Cover story The Emirati duo Desert Heat are seeking success through positive lyrics aimed at breaking down stereotypes.
Rhymes and reason
While many western hip-hop artists release albums rife with swearing and violence, the Emirati duo Desert Heat, who wear national dress and rap in English, are seeking success through positive lyrics aimed at breaking down stereotypes and building Arab pride. By John Mather.
The babble of conversation fills the Emirates Palace's Gallery One on a Friday in April. As visitors munch on kibbeh and baklava, they inspect the Emirati Expressions exhibit, a showcase of local artists' paintings, sculptures and film. Tonight there is a music programme too, and a small stage has been set up in the narrow gallery. As the soundcheck begins, the crowd - a mix of Emiratis and expatriates, adults and children, hipsters and businessmen - settles into the white cushions and benches provided for the audience.
Through the microphone, a voice says: "Yeah... yeah... Desert Heat in the building." With that, Salim and Abdullah Dahman strut on to the small stage, dressed in white and dark blue khandouras, respectively. The Emirati brothers - whose rapper names are Illmyah and Arableak - make up Desert Heat, a hip-hop group from Dubai, intent on conveying a positive Arab message through their rhymes. They bob their heads to the beat and raise their arms, as a young member of their crew breakdances in front of them.
"You ready for Desert Heat?" Salim, the older, more confident brother asks the crowd before holding out his microphone. A quiet "yes" comes back, mostly from the children perched in the front row. "I can't hear you," Salim calls again. "Are you ready for Desert Heat?" This time the crowd yells "yes!" Feeling the reaction, Salim shouts, "When I say 'desert', y'all say 'heat'." "Desert." "Heat." "Desert."
"Heat." "Desert." "Heat." It's a curious moment: a rap concert staged in an art gallery, by two brothers in national dress. But as Abdullah pointed out to me a couple of weeks earlier, ever since he and his brother released their first hip-hop single in 2000, they have been simultaneously fighting two stereotypes: the conservative limits of Arab culture and the explicit lifestyle of modern hip-hop. Somewhere in between is Desert Heat.
"We're doing Arabic hip-hop with a positive message," Salim says after a couple of songs. "If it's hip-hop or going to the moon, you can do anything," Abdullah adds. There is no swearing or glorified violence in Desert Heat's lyrics, which are in English but strewn with Arabic slang. Their first album, When The Desert Speaks, released last year, stirred a minor sensation in the Emirates, selling 6,000 copies while getting banned in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Its lead single, Keep It Desert, led to what was probably the first Emirati rap video, while the song made rotations at local radio stations. The group also gained recognition on MTV Arabia, notably performing at the channel's launch party and as part of the show Hip-Hop Na.
It's been a good start, says their A&R manager Adeniyi Adetokunboh. But the self-financed, self-produced album, music videos and marketing campaign have left the group in debt. So now they are hoping to turn these fortunes with the release of a second album in September. The first single, We Can't Stop, is available this week (exclusively at www.thenational.ae/m). The song is a catchy club track, highlighting the group's drive to achieve commercial success. "For the second album, we're looking to be much more successful," Adetokunboh says. "We have this image as underground artists, and that's what we want to change."
When they're not Illmyah and Arableak, Salim, 28, works at the Dubai Airport, planning and promoting events, and Abdullah, 23, works for a local bank. Growing up, the brothers lived in Karama and collected rap music on family trips around the world. Hip-hop stood out, Abdullah explains, because of the lyrical connection to poetry. "There is a passion in our family for poetry," he says. "The main thing that pulled me into it was the challenge."
Still, it was his elder brother who began recording music and sampling beats. Desert Heat released its first single, Shoo Tsawii, which means "What's Up?", in 2000. And while it earned regular rotation on local stations, the brothers did not become serious about recording music until after the September 11 attacks. "Overnight, people's perceptions were changed about Arabs," Salim says. They witnessed a lot of anger and confusion towards Muslims, and decided that "the best medicine" was hip-hop. This is one reason they rap in English: while they hope to reach Arab youth, it's equally important to them that people in the West listen and correct their misconceptions about Muslims.
