Posted on May 5, 2010 - by mira
Yemeni-American rapper trying to combat extremism with hip hop
First appeared in The Daily Star
SANAA: As leaders meet in London this week to discuss countermeasures to Al-Qaeda’s growing threat in Yemen, one man here is hoping to fight terrorism with rap.“No Terrorists Please,” the soon-to-be-released single by Yemeni-American rapper Hagage “AJ” Masaed, targets both Yemeni youth and adults with an anti-extremist message of peace and tolerance.
He seems qualified. Dressed in hip-hop style, with baggy black jeans, but none of the bling jewelry and accessories that rappers often don, he is relaxed, good-natured and modest, combining Yemeni and American qualities. He speaks as if he’s been a friend for many years. “No Terrorists Please” has AJ’s trademark mix of American-English and Yemeni-Arabic rap, and an easy blend of hip-hop beats with traditional Arabic sounds and instruments like the oud and mizmar (a reed instrument).
The inspiration for the song first came to him when Korean tourists to Yemen were attacked by an 18-year-old last March.
“I got so upset when the Koreans came to visit Yemen and the kid blew himself up, killing them,” Masaed said. “I kept thinking, ‘Why did they have to die, because they were curious and wanted to visit Yemen?’ I was so upset with it, and I felt like, he was a young kid who was influenced by other people. That was probably the bottom line.”
The song’s first verse is a statement to distance the majority of Yemenis, AJ says, from the terrorist groups’ extremist ideology and violent tactics. “Yes man, in Yemen, al-watan [the nation],my home /Al-Qaeda, not welcome, so let it be known / irhabeeyeen [terrorists] ain’t wanted / No, no terrorists please.”
In the second verse, AJ explicitly labels Al-Qaeda members as “terrorists” and questions the group’s ideology: “Are they targeting ajanib [Westerners] or white T’s and blue jeans?” Adopting an instructive tone, he tells Yemenis, “You know if terrorists strike, hoo ihna thee nikhsar [we are the ones who lose].” The UK’s recent ban on direct flights from Yemen is perhaps one example of Yemen’s suffering as a result of terrorism.
“One Yemen, united, together dreams achieved,” AJ sings. More than an expression of an anti-terrorist position, the song promotes a united and peaceful Yemen, alluding to the country’s conflict with Houthi rebels in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Yemen could be a place for people to live together, however much they differ: “Mughtaribeen, mutaween, haboosh [Immigrants, conservatives, Africans] in the hood / All living in harmony and all for the good.”
AJ’s local fans come from the urban youth, mainly in the capital of Sanaa. They’re a mix of Yemenis and non-Yemenis, and their numbers are difficultto estimate. AJ’s ambition is that his message will be heard by parents as well.
Fortunately, AJ was introduced to Hussein Muhib, a rising Yemeni artist who happened to be in the studio while AJ was working on his fifth album. The 20-something Muhib – who is reported to have sold over 60,000 copies of his last album in its first week – draws on an artistic family tradition, his grandfather having been a beloved folk singer. Muhib agreed to collaborate on AJ’s “No Terrorists Please,” playing the oud on the song and composing the song’s patriotic Arabic refrain: “My country, God protect you from the evil of all enemies.”
“Muhib sang some of his grandfather’s songs,” AJ says. “So the older people can identify with him, and the youngsters like him also. So maybe that message will get instilled in them and we can start changing the way they’re thinking. Because through the internet, through satellite, now people are identifying with a lot more than they used to in the past, and they’re not just listening to religious people. Maybe through hip hop I can reach a few more people and they’ll be like, hey, [terrorism] isn’t right.”
The collaboration could mark a significant crossover for both artists. Muhib could be introduced by non-Yemenis and youth who listen mainly to hip hop in Yemen and abroad; AJ might be exposed to a wider Yemeni audience that includes youngsters and, as he hopes, the older generation. AJ’s message to the older generation is this line: “Almu iyalkom [Teach your children] something other than hate / wa inshallah [and God willing], through them, Yemen’ll be great.”
Born to Yemeni parents and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Masaed is no stranger to educating young people through his music. He started his career composing music about his Arabic heritage and his Muslim roots to young Americans of Arab descent.
“The identity of third-generation Arabs in America is diluted,” AJ explains. “They’re just a part of the neighborhood. They don’t have any ties to the old country, and I figured that the best way to get to them is through hip hop.”
Dividing his time between Sanaa and Oakland, California, AJ straddles two cultures, American and Yemeni, because he understands them both. Masaed talks about each culture with ease, whether it’s an American audience listening for a beat and a catchy phrase, or Yemeni listeners who hang on every word and carefully analyze the song’s meaning.
One of the downsides of inhabiting the migrant’s dual identity is that one is stereotyped as “Arab” in America and “American” in Yemen.
“You’re always caught in the middle,” he says. “You’re never going to break the cycle. So my escape is the studio. And I’m not saying that I’m right in whatever I’m thinking. These are my views. But they’re the average person’s views in a sense, because the average person is probably asking the same questions. Sometimes some people are caught in a society where they can’t see it from the other side, and maybe I’m fortunate enough to be able to see it from both sides of the spectrum.”
He brushes off fears of being targeted by Al-Qaeda, and instead talks about dealing with severe criticism when two of his older songs (well-received in the US) came under attack in Yemen for their sensual descriptions of Yemeni women.
It is, of course, contentious to suggest that music alone (even cool rap music that speaks both English and Arabic) affords enough intellectual, spiritual and material sustenance to compete with the subaltern draw of radical Islam. Nevertheless, AJ is in a unique position to talk to both sides of this gap. His greatest challenge could be getting his message to as many young people, who may be looking for answers and a sense of purpose, before the extremists reach them.
“No Terrorists Please” can be found on YouTube before its official release later this year.
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