In­side Greater Kur­dis­tan’s Nascent Hip Hop Scene

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE - Joshua Levkowitz

The bass pounded from the speak­ers, but the crowd sat idly by. Amir, an am­a­teur Kur­dish rap­per, strug­gled to beat out his raps, com­pletely fail­ing to move the crowd. He left the stage in Azadi Park frus­trated. Amir saw many chal­lenges fac­ing the hip-hop scene in Sleimi­ani, quot­ing Tu­pac, his fore­most hip-hop in­flu­ence: “I see no changes.” The crowd did not re­spond pos­i­tively to this “stig­ma­tized art form” as Amir put it be­fore walk­ing away.

At a refugee camp just a few hours away, Swedish born rap­per Ser­hado, a Turk­ish Kurd, per­formed for Syr­ian Kurds. At the height of his con­cert, the crowd chanted and swayed along to his pop­u­lar an­them Ez Kur­dis­tan Im (I am Kur­dis­tan).

The chang­ing dy­nam­ics in the Mid­dle East have placed Kurds onto the re­gional stage. The Kurds are the largest eth­nic group with­out a coun­try of their own who are cur­rently di­vided be­tween Tur­key, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Th­ese out­casts from the pre­dom­i­nately Arab Mid­dle East have be­come linked to glob­al­iza­tion in­clud­ing the in­ter­na­tional hip-hop scene.

The hum­ble ori­gins of hip-hop be­gan in the south Bronx bor­ough of New York where DJs sam­pled soul and funk records. MCs would rap over th­ese beats, and as the genre ma­tured, artists be­gan to talk about the trou­bles of African Amer­i­cans liv­ing in a white so­ci­ety. Many Kurds to­day are at­tracted to hip-hop be­cause they find com­mon ground with this strug­gle.

They fight to pre­serve their own cul­tural dis­tinc­tive­ness. Within Tur­key, the Ke­mal­ist con­cep­tion of a sin­gle Turk­ish iden­tity stated that Kurds were ac­tu­ally moun­tain Turks who had for­got­ten their na­tive lan­guage. In south­ern Kur­dis­tan, Sad­dam Hus­sein’s in­fa­mous An­fal geno­cide against Iraqi Kurds wiped out hun­dreds of vil­lages and killed over fifty thou­sand civil­ians.

In the song “We Ex­ist” Si­pan raps “We been let down and let on so many times.” He con­cludes that he is a “true K-U-R-D,” mean­ing “Pesh­merga by choice, guerilla when its nec­es­sary, carry AK 47s ‘cause it’s nec­es­sary.”

To­day, many of the Kur­dish youth use hip-hop as an out­let and a bridge to build a com­mu­nity across their di­as­pora. Just as MCs in Amer­ica have raised con­scious­ness on so­cial is­sues, Kur­dish MCs, such as Ser­hado’s “I am Kur­dis­tan”, make hip-hop in or­der to dis­cuss geo-po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties and pro­vide hope to those Kurds in search of a united Kur­dis­tan. Kur­dish hip-hop re­mains in an in­fant stage, but it is de­vel­op­ing its own style and iden­tity.

Amer­i­can hip-hop only made its de­but with Kurds in the mid-90s, but as a genre, it ac­tu­ally shares strong el­e­ments with tra­di­tional Kur­dish mu­sic. Kur­dish bend is a mu­si­cal style that in­volves im­pro­vi­sa­tional rhymes sim­i­lar to the prac­tice of free styling. In both, the songs fo­cus is on the stream of con­scious­ness rap. Lin­guis­ti­cally, Kur­dish words nor­mally be­gin with a con­so­nant. The con­so­nant- vowel- con­so­nant forms a le­gato ar­tic­u­la­tion, pro­duc­ing a smooth, con­nected sound. How­ever, Iraqi Kurds were ruled un­der the na­tion­al­ist Baathist party un­til the re­cent Amer­i­can-led invasion of Iraq. The largely stac­cato Ara­bic lan­guage in­flu­enced mu­sic com­ing out of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. Thus, Kur­dish rap­pers’ mas­tery of th­ese two op­pos- ing ar­tic­u­la­tions re­sults in an en­gag­ing, ver­sa­tile flow.

