December 22, 2008

Hip Hop in Oman

The tourist brochures in Oman promise plenty of Orientalist action; their glossy interiors replete with opportunities for camel riding, authentic Arabian dress, 'experiencing' the desert, and listen to the sounds of the oud as you relax beneath the stars.

But beyond this marketed image of an essentially static, ancient and unchanging Oman lies a more complex reality which the youth of Oman are giving voice to through a unique medium: hiphop.

The history of hiphop's birth and development lies in the Bronx, NY parties Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc used to throw, but today's hiphop has come a long way from those backyard parties. Its a global, multi-billion dollar enterprise, and every marketer wants a piece of the action. Here in Oman, Red Bull now sponsors an annual festival called Lord of the Streets, a massive exhibition of X-games sports, music, and energy drinks. This year's festival attracted a record crowd of young people. I went, pen and tape recorder in hand, to find out if this was merely the product of the mind of a marketing genius or an authentic indigenous expression of hiphop culture.

For marketers in general, Oman has a vast potential. With a brand new infrastructure, steady economic growth, and a ballooning youth population, its no wonder that Red Bull chose to stage a festival here. Hiphop is a global culture, and the history of Oman exemplifies this global flavor: in the parking lot two guys perform freestyle battle raps in Swahili. Malikah, an up and coming female MC from Lebanon, delivers spitfire lines in Arabic to the eager crowd of Swahili, Pakistanis, Indians, expatriate Europeans, and myself. "Raise your hand if you love Red Bull," yelled the host. In the parking lot, Ali Hamed Al-Lawati and his friends explained, "We love hip hop, you know we just try to represent to the fullest extent. Ali heard R&B and started to write lyrics. I joined together with my brother and we formed a group. Big Pun is one of my inspirations as well as Tupac, Notorious BIG."

Qassim, Ali's brother, added, "I am originally from Sur, but I work in Muscat. We knew about hip hop now 7 or 8 years. At that time I was in deep shit.I met with my niggas over here all the way from Wadi Kabir. I thought I was the only one who was doing this, but accidentally I found out my neighbor loved hiphop." Eighteen year-old Kita Rise Up from Bling Boys crew told me, "I love Eminem records on the TV. I used to draw….I didn’t have time to draw so I just wrote something one day and I rhymed it."

I asked a number of people in the crowd how hiphop and Islam 'fit' together; did they see any contradiction. "I think the leaders of Islam are totally against it, and if they could stop it they would. But me I am not an extremist, I have my limits. There is deen and there is dunia," opined Nawaf, 23, from Muscat. Added Qassim, "Sometimes it doesn’t fit but we try to fit it. We don’t believe rappers have to sell weed or anything. We don’t have tattoos or none of that. Its hiphop its bringing the whole nation together." Sultan Khalfan, the co-founder of SNK crew, one of the original Omani b-boy crews, agreed, "Hip hop didn't change who we were, except to make us more athletic and fit. We pray, and we try to show Oman a good image of this artform."

Kita, who has his own crew known as Rise Up Bling Boys, had his opinion on hiphop in the Middle East in general, "Hiphop is strange for us as an Arabian people, so everyone has their own style. For me, I dream that hiphop can be better than this. In the US its like perfect, here its like less than bad. I know people that spent 18 years on this rap music. We need change and we are Muslims, so the music must be clean."

And what is the attraction of hiphop? "Its always about giving opportunities for kids to express themselves," added Malcolm Marquez, who has lived in the Middle East from three years and is originally from Australia. Marquez, a talented and energetic MC who placed second in the Freestyle Rap Battle, also b-boys and paints. He felt hiphop was a 'cleansing' force: "Kids need a way to cleanse aggression. They need to be given a chance to say whatever they want from their heart and mind...we gotta see the bad and the ugly."

The event, which was held in the parking lot of Muscat's largest mall, was coordinated by Ahmed Deek, a Lebanese businessman living in Dubai. "We are changing the mind of Arab people about hiphop," he explains. "The event actually started in Dubai in 2006. We started with sports like BMX, inline skating, and then we saw potential for b-boying. We brought it to the b-boys we knew and asked them, what do you need to do hiphop?" According to Deek, although many people were originally hesitant, shy, or scared to support, the vision for the festival kept growing.

Although Deek emphasized that they had no problem with the local authorities, the festival came grinding to an abrupt halt in a "thats-so-hiphop" moment" involving the police inquiring about the permit for our site. Apparently there had been complaints. But the party did not stop. We moved on to the Holiday Inn for the Freestyle battle finals in rap and b-boying.

