For many of us, hip-hop has always been more than just another music genre, a passing trend or temporary lifestyle.

It’s a cultural movement with deep roots that highlight socio-economic disadvantages, an accreditation to the advancement of civil rights progress, and, in sociological terms, an ongoing challenge to the status-quo.

In order to fully appreciate and understand this ever-growing sensation, one has to know and analyse the contemporary in historical context.

‘Hip-Hop’ as a movement comprises of several elements. Rapping, poetry, graffiti, DJ’ing, several forms of dancing, and perhaps most importantly, knowledge.

Historically, it was a voice for the voiceless and an artform for the oppressed and disenfranchised people, wanting to evoke change in their communities and the world around them.

It started with major influences in South Bronx, New York City, during the early 1970’s. It rapidly became popular outside of the African-American community in the late 1980s, and by the 1990’s grew into an international phenomenon, bringing people from diverse backgrounds onto one common platform.

Hip-Hop has no colour, race, religion or gender

Hip-Hop has no colour, race, religion or gender. It’s an inclusive form of art, expressed either lyrically or physically, open to anyone and everyone who is willing to respect the cultural importance associated with it.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I currently live, however, I see a problem with that.

Most people who listen to hip-hop, be it classic, old-school or mainstream, don’t know anything about its history and what it stands for.

From a personal observational point of view, I believe that, in fact, a lot of people feel ‘ashamed’ to admit their admiration for the hip-hop culture and openly disassociate themselves from it.

I have seen individuals, who ordinarily listen to mainstream hip-hop on the radio or in their car, make fun of and look down on it when in larger crowds.

Unfortunately, the thought that this versatile music genre only represents crime, vulgar language, homophobia and sexism still exists.

This has a lot to do with the way young people are brought up in this part of the world.

Without wanting to profile or generalise, I would say that the main demographic of individuals who listen to hip-hop in this country/region can best be described as characters who grew up comparatively comfortable. They are mostly privately educated, spend a lot of time in malls, and their summer vacations in upper-class areas of Geneva, Paris, London, Milan or New York.

Here is where the distinction between ‘appreciation’ and ‘appropriation’ comes in.

In countries such as Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine and Tunisia, the hip-hop movement is enormous in comparison to the Arab nations in the Gulf. Poverty, inequality, discrimination, and widespread corruption breathes on a large scale across North Africa. This is well-known and well-documented.

Artists, as a result, find a voice in hip-hop and consumers can genuinely relate to those musicians. And although some of these socio-economic issues might also exist in the Gulf region, they only represent and affect an absolute minority of residents.

Therefore, the broad conclusion is that because people are well-off, and in most cases rather wealthy in the countries comprising the Gulf, there is no need for a hip-hop urbanity to become mainstream.

This is what leads me to believe that the hip-hop culture, here in the UAE, will never be as big as that in North Africa, despite the talent that evidently subsists in this flourishing land.

Appreciation vs. Appropriation

In a recent interview with music medium ‘Backspin TV’, the Berlin-based german rapper FLER questioned the authenticity of most current artists in the scene. ‘Fake vs. Real’ was the theme of the discussion.

Fler, who started off with graffiti and became a successful pioneer of the german hip-hop foundation, argued that an artists’ music should be a product of his/her social circumstances. He stated that whilst on a commercial level, to be “fake” may pay off financially, on a cultural level, it ridicules the entire scene.

In my home country of Germany, most mainstream hip-hop artists are a product of a comfortable upbringing, university educated and have never been subjects to poverty, racial profiling and discrimination. Yet, they come onto the big screen claiming to be the voice of those that are affected by such issues.

As a result, real artists who highlight real issues, faced by real people, are compared to “clowns”, whilst ‘outsiders’ profit from it by selling a fake image to the majority “white teenage consumers”. In a discussion that sparked a nationwide online-debate, most people agreed with him.

That doesn’t mean that hip-hop is for the socially disadvantaged only. It simply means that you should not represent yourself as someone you are not and stick to what you know and have experienced, rather than inventing an image for commercial purposes.

Unfortunately, this also results in the creation of privileged young people from upper-class households who start to dress, dance and talk like they are from the Bronx, which can clearly be described as appropriation rather than appreciation.

At present, I can draw similar patterns in the UAE. Whilst there is a minority of artists and consumers alike who really stay true to their roots and understand the cultural importance of hip-hop, mostly, images and brands are created for purposes of monetization.

“For the greater good of hip-hop”

Having said all of that, in the past few years, there has been some advancement. Two events that are making progress in the right direction and certainly caught my attention were Dubai-based Sole DXB and Slam Fam.

Sole DXB started back in 2010 as a platform for latest news in footwear, fashion and alternative culture in the Middle East. It also hosts an annual lifestyle fair with hip-hop as its main component.

Now, in its fifth year running, with names such as Moto, Pepsi and Cadillac as official sponsors, it’s becoming increasingly important and relevant to the hip-hop scene across the continent.

This year, British grime artist and ‘2016 Mercury Music Prize Winner‘ Skepta headlined the event and Adidas brought a special guest along, Stormzy.

Slam Fam is slightly different. It’s a community-driven project uniting people who have a common love for dance. Their passion for choreography is evident and their aim is to grow the hip-hop scene in the Middle East.

On their Facebook page, they state that the vision and goal they set themselves is to organise several annual contests to gather international dancers, graffiti artists, DJ’s, musicians and freestylers, hoping to make Dubai the capital of hip-hop by 2020 and represent the UAE internationally.

The team and I recently covered ‘Sole DXB’ as part of the media and asked attendees for their thoughts on this subject in the context of the UAE.

Out of the 50+ individuals we asked during the two-day event, half of them said they felt strongly associated with the hip-hop movement and culture itself, whilst the other half said they don’t know much about it and just enjoy certain components of it.

Clearly, given the equal split in opinion and answers, it’s a wider discussion that needs to be held, not only in the UAE but internationally… ‘for the greater good of hip-hop’.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to share in the comments below.

  • Ramee Deeb

    It would have made sense to also look at how hip-hop was ‘exported’ to the GCC countries, and therefore appropriated to those countries (think how there’s Japanese hip-hop – I’d recommend Ian Condry’s, “Yellow B-Boys, Black Culture, and Hip-Hop in Japan: Toward a Transnational Cultural Politics of Race”). What about the disenfranchised communities in the GCC mainly consisting of expats and immigrants (surely not everyone is rich in those countries). Also, you make the argument that hiphop has no colour, race, religion or gender, but at the same time you’re saying that it’s defined within the boundaries of social class (without actually looking at the industry and the way cultural capital flows in today’s globalised world). Good read though.