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La culture pop dans la péninsule Arabique

From Rap to Trap: The Khaliji Migrant Finds his Aesthetic

Mona Kareem


Cet article explore les trajectoires et les productions artistiques d’ artistes de hip hop arabophones issus de migrants dans les pays du Golfe (particulièrement les EAU et l’Arabie saoudite). Il décrit spécifiquement l’émergence récente d’une nouvelle scène hip hop conduite par ces acteurs de deuxième génération, et dont les textes apparaissent comme plus engagés que ceux des rapports disposant de la nationalité locale. S’ils font face à des critiques du public du fait de leurs origines exogènes, parfois utilisées pour délégitimer leur position, il est suggéré que le hip hop leur fournit une langue permettant d’exprimer leur expérience spécifique de migrants : les quartiers informels dans lesquels ils ont grandi, les récriminations envers le kafīl, la police, l’exclusion systémique, leur expérience du chômage et de l’exclusion ; ces expériences garantissent aux artistes la « crédibilité de rue » qui manque aux rappeurs citoyens.
L’article examine aussi bien les enregistrements que les vidéoclips produits par ces rappeurs, ainsi que des discours tenus sur eux, dans les médias, la section commentaire de YouTube ou les forums en ligne. Il aborde un certain nombre de questions : comment les questions d’ethnicité et de classe sont mobilisées dans les textes, les registres linguistiques, la créativité parodique des chansons, dans les controverses et les discours portant sur les artistes, mais aussi celle de l’intervention étatique, que ce soit par la voie de la cooptation via le financement de l’industrie culturelle ou par la censure. Enfin, la question de l’expérience migratoire, rarement exprimée et qui est rendue visible par les productions hip hop.

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1In post‑apocalyptic Abu Dhabi, inside what appears like the last surviving spaceship, stands a Somali kid who goes by the name “Freek,” with double E, as he likes to stress. Behind him, we see a veiled man dressed like a Tuareg warrior holding an electric guitar that uplifts the banging melody of Freek’s Trap hit Wa‑lā Kilma (not a word) released in March 2019, its title coming off as a warning phrase.1 While standing on top of his spaceship, Freek is filmed through a drone camera that catches him alone before a desert cut by a highway. Like the drone’s circular motion, his lyrics come as pieced lines from different angles, addressed to the you’s and the they’s who go unidentified. The premise of his song does not differ much from American Trap hits in which the speaker is “winning,” while his enemies count their losses. Yet, the mystery surrounding the addressed keeps it open to interpretations. In the first stanza, the rapper re‑employs the hook “not a word” to different means:

تلفوني ترررن ولا كلمة، وقفوني بكورولا سألوا عن صديقي بس والله ما أدله، في المينا متواجد، شاي كرك مع الشلة، حمود وبو خالد والباقي في مهمة… أبو ظبي سيتي ربرزنتنج منطقتي، يطالع فيني يقول هذا قاع يفتي.

My phone is ringing, wala kilma, a Corolla stops me, they ask about my friend, I don’t know. At the port sitting with my crew, having Karak tea, with Hamood and Abu Khaled, the rest on a mission… from Abu Dhabi representing my area, they look at me strangely: he’s making it up.

  • 2 “Freek: the UAE based Somali Rapper that Bathes in Laban”, Scene Noise, 23‑4‑2019, [https://scenen (...)
  • 3 Morgan, 2013, p. 127.

2On the sides of Freek’s spaceship, we read in a green Arabic font Palm Beach Hotel. The post‑apocalyptic ship turns out to be a plane installation by the video’s director, Aiham al‑Subaihi [Ayham al‑Ṣubayḥī], commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. In a punchline most favorited by the song’s fans, Freek demands: “I don’t need exposure yā ḥabībī iṣrif‑lī shēk” (I don’t need exposure ya habibi, run me a cheque). Freek’s fans outside the region, or who grew up there, read his line to be addressed to the Arab boss who wants to exploit him. Six years ago, Freek was skateboarding to the metal songs of Slipknot, Korn, and Killswitch Engage. His hit song with its “hard drums, loud kicks, and snappy snares” mixes a flowing melody to the aggressive bangs of the rising Trap genre.2 His love for rock music is embodied by the figure of the ghost guitarist, perhaps a nod to Tinariwen, the Tuareg band renowned for their blues/rock adaptations of Saharan music, and a clothing style distinguished by its blue turban‑veil Chèche.3 Though the Trap genre has already made numbers in North Africa with rappers like Soolking of Algeria or Wegz and Marwan Pablo of Egypt, Freek comes as one of the first Gulf rappers to have taken it to the hit‑making level, expanding Arabic hip hop beyond conscious rap and YouTube niche. The Trap subgenre, which originated from Atlanta City in the ‘90s, has recently crossed into the mainstream thanks to pop artists like Drake, Cardi B, and Future. Distinct for its synthetic sound and kick drums, Trap lyrics generally address the drug dealer’s or the hustler’s experience within the usual trope of rags to riches.

  • 4 Lori, 2012 ; Akinci, 2019.

3Freek represents the more recent names and trends to rise in the Gulf hip hop scene. In this article, I begin by examining his music collaborations to situate him among a generation of Gulf‑born Arabic‑speaking migrants who have utilized hip hop as a medium to tell their stories of struggle, hope, and triumph. Although 75% of Abu Dhabi residents below the age of 15 are non‑citizens, scholars have taken note of how understudied the experiences of Gulf migrants and their children remain within studies of migration, citizenship, and diaspora as “they are neither diasporic nor transnational due to legal and social policies that position them as temporary and economic.”4 I argue that this new hip hop scene is especially phenomenal considering the relative erasure of migrants from local cultural representations. Because of its nature as a solo production, hip hop makes it possible for the disenfranchised to bypass all obstacles with a verse and a beat. In this article, I first discuss the work of Freek and his collaborator Alonzo – their video aesthetic, lyrical style, as well as issues and themes that recur in their songs, such as discrimination and unemployment. Second, I move on to the Jeddah‑based Qiyādāt duo who speak of similar issues, and despite their success, have faced backlash from “citizen rappers” [i.e holding Saudi citizenship] and their fans. Last, I look at the example of Sudanese‑Saudi rapper Flippter who, unlike other second‑generation migrant rappers, seems more connected to his country of origin, often addressing anti‑black racism in Arab culture.

