultural Center in Sanaa.

Amani’s dramatic and unconventional lyrics are accompanied with provocative language that she often censors. But despite censorship, she manages to express her feelings, expanding and increasing her reach to the Yemeni audience.

Ever since Yemeni poetry’s rise in the 14th century, many artists have proved themselves to be incredible writers, contributing to the rich Yemeni culture.

But self-expression has not always been so easy and over the years, Yemenis had to master the creative skill of voicing their sentiments, feelings, hopes and struggles in ways that defied the brutal systemic suppression of the Saleh regime.

Over time, Yemeni poets, musicians and artists addressed critical issues of Yemeni society through creativity.

Rap music, with its rhyme and poetic style, fitted perfectly into this rich cultural legacy. So it should come to no surprise that rappers like Amani Yahya found their voices in the underground Yemeni hip-hop music scene.

The Basement Cultural Center, located near the site of anti-regime protests in 2011, became a place where the simplest and most creative works by young Yemeni artists became reality.

The Basement is adorned with stone walls, big windows and an eclectic mix of artwork, creating for an atmosphere which is both cozy and lavish.

It used to be the Yemeni Knowledge Exchange Forum, which organised cultural and political events twice a week, but was unable to open consistently because of government opposition.

The Basement’s management board said nobody was sure during Saleh’s rule what was and was not allowed.

Something permitted one day being banned the next day, with the result that artists were always in a state of uncertainty and fear.

Now there are events happening at The Basement every Saturday.

At one recent event, Methal Hamadi, 22, is singing Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses – simple but daring in a country where most female Yemeni singers rarely move away from classical Arabic music.

Hamadi, born in Egypt but raised in Al Hodaidah, started playing music at the age of eight and now tackles issues like religion, friendship and social justice.

Art and music has always played a key role in Yemeni history and in the self-expression of individuals, even in the midst of dictatorial regimes.

But with Yemen’s rich history of poetic tradition dating back to pre-Islamic times, it seems practical that artists like Yahya and Hamadi are emerging.

The number of musicians is certainly on the rise, and Yemeni society is increasingly appreciating new musical genres.

Yahya and Hamadi are just some of the new young independent female musicians rising and pushing the music scene in Yemen.

Rooj Alwazir is a photographer and writer based in Sanaa.