This spring marks twelve years since the Arab Spring when a series of pro-democracy, anti-government protests rippled across the Arab nations. Starting in Tunisia before spreading to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and beyond, the Arab Spring cracked the oppressing dome that covered the region’s sky, broke taboos and made the unimaginable possible. People fought for their dignity, rights, and better living conditions and protested in the streets, many of which are still ongoing, leading to an undeniable change in the region. Despite the killings, detentions, bombardment and destruction, it profoundly affected the freedom of expression and the necessity to speak loudly, openly and without fear.
During these changes, rap has become one of the most important tools to resist, criticise, and protest against oppression, dictatorship and corruption. While rap’s genesis in the USA can be traced back to the late 1970s, the Arab world came to the genre in the late 1990s, with lyrics that confronted economic hardship and cultivated a scene thanks to increased connectivity of the internet. Rappers started experimenting with tackling all kinds of subjects, like unemployment, corruption, occupation, and relationships among others. Little by little, the need for protest grew, and rap boomed in response to protest, heard on the outbreak of revolutions, with grassroots, independent productions thriving amid a clampdown on freedom of expression
“Rap has become one of the most important tools to resist, criticise, and protest against oppression, dictatorship and corruption”
In many Arab countries, rap is still less popular than traditional and pop music genres, which are favoured by official media. These genres conform to censorship and the national political narratives but are free of political lyrics opposing governments. They also match the public’s traditional musical taste and values, while rap is produced independently and is very popular among a generation of people eager to change the rigid social and political status quo. They seek refuge in its words, finding solidarity, venting anger, and healing in its scene. Some of the songs have fuelled protests and were chanted on the streets, both during the Arab Spring and beyond. Over the last twelve years, some artists have had to flee their homes and face dramatic life changes, becoming refugees and soundtracking stark realities of the hardships of millions of lives affected by oppression, corruption and war.
The last decade for the region has seen several disasters, both natural and man-made. The recent fatal earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey and killed more than 50,000 people, compounded the feelings of shock, pain, fear, anger, sorrow, and helplessness, crushing the already tired hearts of Syrians. Whether in exile or at home, in songs, campaigns and social media, rappers have raised their voices and used their platforms to support those in need in the region.
Since the Arab-speaking world is a vast region, here’s an in-depth look at some key players of the rap scene in Syria and Lebanon.
Bu Nasser Touffar, Lebanon
Because of its political history, which is slightly more liberal than neighbouring Arab countries, Lebanon has traditionally maintained more freedom of speech in the region, which has had an effect in a prolific and expressive art scene. While there have been attempts by political leaders to censor music, the country’s artists have cultivated an impermeable space to freely discuss and protest sociopolitical issues. Among the many activist artists is Bu Nasser Touffar, a Lebanese rapper, producer, and writer who emerged around 2009 with his debut album Land’s owner.
With his beautiful bass, husky voice, and clever words, Bu Nasser’s work is part of a political wave based in Beirut in the late 2000s that responded to the post-war conditions that kept on worsening due to the corrupt state. He produced many songs that distinctly marked rap in the Levant region, tackling the rebuilding of downtown Beirut, becoming one of the few symbols of activism criticising the unspoken and political leaders in a region where state intimidation continued to eclipse artistic expression.
Touffar’s rapping has shown solidarity with different resistance causes; while his earlier work has focused on Syria, his recent work again centres on his home nation. After the port explosion in 2020, for which nobody was held accountable, and the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon, ‘Tar’ expressed Touffar’s frustration with the corrupt Lebanese government. Puns are a tricky art to master in Arabic, but Touffar artfully places them where they belong. Produced in collaboration with Syrian producer Hello Psychaleppo in late 2020, Touffar cleverly plays with Arabic words. In the following lyric, he played on the word hope, which happens to be the name of the political party (Amal), one of the corrupt warlords that still rule Lebanon: “My graveyard-referring to Lebanon- is where I lost my life; I only call it home given my family are living there, do you have a light of hope? Enjoy it while you can; tomorrow, the Hope/ Amal movement will put it out”.
Touffar resides now in Turkey and after the recent earthquake, he used his platform on Instagram to share information about missing loved ones and signpost to donations.
Amir Almurrai is one of the youngest and most eloquent rappers in the Syrian rap scene. In 2019, when he was only 20 years old, he released his debut song, ‘On all fronts’, for which he received international recognition and huge local exposure for criticising the Syrian regime backed by Iran and Russia for oppressing the Syrian people. Rather than caving into pressures to accept the status quo in Idlib, an opposition-held city in the northwest of Syria, Amir openly criticised all parties involved in the city’s heavy bombardment and repression, extremism and corruption. Winning people’s hearts for expressing their suffering and shedding light on their difficult living conditions in the area.