Even with th­ese links, Kurds gen­er­ally per­ceive hip-hop in a neg­a­tive light since many are only aware of the genre’s com­mer­cial trans­for­ma­tion into the misog­y­nis­tic and vi­o­lent world of gang­ster rap. Amir said that peo­ple in Sleimani, which claims to be the most lib­eral city in Iraq, char­ac­ter­ize “rap mu­sic with mur­der and drugs. Peo­ple here feel shamed by th­ese songs. They’d rather lis­ten to songs about pol­i­tics.” From Amir’s ac­count, the hip-hop scene in Greater Kur­dis­tan still re­quires a sound fan base for the hip-hop scene to sur­vive. In or­der for Kur­dish hip-hop to gain wide­spread ap­peal, artists must look past the cause­less genre of gang­ster rap, and in­stead harken back to the hip-hop of so­cial in­jus­tice and protest.

Hama Rap­per, who has been rap­ping over twelve years, rem­i­nisces about Kur­dish Iraq’s “Golden Age of Hip-Hop” from 2007-2009. He jokes, “I found out about rap from the wrong cas­sette.” HipHop in Kur­dish Iraq, he be­lieves, has be­come too politi­cized cre­at­ing many di­vi­sions. The slight­est ref­er­ence to­ward a cer­tain po­lit­i­cal party can for­ever alien­ate fans that have par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions. Hama Rap­per says his ca­reer be­came blocked by his con­nec­tion to the po­lit­i­cal party Goran be­cause cer­tain news sta­tions re­fused to play his songs.

How­ever, Hama Rap­per, be­lieves the non-lyri­cal as­pects of hip-hop still re­main the main ob­sta­cles to the emerg­ing scene. He does not see much po­ten­tial be­cause of the lack of record producers and the few beat mak­ers “cre­ate bound­aries to ex­press­ing your­self.” Most Kur­dish hip-hop bor­rows Amer­i­can and Euro­pean beats. Hama Rap­per, how­ever, in­cor­po­rated sam­ples from pop­u­lar Kur­dish folk­songs into his hit track “Ho­ra­man.” He be­lieves there must be more of an ef­fort on con­struct­ing a unique sound to Kur­dish hip-hop.

Hip-Hop started off as voices for the voice­less, and it rep­re­sented peo­ple on the so­cial fringe. As the Kurdstry to move from the pe­riph­ery to the center in de­ter­min­ing a new Mid­dle East, this mu­sic has the po­ten­tial to build sup­port for their na­tion­al­ist cause. Just as Si­pan rapped “We Ex­ist” the mu­sic can span the di­vide be­tween the cur­rently di­vided peo­ples.

The Kurds have been cul­tur­ally iso­lated for far too long. The pesh­merga fight­ers have fought in the moun­tains since the Sykes Pi­cot Agree­ment of 1916. With the ge­og­ra­phy of the Mid­dle East un­cer­tain, the next wave of Kur­dish re­sis­tance should not fo­cus on the tra­di­tional bat­tle­fields. With the world still know­ing lit­tle about the Kurds, Kur­dish rap­pers in­clud­ing Ser­hado and Si­pan have used their own adap­ta­tion of hip-hop with its sim­ple, catchy lyrics to ar­tic­u­late their peo­ple’s con­cerns and as­pi­ra­tions within Greater Kur­dis­tan . Even Ab­dul­lah Ocalan, the charis­matic, im­pris­oned leader who founded the mil­i­tant Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’s Party (PKK), rec­og­nizes this “awak­en­ing”. In his Newroz speech de­liv­ered from prison in the Sea of Mar­mara, he said: “Time for the guns to fall silent and for ideas to speak.” Cue up the vo­cals and let the war of words be­gin.

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