  • 5 Isoke, 2015.
  • 6 Cooke, 2021.
  • 7 Ibid

4In her study “Why Am I Black? Gendering Hip‑Hop, and Translocal Solidarities in Dubai,” Zenzele Isoke interviews young women rappers in Dubai who discuss their takes on gender relations, migration, and race.5 Her interviewees include a Sudanese woman who grew up in Dubai, a Palestinian‑American whose mother is African American, as well as an Algerian‑Lebanese. With each of the cases, we see a fixation on the issue of identity, how one runs from one identity to a larger one (such as blackness), sometimes only metaphorically, without belonging to it. In this paper, the second‑generation Gulf rappers I engage with seem to have figured out their identity crises. “I am a global citizen,” Freek says in an interview. His lyrics stress his belonging to Abu Dhabi, not even to an Emirati nation, but to that city and to that neighborhood he grew up in, to his very group of friends. Considering its history as a spatial artistic form through which working‑class people attest their belonging (to a city, borough, or neighborhood), hip hop has appropriately lent itself for second‑generation migrants in the Gulf to produce their own locality.6 The city, as opposed to the nation, “offers itself as a more immediate scale for individuals to express and practice belonging.”7

5Being a video artist too, Freek once made a video using footage of war‑torn Somalia set to the Narcos TV series theme song, “I am pitching Narcos Somalia to Netflix,” he writes in the caption with a laughing face emoji. In his Waḍḥa video, after bathing in milk, Freek appears in a long grey t‑shirt, his waist wrapped with a makāwīs (a loincloth traditionally worn by men across the Indian Ocean, also known as wizār in the Gulf)8 and a snake moving around his neck.9 Freek seems aware of his dual identities and locations, as he has been navigating them his entire life; his lyrics illustrate it best, his video signifiers rather embrace and expand on all that he is.

  • 10 Zacharias & Topping, 2018, p.107.
  • 11 Assaf, 2020.

6One of his songs, Karak, simply chronicles the rituals of daily tea‑drinking, at home and with friends. Chai Karak, frequently appearing in Freek’s tracks, is in itself one example of the cultural influence of migration in the Gulf­– the word karak comes from the Urdu or Hindi [کڑک], meaning “hard” or in this case, a strong mix of cardamom tea and milk commonly consumed in the Emirates, first introduced by Indian‑run cafeterias10. In her article on Arab migrant youth in Abu Dhabi, Laure Assaf describes karak as “a drink of the interstices,” as it has become associated with a daily lifestyle of cruising and casual meet ups in the liminal spaces of a rapidly changing city.11

7In another song titled Abu Dhabi, Freek moves between the trademarks of the city and his own version of Abu Dhabi with friends skateboarding, biking, and dancing in a public playground. “Abu Dhabi my sweet home… Jātnī furṣa asībhā, ṣaddiqnī mā hānat” (Abu Dhabi my sweet home, I got a chance to leave but couldn’t let it go) he sings.12 In a shorter video, made by Ahmed Carter, a fellow UAE‑Somali, who directed the Abu Dhabi song, we see Freek with the same squad in the same location, retreating to the background of the playground, as roller‑skating Pakistani men dressed in Salwar‑s drop their own dance moves to Lil Pump’s hit Gucci Gang.13 Freek’s songs and videos hide behind them a network of second‑generation migrants, such as Waleed Shah who started a recording studio where Freek recorded his songs. Shah then turned to photography, with his signature project “Abu Dhabi throwback.” He tells Assaf: “I’m an Abu Dhabi kid, born at Corniche Hospital and raised on Khalifa street by the Old Souk; the one that burned down and got replaced by the World Trade Centre Mall,” which she reads as an assertion of a presence measured “by the ability to have witnessed these rapid transformations of Abu Dhabi.”14 These transformations impact their very lives, considering how several members of their collective have had to leave the country in the past few years, a path which Gardner refers to as “further diasporization” common among middle‑class Gulf migrants.15

  • 16 Flores, 2000.
  • 17 Aidi, 2014.
  • 18 Braxton Peterson, 2014.

8This connection between the migrant experience and hip hop is rather a feature of the genre. Juan Flores documents the history of early hip‑hop in New York City and how Nuyoricans used the music to organize their community and create connections with others.16 Similarly, in Hisham Aidi’s Rebel Music, we learn how the genre was first embraced by France’s migrant communities in urban centers.17 The way hip hop centers the spoken word for the artist makes it a more democratic form, one that escapes the difficulties of institutionalized speech, text, or form. It is no surprise that such music genre, known for its Do‑It‑Yourself culture, its ability to infiltrate public discourse and transgress taboos,18 would come to rise in the Arabic‑speaking world where censorship and dissent are part of everyday politics. Hip hop satisfies the need for a politicized medium for marginalized individuals and groups to express themselves without the need for official venues or industry platforms; thus, allowing singular narratives to come against mainstream ones.

  • 19 Ghabra, 2019.

9For Gulf migrants (usually referred to as Wāfidīn, expats or Muqīmīn, residents, and by themselves as Mughtaribīn, diasporic), it is nothing new to become a singer, TV star, writer, or any other cultural actor. Generations of migrants, especially in TV and press industries across the Gulf, worked and thrived economically, without being able to push any of their narratives (perhaps except for Palestinians prior to the Gulf War)19. They composed stories about the citizens and for the citizens, remained in the shadows, their names were edited out (in the example of post‑war Kuwait) or forgotten, and when they played the protagonist roles, they blended in, erased any markers, altered their tongues and looks. Hip hop, in this sense, evades these violent restrictions. It is a one‑man medium, in which he must narrate his story of turmoil and triumph, or otherwise cease to exist.

  • 20 Hūd, 2017.
  • 21 Saeed, 2018.
  • 22 Dennaoui, 2011.
  • 23 Holes, 2011.
  • 24 Karolak & Allam, 2020.

10When hip hop first came to the Gulf, it was brought by citizen kids who studied in the United States and wanted to introduce the genre to the region. The Saudi rapper, Qusai [Quṣay], is often accredited as “the first rapper” of the early 2000’s and with that honor alone he was able to make it into the TV industry, even though he did not rap in Arabic until years after.20 One will notice the same pattern in the rest of the region, English‑educated kids rapping in a form of English that is either formal or US‑centric. It has become common among hip‑hop amateurs across Europe and elsewhere to use a New York English as it becomes most associated with the genre. Kuwaiti rappers like Abdullah Trill or Sons of Yusuf set their tracks against the tunes of latest American hits, switching between two languages, focusing on simple or catchy lines but not much poetics or critiques.21 Their compositions and video aesthetic do not deviate away from Gangsta Rap, though they are not gang members. A Syrian rapper like Moh Flow, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and is based in Dubai, sings in English, as he was educated in an English‑language school. The examples are many, including Run Junction, the Saudi‑based “multi‑national group,” co‑founded by Qusai and his production company, Jeddah Legends, in 2010.22 Linguists have linked the spread of English in the region, as well as the manner of switching between Arabic and English, to a particular socio‑economic status of middle or upper‑class children who studied in private American or English schools and might have studied abroad for their higher education.23 They often feel insecure about their knowledge of Arabic or its grammar, and therefore find it more comfortable to switch between their two languages. Some might not even use Arabic as a written language, considering the dominance of English as a workplace language, and the availability of voice messages to communicate in place of texts.24

11Today, a rapper’s choice of language cannot be overlooked in Arabic hip hop. It was first viewed as a weakness point, debatable, but today stands at the center of a rapper’s credibility. When observing regional diss battles between Kuwaiti and Saudi rappers, the language point is constantly exploited against the Kuwaitis. For example, in the case of Vortex, a Kuwaiti rapper known for his indulgence in rap battles across the region, his lyrical style is described by his Saudi counterparts as redundant and broken. Vortex raps using both Arabic and English, and unlike them, never draws on fuṣḥā diction, simply relying on everyday Kuwaiti speech that makes him more pop. In one battle, Saudi‑born Yemeni rapper Big G opens up his diss of Vortex: “ma yfīdah flow aw tanwīʿ, kalimāt rakīka. Idha inta Buggati ana sadd manīʿ” (you got no use for flow and change, your words are broken. If you say you’re a Bugatti, then you should know I’m a fortified wall.” Similarly, Lebanese rappers face the same critique in rap battles, sometimes going as far as calling them white‑washed, spies, sellouts, and questioning the meaning of their presence in the Arab rap scene. In a live battle in Beirut between the Lebanese Kalash and Syrian Darwish, the latter states:

انا رح حط العربيزي بطيزك هون بنكتب عربي. اذا قوافيك مفرطعة ما بتلتقي بعضها عادي انا سيد لغتي... لأنو بالراب العربي أنا بمثل أصحاب الأرض وانت بتمثل المستوطنين.