The decision to pursue rap would leave most parents uneasy, but Salim says his mother was very supportive since the beginning. Their father, who Salim describes as very devout, also offered his support but cautioned: "Don't end up like hip-hop artists on TV. If you feel it's beyond your control, stop." It was prescient advice. At shows in Oman and Bahrain, Salim say that girls have been screaming at them and pulling at their clothes. And Abdullah says some potential investors, who were often Arabs themselves, only had an interest in the group if they'd appear in videos with guns and women. "People from the GCC and the Arab world, they were the ones to quickly invest if we did something wrong."
But rap has made an industry out of doing what mainstream society deems wrong. Gangster rap, in particular, can sound like an ongoing competition over who can amass the most sex, drugs, alcohol, women and money (bonus points if it's simultaneous). To stay focused, Desert Heat has looked to the genre's pioneers, such as KRS-1, Run DMC and Public Enemy, who had cleaner lyrics that sent messages of empowerment.
"They were about community and positive messages. They aren't about glorifying what's called cocaine rap, gangster rap," Salim says. "The essence of hip-hop is keeping it real and representing where you're from." And so the group has resisted the pressure to be more "gangsta". "We have to be very careful," says Abdullah. Referring to releasing their first album in 2008, he adds, "I think that's the reason it took so much time."
Despite their best efforts, they could not find a label to release When The Desert Speaks. Salim says westerners found them too experimental and Arabs would simply say "this is not your culture". The resistance led to a hiatus for part of 2005-2006, when they decided to re-evaluate their rap career. Their father retired and both brothers wanted to help more with the family while building careers. "We realised you had to work twice as hard," Abdullah says. "We were spending a lot of energy for minor returns."
While on hiatus, Salim says he heard from a lot of people wanting them to return. Eventually, they were invited to open for Sean Paul in Dubai by the concert's organiser, who was looking for local talent in 2006. They agreed and performed for a 25,000-person audience. "After that show, we decided now we're going to do an album," Salim says. They began writing and sampling their own music, on their own equipment. Then in November 2007, MTV Arabia threw a party to launch the music channel. The set included hip-hop stars such as Akon and Ludacris. Desert Heat had been invited to the party because they took part in the Hip-Hop Na show. Before the concert started, they put on an impromptu performance for Akon, hoping to catch the singer's attention. "At the end of the song, Akon was singing the chorus," Salim says. "We ended up opening MTV Arabia's launch."
When I told my friend Fadwa, who grew up here, that I was writing an article about Desert Heat, she replied, "You know we make fun of them." When I asked why, she said: "Locals rapping? I mean, come on." The unexpected, if not downright peculiar, image of Arabs in khandouras and ghutras rapping is one reason Salim suspects When The Desert Speaks has been banned in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The rapper Snoop Dogg, who rose to prominence in the early 1990s with songs like Gin And Juice, can be found in music stores in the Kingdom, Salim points out, but not Desert Heat. He says they asked why they were banned: "This music does not go with Arabic culture," was the answer.
"Politics, politics, politics," Abdullah says, explaining the ban. "We come from Dubai, but even Arab artists face difficulty when trying to cross into the Gulf." Salim doubts the censors even listened to the songs. If they had, they would have discovered that Desert Heat's lyrics are about as tame as rap music gets. There is the first single, Keep It Desert, which has lines like, "I'm from a place where the camels roam / I'm from a place where we chill when the heat is on". They followed this up with Under Her Feet - a song dedicated to mothers around the world. Then there is Did You Know, which talks about the accomplishments of Arabs: "We created algebra /Al Jabir means algebra / Al Khawarizmi is algorithm / Introduced the zero, to start the number system."
"It's OK to be an Arab and dress in a khandoura," Salim says, describing the type of message the group wants to send. Unlike Arab rappers from Palestine or Lebanon, Salim says Emiratis don't have political strife or conflict to write verses about. "The UAE doesn't really need hip-hop," he adds, "because the UAE is small. When we rap it's to educate Arabs to be proud." Needed or not, hip-hop is popular in the Emirates - it's on the radio regularly and many teenagers dress in the genre's signature baggy clothes and flashy jewellery. But the artists who have popularised the genre - like the crack-cocaine-dealer-turned-media-mogul Jay-Z - are worlds away from local youth. Salim says he hears teenagers singing about pimps and "they don't know what it means. In Arabic, it's one of the worst terms and insults. When they find out what it means, they turn red."
