Young Iraqis have come up with a number of creative methods to address the violence, poverty and corruption afflicting their society.
In addition to street art, paintings, situation comedies and theatre performances, rap songs, which have found a home on YouTube, are being used as a popular way to address the violence and hardships of daily life, and as an outlet to express the youth’s hopes and grievances.
Ziad Nazem, 24, is among the new generation of Iraqi rappers taking part in this movement. On his YouTube channel, Elements of Death, Nazem posts songs from his group that focus on the everyday conditions in Iraq and the Arab world.
Two of Nazem’s most recent songs — “Just Like That”, which focuses on the victims of last year’s massive explosion in Baghdad’s Karada neighbourhood in which more than 200 people died and “The Nervous,” which highlights the permanent state of fear and stress afflicting Iraqis, have had a particularly strong effect on the public.
“The song about Karada had a deep effect on the public as it illustrated the scope and the horror of the tragedy that befell on the city,” Nazem said, noting that it was well-received even among those who were not particularly fond of rap music.
“I know that rap music is not very much accepted in the conservative Iraqi society that prefers classical Arabic music over Western-inspired genres,” he said, “but I believe that the rejection is caused by the wrong replication of rap lyrics by certain groups who use offensive and daring terminology, which are commonly used by rappers in the US and other Western countries but raise eyebrows in our oriental society.”
Before 2003, rap was scarcely listened to in Iraq, and the rise of Iraqi rappers, who face sharp criticism for the content of their songs, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Iraqi rappers often sing about the younger generation’s frustrations, which clashes with the message of popular Iraqi tunes that often glorify the country and the army.
However, in his song “Baghdad,” 20-year-old Iraqi rapper Ali Hussein cast a message of hope for his city. “I proposed something that is different by focusing on the positive aspect of Baghdad, stressing that it is a lively city despite bad security which did not limit our ambitions and commitment to highlight its famous cultural and historical features,” Hussein said.
Hussein agrees with Nazem that rap music in Iraq has been smeared by “intruders,” harming its public perception. “Nonetheless,” he added, “many Iraqis, including intellectuals and music lovers and experts, appreciate targeted rap songs that tackle issues of concern in a plausible manner, away from impudent and rude terminology.”
Elements of American culture such as rap music, hip-hop dancing, tattoos and piercings are largely seen as the effect of the US military’s more than 8-year presence in the country but are embraced by many young Iraqis, who can be seen dressed in hoodie sweatshirts, listening to 50 Cent or Eminem and spiking or shaving their hair in the style of the US Marines.
To many fellow Iraqis, such habits are strange, if not downright offensive. “The youth’s attraction to such genre of songs came as a result of Iraq’s openness to the outside world (after 2003) and the revolution in information technology,” said Iraqi psychologist Naz Sindi.
“The exacerbation of socioeconomic issues, such as unemployment, which created feelings of depression and emptiness among young Iraqis, made rap even more appealing.” Sindi said: “Rap songs provided a breather and a means to express grievances and frustrations caused by recurring crises and wars in Iraq over the past years.”
The development is also a reflection of Iraq’s cultural transformation. In a society that lived under a dictatorship that deprived them of satellite TV, cell phones and the internet, Iraq’s post-Saddam era seems relatively open to the rest of the world.
“The youth, especially in poor areas where parents are of humble origin and humble education, started to adopt aspects of Western culture because they think that by imitating their peers in the West and in certain Arab countries, they obtain a higher status in society,” she added.
Nazem, though, was introduced to rap culture before 2003. He started listening to and composing his own rap music while growing up in the United Arab Emirates, where his father was employed. He returned to Iraq in 2008. “I have always been a fan of Western music, especially that of the ‘70s and ‘80s. My passion for rap is mainly due to my passion for Western genres,” he said.
Musician Ali Khassaf “blames” the cultural vacuum and weakness of cultural institutions in Iraq for the “intrusion” of rap and other Western genres in Iraqi society.
“The gap caused by the deterioration of Iraq’s musical heritage prompted the youth to look for alternatives on the expense of popular culture,” he said. “Also, the internet, social media and satellite television channels contributed to their exposure to new musical genres which reflected their concerns, worries and aspirations.”
By Oumayma Omar