  • 25 “Arabīzī” a portmanteau expression formed out of 'arabī and ingilīzī to describe the mixing or swi (...)

This Arabizi you speak I’ll shove it up your ass here we write in Arabic.25 Your rhymes are broken unmatched, while I am a master of my language… In Arabic rap I represent the natives and you represent the settlers.

12For someone like Freek, choosing to rap in a Khaliji Arabic might be questionable to an outsider, but to him it feels organic and dynamic. It allows him to dominate in a domain still very young, and somehow, does not restrict him from reaching a global audience. When looking at how his video is received, many of his fans are Somalis living in Europe and the United States. His song went viral in the United Kingdom, a major cultural center for the Somali diaspora, and was remixed with British rappers Eyez and Young Tribez. Despite his choice of Arabic, Freek leans back on Somali diaspora, with their vibrant online presence. In one comment on Wa‑lā Kilma, one user writes: “Somalis came and invented Arabic trap, I’M LIVING,” to which another responds: “Somalis even putting Arabic on the map.”

At first, there was a Tunisian

13In 2014, Freek had his local breakthrough with a track titled “Batali” (baṭṭālī) meaning unemployed, also used to mean “loser.” The song is a collaboration with Alonzo, a Tunisian who grew up in Abu Dhabi and who’s been in the rap game for so long but mostly underground. Batali was the first in several collaborations between the duo.26 Both their video art and lyrics focus on young migrant men complaining of unemployment yet approaching their lives with humor, spending their days on the streets, broke and hopeless, pressured by life, society, and their parents. Though unemployment is a common theme across mediums and forms in the Gulf, including rap, this song addresses a different class of the unemployed: those who are unentitled to employment or any other social rights. They grew up in a place where a future was not something they were promised. Interviews with second‑generation migrants in the UAE demonstrate how social and economic pressures are heightened by the fact their legal residence in the country is at constant threat.27

14In this instance, Freek and Alonzo are not different from US and European rappers who discuss racial and class discrimination that pushes them to become these “losers.” Their sarcasm is deployed against their hardworking parents who were not raised in the Gulf and view themselves as temporary workers. It is also directed at citizens or the state and media that normally frame them as thugs and a burden on society. In 2018, a Kuwaiti citizen filed a court case to challenge the state’s policy that permits the children of certain migrants employed in the public sector, such as teachers, to enroll in public schools, but the case was dismissed.28 More recently, Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior issued a decision to disallow expat dependents (children and spouses) from acquiring work visas, which in result denies them any chance of formal employment and legal residency.29

15Growing up in the Gulf, the young migrants cannot embrace their parents’ experience of migration as temporary and of constant struggle. In the following examples, the reader will understand how Freek and Alonzo have different expectations yet are very realistic in their depictions of life for their generation. They offer their powerful take on the status quo by presenting stereotypical images that target them, to then unpack and contextualize them as mean of telling their personal and collective stories. Dressed in black suits, the young men walk into an office tower dropping their resumes, before breaking into dance moves, Freek sings:

ابويا خلص دوامه وجالس الحين يتكلم في راسي، يقول خلاص انا بجلس وواحد يشتغل بدالي، طالعني طالعته صفعني صفعته... بطالي بطالي كورولا قدامي، سألني بطاقتك قتله ما عندي في الدبة عداني.

  • 30 The “Corolla” here refers to the Toyota Corolla car model commonly known of undercover cops in Abu (...)

My father is back from work ranting nonstop, told me that’s it I want to retire, you take my place. He stared at me, and I stared back, he slapped me, so I slapped him back… loser loser, I saw a Corolla30, they stopped me, “where’s your ID?”, I said I don’t have one, and they put me in their trunk.

16A few months later, Freek directs a video for Alonzo’s song Ḥāsib my nigga in which he keeps on with the character of the unemployed young migrant.31 In the tradition of rap, Alonzo reflects on themes like disloyalty, struggle, and women. He returns to the figure of bint al‑layl from one stanza to another as an embodiment of all his failures, the rejections, of how undesirable he is– a Marlboro pack in his pocket, a bottle to his side, no ambitions, living day to day. Yet, between these generic meditations on a life of despair, Alonzo manages to slip in his political lines, about corrupt systems and leaders “yaḥkimūnā ka‑l‑‘abīd” (they rule us like slaves). In two separate articles on Saudi hip hop, Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji32 and Palestinian rapper McGaza33 make the same point that Saudi rappers avoid political subjects and refrain to generic topics, on life and failure, or to feuding with each other using racist and homophobic rhetoric. On the contrary, someone like Alonzo seems capable of crossing boundaries– using words from Tunisian and Emirati dialects, while resorting to standard Arabic as a middle area, instead of English which commonly appears as a second language in Arabic or global hip hop. Alonzo, with his sarcastic and bleak lyrics, is perhaps the only rapper who discusses social issues such as unemployment, immigration, and policing, without hesitating to make references to the rulers. He also does not shy away from speaking about his drinking and sex habits, yet with a tone of humor and gloom. With flagged language, he finds replacements through wordplay, switching one letter of zibbī to zindī (my penis to my forearm), in the example of Ḥāsib. Though the track has gotten over 500,000 views, most of the comments are either critiquing his use of the “N word”, describing him as light‑skinned and Arab, while others insult him for his looks, cross‑eyed, badly dressed. Three years later, Alonzo dropped another popular track with Freek and Wolf, in which they identify as Africans, something Alonzo maintains in his other tracks too:

معاك أفارقة نقوم الصباح ناكل كورن فلكس بوسط الحومة، عندي شركة نغني راب قالوا شفيه هذا الأعور فاصل.

You’re dealing with Africans; we get up eat corn flakes in the hood. I started a company to sing rap, they said he’s gone crazy this cross‑eyed one.

