Thursday, March 06, 2008

Saudi Rappers Compete in Dubai Hip-hop Contest

Washington Post
'An Earthquake That Shifted the World Around Us'
Beyond a Disapproving Kingdom, Untested Saudi Rappers Find Transformation and Victory, of Sorts, at Hip-Hop Contest in Dubai

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 7, 2008; A11

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Even before they stepped onstage at the MTV Arabia competition finale, members of the Saudi hip-hop group Dark2Men knew they would not win.

The contestants were to be judged on their lyrics, stage presence and performance, but Dark2Men had never performed in public because of strict social and religious codes in their native Saudi Arabia that ban nightclubs, concerts and theaters. The seven other finalists, from the less restrictive Arab countries of Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, had rapped live for years.

But backstage before the show, one of the show's co-hosts told the contestants something that made Dark2Men's impending loss seem like victory, the members said. "He said no matter what happened in the competition, we would go down in history when they wrote the book about Arab hip-hop," said Hani Zain, 27, who raps in Arabic for the group.

An Egyptian won the competition, which is being broadcast this month, but the three men of Dark2Men said their lives had been transformed by the experience in ways they had not imagined.

"It was an earthquake that shifted the world around us," said Tamer Farhan, 24, who raps in English. "It gave meaning to all the hardships we faced to get here."

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, follows a stringent form of Islam that prohibits alcohol and the mingling of unrelated men and women. The conservative kingdom does not allow the study of music in schools, and many Saudis consider careers in acting, singing or dancing as shameful.

But the advent of satellite television channels such as MTV Arabia, which was launched in the Emirates in November, and social networking Web sites have made it easier for young people to pursue interests deemed contrary to the country's tradition and culture.

The Dark2Men members, for example, met up on a rap Web site and compose their music using online programs. They have posted several songs on YouTube and have a Facebook site.

But even as they rap in praise of Islam and their mothers, and against the war in Iraq and terrorism, their biggest hurdle has been convincing family, friends and Saudi society that they are not simply trying to imitate a decadent Western lifestyle.

Since winning the MTV Arabia hip-hop audition in January, they have struggled with fiancees unhappy about the attention garnered by their television appearances broadcast across the Arab world, bosses angry about their extended leaves from work, and fathers worried that their sons would leave stable jobs and become entertainers.

For a week last month in Dubai, they forgot those pressures as they danced until dawn at nightclubs, stared wide-eyed at a fancy restaurant's glass-enclosed cold room full of wine and champagne bottles, and learned how to move onstage.

Maan Mansour, 25, who sings in Arabic and English and had never traveled outside of Saudi Arabia, said he developed a passion for performing. "There's this unique feeling you get right before you go onstage that's fear and excitement," he said. "Then as soon as you put your foot on that first step, it's as if a cascade of cool water washes over your chest, and it's amazing."

Zain said a highlight of the MTV Arabia experience was spending time with Farid "Fredwreck" Nassar, a Palestinian American music producer who has worked with American rappers 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg.

Zain, Dark2Men's main composer, said he pestered Nassar while he was producing the group's song, asking questions and looking over his shoulder, but was told several times, half-jokingly, to leave the room. "I learned more in two days with Farid than I did in years in Saudi Arabia," Zain said.

Mansour, an equipment sterilization technician, and Farhan, a human resources assistant at a hospital, went back to work a few days after they returned to their home town of Jiddah. But Zain resigned from his job as a bank computer programmer.

Zain said he needed time to concentrate on his rap career and wanted to be available in case the contestants were asked to tour after a CD of their songs is released next month.

Farhan, who now spends an hour a day answering fan mail, sat with his laptop at a coffee shop during his lunch hour last week and sighed as he read a notice from a fellow contestant, Emirati rap group Desert Heat, announcing a performance at a nightclub in Oman, with tickets selling for $26.

"If I could make money rapping like these guys, I would have left my job," Farhan said. But there's nowhere to perform in Saudi Arabia, and leaving his job would mean that Farhan and his family would be without health insurance, a risk he said he was not ready to take.

Farhan has had to postpone his wedding because things are still in flux. Last year, "when I got engaged I was just a normal guy working at a hospital," he said. "Now I'm succeeding at rap, suddenly everybody knows me. Suddenly I'm always busy."

Farhan said his father has made peace with his choice. "He voted for us and made his friends vote, too" in the competition's people's choice award, conducted by text message. The results have not yet been announced.

But for Farhan, the most gratifying part of the experience has been inspiring others. "Young guys come up to us and say: 'We thought that pursuing a dream in Saudi Arabia was impossible. You guys made it in hip-hop with everyone against you. That gives us hope that even here, anything is possible.' "

Dark2Men has met with several advertising and production companies seeking sponsorship and studio space to record a CD. But until that happens, the group is recording a mixtape with aspiring rappers.

During breaks while recording his segment at a local studio, Zain talked to the other rappers about organizing an underground concert to make money.

"I've given myself till the end of March," Zain said. "If I'm able to make some money on this, I'll keep going. If not, I'm going to have to start looking for a job."

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