Starting a new story for Black artists in the Gulf: Somali-UAE rapper Freek mashes up the beat, Arab style
“I've been getting bit by mosquitos this whole time.”
Freek, speaking through Zoom on his phone, has been outside frantically walking around Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates trying to avoid these pesky bugs.
As he moves around swatting them away, he’s conveying to The New Arab a familiar, mosquito-like problem in the music industry – and in life – in the Middle East and North Africa: The incessant leaching of opportunities and barriers caused by racism.
“I look different. I even look different in my own city.”
"A lot of people, when they think about the [Arab Gulf countries that are part of the] GCC, they think we’re all spoon-fed, we’re all spoiled that grew up here. The stories we have, we’ve seen crazy stuff growing up. That story has not been told yet, and that’s me"
Freek, a Somali-born and UAE-raised Black artist, has quickly risen in the ranks of emcees from the Middle East and North Africa and has consistently dominated the hip-hop scene in the region since his start in 2013.
Freek was the first to perform drill rap – a subgenre of rap currently thriving in the UK – in Arabic, captivating listeners with unmatched lyrical prowess and blistering production.
His breakout single Wala Kilma (“not a word” in English) was released in 2019 and not only did it garner widespread regional attention but also critical acclaim in the UK, a major global hub and home for drill.
While hip-hop across the Middle East and North Africa continues to thrive, there’s still the ever-pervasive issue of systemic racism in the region.
When it comes to the regional music scene specifically, Black Arab artists have largely not been given the same resources, platforms, or publicity as their white Arab counterparts, be it in hip-hop or other genres.
Freek understands and has experienced this racism first-hand, acutely aware of what that means for his career and for his own humanity.
“I think we’re way, way back when it comes to people of colour trying to do stuff in the Arab world,” Freek says. “In the States, the UK, France – you can see major Black artists on the scene. But even when it comes to [artists who perform the genre] tarab, or even when it comes to [Arab pop artists like] the Najwa Karam's or the Ragheb Alama's – you will never see a Black person. You’ll never see a Black artist in the Arab world touring Egypt or touring Saudi.”
On top of this, and only until recently, Freek also had to navigate life in the UAE as a migrant without full Emirati citizenship.
Though he spent much of his time “with the locals, trying to blend in, trying to belong to some society”, he was not able to enjoy the same privileges as his peers.
"You’ll never see a Black artist in the Arab world touring Egypt or touring Saudi”
“When I graduated school, we couldn’t go to the same university because they went to the unis that only accept citizens. So I’m left out now. I’m sitting in the hood alone now, that hit me. Like damn, these guys went in, obviously, we’re not the same. That stripped me of the identity of ever feeling like I could be fully Emirati.”
To Freek, music is more than just a creative output or a career. For him, music provides a sense of identity and community that wasn’t available to him growing up. Music, he professes, literally saved his life, giving him an opportunity to travel beyond the UAE’s borders and showing him that “there’s this world that accepts you and doesn’t mind where you’re from as long as you do dope shit.”
"Freek is on a mission to tell the stories of migrant communities and second-generation Arabs across the Gulf countries"
With this sense of purpose, Freek is on a mission to tell the stories of migrant communities and second-generation Arabs across the Gulf countries.
“We all have this crisis of ‘who the f*** are we man,” he shares. “A lot of people, when they think about the [Arab Gulf countries that are part of the] GCC, they think we’re all spoon-fed, we’re all spoiled that grew up here. The stories we have, we’ve seen crazy stuff growing up. That story has not been told yet, and that’s me.”
Frankly, Freek has a point. Looking at the Gulf countries from a branding perspective, the carefully-cultivated image of glitz and glam and obscene amounts of money remains dominant across that region. Which is on purpose, designed to distract from the political and human rights issues in these countries.
These stories he so passionately discusses are ones about a construct many of us take for granted: home.
Home provides a certain type of energy that envelopes us in a feeling of euphoria and authenticity. Freek first found that in heavy metal music, thanks to his sister. “My sister Maha introduced me to music growing up,” Freek affectionately says with a smile on his face. “I started listening to metal when I was young. I was a metalhead. That energy, even the mosh pits, I feel all that from rock.”
As a fan of bands like Insane Clown Posse, Korn, and Slipknot – among others – Freek felt inspired by the idea of creating a fanbase around a character, a high-energy act that anyone can join and feel part of a community.
"To Freek, music is more than just a creative output or a career. For him, music provides a sense of identity and community that wasn’t available to him growing up. Music, he professes, literally saved his life, giving him an opportunity to travel beyond the UAE’s borders"
But the lyrics in hip-hop, the rawness that came from an artist like The Notorious B.I.G., spoke to Freek in a different way than metal had. “The idea of storytelling, I loved it in hip-hop. Coming from nothing and making it, I felt like this was actually me, like they’re talking to me.”
He knew of the underground rap scene growing up in the UAE in 2012, with emcees in the region performing in Arabic. But Freek did not gravitate to the traditional, old-school boom-bap beats that these rappers used.
With an ear to the hip-hop scenes in the UK, New York, and Los Angeles – and with an affection for Drake – Freek set out to mix the lyrical Arabic flows and the new-school beat production together.
Adamantly, Freek stresses the importance of rapping in Arabic.
“Arabic rhymes and Arabic punchlines just resonate to me,” he exclaims. “I knew there was a market, especially since there’s a huge gap of people who don’t really speak English. To them, I’m their Tupac. It felt more powerful for people to relate to me other than trying to make people relate to what’s happening in New York or LA. When someone says something that’s in the lingo that I’ve lived, it just hit me way different.”
And to be clear, he has done this quite successfully. After a string of hit singles, including his song Shwaya (“a little bit” in English) which sees him experimenting with Afrobeats, Freek recently dropped his first album 150 with features from other emcees across the Middle East and North Africa.
He also signed his first record deal with GXR Records, a newly-established joint independent label venture between Dubai-based esports company Galaxy Racer and music label EMPIRE aimed at producing and developing artists from West Asia and North Africa.
Just this past summer in Washington DC, as part of the UAE programme of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Freek performed in the United States for the first time. “It felt surreal to be 18 hours away from my own city and be in DC. Every time I remember that day, I get excited.”
Freek is only getting started. Already working on his next project, he says he is drawing inspiration from the hip-hop scene in Sudan and wants to try his hand at Amapiano, the South African house genre that is finally getting the international recognition it deserves.
As long as Freek continues making music, he is home. The artist’s identity and community are one with the songs he creates for his listeners – and for himself, as a means of survival.
When he’s home, no barrier can challenge his undeniable creative force of energy.
“If you’re an artist, any obstacle should be a challenge."
Danny Hajjar is a media relations professional based in Washington, DC. An avid music lover, he is passionate about hip-hop artists in the Middle East and North Africa and the growth of their music beyond the region. He curates music and stories in his weekly newsletter “Sa’alouni El Nas”.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielGHajjar