How Rappers Can Get Popular in Yemen

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Hip hop is popular in pockets of the Muslim world, where it has come to symbolize anti-establishment counterculture among a young generation that has grown disollusioned with oppressive governments and conservative religious movements. It's even been an opportunity to forge cross-cultural bonds. Hip hop is even addressing the challenges facing Yemen, where unemployment is spiraling out of control, oil and water resources are rapidly evaporating, and the government is struggling to contain a Shia insurgency as well as Sunni extremists aligned with an al-Qaeda offshoot.

Hip hop thrives in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, where CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom reports on the burgeoning rap scene. Jamjoon meets with Yemen's top rappers -- there aren't many, but they're all interesting characters -- paying special attention to a man he calls "Yemen's godfather of rap." Jamjoom calls him only "AJ," writing that the American-born Yemeni has worked hard over the years to start a real Yemeni hop hop movement.

"When I first came here," AJ told me, "it was kind of awkward, cause I see they have 2Pac in these stores and they have all these people doing gangsta rap and cursing and they're selling it. But here I am and I come and all of a sudden they want to censor what I have to say. You know, but I know that this is just part of Yemen. TIY – This Is Yemen, you know, you have to roll with the punches."

AJ encountered many Yemenis who thought only negatively about hip hop.

What are the tricks to making hip hop popular in Yemen? AJ the Godfather describes two big ones. The first is using traditional instruments such as the mismar, a Dedouin wind instrument you can hear a sample of here (apologies for the strange video).

“I had a lot of success with incorporating mismar (a wind instrument) in one of my first songs that was very popular,” said AJ, “because I figured, the mismar is used at weddings and celebrations, and it’s sort of like the pied piper. Once you hear it, you have to come out and see what’s going on … And so, I figured, if that works, let me try it with the oud, let me try it with the flute … So far, I’ve been very fortunate.”

The other tip is to write serious lyrics that engage in the controversial political and social issues of the day.

According to AJ, Yemeni audiences pay attention to more than just the beat, they scrutinize the words. “They’re really listening,” AJ told me, “So if you're saying something, you have to really say something.”

AJ started writing and rapping about more homegrown issues, like chewing qat and combating terrorism. And in a country with a growing threat from Al-Qaeda and a staggering amount of poverty, he started to feel a responsibility to the next generation.

In other words, don't rap about your hot new Beemer.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.