Hip-Hop in Beirut: Same Sound, Different Song

Fellows Spring 2007

By Shereen Meraji

June 01, 2009

Appeared on NPR.org

FARAI CHIDEYA, host: I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

We wrapped up our discussion of global hip-hop today in the Middle East. Shereen Meraji is a producer for our neighbor here at NPR West, DAY TO DAY, and she recently returned from a fellowship in Lebanon. She covered the ways that last summer's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah affected the country's youth. It didn't take her long to discover local hip-hop. The week she arrived, Beirut held its first ever hip-hop show for local artist and I asked Shereen to set the scene for us.

SHEREEN MERAJI: All of the elements of hip-hop were actually represented in this show. I mean, you had a deejay, you had graffiti artists there. You had breakers and you had emcees. And this show was to bring all the different Lebanese cruise together to unify them on one stage.

CHIDEYA: You spoke to one local deejay and why don't you tell us a little bit about him?

MERAJI: Well, his name is DJ Lethal Skills(ph) and he's the most famous deejay in Beirut. I mean, he travels all over the world and he's the producer for a lot of the local talent. And he talk to me about how he listen to a lot of American hip-hop and a lot of French hip-hop. But he decided when he got older that as an Arab, there is so much that he could talk about from his own experience. And - actually, I'm just going to let him say it himself.

DJ LETHALSKILL: Why should I rap East Coast and West Coast rap that has nothing to do with me? I'm Lebanese. I'm an Arab. Why don't we use this influence to express what we live and how we see things?

MERAJI: A lot of what his artists are talking about, who he produces for, they're talking about the economic situation in Lebanon, how there are no jobs. How after the war, even though some of them have gone to college and are highly educated, they can't find work. He talks about the war, I mean, the war with Israel has sort of made them realize that what they're doing means something.

CHIDEYA: How does he see himself and the Lebanese hip-hop scene relating to the African-American struggle in hip-hop culture that started this worldwide cultural movement?

MERAJI: He mentioned 9/11 and how he's been basically singled out and looked at as a terrorist and automatically judged when no one, you know, has even spoken to him. And he says that he can relate to how African-Americans are treated on a daily basis in the United States. And he actually - in his studio - has a huge poster of Malcolm X. I asked him about the poster and this is what he had to say.

DJ. LETHALSKILLS: As Arabs, we feel free. We're the closest to the African-American story and racism thing that happened because, you know, they were rejected for a very long time and Malcolm X came to speak on their behalf and he did make a difference. He was a great leader. And I look up for him and that's why I just keep him in front of me in the studio. To keep motivating me about saying what I have to say.

(Soundbite of music)

DJ LETHAL SKILLS: (Rapping) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: So you also went to the Palestinian refugee camps, what was that like?

MERAJI: You can't go to the camps unless you are sort of invited in or you have someone taking you. So I met this kid - he's 17. His name is Yasin Halil Hasam(ph) and he's a hip-hop artist and he invited me to the Bourj Al Barajneh camp, which is one of the oldest refugee camps in Beirut. So when I went to visit him, he was living in this really, really small apartment with his mother. He invited me in to his room, which there is nothing in there but his equipment and some rags on the floor and he talked to me about how hip-hop has basically changed his life and inspired him to get out of the Palestinian camp.

CHIDEYA: And so you got to actually listen to some of his music?

MERAJI: I did. So this song "Cheers To Your Homeland," (Speaking Foreign Language) is his way of looking at the Arab world and saying, you haven't done anything to help us get our land back. And, you know, here's my thanks to you so cheers to you and that's what the song is about.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. YASIN HALIL HASAM (Hip-hop artist): (Rapping in Foreign Language)

CHIDEYA: When you think about the vibe that you were left with after meeting with these different hip-hop artist and fans. How would you describe it?

MERAJI: I would describe it as helpful. I think that they're happy that they found an outlet for their frustration but I also think that the reality is that it's hard, I mean, for example, before the war, DJ Lethal Skills and all his artists, they were on a roll. They were ready to produce an album, I mean, they had a lot of things going on and as soon as the war happened, they were dispersed. I mean, some of them moved to Europe. Some of them moved to other places in the Arab world, because they had to, because they didn't have a way of making money. The way the political situation is in Lebanon and in the Arab world, it's just - it's hard for them to maintain momentum.

CHIDEYA: Shereen, thanks a lot for sharing your trip with us.

MERAJI: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Shereen Meraji is a producer at NPR's DAY TO DAY.

Listen to Meraji's interview at NPR.org