17Alonzo embraces that image of himself as ugly, cross‑eyed, low‑life, who mimics the Americans, as his haters repeatedly point. Before Freek, Alonzo was a rapper who did not separate his daily life from politics, collaborating with Yasin, a Libyan who lives in Abu Dhabi. The two posted a few collaborations, starting from 2010, including Ḥurr anā ‘āyish (Free I live) in which the speakers talk about their experiences in prison, and how nothing can intimidate them, neither the government nor prison, “al‑qānūn ‘alā zibbī” (fuck the law). In his old and new tracks, Alonzo always begins with a shout out to the Kharābāt Boys, the slum boys. In Yawmiyyāt Mujrim (Thug Diaries), Alonzo speaks of the unemployed man but in a tone of vulnerability and political rage: the group of friends who’ve either migrated or become religious, the Sundays spent dropping resumes before drunk‑lamenting on Thursdays, the search for a foreign woman who would get him a visa to some western country:

مجتمع طبقات ما عندي خيارات... بارانويد الدوريات، وكبسات التحريات... القلب صافي لكن في نظرهم مجرم... غير الجريمة والحرام ماحد نفعنا.

It is a society of classes, a place of no options… paranoid of the police cars, of their late‑night raids… pure at heart I am, but in their eyes a criminal…nothing but crime and Haram to save us.

18In the English‑titled track Hometown34, Alonzo refers to the kharābat as his hometown, from Tunisia to Abu Dhabi, “hustle hard balṭageyya, shabāb māshī yibī‘ il‑ḥabb wi‑yikhabbī l‑qirsh, khūya yiḥawwil maṣrifiyya” (hustle‑hard thugs, young men selling pills, saving money bills, yes bro we wire them abroad). Dressed in a dishdāsha and a cap, Alonzo describes yet another day, smoking a joint, no work to do, strolling around:

كيف نعيشوا في الخلاء والحاكم خويا قصة ريحة، ليست مريحة زارع في الهاتف شريحة، صاروا يشدّوا فينا بالريحة، واقع لساني صريح [...] في الحتّة معروف خواجة، مخي هو الحاكم الباشا.

We live in destitution while the ruler, Bro, on the [hashish] scent, not a nice one, with a chip they tap our phones / they catch us by the scent, Seriously, my tongue doesn’t hold back… in the neighborhood they know me as the khawaja, but my mind rules the Pasha.

  • 35 Holes, 2011.

19This is perhaps the most politically explicit track for Alonzo, and it is one of the few ones remaining from his early work before working with Freek. The line “il‑ḥākim khūya qiṣṣit rīḥa” is ambivalent but might refer to hashish‑selling and getting chased by the police. It is also interesting to note how Alonzo uses Standard Arabic words, like khalā’ (void, destitution) in “kīf n‘īshū bil‑khalā’”, along with lexical elements taken from a variety of Arabic dialects, including Emirati (for example fāṣil, means out of his mind, in the earlier track of Wasta) or in the case of the track Hometown, he uses “Khawāja” an Egyptian word to refer to a white man, because some of the comments on his YouTube refer to him as westernized or Americanized, something he also makes mention of in Wasta. In his article on the status of dialects in the Gulf, Clive D. Holes declares a “recession of communal dialects in the face of linguistic homogenization.”35 He explains this development in relation to a “process of identity management” that introduced a homogenized form of speech, heard on soap operas, TV, and music. This, in result, has made marginalized groups (he gives the example of Baḥārna) bi‑dialectical, switching dialects depending on where and who they’re speaking to. Unfortunately, Holes’ study does not take into consideration Arab migrants and their bi‑ or multi‑dialectical speech but may explain this organic mixture of vocabulary which appears in the lyrics of Gulf migrant rappers. We notice that Alonzo uses a variety of words to mean neighborhood, such as “ḥetta” in Egyptian, or the Tunisian word “ḥūma” in Wasta, while his signature word “kharābāt” for slums is Emirati. I claim that very few rappers in the Gulf come close to Alonzo’s political critique, lyrical flow, and blunt character, except perhaps for the two Yemenis from Jeddah City, Randar and Al‑young, whose work I discuss in the following section.

West coast only coast

20Though hip hop is two decades old in the Arabic‑speaking world, we can notice how rappers, fans, and commentators use the two categories of Old school and New School (Transliterated into Arabic). For example, Big Hass, a Saudi radio host who specializes in covering Arabic hip hop, constantly uses these two categories when introducing tracks or rappers he’s interviewed.36 But unlike American hip hop, new school here seems to be the one more innovative and original, overcoming amateur imitations of American hits, formulating varied lyrical styles that employ a strong diction mixing both fuṣḥā and local dialects. The category “new school” is meant to refer to a newcomer, or as a compliment for someone with a fresh or distinct flow. The duo Randar and Al‑young, who go by al‑Qiyādāt al‑‘Ulyā (Higher Authorities), also known as al‑Nukhba (the Elite), are the front faces of New School and their fame has surpassed millions of local fans to cover the Gulf region. They opened up for artists like Cheb Khaled and US rapper Nelly when performing in the Saudi kingdom. They were able to monetize on their fame, yet like true rappers, they did not stop talking about their roots, about al‑‘ashwā’iyyāt (slums) and al‑Kandara, the Jeddah neighborhood where they grew up.37 Before Qiyādāt made their appearance in the scene with Kandarawi which pays homage to the neighborhoods of Jeddah, the Saudi rap scene was dominated by rappers like Klash, Al‑‘ashīra, and Wakr al‑‘aṣfūr.

  • 38 Nājī, 2018.

21Klash is one of the oldest in the scene. A citizen born in Jeddah, he is infamous for his foul language and recycling of racist and masculinist discourses. No one has been spared his insults, citizens or migrants, Arabs or Black. He does not refrain from calling his opponents slaves and servants, bragging about his pure Arab lineage. Despite his big local fan base, Klash is usually marked as the old school rapper who cannot offer much other than feud and hatred, intending to emasculate and degrade his opponents. Ahmed Naji argues that the nature of the Saudi rap scene, or this tendency for hijā’ (invective lyrics) fits its tribal nature, based on blind alliances that would not consider artistry or content.38 Though this anthropological interpretation could apply in the case of Klash, it cannot extend to the various actors of the scene, many of whom are not of tribal backgrounds, and rather assert a belonging to the hood.

22Though diss (appearing in Arabic rappers’ lingo under the form of loanword dis) is an essential part of hip‑hop history, in the Saudi scene it was a driving force in expanding the popularity of the genre. The word “diss” derived from “disrespect” refers to a song primarily meant to attack an opponent, leading to battles, or back‑and‑forth tracks between rivals or even rival groups or gangs, most infamously the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry of the late ‘90’s. Nizāl Maksīkī (Mexican Face‑off) by Qiyādāt was the first rap song to trend at #1 on Saudi YouTube.39 The new generation of rappers realize that Klash’s style is no longer acceptable, simply because it is limiting and redundant. This is another major point that Arabic hip hop today seems to agree on, as observed from battles hosted by the Arena, the Beirut‑based battle‑rap venue,40 Big Hass’s radio shows, or online commentators on YouTube, as well as fan forums. Indeed, Klash had to go to prison back in 2007, 18‑year‑old at the time, when one of his many victims filed a case against him for defamation. After his release, he attempted to wash his reputation, making a song about his mother, performing clean tracks at public venues such as youth festivals or shopping malls, before getting back to his old style, refraining from foul language, but not from racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric. Klash is not the only Saudi rapper of this nature, there is also Abady [‘Abbādī] and Wakr, who were once his collaborators. In his lyrics, Klash follows one style of composition that is saj’ or rhymed prose. In one song, he appears dressed in a T‑shirt and a headwrap of a military print, his veiled opponent kneeling before him as he uses the binary of al‑ḥurr vs. al‑mamlūk (the free vs. the enslaved).41 Moreover, Klash is accused by his opponents of lacking street credit. They remind him that he is not from the ḥawārī (the hoods), but rather from the ḥayy (the neighborhood), a marker of class difference.42 We can notice here how migrant rappers refer to their areas as ḥawārī (plural of ḥāra, narrow streets of old districts mostly inhabited by migrants or poor families) or kharābāt (slums) as opposed to how citizens normally use ḥayy (in Saudi Arabia) or firīj (in Kuwait and the UAE) to refer to their affluent, suburban‑like blocks with two‑floor houses and garages, distributed by the state to citizen families. Klash has made the mistake of shooting his videos on the streets of his opponents where he does not normally reside, a point that Qiyādāt used against him as an attempt to gain “street credit” from a place where he does not belong.43

