Rapping the Arab Spring: Meeting El-Rass, Tripoli's undergound hero

Rapping the Arab Spring: Meeting El-Rass, Tripoli's undergound hero
Meet the rapper whose music was forged in the crucible of the Arab Spring - even though he hates the term.
7 min read
17 March, 2017
Mazen El Sayed aka El-Rass performs in Beirut in 2013 [AFP]
Mazen El Sayed, aka El-Rass [The Head], is a young rapper from Tripoli, North Lebanon. His lyrics, written and performed in both colloquial and standard Arabic, have tackled the Arab uprisings and many of the issues that triggered them - from religion and civil liberties to corruption, unemployment and foreign occupation.

El-Rass loathes the 'Arab Spring'. The term, he says, means nothing. It alludes to velvet when it should signify blood. It projects a Western-centric narrative on an Arab context that does not really fit its tropes:

"In the West they protest because they want more rights. Here, we protest because we want rights to begin with."

And linguistically speaking, he says, with domestic terms like intifada, nakba, and naksa, Arabic is rich enough to describe the wave of uprisings in the region without outside help.

Rap itself shouldn't be seen as a Western import but rather as a source of inspiration for rediscovery of one's own heritage, El-Rass tells The New Arab.

He rejects the suggestion that Arabic rap is an appropriation of an African American tradition, and offers a distinction between rap and hip-hop. Rap is a continuation of an oral tradition found in many cultures, including the Arab culture, he insists, citing thousands of years of Arabic poetry and the Quran itself.

"Rhythm and repetition - the cornerstones of rap - are very Arab."

Nevertheless, El-Rass accepts the similarity between current Arabic rap and early African-American rap, that is - prior to being commandeered and commodified by big record labels. So far, he says, Arabic rap's "radical lyrics have protected against corporate mainstreaming".

The Arab Spring changed everything. It brought to the fore questions that had been only raised on with a lot of shyness, such as religion, identity, gender, and sexuality

Soundtrack of the Arab uprisings

Although his music predates the Arab Spring, "I was born in 2011," El-Rass says. In many ways, his music and the music of many of his peers can and should be situated as listings in the soundtrack of the Arab uprisings.

The Volcano of Beirut [Translated excerpt]

Yesterday I dreamt Beirut was drowning under volcanic ash
The people were turned to charcoal but Sky Bar [a posh Beirut club] was still lit up.
Beirut suppressed the seed of the revolution, the one that sprouted
When our spirits were foiled from immobility
In us Beirut moved.
On the blood of our destruction, and the negation of our freedom of choice
The houses of Beirut are rebuilt
We got drunk on the dryness of our tears, our eyelids closed on them and fermented
If you stop flying your destiny on land is distress
If you stop breaking, you become part of the decoration
I discuss, I maneuver, ultimately I confront the crown
I perform ablutions, I pray, I receive the moaning of the needy
The meditation of knowledge strips work from hope
My choice is on low fire, melting the nails, and clean thoughts are ripening.
They built, they destroyed, they honked, they complained
Your god made him patient, tested him and trained him
Their minds: ruined, westernized, chased off
They accepted art pissed on back alleys
As long as there is no doubt in the streets
This is no capital of culture, it's a wrestling ring

by Rayya El Zain, Nizar Ghanem, & Shadia Mansour

"What happened changed everything. It brought to the fore questions that had been only raised with a lot of shyness - such as religion, identity, gender, and sexuality."

El-Rass, like many Generation Y and millennial Arabs, seems to have not lost belief in pan-Arabism -the idea that there are profound cultural and political bonds among all Arabs that necessitate some form of a unified Arab polity.

His audience, he says, is the entire "Arabic-speaking bloc", and he has performed in Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia as well as to Arab audiences in Europe.

He is also inspired by Arab rappers Al-Salib 1 and Abusive (Egypt), and Shaiboba (Saudi Arabia). In his music, he says, he uses a lot of sampling, and recently, discovered what a treasure trove of inspiration in the songs of Kuwaiti sailors and fishermen - otherwise ignored by contemporary mainstream Arabic music-makers.

