International Developer, Hip Hop Activist, and Social Entrepeneur Michael Henderson Reflects on Hip Hop in Oman
Dear Readers, a dispatch is a report We are very pleased and honored to have as a guest blogger Mr. Michael Henderson, a dynamic young social entrepreneur and a recent graduate of Howard University. Among other things, Mr. Henderson was the brains behind a series of conferences at Howard exploring China’s relationship with Africa. Recently he returned from a research trip to Oman and the United Arab Emirates. He has agreed to share with us his thoughts on the Omani hip hop movement, a subject that is near and dear to me. Please welcome him to the Azanian Sea.
My days in the Sultanate of Oman are triangular. In the morning I wake at 7:00am and an associate and driver take me to (OCIPED) the Omani Center for Investment Promotion and Export Development. My driver who lives a few doors down works in the export division. After work my day shifts from suits and loafers to jeans, shades, and t-shirts. As of spring 2006 I help to manage and consult the growing Omani hip-hop movement. I meet aspiring artist and dancers who wait patiently to hear my advice. Currently, I have a theme track under the auspices of music for Omanis’ made by Omanis’ (which is weird considering, I am American); my role is like the invisible hand.
So the song is about a young guy liking a girl and vice-versa, but the culture makes it rather difficult for the relationship to blossom outside of the internet. Thus, the relationship comes alive through technology i.e., face book, chat rooms, email, and text message. Side note: life does imitate art because we can’t seem to finish the song being that the Omani rapper and singer cannot leave her house to record without her brother. (who is on vacation) On the other hand, the other song is a collaboration of all the best rappers in Oman! We are the world: Arab style! I imagine this is a creative way for 1) to increase the fan base of all involved 2) Encourage the rappers to foster a working relationship and perhaps a structure like an independent record label will flow from this initial introduction.
The third piece of my day is spent relaxing, laughing, making noise, and chimpanzing around with my younger brother Fahad, cousins, and his friends he is about 20 years old or so. Most of his friends are mixed Arab and African, so they, like many Omani Swahilis, tend to be a bit more ‘cosmopolitan’ in their outlook. Sometimes they dance “Zaire” and speak Swahili, break-dance, listen to rap, talk about ladies, watch videos, smoke cigarettes, and play music till 4 or 5 in the morning! I would not trade this experience of all these Omani young people in the same hotel room for the world. It is my base, my ear to the streets, and my way to stay close to the heart beat of pop-culture in Oman. This is my diary of the Omani hip hop movement, from the inside.
Of the many b-boy crews in Oman, Serve and Knock (SNK) was the first, and is currently the most respected and well known. I produced a documentary on them a few years back and helped them to perform in the United States for the Arab Cultural Festival, at the Kennedy Center in 2008. Last night I attended the launching of a new cell phone company called Hala Foni which is one of three main mobile companies in the Oman. Hala Foni’s marketing strategy is toward a youth audience, thus the hip hop movement is a key marketing tool for them. The entertainment industry and marketing in Muscat, Oman is big business; more Omanis work in marketing or entertainment than in the U.S. per capita, although Hala Foni is itself a Lebanese company. SNK performed at Halal Foni’s launch and received a standing ovation.
The day before the show what is called a tech rehearsal. SNK was late because many of the dancers were young and did not have transportation so we carpooled. The assistant stage manager yelled, “Get on stage!” when SNK arrived. While they were warming up and stretching she tells them to perform, so, I told her diplomatically “hey these are professional dancers, they will need 5 minutes to warm-up as to not hurt themselves” she responded: “They are late!”
The event was under the guise of an Omani version of American idol, so the audience was filled with maybe 2000 screaming young Omani fans. My overall goal for attending was to foster a relationship with the cell phone company and to gain sponsorship for the Hip-Hop movement. As a direct result of Arab communications patterns and family like social structure, I was able to meet with the CEO of Hala Foni and several of her colleagues. It was a cool set-up, nice couches, sweets, drinks, a waiter, and tucked back stage. We sat and I informed them that 60% of the population in Oman is under the age of 25 and in a country of 2.8 million people with many years of purchasing power ahead of the any marketing strategy must involve youth, and that’s my network! Sponsorship can come in many forms: money, access to logos, introduction, and in this case access to specific resources that are mobile phone based.
Currently, my good friend and the leader of the SNK reportedly have a list/database of 2000+ names, emails, and cell phone numbers of past show attendees. We plan to send mass text messages to inform them of events and ultimately fill any venue with people at a moment’s notice. The underlying factor is the rapid ability to mobilize large groups of Omanis. This can all happen through instant text messages, being that most every person in country has a mobile phone. This is the next stage of the game of course. We will see.
At the moment there is not a leader, structure, or any real focus to the Hip-Hop music craze in Oman. The idea of an independent record label is a revolutionary idea here. It may be my calling at the moment—like Alain Locke blowing in the wind until he found or bumped into the Harlem Renaissance. Oman is in a renaissance! A renaissance of politics, art, culture, in every way since the ruler Sultan Qaboos took power in coup from his father in Salalah, Oman on 1970 at the age of 35.
The unique aspect in reference to the Hip-Hop movement is that it seems to evolve organically from one person’s passion, to small groups, then the underground and finally widespread/mainstream acceptance. The movement started with a vacation trip to Malaysia where an Omani martial artist was amazed at this thing called b-boying, and brought footage from b-boy performances back to Oman. In four years, b-boying has spread like wild fire along with other elements of hip hop culture. I personally met 20 rappers who produce and share their own beats, write songs daily about subjects like reaching one’s goals, their mothers, and tributes to Michael Jackson.
This movement is impressive because it is currently mostly organic and not corporate driven. The growing music scene here mirrors that of both Bongo Flava from Tanzania and Chopped & Screwed from the great state of Texas. In reference to Bongo Flava music, while doing research on Tanzania, I met a television personality who worked in the Embassy in Washington D.C. She explained the history of the movement and how many street kids would sit on wooden logs all day and smoke marijuana, just wasting their lives. So she convinced the television and radio stations to host talent contests. At the talent showcases, Mr. Nice and other musicians where discovered and became internationally acclaimed artists. Ironically, the artists only sing and or rap in Swahili, but sell out concert halls in the United Kingdom!
When I grew up, the most popular rappers either hailed from New York, (Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, Notorious BIG, and NAS) or California (Snoop Dog, Tupac, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube) and being from Texas we did not have any Hip-Hop artist other than the Ghetto Boyz go nationwide. Many of our local artists worked in grocery stores and car washes, were high school or college students, or sold drugs. Many did not work. They would ride around the neighborhoods day and night playing their music loud, shaking hands, showing love, and free styling. These artists sold music out of their car trunks. They came with their own slang, car modifications, Styrofoam cups, and bald-fade haircuts. When out-of towners came we played our music. Now many famous rappers are nation/world wide (Chamillionare, Pow-Wow, Lil Flip, Slim Thug, and of course Pimp-C and Bun-B).
Oman has the same potential to develop its own unique regional cultural scene, rooted in the diverse cultures and languages of Oman’s past and present. Lastly, some artist to watch out for are “AKD” Alwayz Keep It Deep, “NBS” Natural Born Singer—Joey Jo, SG, and Dan Zak.