23Saudi Old School rap is challenged when Qiyādāt comes into the scene. The duo is not intimidated by its ill reputation, dropping the diss Nizāl Maksīkī which initiates a series of diss tracks between the duo and Klash, later dragging other rappers in such as Big G, 217 and their co‑founder Shiboba, as well as El Joker. In a later track Mā kān widdī (I didn’t wish to) Qiyādāt talk about their image as rappers, how they’ve been defamed, criticized, and excluded.44 From this exchange, it is clear how Gangsta Rap has shaped the image of hip hop for these young rappers, and how it attracts teenagers on the internet, who wish to be part of a contested scene, not just some underground genre.

  • 45 Angeja Viator, 2020.

24Though some rappers are indeed from the slums of Jeddah, their gang wars are not actual conflicts, only artistic ones. Even their emphasis on the “West Coast vs. East Coast” analogy seems absurd, since there is no East Coast in the equation. From track to track, Qiyādāt like to appropriate California aesthetics, from clothing to dance moves and typeface, set against the melodies of West‑Coast hip hop classics. Other than the fact that Jeddah is located on the west coast of the kingdom, US West‑Coast is also the birthplace of gangsta rap, and the subgenre was the first to put West‑Coast rap on the US scene, thanks to names such as Dr. Dre, Tupac, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dog.45 When they are not busy feuding with Klash and his allies, Qiyādāt have powerful tracks on life in the slums– drugs, unemployment, and migrant life.

25In one track from 2014 titled mawlūd mughtarib (Born a stranger) Randar spits a powerful take on migrant life in Saudi Arabia, set as a conversation between himself and an imaginary citizen:

عايش في واقع قذر، والواقع ظلمني، كل ما اتكلم اسمع انت أجنبي تخدمني، يمكن جسمي ينسجن لكن عقلي يبقى حر، لأجل كذا بعت الطرب واشتريت الراب الحر.

Living a dirty reality, a reality unfair to me, every time I speak, he says you’re my foreign servant, my body might be a prisoner, but my mind remains free, this is why I sold ṭarab, and bought the freedom of rap.

26Ṭarab, literally, means ecstatic engagement or intense joy, a word used to refer to Arabic vocal music from the late 19th century to the mid‑20th century. It relies on the vocal power of the singer, given the honorable title of mutrib[a], and includes a vast range of musical forms from the dawr, muwwashah, to mawwal, and ughniya, which are accompanied by the traditional chamber group (tākht). Ṭarab is performed and celebrated across the Arab world as a form of high‑art, most authentic to Arabic musical traditions. It requires highly trained musicians, and is performed at national halls, televised concerts, or in exclusive parties. In several tracks, Randar uses this binary of Ṭarab vs. Rap as he seems to equate the first with privilege and indulgence, while rap is the medium of the oppressed, of rage and rebellion, the underground. In another verse of mughtarib, Randar adds:

تشتغل لتكسي أهلك، والكفيل يبغى الراتب... سؤال يدور في بالي، فضلكم من اللي رباني، اكيد بتنكر وتقول رحلوا هذا يماني... ولا عادي أني اموت وانت تعيش في نعمة. انت يماني؟ اي يماني، يعني أوسخ طبقة.

You work to buy clothes for your family/ the day ends the kafīl wants your money/ they will deny and say deport the Yemeni/ why should you live in comfort while I search for a bite/ You’re Yemeni? Yes Yemeni, we are the dirty class.46

27The kafīl, or sponsor, is the citizen who has the legal power to keep or deport a migrant who works for him, as per the Kafala system common of the Gulf countries, by which immigration management is co‑run by the state and its citizen class. Whether in the songs of Qiyādāt or Freek and Alonzo, the kafīl is used more largely to refer to citizens in relation to their privileges, abuse of legal power, or racist attitudes. Randar’s monologue addresses the usual anti‑migrant rhetoric in Saudi Arabia, taking migrants for granted, who do the dirty jobs they [citizens] don’t want, who built “their” kingdom from zero. “Kawwish ‘al‑manṭiga wi‑‘īsh aḥlāmak malik, ḍāji‘ il‑nujūm wi‑tshūf Jeddah Las Vegas.” (You run the area, living your dreams, a king mating the stars, before his eyes, a Las Vegas Jeddah becomes) the duo sing in al‑‘Ashwā’iyyāt (the slums).”47

28On the margin of this contested scene, comes one of the duo’s good friends and collaborators, LiL Eazy. If you look up the young man’s name on the internet, you will notice that the top search result reads “Lil Eazy Somali?”. Lil Eazy is a Saudi‑born Somali who was first known for his hit “Millionaire,” after which the young man’s identity was used to debate his credibility. In the comment sections or on social media, citizens like to reveal the nationalities of their local stars and influencers, as if they were top secrets, sometimes to discredit and reject them. In Nājī’s aforementioned article, and in other settings when I showed Lil Eazy’s “Millionaire” song to Arabs not from the Gulf region, the song is assumed to represent the stereotypical Saudi flexing his money and power. The humor in the lyrics and video are overlooked, and the narrative of a migrant kid making it in Saudi Arabia goes unnoticed. Saudis indeed enjoyed the “Millionaire” hit, whether or not they were millionaires, the song received millions of views and several remixes. Lil Eazy sings about making something out of nothing, being the resilient man who saved “riyāl ‘ala riyāl ‘ala riyāl” (a riyal on top of a riyal) so he can buy his fancy cars. The song might be more of a parody, mocking himself and his peers who fall for the promise of rags to riches in hip hop, when there is still no industry for them. Or it can also be mocking the migrant experience itself. It would be difficult to grow up in a consumerist luxury‑indulgent society, and avoid engaging with such culture via desire, class‑hatred, protest, or humor. The same can be said about the previous examples of Freek and Carter’s short film “Gucci Gang.” The standpoint of the artist plays a role in accenting the nature of his otherwise redundant hip‑hop narrative; it borrows the hustler‑to‑star promise to cause a little anxiety for the citizen who believes all of this wealth must be his alone. In today’s internet speech internationally, “Gucci” is used as an adjective for anything fancy, and therefore, it is the group of friends themselves who are valuable, not their swagger.