But that's not to say his music is Arab-centric. In his track "Islami" [Islamic/Islamist]", there is an obvious Indian influence.

"Our epistemological reference point is very Western-centric," he says. Arabs have, much to their disadvantage, ignored cultures they have much more in common with, and "Third-Worldism" and post-colonialism never really picked up in the region on a cultural level.  

"Arabs are still pre-post-colonial," he proclaims.

One example he mentions is Sufi heritage. "Arabs are reading about Sufism in English, when all they have to do is visit one of the many Sufi orders surviving in Arab cities."

While reading the rest of this article, why not put your headphones on and listen to Islami [Islamic/Islamist]?

Seizing the means of production

The year 2011 was not just the beginning of that wave of change, however. It also marked a turning point in the history of the internet - with social media and multimedia platforms revolutionising and democratising everything from the news industry to the music industry.

With SoundCloud and other platforms, musicians like him no longer needed record labels or expensive studios and equipment to produce and distribute music, he says. It made it possible to "seize the means of musical production", and become independent and able to channel dissent without pandering.

El-Rass, who has dabbled in journalism and even banking, now creates and performs music on a full-time basis. He has regular gigs in Beirut, including a residency at Radio Beirut, and sells his music online.

Arabic rap, he says, is increasingly inching toward the mainstream. Recently, he found youngsters in his home village in Tripoli's countryside listening to his tunes, giving him hope for the future of the genre.

Still, he has rarely performed in his native Tripoli, an impoverished city with one of Lebanon's highest unemployment rates. Unsurprisingly, the music scene here is dormant compared with vibrant Beirut's, where he performs and records.

Beirut's space, despite being dominated by capital and its lack of appetite for the radical messages contained in his lyrics, he says, has a bigger space for independent musicians and unmoderated verses.

However, his love for his hometown makes him hopeful. "My presence in Beirut is temporary, but my project is Tripoli. I'm building up my strength for it."

Never mind the headphones. Turn up the volume and listen to Qarsana [Piracy]

Lessons in dissent

El-Rass' music was greatly inspired by the politics that followed the events of the Arab Spring, but Lebanon was never part of that dynamic. Lebanon had both a pioneering civil war in 1975 and a pioneering 'spring' in 2005 - neither of which succeeded in installing a new regime that could end the control of feudal-like sectarian dynasties and oligarchs.

In 2015, Lebanon had a fresh hirak, a protest movement, on the back of its refuse crisis, and this time, El-Rass was directly involved. One of his tracks, Our garbage neighbours, with rappers Bou Nasser and Tuffar [The Wretched Ones], used footage from the protests that had galvanised the country at the time.

El-Rass and other rappers were inspired by YouStink

But like the protest movement in some Arab countries and even the Western 'Occupy' movements, You Stink got nowhere.

Is there an overarching lesson one can learn from the failed dissent? El-Rass agrees there is, and, like everything, it has something to do with class. The urban elites have not yet connected well with people outside their bubbles to achieve critical mass.

But his music, he exclaims, can help overcome this disconnect, and no matter how modestly so, contribute to the inevitable next wave of revolution. Inevitable because nothing has changed, except for the worse.

While he admits he cannot speak for other classes and backgrounds - his is still somewhat privileged - he insists there is no insurmountable separation, especially in music.

"Art lives in this kind of intersections, and creates fields of movement that break social barriers," he explains. Most Arab youths live in an intersectional socio-cultural experience, so we can choose in which direction we transfer our privileges."

Follow Karim Traboulsi on Twitter: @Kareemios
And listen to more of El Rass right here

This article is part of The New Arab's series on the music of the Arab Spring. If you enjoyed it, check out Hello Psychaleppo, Syria's very own creator of insane psych-techno. Or meet 47 Soul, the Palestinian electro outfit who are big in exile. And hang out with Big Hass, the mixmaster behind Saudi Arabia's first hip-hop radio show. And watch out for more...

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