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Lyrical Alliance

Lyrical Alliance Team
The Dash Team: Khadjia El Bennaoui, Kirsten Burrows, Josephine Burton, Jonathan Walton and DJ MK.
Photo: Thomas Dorn

In November 2009, over the course of an evening, in a pristine newly built studio, floors beneath the Hamra in downtown Beirut, I encountered group after group of hip hop artists. There were the fierce politics of Katibe Hamsa: 5 Palestinians from the camps south of Beirut whose rhymes were raw and powerful and their energy electric. Their lyrics spoke of the frustration and with dark dark humour at the tragedy of their situation. It was a privilege to meet them but it was a relationship that would go nowhere: their Palestinian identity cards prevented the group from leaving Lebanon. The encounter offered an intense window into their world. There was the more commercial RGB, whose beats were the most ‘Americanised’ of all we met on our journeys across the region, the more middle class Fareeq El Atrash, their discontent less political and more social, and Yasin from I-Voice, also Palestinian but Palestinian with a Lebanese identity, an identity which enables him more mobility but just as much history to contend with in his lyrics.
The night was a taste of the diversity and huge talent in the region.

RGBHip hop is a voice for the young and discontented in the Region, just as it is around the world. A space for rage, confusion and lyrical beauty. There’s an additional edge in the Arabic world, as the form can be seen as Americanised and therefore problematic. It was this tension that I was interested in and wanted to explore further: were artists appropriating the form but not the content?

What was the content, with its roots in the Arabic world, that brought these diverse artists together to create lyrics around their own pan-Arabic identity? There’s much that unites these rappers politically, Palestine and Iraq in particular. Culturally, other than a unifying classical Arabic language, there is the rich vast tradition of Arabic poetry.

Some of the rappers we encountered were already turning to poetry for inspiration for their words. For other of our collaborators, it’s an entirely new diversion.

After long conversations and endless poetry research, I came to the poems of the mu’allaqat, epic poems of heroism, love, deserts and wars written around 6-9th centuries. There were annual competitions for these poems. The winning poem was sewn with golden thread on the finest Egyptian linen and hung on the walls of the Qaaba in Mecca for all to see. It was a showy, bling event. These oral travelling poets were great heroes. Their words united the Region and are still read today across North Africa and the Middle East.

At the end of May 2010, our rappers from across the Region and its Diaspora came to London to the Roundhouse to write new tunes for Lyrical Alliance. Some of the original qasida (poems) from the Mu’allaqat came into the rehearsal room too, along with new beats, rhymes and their many different stories.

Josephine Burton, Artistic Director, Dash Arts