29From this hip‑hop scene in Saudi Arabia, one can see that rappers have different priorities in their work; some highlight class via migration (Qiyādāt), others highlight race (Khawāl Muflimīn, see infra), while the citizens like Klash or Wakr, focus on national identity and class in reactionary ways. After his success, Lil Eazy made an upbeat song titled Maẓāhir (appearances) addressing the slurs and bullying he has experienced, how he celebrates his difference, and goes on to critique shame culture, whether between social groups or against women.48 Lil Eazy has also made a collaboration with Slow Moe and Muslim, produced by Omar Hussain, titled al‑Ghurabā’ (the strangers) which addresses social discrimination.49 Hussain himself is attacked on social media as “not a real Saudi” or a “naturalized Yemeni” as to discredit his liberal views. Similarly, Shiboba of Riyadh is referred to as the “naturalized Sudanese”, who forgot his roots and sold out, posing as a Saudi. In an interview with Ma3azef magazine, Shiboba however claims that racism in the rap scene is not real, and that it is only on the internet and on surface. Interestingly, when asked about his favorite rappers, he refers to the Syrian Anas Arabi as “not Saudi but claimed by Saudi rap.”50

Sudan in Riyadh

30Following a year of disputes, the YouTube animated comedy show Masāmīr, with over 12 million viewers, posted a 15‑minute sketch that sums up the nature of the Saudi hip‑hop scene.51 In the 2017 episode “Fajwa” (The Gap), one of their main characters, professor ʿᾹdil, an elitist Saudi intellectual, picks a fight with a teenager at a restaurant. The kid, standing by the restaurant counter with his headphones on, is blocking ʿᾹdil from making his order. The professor tries to get his attention by grabbing his Afro hair, only to find himself inside an “imaginary world of the Afro”, which looks like a jungle with animals, trees, and waterfalls. While stunned by the scenery, the kid interrupts ʿᾹdil’s imaginary rift, pushing him aside. In a Saudi‑Sudanese mix with clear Sudanese phonological markers, the kid tells him to wait for him as he goes to grab his weapon, then returning with a boombox, ready to spit a diss. The short lyrics are not necessarily understandable, but their endings do rhyme, which seems to be the entire point. The kid states “ana kafīlī bi‑zāto yikhāf minnī / silaḥī howwa fannī” (my art is my weapon… even my kafīl is scared of me) promising to make him a laughingstock. Flippter goes on: Agūl, warā mā tākul dhanab (hey man, why don’t you go eat a lizard tail) alluding to the classic anti‑beduin cliché as “lizard eaters” that medieval literature is replete with52, and has persisted as a stereotype against Saudis, or among Saudis against Beduins, as well as in Kuwait by ḥaḍar against badū. Here, it is the migrant kid who exploits a Saudi stereotype for a laugh.

31Flippter’s verse is reminiscent of the hijā’ poetry form, violent, comedic, and foul. Hijā’ can be explained as invective or satire poetry. It makes one of the basic modes of classical Arabic poetry, but today is rarely in practice. The resemblance between rap battles (dis rap) and hijā’ is uncanny: both are meant to destroy an opponent's credibility or honor in a series of verses or poems exchanged between two poets or groups. Hijā’ was centered on ridiculing one’s honor, chivalry, lineage, and pride. Perhaps the most cited example to hijā is Ḥassān ibn Thābit who was encouraged by Prophet Muhammad to mock the opponents of Islam. Hijā’ was also weaponized, for example during the Umayad era, as a mean of blackmailing and profiting. In other cases, hijā’ poets were punished by authorities for their political critiques.53 In hijā’, just like in dis rap, all is permissible for the goal of destroying your opponent– from humor and vulgarity to defamation. If touching on one’s family honor and women, it would be considered hijā’ muqdhi'. Similar to the punch‑line of dis rap, a hijā’ is best remembered by one verse by which the opponent was finished. Egyptian actor and singer Ahmed Mekky declared, upon releasing his first Rap album titled Aṣlī ‘Arabī, that “Rap originates from ancient Arabia.”54 In Flippter’s verse, we can see how he employs humor, violence, but also foul language, all of which are the components of hijā:

أضربك ضرب وابيد سكان كوكب الأرض
لا تسوّي في أمَّها زيبان [ذئاب؟] / وانت في الأرض ماكل ... [زقّان؟]
كإنك جعري ما يفيدك إلا الجري / عامل فيها قوي طلعت الطري
مالك إلا الظرط [الضراط] يا خراطي / فما تعمل فيها صعلوك
ما دايرين شكشكة هنا / تقوم يا زفت تحقر بيّ أنا؟
أحسن هوّي يا زول هوّي !

  • 55 Shakshaka is music to dance to, shake to. See Urkevich, 2014.

aḍrabak ḍarb w‑abīd sukkān kawkab il‑arḍ / I will hit you hard might exterminate the whole planet
lā tsawwī fī ummahā zībān / Don’t pretend to be a pack of wolves
winta fī l‑arḍ mākil [beep = zeggān?] / when on earth you’re eating shit
ka‑innak ji‘rī mā yifīdak illā l‑jarī / like a beetle you can only run away
‘āmil fīhā qawī ṭala‘t iṭ‑ṭarī / pretending to be strong but turn out to be a wimp
mālak illā ẓ‑ẓarṭ yā khrāṭī / you can only fart you shitty one
fa‑mā ti‘mil‑lī fīhā ṣa‘lūk / Don’t pretend to be a street guy
Mā dāyrīn shakshaka hunā / we’re not having a shakshaka here 55
Taqūm yā zift taḥqir biyya ana/ you dirt, do you think you can despise me
aḥsan Hawwī ya zōl hawwī / get going, ya zōl amateur

32Following these verses, Professor ʿᾹdil finds himself shunned and helpless. His friends later explain to him that he has been dissed and must respond in order to restore his name. They first try to consult an American who lives in the “countryside” of Riyadh. We hear country music blasting as they arrive at the American’s house, whose name is Adam McSmith, dressed in a KKK gown and sounds very much like Donald Trump. He advises them to deal with those kind [black people] in the only way they understand, offering Dr. ʿᾹdil and his friends a gun, which scares them away. The friends then advise ʿᾹdil to dig up some dirt on the teenager to aid him in his diss. They go to a Saudi detective who provides them with the dirt they need: “The rapper is not Saudi,” he informs them after investigation. Everyone sighs in relief, assuring ʿᾹdil that he is now guaranteed to win the battle.

33The episode is a hilarious take on the status of hip hop in Saudi Arabia in three aspects. First, we encounter the generational difference, with Adel not understanding what a rap diss is and the public humiliation he experienced at the hand of a teenager. Second, when they pay a visit to Adam McSmith, we can see how the episode hints at the association of this music genre with black people, and by extension the stereotypical images of Black people, shared by the White American and his Saudi guests. Even though the rapper first states that “his art is his weapon,” the image of that art remains associated with violence and crime. The sketch draws the necessary connection between generic racial images in the local culture and the new ones of a global hip hop culture that is made to feed the same racial imaginary. Third, the fact that ʿᾹdil’s only comeback against his teenage opponent is to diss him for being not Saudi is a direct reference to how citizen rappers often use this point against their migrant counterparts. Though the teenager obviously was not hiding his Sudanese identity when dissing Adel, the episode makes fun of how a migrant’s identity is turned into an accusation or a secret to be revealed (a source of shame) as a way to discredit them or to question their presence in the local scene.

34What this Masāmīr episode also offers is the promising talent of Louay Flippter, a Riyadh‑based rapper who has garnered more attention after the 2019 Sudanese revolution, recording a revolutionary song at the COLORS studio in Berlin, known for its introduction of the best emerging hip hop and RnB artists.56 Studies on diasporic families remark how migrant children often lose their connection to their countries of origins, or as Karen Leonard puts it, the Gulf unsettles these middle‑class migrant children’s “knowledge of and commitment to their parents’ home nations.” This is also confirmed in Idil Akinci's interviews with second‑generation Arab youth who explain that their foreign identities are flattened and homogenized while in school (for example Indian or Pakistani schools), and reinforced by ethnic boundaries of Emirati society, which in result, renders them out of touch with their parents’ home countries.57 In this emerging hip hop scene, Flippter comes as an exception to the rule. He was raised between Sudan and Saudi Arabia and does not feel troubled by his double place, but rather embraces it. He was most active and visible during the 2019 Sudanese revolution, on social media but also with a few tracks circulating on YouTube. Before the revolution, Flippter was more known among Sudanese kids who grew up the Gulf. He also seems to keep some distance from the overall Gulf hip hop scene, or perhaps specifically the Saudi one, due to its feuding nature. Flippter’s rap in Masāmīr was meant to both address and mock the popularity of diss rap in Saudi youth culture.

35If Alonzo developed a distinct style of mixing dialects with Standard Arabic diction, Flippter is creating his own style with Sudanese Arabic, which some of his followers find hard to understand, in addition to his switching between Arabic and English. What makes Flippter unforgettable is his delivery, sometimes comedic, at other times meant to ridicule and protest. Some say Flippter has been in the scene for some time, but he only begun to produce his own music in the past three years. Although he is not the only Sudanese in the Saudi hip hop scene, he seems to be the one with a wide command of Sudanese dialect, as well as fuṣḥā (Standard Arabic) and English. In two videos that brought him to fame, prior to his association with the Sudanese uprising, Flippter plays the hardworking Sudanese migrant debunking Saudi stereotypes against the Sudanese, some of which are anti‑black:

نحن الفراعنة السود قالوا كسالي لأننا أسود أفريقيا زاتها، والأسود بتكون كسلانة لمن تكون شبعانة، مافي داعي أمدح وأذكر أمجادنا.

We are the black pharaohs, they call us lazy because we’re Africa’s lions in person, and lions are only lazy when they feel full, I don’t need to speak of our past glories.

36With a Sudanese crew, he made the song “Shafāṭa”, Sudanese for “skilled”, or “excellent”.58 It shows him leading a donkey in a small village, and later becoming a construction worker somewhere else. He sings about taking a vacation home, to escape the heat, but stays focused on getting paid, to buy a fridge with the boss’s money. He shouts out Sudanese cities, from Bahri to Umm Durman, and sings the hook in English “all my Zol’s are shafāṭa,” – zōl meaning “man” in Sudanese.59 In the other song, of similar content and lyrics, Flippter adds in an English line “the way y'all leaning on zōls/ asleep but still seeking for doors/ to open doors for other doors to feed my qawm [people].”60

37From Riyadh City too, the Sudanese group called Khawāl Muflimīn has come into the scene within the past two years. The three young rappers who grew up in Riyadh appropriate their name from a stereotypical image of black people. Muflimīn, the plural of muflim, is derived from “film” and used to dismiss someone as ridiculous or wild, while khawāl, plural for khāl, is typically used to refer to black people, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. It is considered an alternative to the racial slur ‘abd (slave) that Arab speakers still use in some region (Gulf, Levant), while in other regions other terms alluding to slavery may be still heard (Maghribian wṣīf). Khawāl is embraced by Black people in the Gulf in their daily speech. However, the origin of this word seems debatable: locals would say its origin is khāl as in uncle, in this case, referring to the maternal uncles of rich or ruling families, many of whom their mothers were of African descent, enslaved or servants. The interpretation is not precise in meeting the singular form of the word, from khawl not khāl, which was used to refer to servants, concubines, and slaves.61 It is perhaps the closest equivalent to the “N word” in American English, as it has gone through a similar transformation, getting reclaimed by black people in Arabic speech. It is worth examining how migrant rappers in the Gulf have been deploying words like zalama (for Palestinians) or zūl (Sudanese) or khāl (Black in the Gulf) as opposed to the N word that has come to travel with the larger genre. We can notice, depending on the speaker and the context, how these words can be used as slurs or reclaimed toward a new identity against xenophobic or racist stigmatization. As their name suggests, the group focuses on discussing this image of black people as wild, party‑going, smoking weed and drinking booze, lazy and useless. Unlike Flippter, their connection to Sudan is of distance, and they are more focused on their location within Saudi society: confronting the redundant stereotypes by simply enacting them and rendering them ineffective. In such embodiment, they do not forget to leave a taste of truth from their reality, referring to unemployment, constant police harassment, checkpoints and arrests.62

38A few months after the eruption of the Sudanese uprising, Flippter expanded on that same narrative in a collaboration with media studio Telfaz11, a big name in Saudi pop culture who made their fame with comedy sketches, sometimes in the format of songs. The group, or rather production company, started with Fahad al‑Butairi’s YouTube show “Lā yikthar”63, who has now disappeared after having been forced to divorce his wife, the feminist activist Lujain al‑Hathloul [Lujayn al‑Hadhlūl], who remains in prison.64 One of Telfaz11’s successful videos is “Kafīl” by an imaginary character called Abdulkhaleq, a Pakistani migrant who sometimes is a barber and other times a baker, developed by Telafz11’s creative director, Ibrahim al‑Khairallah.65 The Kafeel song, back in 2015, received 12 million views and attracted a lot of foreign press and engagement, championing the young creators for reversing anti‑migrant rhetoric in Saudi Arabia. It also involves Moayed al‑Nefaie [Mu’ayyad al‑Nafīʿī], another Telfaz11 comedian, playing a Bangladeshi worker. The two reassert how migrants have built the Kingdom yet are denied the credit and fruit of their labor. The song is presented in a comedic way, set to the tune of O.T. Genesis’s CoCo, and written in South‑Asian pidgin Arabic. Perhaps the highlight of this song, echoed in the aforementioned examples and other players in pop culture, is “ana mafī khōf min kafīl,” or I do not fear the kafīl. The statement is meant to subvert the citizen’s arbitrary power over migrants, and to show an empowered depiction of the low‑wage worker. It offers the migrant a strange feeling of comfort upon hearing it, since it is not a most accurate depiction of the migrant’s vulnerable and exploited status quo in the Gulf.