The energy and talent on display was truly impressive, and the conversations continued long after the show ended at 3:00 in the morning. I sat down with three b-boys to get an idea of the history of Omani b-boy culture: Zillahunt Cyphaz,B-Boy Balong, and Sultan Khalfan.

"First of all, explained SNK member Zillahunt Cyphaz, "its called b-boying, its not breakdancing, that was the name Hollywood gave it. You start with rhythm, flavor, and foundation…from there you make up your own style and your own flavor. that’s how you make your name in the scene. Me I b-boy because I love it. Before some of us were doing football, martial arts, streetball and other different athletics."

Hiphop in Oman according to various SNK members, has enjoyed a fantastic growth. Since 2006 there have been major changes; From three serious crews there is now triple that. Even young kids are doing it. All this from a DVD that one of the crew, Abdu Salaam, brought from Malaysia in 2001. In Malaysia Abdu Salaam had been exposed to the growing b-boy movement; he brought back with him the DVD of Battle of The Year 2000, the World Cup for breaking. Says Sultan, "We watched the video and we saw flips, windmills, head spins, and we said, we HAVE to try this!"

Sultan and Abdu made copies of the DVD for their circle of friends and in no time they and three others were practicing all the time, trying to imitate the moves in the DVD. One of the crew members studied at the French Institute and gave SNK its performance debut at a talent show for the students there. After the show, according to Sultan, they were approached with many other offers to perform. A couple shows later, and some were suggesting the fledgling (and nameless) crew could get paid to perform.

The name SNK stands for Serve and Knock; the moniker originally came from the video game company. "I used to win at every videogame I played," remembers Sultan, "especially SNK games." At the end of 2002, Sultan told the crew he wanted to name them SNK. They finally had a name to add to their growing reputation.

After four years of doing shows locally and adding to their reputation, 2005 saw SNK breakers enter their first b-boy competition, in Dubai at a Motor Show. They placed second. The following year they traveled to Bahrain and won 1st place in the "Bring It On," freestyle battle.
"The Bahrain competition really put us on the map because we represented Oman and people back here were very excited and happy to see us doing so well." Back in Oman, they started to get publicity from Omani magazines like The Week, Hi, and several major newspapers. At the end of 2006, they even caught the eye of a BBC producer who saw their frontpage spread in The Week. The BBC wanted to interview the crew but were concerned about copyright issues surrounding the SNK logo, and asked Sultan about the origins of the crew's name.
"I basically came up with Serve and Knock at that point," he remembers, "because the BBC wanted us to flip our shirts over, and I and to convince them that we were not copying the company logo."

So what is the future of hiphop in Oman? B-Boy Balong was optimistic, "So far its going the right way, if it keeps going like this, then it can become very known, like having events like every few days."
Added Zillahunt, "Oman is going the right way. Over in Bahrain, people know about hiphop but they don’t know the real hiphop; its just commercial. In Oman b-boying is the strongest element…if it wasn’t for some underground MCs and the bboys, hiphop would have been dead for real…like Rakim, up to now he is still holding it down."

Next SNK has their sights on becoming a truly global b-boy crew. After a visit from Howard University Alum Michael Henderson, SNK met with the famous choreographer and dancer Debbie Allen, who subsequently invited them to audition for an Omani cultural showcase at the Kennedy Center in March 2008. They will be the first dancing group traveling to the United States to represent Oman.

SNK had not been without their doubters in some circles. Some people inevitably saw their activities as un-Islamic. Indeed, they were not originally invited to audition for Debbie Allen's show, but after they finished the other Omanis were shocked to discover that they too were Omani. But the attention has been mostly positive after seeing how SNK conducts themselves—clean living, praying regularly, and encouraging each other in the spirit of brotherhood.
"No offense but the government looks at sports that never bring positive results but never notice the sports that are putting these countries on the map. Nobody knows the dancing team but they are raising Bahrain’s name up. Now in Korea they have meetings with the ministry about doing diff events across the nation. They really take care of hiphop," said Zillahunt.

He added, "We are not going to go in a negative way but we will just be positive because hiphop doesn’t bring enemies. Hiphop is peaceful, like religion it brings us like brothers. Hiphop is in the blood. Through bboying respect comes between nations. Its not peaceful its superpeaceful. We are always brothers."


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