Rhymes and rhythms can share ideas across cultures, and that is just what the Arab Hip Hop artists at the event, “Rhymes of Peace: Arab Hip Hop Artists on Youth and Media,” emphasized through their performances and discussions at the United States Institute of Peace. The Narcicyst, along with hip hop artists Omar Offendum and Mana, participated in the forum.
Rhymes and rhythms can share ideas across cultures, and that is just what the Arab Hip Hop artists at the event, “Rhymes of Peace: Arab Hip Hop Artists on Youth and Media,” emphasized through their performances and discussions at the United States Institute of Peace.
“Do I think that the Arab voice is loud enough in hip hop—I don’t think so, not yet,” said Arab hip hop artist the Narcicyst via video chat, at the October 27th, 2010 event. “I think the music, or the message is ahead of its time. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time, but somebody will break the barriers and eventually it will boost the voice.”
The Narcicyst, along with hip hop artists Omar Offendum and Mana, participated in the forum. Theo Dolan, senior program officer at the Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding, also contributed to the event by talking about his work producing peace media for Iraqi youth. USIP Director of Iraq Programs Manal Omar moderated the event.
The Narcicyst said it is important when talking about the Middle East and the conflicts there to realize that there are “multiple layers of history and emotion to take into consideration.”
Born in Iraq and currently living in Montreal, Canada, the Narcicyst’s lyrics, both in English and Arabic, deal with his seemingly opposed identities rooted in the East and West. USIP played a music video of his song "Hamdulillah," featuring vocalist Shadia Mansour. Hamdulillah is an Arabic phrase meaning "Praise to God" or "All praise is due to Allah."
Offendum performed his song “Superhero,” which talks about the hope the people of the Middle East are seeking. The song’s lyrics play on the idea of a Superman with the phrase “look up in the sky it’s a bird it’s a plane it’s an Arab superhero” repeated throughout. Offendum grew up in the Washington, D.C. area but has traveled around the world sharing his rhymes. He is Syrian-American based out of Los Angeles and just released his first full-length album “SyrianamericanA” that explores his Damascus roots while paying tribute to Syrian Poet Nizzar Qabbani and Egyptian musician Abdul Halim al-Hafez.
“People see hip hop as a barrier breaker or an ice breaker,” Offendum said.
Offendum elaborated on how hip hop allows him to bridge two parts of his identity together—he’s American and Arab. He said being Arab is a complex thing, and his goal is to help people understand there are all different types of Arabs and that regardless of ethnicity we all have things in common. He said among those differences are that Arabs are Muslim, Christian, Jewish and nonreligious.
“It is important to show a holistic approach to understanding religion,” Offendum said, and for that reason he uses characters and references to Christianity, Islam and Judaism in his songs.
Mana is an Iranian-American who performs hip hop in both Farsi and English, and lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She performed her song, “Azadi” which means freedom in Farsi. “Azadi” was released for the Iranian New Year. Mana is working on a project, Lipstick Revolt, which will launch in spring 2011, which addresses the plight of Arab women in the Middle East.
“The best way music can bring peace is to bring peace of mind,” Mana said. “With hip hop you can break boundaries.”
Mana said as an Iranian-American she often felt out of place in U.S. public school, so she began to use her music to relate to her identity. She said that after the September 11, 2001 attacks, her music became something she could use as a mission in addition to a form of expression. She said it has also allowed her to speak about political and social issues to a group that normally would not hear them. As an up-and-coming artist, she said she is beginning to have opportunities to share her music online with Iranian women across the world.
“As a female Iranian-American, I can also be a voice for women who might be put in prison if they said some of these things,” she said. “Even though I am Iranian, I am a human being, and on that note whatever is positive I support it.”
Following their performances Dolan shared his experiences in Iraq working with youth (ages 14-18) and local media partners to film a unique reality TV program called “Salam Shabab.” The nine episode show is based on a peacebuilding curriculum and brings together 54 students from different regions of Iraq in a competitive environment. Dolan showed clips from the show and discussed how peace media are being used to change attitudes among Iraqi youth. “Salam Shabab” also has a social networking site where youth can discuss their experiences and struggles. The site is entirely youth-led and provides a forum for discussion amongst groups that would not normally interact, including diaspora groups outside of Iraq, according to Dolan.
Often these youth think of themselves more as members of their local communities than as Iraqis. Dolan said one goal of this program is to help these youth think about their identity which includes forming ideas about one national Iraqi identity.
Offendum agreed that youth can play a significant role in the peace efforts abroad if they use hip hop to constructively discuss issues in the Middle East. He said that as Americans we have a responsibility to discuss these topics because others do not have the freedom to do so.
“There is only so much hot-headed teen angst can do in this situation,” Offendum said. “We have the place and privilege to be in the United States, but also the freedom of expression that many people don’t.”
All three performers said they want to empower youth and others through art, just as hip hop has empowered them. They have all used hip hop as a platform for peace, and will continue to use it to reach out in the U.S., the Middle East and the international community. They all agreed that hip hop has given voices to those who are marginalized regardless of their situation, and therefore, has a significant purpose to play in the peace dialogue.
- Learn more about the Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding.
- Learn more about USIP’s work in Youth and Peacebuilding.
- “Watch the "Salam Shabab” pilot program.