Hip Hop Finds Its Groove in North Africa

The Afro-fusion rhythms reinventing rap music

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Hip Hop Finds Its Groove in North Africa
Young people from local hip hop community hang out in the street during a festival/ Tunisia, 27 January 2017/Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the first few seconds of the clip, Koast leaves a building to smoke a cigarette alone, in the fall evening in Paris, her facial expression suggesting a reflective mood. As she finishes smoking, the haunting piano intro of the song starts to play, and the scene cuts to her walking — then running — to an empty courtyard, where she puts her headphones on and listens to music.

The opening lyric of the song, called “Se’aat,” is already enough to draw you in:

Lady, are you high? I said le netkayyef se’aat (I smoke for hours)

The beat, produced by Ratchopper, a fellow Tunisian, immediately puts you in a state of trance and dark emotion. Koast effortlessly flows through the intricate mix of trap and hip-hop that later incorporates elements of a rhythmic tambourine reminiscent of traditional Middle Eastern music.

Koast has been on the rap scene since she was 17, when a friend first introduced hip-hop to her in Tunisia. But back then, she says, rap in the country was still underground.

Koast moved to Paris four years ago with the “well-defined goal to do music freely,” she told Newlines. She has done so successfully, cementing her place in a Tunisian rap scene dominated primarily by men.

Still, even as rap and hip-hop gain more prominence in Tunisia and across the Middle East and North Africa, Koast believes more needs to be done to showcase the talent coming out of her home country.

“In my opinion, we need proper podcasts, valuable debates/interviews, more specialized platforms, experts interacting with artists, well-funded critics and writeups,” Koast said. “(A) big part of the culture exists only underground, and valuable aspects are being neglected or poorly represented.”

Rap and hip-hop in the Middle East and North Africa face the daunting task of competing for recognition in a musical and cultural scene long dominated by Arab pop music.

Pop music in the region today truly represents the Westernization of classical Arabic music defined by traditional elements of improvisation (where songs often last as long as an hour), instruments native to the region like the oud, and maqam, which is a system of melodies and pitches native to Arabic music. Classical Arabic artists like Oum Kulthum and Asmahan thrived on this style and are considered icons of Arabic music because of their ability to evoke emotion through their artistry.

But in conjunction with colonization, Arabic music began to shift from its classical roots with the Cairo Congress of Arab Music in 1932, organized by King Fuad of Egypt. This symposium brought together renowned composers and ethnomusicologists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe who created a set of proposals for the modernization and standardization of Arabic music, one of which was the incorporation of European instruments into Arabic ensembles because “such instruments possessed tremendously varied, expressive means and depictive powers.”

The other notable event that pushed this modernization further was the introduction of the phonograph to the region. Phonographs could only play songs for a limited duration, making the traditional improvisation and hour-long running times of classical Arabic music nearly impossible.

The final nail in the coffin was the burgeoning film industry in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in Egypt, the cultural epicenter for creative output in the Middle East and North Africa. Movies were heavily Westernized at the time, forcing directors and producers to modify accompanying music to incorporate Western-style elements in their instruments and duration.

By the 1990s and the 2000s, Arabic pop music was truly in its heyday as artists primarily from Egypt and Levantine countries (Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan) dominated airwaves and had massive backing from the music industry. The demand for catchy, danceable Western pop had grown, and artists like Amr Diab and Nancy Ajram, who still reign in Arab pop music to this day, grew massively in popularity and in their global exposure with hit after hit after hit.

Arab pop remains too big to ignore, but the commercial success of the genre has led to many repetitive aspects that have diluted the creativity. The rhythms and beats sound increasingly monotonous, with the go-to themes of love and loss becoming more and more unimaginative. Arabic music has seemingly lost its own identity — or lost itself in pop.

But a new movement is rising in North Africa.

Rappers and emcees from the region are boldly approaching hip-hop and the larger Arab music landscape by exploring taboo themes and proactively deconstructing societal markers of North African identity. They are experimenting with beat production and dialect as they go about creating a space for their music and for these conversations to be held in a public domain. This is not a knock on the Levantine or Khaleeji rap scenes; there are many artists who are doing this currently. But North African emcees are using their lyrical flows and melodic rhythms to grapple with the essential question of identity. The music sounds fresh and breathes new life into the pop-dominant Arabic music scene.