There is a parody skit on When The Desert Speaks that addresses this. It's called Jumeirah Thug and features a teenager overflowing with hip-hop vernacular. For more than a minute he rants: "Holla, holla, what's up dawgs? It's A-Thug in your area. Arabian thug, aka bust slugs in my sleep? I was raised in the streets man, in the ghetto projects of Jumeirah, J-Town, you know. Right opposite Burj Al Arab. I'm a soldier and a hustler. I do what I gotta do to keep livin' and surviving in these streets. I only get one grand a week, man. Times is hard."
"That's what is happening in Dubai," Abdullah says. "They feel that is hip-hop, but it's not. There are no rules of hip-hop; just keep it real." In Desert Heat's case, this means keep it desert. "In the West, they used the streets a lot in songs. The shortest and fastest way for us to build a setting is the desert." In terms of success, Marwan Parham, better know as DJ Bliss, the popular Emirati DJ and presenter on Radio One, says the group has done well to get their name out. Recently, he interviewed them on his drive-time show and was impressed with their songs. "It's a cross between hip-hop and Arabic music," Parham says. Many of Desert Heat's songs sample traditional music. "They do it really well. They mix folk Arabic with hip-hop."
While Bliss is impressed that the music is all self-produced, he thinks they should seek out more collaborations, adding that he'd love to work with them. Whether they can succeed internationally, is another thing. "It's not easy," Bliss says. "Hip-hop is a thing of the West - a lot of it comes from there to here... I just wish that we'd get more people like them to go in that direction, increasing the unique sound of hip-hop and Arabic."
While Salim is starting work on solo album, Abdullah is open about his short-term commitment to the group. "I'm sure there will be other groups and other people," he says. "We didn't necessarily open the doors, but we did our part. I think from now on it's about pushing other artists." Adetokunboh says there are two rappers coming out of Ras al Khaimah, KD and Ace, who hope to release their first CD next year. "They're not going to be the next Desert Heat, but they'll be the next Emirati hip-hop group."
To increase their commercial appeal, Desert Heat's next album includes more club songs. "For a couple of reasons, the album wasn't commercial enough," Adetokunboh says. "We didn't have a lot people downloading. We're looking for universal appeal to get the music out there. If you don't sell records, you're not really doing anything." We Can't Stop, the first single, is certainly more lively than the tracks on When The Desert Speaks. "Now we're addressing the mainstream, now we want to get the clubs and get the people partying," he says. "We're here to let people have some fun."
The crowd at Emirati Expressions is in full dance mode with the closing number, one of the group's songs Hela, Hela. It was produced by Fredwreck, a well-known Palestinian-American producer who works for MTV Arabia. After the show, a group of young teenagers rush the brothers as they leave the stage. Holding art programmes, loose sheets of paper and sticky notes, they ask for their autographs. Abdullah told me earlier that the first time he was asked for an autograph, "I though they were making fun of us or something."
This time though, as they pose for pictures and sign lose paper, they are confident; for a moment, at least, they are rap stars. When The Desert Speaks is available in Virgin Megastores and on iTunes.
Lyrics from Under Her Feet, from the album When The Desert Speaks: Illmiyah: From the day I was born, straight to your arms I'm a use my tear drops to write this song Ummi it's kind of hard where I start All the sacrifices you took just to make me smile All the pain you absorbed, not to make me cry What I did in return is bring you lies But life is a test then we die And before we gone I'm a try and touch the sky There's no way that I can pay you back 25 years of night shifts broke your back 25 years hardship we fought through that If I hurt you Ummi please forgive me for that The truth is everything I am is you We survived the struggle and we made it through I say these words and my soul's sincere Under your feet, I really see heaven so clear Arableak: Dear Ummi words can't really explain you So I made you a whole song, only to say I love you You made us happy even though times was taboo You sacrificed a lot if you thinks I don't know I do I'm sorry for all the pain that I caused you Not really knowing that your own family fought you But we learn from mistakes and we're here to support you You were always strong, understanding, always there to talk to You turned dead ends into hope, together you made us stay Fight the dark nights and be blessed with better days You know we came a long way, Alhamdulillah we got to pray Your patience will pay off, Walla believe me The sweetest woman on earth, Bus Urdhiky You shared happiness like charity, ya rabiy khaliky I say these words and my soul's sincere Under your feet, I really see heaven so clear