Discover Lebanese Hip-Hop with Salim Saab: Journalist, Filmmaker, and Rapper (Interview)
By: Yazeed Makhlouf
No one can deny that hip-hop has shaped youth culture in the West over the past few decades, but what about the rest of the world? In a time when words like ‘virality’ and ‘streaming’ are used to expound the core workings of digital media, the globalization of hip-hop seems like it can be more than just a dream; in fact, it’s already begun.
In this article, we introduce you to Salim Saab, a Lebanese journalist and film-maker who just so happens to rap under the stage name of ‘Royal S.’ And he’s been doing it for a long time. Think twenty years.
Actually, he’s a bit of a history lesson. “My first time on stage was in Lebanon in 1997,” he says, by way of answering a question on the history of Lebanese hip-hop. “Breakdancing came during the 90’s to Beirut and at this time they were also some graffiti in Lebanon. But the graffiti scene really got big after the 2006 war through crews like P+G, REK, and Ashekman. One of the first graffiti in Beirut is ‘Beirut ma bet mout’ (Beirut will never die) by Prime and Siska in 2006.”
Naturally, Salim’s experience creating rap music has led to his involvement in Beirut’s local hip-hop scene. Notable figures that hail from the 961, Lebanon’s area code, include artists like Edd Abbass, Rayess Bek, and El Rass.
More recently, Salim has produced a documentary project that highlights hip-hop in Lebanon. He’s titled it Beirut Street: Hip Hop in Lebanon (original title: Beyrouth Street: Hip Hop au Liban), and he was gracious enough to let me watch it.
Above: The film’s title card. (Beirut Street: Hip Hop in Lebanon)
The film takes you on a tour through the streets of Beirut, with interviews from popular rappers, break-dancers, beat boxers, graffiti artists, DJs, and hip hop producers from Lebanon. They speak of their experiences in this art form in all its highlights and challenges, leaving nothing undisclosed. I think that’s my favorite element of this film—it’s truthful.
The film consists of alluring footage shots of powerful street art within Beirut. Surprisingly, this craft is encouraged by Lebanese locals. According to graffiti artist Fish, even the local Lebanese police officers are excited by this spray can phenomena.
“I just had a police officer ask me to write his name on the wall. That is the most they will ask from you in Lebanon,” he says. A touch of local Arabic humour comes to the front: “Unless, perhaps, an officer got in a fight with his wife in the morning and he wants to take his frustrations out on you.”
A recurring theme of this documentary is free speech. Throughout the film, I noticed that artists stated how they felt privileged to be in an ecosystem where they could express themselves without restriction. Salim says, “Maybe censorship doesn’t bother rappers because there isn’t many rappers and the audience isn’t that large.”
What if the audience eventually did get larger? I wonder. Would the government be forced to intervene?
I direct the question at Salim.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Because it will get bigger when it turns commercial, and nobody is afraid of commercial songs.”
Realising he’s misunderstood, I try a different approach: “But what about the fact that hip hop is very political? Wouldn’t that start controversy?”
“I can’t really answer this question,” he says. “For the moment in Lebanon rappers don’t have any problems with the government. If political hip hop becomes bigger would they have problems?
“I don’t know,” he decides. “I’m not Nostradamus.”
Above: Lebanese Hip Hop Producer John Imad Nasr (Beirut Street: Hip Hop in Lebanon)
In the film, a popular Lebanese hip hop rapper and producer named Chyno describes a weekly open mic event. There is a platform for hip-hop artists to get their name out there—live. But when I asked Salim about hip-hop acts booking venues on their own, it didn’t seem like the city is too open to it yet.
“It’s not really easy, and there are only a few places in Beirut, like Radio Beirut or Metro Al Madina, who host rappers,” he says. He added that the Lebanese hip hop audience is still developing. Perhaps the “scene” will see bigger numbers in the near future.
Above: Syrian American Hip-Hop Artist Omar Offendum performing live in Beirut. (Beirut Street: Hip Hop in Lebanon)
Seeing that there is growth in live shows and the overall hip-hop audience in Lebanon, I was led to ask Salim about these artists and their career goals.
“As you already know,” I say, “hip-hop is still pretty new to the Middle East. Do you think it is easy for hip-hop artists from Lebanon and the Middle-East in general to get signed to a label and turn their music into a career?”
“There is no big label,” says Salim. “I mean, big labels who sign rappers. Radios and major companies don’t really pay attention to the local rap scene. All the rappers are independent. They record by themselves and share their music on Soundcloud and YouTube. In the West, rap is really big and famous. In the Middle East, it is still underground! It’s not rooted in the society.”
Because of this, then, the perception of rap and hip-hop in the Middle East is entirely divorced from how it is in the West. “Like in France or the US, there is different kind of rap in Lebanon,” says Salim. “Social and political rap, ego-trip rap, and sometimes both. Musically, in general, it’s boom bap 90’s style or experimental, but there also some people who are into Trap Music. It’s very diversified. In general they rap in Arabic, but some rappers, like Mad Prophet, rap in English.”
I ask Salim about the identity issue. Is Arabic hip-hop its own thing yet, I ask, and how much did the West influence it?
“Well of course it’s influenced by the West,” he says, “because it comes from USA! But…a lot of rappers sample Arabic music, they rap in Arabic for 90% of them, and they talk about Arabic problems and society.”
The film, despite clocking at a mere 50 minutes, is an insightful one for those seeking a gateway into Middle Eastern hip-hop. Beirut is the pioneer ‘scene’ of hip-hop communities in the Arab region and, judging by this film, the movement is flourishing. Though the film won’t be screening outside of the festival circuit for the foreseeable future, it’s an exciting time for hip-hop fans in the Middle East.
Written by Yazeed Makhlouf