39In their collaboration with Flippter, Telfaz11 and the rapper decide on the theme of “beans,” a symbolic dish of working‑class culture. The video song titled Tamīs (flatbread) brings back the character of Abdulkhaleq alongside Flippter, each in their respective expat communities, as they look at their countries from afar going through political changes.66 In the Gulf, fūl or fava beans, are associated with Egyptians and Sudanese, often used as a mean of insulting them. The two performers show how Sudanese beans and Afghani flatbread “fūl tamīs fūl tamīs” are in fact the common denominator across social classes, for “if it hasn’t been your breakfast, it will be your dinner.” At some point, the viewer realizes that fūl tamīs is not simply a meal, but rather a metaphor for migrant labor.67

  • 68 Al‑Khaṭṭāf, 2018.
  • 69 Pelhem, 2018.

40In April 2018, STV technology investment fund, backed by Saudi Telecom, announced a nine‑million‑dollar investment in Telfaz11.68 The small production company which started off on YouTube and gone only as far as hosting stand‑up comedy shows, has now been identified as a bigger opportunity for cultural production. It is not clear what will this young company produce with such budget, how does it relate to technology, is it going to become an entertainment production company, or is it destined to go into the TV industry, an option which they constantly avoided. This collaboration between the solo rapper and the influential group could say more about how crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s bet on soft power moves in varied directions. It starts with contemporary Saudi artist Ahmed Mater [Aḥmad Māṭir]’s multi‑billion project to showcase amateur and professional visual artists alike in major American museums, and to establish a modern art museum, government‑funded artist residencies (abroad) as well as training programs.69 It then expands into movie theaters, recruiting world pop stars for massive concerts, and holding all kinds of festivals. In this example and others, there seems to be an interest in the power that singular cultural actors, citizens or migrants, hold via their mediums. They offer a non‑radical counterculture which the regime utilizes to his existence. Following the examples of Quṣay’s Jeddah Legends and Telfaz11, Flippter has founded his own production company called Dogar. The step communicates an understanding that there is no industry for their creative work, but they can be the benefactors in establishing such industry. The rapper’s assertion of his Sudanese identity, in all aspects of his work, keeps him at strategic distance from the Saudi scene – a distance that deems him non‑threatening and therefore can spare him the violent consequences of Saudi censorship. A few days following his successful collaboration with Telfaz11, Flippter posted three powerful tracks about repression and corruption in Sudan. The songs display Louay’s unique artistry, his fresh lyrical style that merges conscious rap to the catchy tones of pop rap, and a bilingual mastery that may take him beyond his local scenes.


41Ethnographic or cultural studies of second‑generation migrants often fixate on their modes and expressions of belonging and identity. In this article, I have demonstrated how Arabic‑speaking hip hop artists raised in the Gulf region do not seem to dwell on identity but are rather invested in expressing how identity informs their realities. In the examples of UAE rappers Freek and Alonzo, the everyday life of the young migrant frames most of their songs, sometimes with humor, other times in rage and protest. Their collaborations reveal a network of second‑generation migrants who are self‑taught or self‑made rappers, video artists, radio hosts, and photographers. They assert their belonging to the city, as well as to the neighborhoods they grew up in. They represent the face of a diverse migrant culture, which was rarely allowed to surface before the internet age.

42Second‑generation rappers have also expanded their treatment of the migrant experience to address class and racial differences that separate them from citizens. This is demonstrated in the ways migrant rappers come to represent the neighborhoods they grew up in with a mixture of pride and complaint, speaking of issues such as discrimination, exploitation, drugs, inability to marry. In addition to systemic discrimination, migrant rappers are faced with social discrimination by their citizen counterparts as well as their fans. This sort of xenophobic culture that makes of someone’s roots an issue or an accusation functions as a process of shaming and stigmatization. Hip hop provided second‑generation migrants with a new possibility to counter this shaming culture with pride, artistry, and critique. We can notice that exploiting an opponent’s foreign identity functions as an attempt to territorialize the local scene, in correspondence with the existent segregation between migrants and citizens in Gulf cities. This new hip hop scene, therefore, holds a powerful promise for Gulf cultures to go beyond the citizen vs. migrant binary, which has long‑guarded monolithic definitions of national identity.

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1,accessed 10‑10‑2019.

2 “Freek: the UAE based Somali Rapper that Bathes in Laban”, Scene Noise, 23‑4‑2019, [‑the‑uae‑based‑somali‑rapper‑that‑bathes‑in‑laban], accessed 10‑10‑2019.

3 Morgan, 2013, p. 127.

4 Lori, 2012 ; Akinci, 2019.

5 Isoke, 2015.

6 Cooke, 2021.

7 Ibid

8 Holes, 2015, p. 130.

9,accessed 10‑10‑2019.

10 Zacharias & Topping, 2018, p.107.

11 Assaf, 2020.

12, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

13, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

14 Assaf, 2020.

15 Gardner, 2011.

16 Flores, 2000.

17 Aidi, 2014.

18 Braxton Peterson, 2014.

19 Ghabra, 2019.

20 Hūd, 2017.

21 Saeed, 2018.

22 Dennaoui, 2011.

23 Holes, 2011.

24 Karolak & Allam, 2020.

25 “Arabīzī” a portmanteau expression formed out of 'arabī and ingilīzī to describe the mixing or switching between Arabic and English, mostly used by young English‑educated Arabs. See Holes, 2011.

26, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

27 Akinci, 2019.

28 Aḥmad, 2017.

29 “Al‑Kuwayt: Mughādarat abnā’ al‑wāfidīn”, Al‑Waṭan, 20‑08‑2020, [], accessed 1‑1‑2021.

30 The “Corolla” here refers to the Toyota Corolla car model commonly known of undercover cops in Abu Dhabi.

31, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

32 Nājī, 2018.

33 Al‑Saqqā, 2018.

34‑rok/alonzo‑ft‑sasha‑hometown, accessed 07‑11‑2020.

35 Holes, 2011.


37‑sDLV96hg, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

38 Nājī, 2018.

39, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

40 Ali, 2018.

41, accessed 10‑10‑2019.


43 Ibid.

44‑s, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

45 Angeja Viator, 2020.

46, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

47‑kwdJRmeo, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

48, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

49, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

50 Al‑Sayyid, 2015.

51‑LRsfYBpmM, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

52 Lewis, 1999.

53 Meisami & Starkey, 1998, p. 282.


55 Shakshaka is music to dance to, shake to. See Urkevich, 2014.

56‑Q3P21QNo, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

57 Akinci, 2019.

58, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

59 Weninger, Khan, Streck & Watson, 2011, p. 876.

60, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

61 See Lisān al‑ʿArab, khawl خول.

62‑I, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

63 About this show, also see El Alaoui, Alajlan & Pilotti’s article in this issue of Arabian Humanities.

64 Ruddell, 2019.

65, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

66, accessed 10‑10‑2019.

67 Ibid.

68 Al‑Khaṭṭāf, 2018.

69 Pelhem, 2018.

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Référence électronique

Mona Kareem, « From Rap to Trap: The Khaliji Migrant Finds his Aesthetic », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 14 | 2020, mis en ligne le 11 février 2021, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Mona Kareem

Translator‑in‑Residence and visiting lecturer, Princeton University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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