Laith Majali, a dynamic young Jordaninan photographer and filmmaker, has a heartfelt passion for people and for documenting the human condition. An award-winning film producer, editor, and photojournalist, he recently won the Leica “Cairo Take This” photo contest hosted on Leica’s Facebook page, for his searing coverage of life in the Egyptian capital. In this two part interview series, seasoned journalist and photo writer Jason Schneider interviews him on his latest project, covering the amazing an unlikely world of Arab Hip-Hop, a proletarian art form that originated in the West, but is now a vibrant force in the Middle East and the worldwide Arab Diaspora.
Part 2: The Arab Hip-Hop movement and discovery of its essence: A cry from the heart
Q: Your humanism and emotionalism certainly come through in all your photojournalistic work, but how did you get into documenting Hip-Hop? Most Westerners associated this form of rap music with urban Afro-Americans it, not with the Arab Diaspora. Why did you decide to cover it, and what would you say is the basic thrust pan-Arab Hip-Hop movement?
A: What really got me interested in this project that early on, about 3 years ago I met a couple of the guys from Los Angeles, young Arab-Americans who were performing Hip-Hop in Jordan. I met them there when I was shooting for a magazine and got backstage access and then found out that one of them was my neighbor in LA. We became fast friends and I soon realized what they were doing was special. I had never been a big Hip-Hop fan. Like many people in their 20’s I listened to whatever commercial stuff that was out there and never really got into the underground stuff. But that all changed dramatically in January, 2008. There were two shows that the guys were performing, one in Syria and another Lebanon, and the idea, the intrigue of Hip-Hop was starting to get to me. I also thought I needed a long-term project at that point.
As I mulled it over it became clear to me that this could be something I could see myself doing, a project worthy of my creative and physical energies. “Let’s see how it goes.” I said to myself and before long I went there and got to meet the crews in Lebanon. More important, I got to witness the entire creative process, how the artists went from listening to a beat, to writing the lyrics to recording it. For the first time I saw and heard the whole thing happen right in front of me. That’s when I also realized the importance of the message they were sending, because In the Arab world most traditional and pop songs are about love and things like that— that’s the music people listen to and see on TV. But these guys were tackling social issues: they were addressing political issues and how it feels to be alive in their particular circumstances.
The flip side is that history repeats itself. In the late 70s as the Hip-Hop movement started in Brooklyn, New York and other urban areas of America, it was all about countering social injustice for African- Americans. And here we are 20 years later and Hip-Hop has been commercialized in the U.S., and its content been widely criticized for being excessively violent and sexist. But in the Arab world, Hip-Hop is still a new, creative, and vibrant. Arab youth are using it as their voice against all forms of social injustice and against some of what is happening in their own countries. So that was the real hook for me as a photographer— the fact that it’s real. The fact it’s very true, that it’s genuine.
Q: Is Hip-Hop suppressed in Middle East countries? I think a lot of Westerners believe the governments in this region are typically authoritarian and that there is also social conservatism to contend with. Can Hip-Hop really flourish in such an environment?
A: So far I’ve been to a lot of countries in the Middle East and covered the Hip-Hop scenes there. In a way Hip-Hop is still under the radar and that’s really beneficial for the guys creating it. It’s still underground. Most of it is done online—you don’t see much of it in the media
Now over the past two years things have changed. Hip-Hop is making an appearance in mass media, both in terms of the music itself and in advertisements. Now they have shows based on the theme of searching for the next big MC, the guy delivering the rap. The commercialization of it is just starting right now, but it’s still mostly underground.
Many of them actually rhyme and rap in English too, so the censors don’t get the English parts of it. And sometimes it’s too quick for them to understand even in Arabic. So far people have been lucky because a lot of it talks about politics, about government, about social issues, and it’s really catching up with the youth. Why? It’s because they’ve been exposed to foreign Hip-Hop. And now the younger generation is listening to Arabic Hip-Hop. They’re totally different than the older generation.
I’ll give you an example of what’s going on. I was shooting these two music videos last week in Cairo, and we were shooting in an area of the city that most tourists don’t see. And as we were shooting this young kid comes up to us and he’s freaking out. “I can’t believe Arabian Knights are in my neighborhood shooting a music video!” He got really happy and wanted to take pictures with them and all of that, so it’s starting to get recognition.
Personally, I think within the next two years Hip-Hop is going to go fully commercial in the Arab world. The big pop producers are already looking at promising hip-hop artists and trying to sign them up. I’m afraid that what will happen is just what happened in the U.S. Commercialization will take away the essence of the message of Arab hip-hop. That’s why documenting it in this creative, authentic phase is so important. I’ve shot it in Eqypt, Beirut, Damascus, even in Bahrain.
Q: What do you believe is the essential message of Arab Hip-Hop, and does it vary depending on which country it’s performed in?
A: To tell you the truth, and this is just right off the top of my head, I think unity has a big role to play in this, the trans-national unity of all Arabs, because again, what the rappers are talking about is common in all of these countries, and even to Arabs living in foreign countries. They’re talking about the same issues.
When someone in Lebanon is talking about the social issues in his own country someone in Egypt is going to feel it as well because the conditions aren’t all that different. The collaboration between the artists is also a powerful force. Hip-Hop allows you to collaborate with artists from other countries in ways that other art forms or other types of Arabic music haven’t witnessed. You get an MC from Egypt working with a producer from Lebanon and they have someone who’s on the hook who’s Palestinian and lives in London.
Q: What exactly are some of the common social issues that the rappers in Arab Hip-Hop deal with? Can you be more specific and does it vary with each country?
A: If you look at Palestinian hip hop it talks a lot about the injustice of Palestinian living conditions and that’s an issue that touches Arabs in general. It’s something that resonates even for an MC in Los Angeles who identifies with being an Arab. A lot a lot of Arab Hip-Hop references the Arab-Israeli conflict wither it originates from the Middle East, Europe, or elsewhere.
Then you got the social issues. You’ve got Poverty. You’ve got inequality, especially in terms of in terms of economic opportunity. The fact is that a lot of these MCs come from low- income backgrounds. The brutal fact for them is that getting a job and living a normal life is also quite difficult. So, a lot of the content is also about the daily struggle of living in the Arab world.
And then you’ve got a lot of Hip-Hop people in the Arab Diaspora. They talk about being an Arab in the West. That’s another universal theme—the challenges and discrimination you face living as an Arab, as a Muslim in the West.
Salahedin, an MC from Holland who’s one of the top rappers in the Netherlands is originally Moroccan and one of his albums, his most famous and one of the best Dutch albums to come out, is called “Holland’s Worst Fear.” In it all he talks about is the struggle of North Africans and Arabs living in Europe
These are the types of issues that people talk about but then again, they’re universal. Everyone feels them and has a strong emotional connection, because everyone has had a run-in with a foreigner or has been misjudged because of how he looks or his ethnicity. Profiling, the Iraq war, terrorism, all of that is being talked about. And even if it’s not addressed directly at times it’s there— it’s there explicitly or as an implied context in the lyrics these MCs are writing.