'Hopeless Nation': Meet Mosul’s first rap collective

'Hopeless Nation': Meet Mosul’s first rap collective
The New Arab Meets: Iraqi hip-hop artists Zayn Adam, Boika, MC Reko and Yabangi who blame the US-led fight against the Islamic State group for the horrors they survived.
5 min read
MRG's lyrics evoke terrorism, politics, and the corruption which blights Iraq [Sebastian Castelier]
At 10am, Zayn Adam opens the door to his tiny hair salon on the east bank of the River Tigris in Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq. 

But today, the scissors will have to wait. Today, it's all about rap. Zayn has set up a recording studio in the back of his shop where he is crafting a song about the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 12. 

Suddenly the doors fly open and in walk in Yabangi and brothers Boika and MC Reko. Together, the four of them formed Mosul's first hip-hop collective.

"Rap is kind of niche in Iraq because it's western music," says Adam, who serves up pitta bread, cream cheese and tea.

Adam's first memories of rap stem from the 2000s, when he was listening to Sawa, an Arab-American radio station. "It was very old-school: there was Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Biggie, Tupac." Rap only became well-known in Iraq a decade later, thanks to the efforts of Saudi rapper Qusai Kheder performing on Arabs Got Talent, a reality television talent show popular across the Middle East.

"It's a style of music that is really suitable for direct criticism," Yabangi said.

Watch: Yabangi and Zayn Adam provide
lead vocals on their latest track, 'The Sultan Ordered'

Meaning "foreigner" in Turkish, Yabangi is a nickname that he chose after fleeing to Turkey in 2014.

"I was still a tourism student and had to wear a suit with a bow tie. Because of that, I was whipped by the IS police because it wasn't a 'proper outfit'."

Back in Mosul in March 2017, Yabangi discovered 'MRG hip hop Mosul' on Facebook. Joining them, they formed the city's first rap outfit.

Their videos only get a few thousand views on YouTube. But the band enjoys a solid reputation in real life. "We have a lot of fans in Mosul," said Adam. On New Year's Day, 'MRG hip-hop Mosul' performed on an outdoor stage.

Even a few months ago such a thing would have been unthinkable, even suicidal. Under the yoke of IS rule, the list of prohibitionsstretched seemingly endlessly: printed or tight clothes, cigarettes, shisha - and music. And certainly rap, representative here of American pop culture.

MC Reko and his brother Boika remained confined to their homes when IS controlled northern Iraq. "We risked being killed for it, but playing rap gave us a chance to decompress and vent our anger," Boika says, wearing a leather jacket. "We started writing lyrics about atrocities in 2015. Our neighbours were IS members, so we had to be very discreet."

The Islamic State group's police conducted an operation in Boika's neighbourhood to confiscate electronic devices. "I had to break the hard drive with all my recordings in a hurry before they came to us," the musician regrets.

Mosul was devastated in the battle to reclaim the city from the Islamic State group [Sebastian Castelier]

Yet Boika remembers one of his tracks, entitled Hopeless Nation:

"Damage, anger, breakage and rape. Displaced, immigrants... This is not the religion of Islam but of terrorists."

The poem then turns into a patriotic ode:

"O Iraq, when will you be like before? You are the cradle of civilizations... The most beautiful minarets are in Mosul, and Basra is the city of dates. Najaf is a secret land. You have the Sumerian mother goddess who plays wonderfully with her harp. And glories like Jasmine who perfumed the whole earth but now finds herself stabbed."

Under Saddam Hussein, if you spoke, you would die. Today, you have freedom of expression, as long as you can stay alive

His fellow artists share his nostalgia for their childhood in Mosul. "My mother is Kurdish, my father is Arab and I was looked after by my Christian neighbours when my parents went to work. I wasn't aware of all these confessional differences," Adam said.

After the fall of Saddam in 2003, sectarian tensions erupted, and Islamist groups soon reigned through terror.

Watch: MC Boika takes the lead on 'Allah is the greatest'

"Under Saddam Hussein, if you spoke, you would die," said Adam. "Today, you have freedom of expression, as long as you can stay alive."

Back from forced exile, the rappers are determined to speak out as long as they can. "Coming back here was like a second birth for me," remembers Adam. Six months after the end of the war against IS, no one can predict Mosul's future. For the time being, denizens of Iraq's second city enjoy a relative calm after so much suffering.

But the winds of change threaten to blow away this spring air at any moment.

The rappers focus on the post-war period. "We sing about corruption, war and politics," Adam lists. "We don't know if it's a country or a tomb. We persist in hoping to live a minute of joy before we are all white-haired."

MC Reko's latest contribution is Message for Trump, a searing critique of the US-led coalition's fight against IS to reclaim Mosul's old city. It was in this labyrinthine maze of alleyways, on the west bank of the Tigris, that the last IS fighters hid in July 2017.

Before the era of IS, the old city was the nerve centre of Mosul. Nowadays, it is a field of ruins, the scene of many civilian deaths.

"It is a lie to say that airstrikes are precise," raps MC Reko. "They have eliminated an entire species. The proof is that Mosul's youth has turned into rubble... We hear the voice that vanishes from under the rubble. We're an afterthought."

In the small hairdressing salon, the rappers get up from the couch and turn the computer on. Today's recording can finally start.

Laurene Daycard and Sebastian Castelier are French journalists working in Iraq.

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