In Saudi Arabia, Hip Hop Takes On Weighty Subjects, Like The Mall

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Anywhere else in the world, a hip-hop song about going to the mall would be laughed off the airways. In Saudi Arabia, it gets banned. Mamno3 al Shabab  (“guys not allowed,” in the transliterated lingo of international texting, which uses numbers like 3 for sounds that don’t exist in English), one of the latest hits the latest single from Jeddah’s home grown hip-hop group, Blak-R, has become an underground sensation. Not because it features bad language or subversive lyrics, but because it talks about the one issue that most young men in Saudi Arabia can readily identify with – they aren’t allowed to go to the mall.

It’s one of the more surreal aspects of strict gender segregation in the Kingdom, one that Blak-R’s front man, Yosief Werde (who goes by Joe) has turned into a catchy anthem for a young generation increasingly fed up with nonsensical regulations that dictate nearly all aspects of their lives. “If you are a single guy in this country, you are guilty,” he complains, as we cruise through Jeddah on a late Thursday night – the Saudi weekend. The regulations are designed to prevent guys like Joe from hitting on girls out shopping, which, if you are a 20-year-old single Saudi guy looking for fun, is exactly what you want to be doing.  There are, of course, ways to get around the ban – slip a girl 50 Rials ($15), and she will be your escort past mall security and into the forbidden paradise of the McDonald’s food court. Joe and his friends tried the more direct approach when they watched a group of guys in Saudi formal wear (long white thobe,  red and white headcovering) slip through the doors of Jeddah’s famous Red Sea Mall one night. In a scene familiar to anyone not allowed into a hot club because  they weren’t wearing the right clothes, Joe’s group, kitted out in urban street wear, was turned back. That failed attempt inspired Joe and his band mates to pen their frustrations into a hit single, as well as a polished video,  due to be released soon.

Joe, in his baggy pastel madras shorts, white plastic sunglasses and puffy dreads, is the epitome of American hip-hop. He has never been to the states; he credits his flat, Middle American accent to a lifetime of exposure to the Cartoon Network. The Black American slang that peppers his speech he attributes to his hero, Tupac Shakur. Marvin Gaye, R. Kelly, Barry White and Jay Z are his influences, he says. I ask if he looks to any more modern hip hoppers. “Nah,” he says, as we turn past the mall that inspired his song, “Hip hop is dying in America. Killed by Lady Gaga.”

Mamno3 al Shabab’s video (the youtube teaser can be seen here) features the usual aspects of hip-hop iconography: bling, fancy cars, girls and thugs, but overall Blak-R’s music is refreshingly devoid of the hos and bi*ches tropes that have lately come to define the genre. In fact one of the more haunting songs on the latest album, What If, and the video teaser, turns the whole trope on its head, tackling the issue of domestic abuse. It was inspired, says Joe, by the story of a good friend.

While Blak-R incorporates Asian beats and some Arabic into the music, most of the time Joe and co-founder Big Papa rap in English. It’s part of a bigger plan for international stardom. Hip-hop may be dying in America, but according to Joe, it’s thriving in the Middle East. Perhaps Joe and Big Papa will bring about its resurrection.

Click here to read more about the soundtrack of the revolutions in the Middle East.