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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Sons of Yusuf: serving Khaleeji flavours to the world

The Al Refaie brothers tell 'The National' how a love for Khaleeji culture makes their music stand out

(L-R) Abdul Rahman and Ya'koob from Sons of Yusuf performing at Mother of the Nation Festival at Abu Dhabi Corniche.
(L-R) Abdul Rahman and Ya'koob from Sons of Yusuf performing at Mother of the Nation Festival at Abu Dhabi Corniche.

Tyrese Gibson can make some outrageous statements on social media, but sometimes the US actor and singer gets it right. A keen observer of the region’s youth culture, Gibson chanced upon Kuwaiti duo Sons of Yusuf’s Hala on YouTube three years ago, and shared the multilingual regional remix of Wiz Khalifa’s 2014 rap anthem We Dem Boyz on social media with the tag Arabhop.

That Hollywood assist propelled the track to rack up more than 5 million streams.

The slick video also helped. Shot in Kuwait City, the visuals mash up hip-hop attitude – cue flashy car cruising down the coast – with regional flair: the rappers are in traditional clothing and slick sunglasses.

The video is one of a string of regional covers by Sons of Yusuf: there’s also Arabs in Paris (their take on the 2011 Kanye West and Jay Z hit) and Move, which acts as a tribute to the late hip-hop pioneer and producer J Dilla.

Their work could have descended into parody were it not for the slick mic skills of the Al Refaie brothers.

The group is named after their father, and both Ya’koob and Abdul Rahman are fans of the genre, and their assured vocals are a result of studying the masters of the art, ranging from Chuck D to Wiz Khalifa.

That confidence was on display last weekend when the group delivered several sets as part of the Mother of the Nation Festival at Abu Dhabi’s Corniche. Speaking to The National after their first performance, the boys said they were happy to be in the Emirates.

“There is always a special feeling when we come back to the UAE. The crowds are great, there is a lot of positive energy around and it’s just a great vibe, man,” says Abdul Rahman, his laid-back California drawl unmistakable.

The harrowing experience of the rockets falling across Kuwait City during the Gulf War worked in part to strengthen the tight bond that the brothers share. “That was one of my earliest memories, just the sounds and seeing the plane,” says Ya’koob, who at 30 is two years older than Abdul Rahman.

“I was three years old and he was one, and I just remember being scared and worried for him. I remember the gun shots, the bombings and the planes. I thought that it was a dream but my mum would tell me, ‘yeah we did go through that’.”

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the family moved to California, and the brothers have divided their time between the US and Kuwait ever since.

With the Gulf War one of the first conflicts to have had rolling television coverage, the move to Los Angeles meant the brothers had to tackle perceptions not only about their country, but the region as a whole.

This also gave their burgeoning creative talent a sense of purpose. Ever since breaking into the scene more than five years ago, Sons of Yusuf’s mix of covers and originals – including the oud-driven single One Time – and the accompanying videos have been about boosting the vibrant and creative scene in

the Gulf.

In addition to releasing a new album, the boys are set to launch a fashion label later in the year that melds urban clothing with regional flavours. “It will be handmade and totally inspired by the region and culture,” Ya’koob says.

“There will be everything from clothing to technology and smart watches. The way we look at it, fashion started from here in places like the Middle East and India.”

Abdul Rahman says: “That kind of thing stopped at some point, so what we are trying to do is bring it back.”

The fashion move comes on top of the music production company the group recently launched called The Base. The pair hope their label will be a platform to introduce more music talent from

the region.

“It’s not about trying to make people famous. If that’s the artist’s aim then they won’t be a good fit to work with us,” Abdul Rahman says. “We want to build a team, a movement, where we [as Khaleejis] creatively express ourselves and tell our own stories.”

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