But the song exposed him to death threats, pushing him to flee to Turkey. The video is a tribute to civilian life, featuring 62 people from the community, including teachers, students, paramedics and first responders from the White Helmets. It was produced by Lebanese producer and artist El-Rass, and uses dense, thundering beats to apocalyptic effect, mirroring the gravity of the situation. Amir raps with a steady and concentrated flow, “They say we are liberated, yet we are drowning with bodies. Should I be sad for the [lost] academic future or the 2000 students denied education? Or for the teacher that I will lose, who told me we shouldn’t lose hope? Who should I console?”
Amir also resides in southern Turkey and has shared links to funding teams doing relief work in north west Syria.
Bu Kolthoum, Syria
Mounir Bu Kolthoum is a Syrian music producer, songwriter, rapper and singer who combines traditional Arab folk music Tarab with Hip Hop, R&B and funk. Bu has evolved as an artist since his first release in 2011; the change in his singing style mirrors the changes in his life. Each of these three albums represents a stage in his life, soundtracking the personal and collective trauma that he and many others suffered due to bombardments and killings in Syria, writing about his experience fleeing his home and seeking refuge in the Netherlands, where he had to deal with the fallout of PTSD. In the work exploring this time, Bu raps with fury and rage, charting his continuous struggle and hopelessness in changing the surrounding dystopian reality. He speaks of all the displaced people, understanding what it means to be forced out of their homes into a new society.
His 2022 album Talib marked a changing point in his work as Bu shifted from anger to healing. The album of 12 songs sees Bu open up about mental health issues, hidden pains and struggles. In the song ‘Talib Ilm’, we hear Bu move forward, rapping with eloquent flow over a slow, steady beat, narrating how he will always be a student of life, which is what “Talib Ilm” means. In the song, he raps: “I was tormented by how to stop others. I was always an angry kid. I hit my head until my forehead bleeds. I was always lost between my companions in the mosque, the street and the intellectuals. I felt my identity was torn between them. The only constant thing is that I am still learning”.
Bu Kulthoum and El-Rass have created the Beirut 4 Syria coalition, a campaign to raise funds to help people affected by the earthquake in Syria.
El-Rass, or Mazen Elsayed, is a Lebanese rapper, journalist, producer and activist who emerged 15 years ago. Elrass, which means “the head” referencing his lyrical wit and vocal dexterity. A lifelong Tripoli resident who has worked with artists across the Arab world, including Almurrrai on ‘On All Fronts’, he profoundly understands the region’s complicated sociopolitical tensions. One of his best songs ever is ‘From Al Faihaa Planet’, which is a tribute to his city, Tripoli, full of the opposites like life and death, colours and greyness, rich and poor people and the public and the intimate.
He is considered the storyteller of the city, putting it on the map amid the marginalisation it suffers from and the unsettling conditions that Lebanon is going through. Sparse chords are layered onto the 90 bpm track, and his calm, steady flow narrates the chilling realities of his city. “This is the song for the city’s children in exile, with their smiley faces and sad hearts. It is the song for all those whose lives are difficult and who were able to go outside the borders of the box. This song is for those religious or not, poor or rich, to the giants.”.
Sabine Salamé, Lebanon
While the rap scene is mainly dominated by male rappers, reflecting a gender imbalance still typical in the Arab world, several female artists have emerged in the last five years. Sabine Salamé is a Lebanese journalist and psychodrama therapist living in Beirut whose work explores the dire economic crisis that submerged the country after the port explosion. She uses her music to reflect on persistent social inequality, including addiction and mental health.
She won the Arab Fund For Arts and Culture to produce her first album, Coexistence with Survival, in 2022. ’Box within a Box,’ a single from the album, reflects on how young people in Beirut have resorted to drugs and alcohol to escape their despairing realities, psychological and mental challenges, and the difficulty of building a future. Sabine uses dark humour and irony in talking about the tough time living in Beirut. The beat is simple and stark, marking the situation’s seriousness. She raps, “We have sleep paralysis, Not awake, not aware, very wet from the sweat and stressed, very angry, we spray kerosene on blames (burn blames), which will give the effect of paraffin. We arrive nowhere. This city is cruel. I need to protect myself to be able to confront it”.
Ebaa Monther, Syria
Ebaa (who also goes by the stage name “Anee”, which means ‘me’ in the Southern Syrian dialect) is a Syrian singer, performer and rapper from the Israeli-occupied Golan. Her song ‘When We Die’ is a series of existential questions she poses while performing on stage. Theatrical and poetic, the video sees Ebaa wrapped in despairing performance, with interspersed shots of refugees from across the world. Some images are distressing, which is why the video has a sensitivity warning. Over choppy, erratic beats, she mournfully raps about existential life issues “When I die, I go to the deep of my brain, I will try to wake myself up, but I don’t wake up; of course, my dream is deep; I’m thinking of a theatre, aspiring to be fixed, or liberating place, asking questions which are answered by silence”.
Here’s a full playlist of the tracks mentioned, alongside more artists including Al Darwish, Jundi Majhul, Thawra, Elmazaj and others.
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