One of the ways in which this is manifested is through the choice of language. A vast majority of North African rappers primarily use their regional Arabic dialects and French in their music. But many artists, specifically North African artists based in Europe, also use Spanish, Dutch, and English on their albums. A few artists will even use all four languages in one song.

While this feat is fascinating and speaks to the breadth of the artists’ talent, Hajer Ben Boubaker, a Paris-based researcher and host of a podcast series on Arab musical heritage called Vintage Arab, points out that the use of language is “both central and painful” mainly due to the “very violent language policies” suffered during European colonial rule.

French colonial policy in Algeria, she explained, aimed to violently prevent and suppress the teaching of Indigenous languages like Tamazight. France intentionally stoked tensions between Indigenous Imazighen and ethnic Arabs by implementing unjust laws seeking to tear at the societal fabric of the country and destroy Algerian identity.

France implemented similar policies in other North African countries as well, actively working to create sectarian tensions that led to ethnic and linguistic divides that, in turn, led to brutal, violent conflicts and suppression of Indigenous culture.

“The Arabic dialects of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia inherited many words from their former colonial powers: French and Spanish in Moroccan Arabic; French and some Spanish in Algerian Arabic; and French and Italian in Tunisian Arabic,” Boubaker said.

Dialect and slang are important in rap, Boubaker stressed, because “it is a question of using a popular spoken language in constant evolution and which incorporates foreign influences.”

As language in North African hip-hop is fraught with a painful history, so too are the exploration of rhythms and beats in the region’s rap scene. Many emcees, more so than their Levantine or Khaleeji counterparts, utilize Afropop and Afro-fusion rhythms in their music as a nod to their home continent.

Rising primarily from Nigeria and Ghana, Afrobeats is a fusion of hip-hop, dancehall, soca, and other Black genres that can be identified by its use of African drums and a 3/2 time signature — different from a Western 4/4 time signature — that gives the genre its trademark dance tempo.

For North African artists, use of these rhythms can be traced back to Black North Africans and Indigenous communities who are descendants of the slave trade. Boubaker shared that the different genres, namely gnawa in Morocco, diwan in Algeria, and stambali in Tunisia, are the result of a distinct weaving between the musicalities of North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Black Sufi tradition that can lead to a state of trance.

“This music is originally produced as part of the rituals of the Sufi (orders) exclusively composed of Black people,” said Boubaker. “The Tariqa (order) rites are meant to pay homage to the prophets of Islam, to the sheikh of the Tariqa, and African spirits like “El Bori.”

The stambali genre, Boubaker elaborated, is sung in a language derived from a mixture of Tunisian Arabic and the Houassa language spoken by the Hausas, a people of the Sahel, mainly in northern Nigeria and southern Niger who were part of the slave trade to Tunisia.

Blackness and African identity are core components many emcees in Morocco had explored early on in their careers.

Cristina Moreno Almeida, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s College in London who has researched rap culture in Morocco, says that even in the early hip-hop scene in the region, rappers were conscious about their references to race and people of color, primarily Black leaders in the United States.

“Moroccan artists, early on, primarily referenced Malcolm X as a way to make the connection between race, Blackness, and Islam in the U.S. and embraced their own African identity through their music,” Almeida said. “The African theme has been going on for a while now.”

The success of hip-hop itself also varies between countries throughout North Africa. While Moroccan and Egyptian emcees found early opportunities, Tunisian and in particular Algerian artists did not have that initial access.

Almeida shared that in Morocco, the state would encourage young rappers in the early 2000s by creating and establishing musical festivals that “mushroomed.”

In Algeria, however, while the rap scene was up and coming, Almeida said the government actively worked to shut it down, which, she said, “really crushed everything.”

That now looks different, with Algerian rappers even drawing influences from raï music and sampling prominent Algerian artists in their music.

