x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hip-hop workshops for refugees in Jordan

An informal programme of hip-hop workshops in the region's Palestinian refugee camps offers a valuable lesson in how cultural development initiatives should be run.

Six young men are standing around a pair of CD decks on a Friday afternoon in mid-September, spinning tunes, shooting the breeze and gently trying to outdo one another with their DJ skills. It's a scene that could unfold in countless urban environments the world over. What makes this particular tableau slightly unusual is that we are in a women's centre run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Jebel el Hussein, a Palestinian refugee camp in the northwest of the Jordanian capital.

At the heart of this unlikely gathering is Martin Fernando Jakobsen, a 31-year-old DJ from Denmark and member of the Copenhagen-based collective The Black School. Along with a group of likeminded friends, including his long-time collaborator Simon Dokkedal, he has been taking hip-hop workshops to refugee camps on and off for the last two years. It is, he says, a path that he more or less stumbled onto.

"A while ago my wife got a job in Beirut with the United Nations Development Programme, so I moved out there with her," he explains. "While I was there, I started thinking about a way to bring our group together again and to give something back to the community at the same time. One day I found myself talking with a lady from the Danish Centre for Culture and Development and outlined to her a plan for a pilot scheme of workshops in Lebanon's Palestinian camps. The organisation already knew who we were, so agreed to fund it. That's when the whole idea came to life."

This two-day programme, for 30 young people selected from Jebel el Hussein, and the nearby Al Wihdat and Marka camps, marks the programme's final stop, after a two-week tour of Lebanon, taking in locations including Beirut's Bourj el Barajneh and Shatila, and the Nahr el Bared camp in the northern city of Tripoli. All were successful and well received by local residents, says Jakobsen, and judging by the attendance of today's event, there is little reason to disbelieve him. Still, he understands it will be tempting for many to wonder about the relevance of such an apparently western cultural scheme in the Arab world. To do so, though, is to fail to appreciate the place that hip-hop occupies in Middle Eastern youth culture.

While nowhere near the multimillion-dollar industry it is overseas, a grassroots network of producers and MCs now exists in every major city from Cairo to Baghdad, all turning out music of a determinedly regional flavour. This is particularly true of the Palestinian diaspora, which has produced a number of respected acts, including DAM from the town of Lod; Ramallah Underground from the West Bank, and the Beirut-based I-Voice and Kaitibeh Khamseh.

As 26-year-old Samer Zaki Shaqfa, a rising Amman-based artist who has come along to translate and help run the weekend's rap workshops, explains: "Like most of those people, I first heard hip-hop on the TV and the radio as a kid. Very early on I remember thinking, 'I want to do that.' The problem was that what I saw and heard was not about me. I am not American. My family is from Gaza. We live in Jordan, but in many ways we are still on the outside here. Life can be hard and I wanted to talk about that, to tell my stories in my own language. Making music has given me a voice."

While the notion of hip-hop as the lingua franca of marginalised youth has become over recent years a rather hoary cliché, there are a number of reasons why this music works so well in Arabic-speaking nations. Most of all, the rhythms of the language are almost perfectly suited to it. To use a genre-specific term, Arabic has a natural flow. Add to this the Middle East's rich heritage of poetry and vernacular storytelling, and it is even possible to frame the region's rap scene as a contemporary iteration of long-extant oral traditions.

Watching Shaqfa in the first day's classes offers ample proof of the artform's popularity. In a demonstration performance, he is swaggeringly self-assured, punctuating his rhymes with flamboyant hand gestures. As a teacher, though, much of this bravado gives way to warm affability. Separating the group into pairs - boys on one side, girls on the other - he and Tia Korpe, a rapper and academic from Denmark, supervise a songwriting exercise. At this point the space takes on the air of a classroom, rapt in quiet concentration. After a while, acapella renditions of finished work are heard. One young woman delivers a series of intricate couplets about family life in the camps over an instrumental version of the Washington DC rapper Wale's single Chillin'. Riding the musical accompaniment, it sounds like she has been practising for months. "See… everyone here has something to say," Shaqfa laughs, leading the group in a round of applause. "This isn't work for me. I could do it every day."

Jakobsen's use of hip-hop as a foundation for his project is driven by a similar affection, but also by a certain pragmatism. "This is the music I have been involved in for a long time," he says, "but I don't see it as the solution to the world's problems. The reason it works so well in this context is because it is easy to teach. Once you've grasped how to write rhymes or use turntables, the rewards are almost instant. We can take people who have never sung or played an instrument and in 48 hours they can put on a show for their friends. That sense of achievement is really important in a situation like this."

Walking around the centre's three halls at the start of the second day, these words ring true. All of the previous day's attendees have returned. In addition to another rap workshop in which several star performers are emerging, upstairs and downstairs two groups - again divided by gender - are taking turns on the decks. For the first hour, the sound is cacophonous, but as the show draws closer, giant strides have been made. Both groups are now scratching and beatmatching with varying degrees of proficiency; one young man is even chopping together percussive breaks and snatches of traditional Levantine instrumentation with impressive confidence.

At lunchtime I strike up a conversation with Marwa al Haj Ahmad, 21, and Rahaf Fouad, 16, who live in Al Wihdat. Both are eager to talk about what they have learnt. "I like to listen to all kinds of music, but I've never tried to make any before," Ahmad says. "This is good for us. Now I know how to write lyrics, it feels like I can say anything I want. I hope we can do this again." Unwittingly, this comment hits upon one of the most striking features of this programme. Despite its ad hoc nature and lack of NGO status, Jakobsen's plan offers a lesson in how cultural development initiatives should operate. While many arts-based projects pass through the region's Palestinian camps, a common complaint is that once their work is done, they leave little behind in the way of tangible change. Here sustainability is the primary goal. This is achieved, first by donating equipment wherever possible - Jakobsen's workshops have already kickstarted two permanent DJ schools in Tripoli and Beirut. Above all, though, a network of support is created via the involvement of local artists. For instance, Osama Abbas (better known as Damar), a 22-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian producer, has been on hand to offer guidance throughout the weekend. Both he and Shaqfa are keen to see the classes continue and hope to return on a weekly basis to ensure that they do.

For this there could be no better motivation than the closing show. By late afternoon the main hall is packed and Shaqfa takes to the floor to introduce the first performers. Male and female teams control the turntables, providing instrumental backing for their friends' vocals. But for a few inevitable glitches, it's a surprisingly slick affair - most notably one turn by a 15-year-old boy named Ayham Shalhoub. Spitting a succession of rapid-fire rhymes and pacing the floor like a seasoned professional, he works the crowd before finishing with a flourish. The room erupts with cheers, and Jakobsen begins to smile.

Standing by the centre's gates, bidding goodbye to students and their family members, he later starts to consider the results of the last two weeks' work. "Of course, if you're looking in from the outside, it's easy to ask if people here can really benefit from something like this," he says, "but I really do think they can. You can use big terms if you want - empowerment, conflict prevention - but for me it's enough that we come here and give people the chance to do something that makes them feel good. I feel a real responsibility to make sure that continues once we've gone - that we just leave behind a few more possibilities than were here when we arrived."

Dave Stelfox is a journalist and photographer who works for The Review.