x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Def poets' society

The UAE boasts a long and venerable tradition of spoken-word performance, but now a more contemporary and streetwise style is coming to Dubai.

Left to right: Suheir Hamad, Beau Sia and Georgia Me perform in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.
Left to right: Suheir Hamad, Beau Sia and Georgia Me perform in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.

The Middle East is renowned for its love of traditional spoken verse, but a poetry show of an entirely different kind is set to take place in the coming weeks - a slam. The event will see five UAE-based rappers who will have to rely entirely on lyrical ability, without any beats to back them up. Poetry slams began in the early 1980s as competitions where poets would recite original work, before being judged by audience members. Most slams enforce a time limit of three minutes with props, costumes and music generally forbidden.

The Dubai event will take place on September 30 to celebrate the opening of a new Adidas Originals shop in Dubai's BurjUman Shopping Centre and will be compered by the Swiss-Indonesian hip-hop MC and producer Lucky "Swerte" Schild. The invite-only show will include performances from the rappers Majician, Miss Lyrikal Nuisance, Phat Mo, Perfect Storm and Mestiza. Although they hail from several countries, all of the artists perform in English.

The event is intended to tie in with the clothing company's recent partnership with the New York hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings. The legendary imprint provided a home to artists including Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. In recent years it has lent its brand to a string of television programmes, computer games and clothing lines. In 2002 a US television series, Def Poetry Jam, was launched. The show featured performances by many well-known rappers, spoken-word poets and even Hollywood actors, who would often surprise the audience by showing up to recite their own original poems. Unlike most poetry slams, though, the Dubai event will not feature a competitive element.

"Def Jam and Adidas are synonymous with the culture of hip-hop, music and everything old-school, so the partnership works really well," says Adidas's brand marketing manager in Dubai, Ellen Peacock. "It all started with Run DMC, who wrote the song My Adidas and were famous for wearing the clothes and particularly the trainers," she explains. "Hip-hop culture in the UAE is definitely gaining prominence and we are glad to be part of it and helping to encourage it."

Although Run DMC never actually signed to Def Jam, they were managed by Russell Simmons and produced by Rick Rubin (the company's co-founders) and shared the spotlight with several of its acts. Hip-hop emerged out of African-American culture in the late 1970s, often reflecting the social, economic and political realities of the lives of disenfranchised black youths. Because of hip-hop's status as the music of urban rebellion, the genre found followers in almost any part of the world where people felt they had to fight for a cause.

Despite these origins, a poetry teacher at the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy, Eidha Bin Masood, does not see the poetic value in rap. "Hip-hop is not like Arabic poetry or songs, because in hip-hop you focus on the music, not the words," he said. "In Arabic poetry all you can hear is the words and focus on their meaning, you can fly with them. Hip-hop is made for you to dance to." Currently the UAE's leading Arabic-language poetry competition is the Prince of Poets television programme. The Syrian poet Hassan Baiti was crowned the prince of this year's event, winning both the title and Dh1 million.

"Arabic poetry is very complex and very beautiful. A lot of the beauty is in the way it is spoken, as well as the words themselves," said bin Masood. "Hip-hop is not like this. Often it is hard to understand the words because they are so secondary to the music." However Bin Masood's opinions about hip-hop are not shared by everybody. "I love Middle Eastern poetry, If anyone criticised us for what we do, I'd say they are completely wrong," says the musician and rapper Majid Faris, also known as Majician, who will be taking part in the event.

"It's all just a form of expression. My lyrics are about true life experiences and are influenced by everything from the city I live in to my family," he said. "In my group Jaxxma, we try to stay away from writing about politics or religion, because someone always gets upset. We are about having fun and avoiding stereotypical nonsense. We don't like to rap about flashy stuff like having rims on our cars, or how wealthy we are."

Although the Dubai event is intended to promote hip-hop culture in the UAE, many of the artists will be doing more than just performing a cappella versions of their existing songs. "I have written something new for the event," said Faris. "I'd like to give you a taste, but I should really save it for the night. It's basically going to be more poetic and more personal." There are several established types of poetry slam. An open slam, for example, is open to all who wish to compete. By contrast, an invitational slam is for only those who are invited to compete. Other famous variations include the dead poet slam, in which all work must be by deceased poets. There is also the Swedish triathlon slam that allows for a poet, musician and dancer to all take the stage at the same time.

The first poetry slam is said to have taken place at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984. The US's first National Poetry Slam took place in San Francisco in 1990 featuring just three teams. As of 2008, the National Poetry Slam had grown to over 80 teams taking part in five days of competition. Slams now take place in locations all over the world, including Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Nepal, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and India.

Adidas's tie-in with Def Jam is just the latest in a number of high-profile collaborations for the company, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Its Originals streetwear division has already linked up with the Italian scooter brand Vespa and the fashion label Diesel for separate clothing lines. "It's particularly special because Def Jam is also celebrating its anniversary in 2009, it's 25th year," says Peacock.