Omar Shanti, who researches raï through a postcolonial lens, says that this genre is “the people’s question to what it means to be Algerian.”

According to Shanti, Algerian artists of the 1990s and up to the present day are now primarily recording their music in France, Spain, and other European countries to then broadcast back to Algeria and the rest of North Africa. This is a subtle but noticeable diversion away from seeking opportunities in the traditional Middle East/North Africa hubs of music and culture such as Cairo, Beirut, and Baghdad.

“The Algerian music scene has always been closer to the French,” Shanti said. “European record labels were present in Algeria and recording Algerian artists, which opened up the market for these singers.”

While there are many North African artists and rappers still recording in Europe, streaming platforms have broadened and eased access to these artists and their music in a way that previously wasn’t possible. Companies like Spotify, Deezer, and Anghami have invested heavily in the Middle East and North Africa, carefully curating playlists catered to listeners seeking to discover music and genres native to these countries.

Artists like Koast have benefited from this exposure, but hip-hop for her remains just a natural way of “living and being,” and she continues to draw upon her lived experiences for inspiration.

“My backgrounds, influences, references, way of thinking and being are mainly impacted by everything I got to experience through different periods of my life, whether back home in Tunisia or in Europe and probably everywhere else.”

Her rise in the broader North African rap scene is notable given the male-dominated culture of the region and of hip-hop. Many other female rappers from North Africa, like Khtek and Psychoqueen, have challenged the patriarchal status quo of society by masterfully bringing a fierce lyrical skillset to their music — and frankly out-rapping many of their male counterparts.

But Perrie, an up-and-coming Egyptian Moroccan rapper who has shocked the mahraganat scene with her fast rise as one of the top emcees in the region, stressed that she doesn’t feel like she has a responsibility to talk about feminism or anything other than what she has been through in her life.

“I don’t like the whole throwing responsibility at someone when they haven’t even asked for it just because they’re a certain sex or sexual orientation,” she said. “If my human experience includes being a woman in a misogynistic society, a male-driven industry, yes then it plays a role.”

Unapologetically herself, Perrie says hip-hop in particular represented a kind of freedom that aligned with her personality in a way that embodies “breaking the code and breaking the rules and not giving a fuck about anyone.”

Throughout her life and her career, identity has played a central role for Perrie and the way she approaches her humanity. Perrie does not identify as Arab, and proudly identifies as African and Egyptian Moroccan. But because of the racism Moroccans face in Egypt, Perrie endured bullying and prejudice growing up, which made her feel “ashamed” of her Moroccan identity in particular. And while she has since turned that into a position of strength and has embraced her roots, Perrie continues to explore who she is through her music.

“We just have to go back to our history, and we need to start loving ourselves and we need to recognize who we truly are because we’re not Arabs. 100% being Egyptian and being Moroccan is straight up being African and straight up being proud. And this is why I never have any issue representing mahraganat in my music because this is Egyptian music. I’m proud of my double cultures. I’m proud of my continent, and I really want to showcase it everywhere.”

Tawsen, one of the biggest Moroccan rappers, was born in Italy and currently lives in Belgium. He echoes that sentiment of representation and pride in his “triple culture.”

“I find representation is important for me in art, especially in a music industry that is not used to hearing different things, singing in Arabic is my way of saying, ‘Yes, I am Moroccan, I make good music, and you will learn to love it.’”

One of his biggest hits to date, “Safe Salina,” beautifully uses Afro-fusion rhythms and released three different remixes — one Moroccan, one Nigerian, and one Italian, all with collaborations with artists from each of those countries respectively — as his own way of exploring his identity. He said it was “logical” to make a remix with Nigerian artists given Afrobeats’ roots in Nigeria. And while the Italian remix is a nod to his upbringing, he wanted to shout out the “booming” Moroccan music scene and further his popularity there.

“I’ve been trying since the beginning of my career to promote Morocco, and including artists from my home country was normal.”

North African rappers today are using hip-hop to express what it means to be who they are in the context of their country, their continent, and their lived experiences. And while there is a deep and painful colonial history associated with this music, the artistic yield has been profound not just for the region but the world.

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