Hip-Hopistan:Inside Greater Kurdistan’s Nascent Hip Hop Scene

An amateur rapper walks off stage after a frustrating concert in Sleimani, Iraq

The bass pounded from the speakers, but the crowd sat idly by.  Amir, an amateur Kurdish rapper, struggled to beat out his raps, completely failing to move the crowd.  He left the stage in Azadi Park frustrated.  Amir saw many challenges facing the hip-hop scene in Sleimiani, quoting Tupac, his foremost  hip-hop influence: “I see no changes.”  The crowd did not respond positively to this “stigmatized art form” as Amir put it before walking away.

At a refugee camp just a few hours away, Swedish born rapper Serhado, a Turkish Kurd, performed for Syrian Kurds.  At the height of his concert, the crowd chanted and swayed along to his popular anthem Ez Kurdistan Im (I am Kurdistan).

The changing dynamics in the Middle East have  placed Kurds onto the regional stage.  The Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a country of their own who are currently divided between Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.  These outcasts from the predominately Arab Middle East have become linked to globalization including the international hip-hop scene.

The humble origins of hip-hop began in the south Bronx borough of New York where DJs sampled soul and funk records. MCs would rap over these beats, and as the genre matured, artists began to talk about the troubles of African Americans living in a white society.  Many Kurds today are attracted to hip-hop because they find common ground with this struggle.

They fight to preserve their own cultural distinctiveness.  Within Turkey, the Kemalist conception of a single Turkish identity stated that Kurds were actually mountain Turks who had forgotten their native language.  In southern Kurdistan, Saddam Hussein’s infamous Anfal genocide against Iraqi Kurds wiped out hundreds of villages and killed over fifty thousand civilians.

In the song “We Exist” Sipan raps “We been let down and let on so many times.”  He concludes that he is a “true K-U-R-D,” meaning  “Peshmerga by choice, guerilla when its necessary, carry AK 47s ‘cause it’s necessary.”

Today, many of the Kurdish youth use hip-hop as an outlet and a bridge to build a community across their diaspora.  Just as MCs in America have raised consciousness on social issues, Kurdish MCs, such as Serhado’s “I am Kurdistan”, make hip-hop in order to discuss geo-political realities and provide hope to those Kurds in search of a united Kurdistan.  Kurdish hip-hop remains in an infant stage, but it is developing its own style and identity.

American hip-hop only made its debut with Kurds in the mid-90s, but as a genre, it actually shares strong elements with traditional Kurdish music. Kurdish bend is a musical style that involves improvisational rhymes similar to the practice of free styling.  In both, the songs focus is on the stream of consciousness rap. Linguistically, Kurdish words normally begin with a consonant.  The consonant-vowel-consonant forms a legato articulation, producing a smooth, connected sound.  However, Iraqi Kurds were ruled under the nationalist Baathist party until the recent American-led invasion of Iraq.  The largely staccato Arabic language influenced music coming out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus, Kurdish rappers’ mastery of these two opposing articulations results in an engaging, versatile flow.

Even with these links, Kurds generally perceive hip-hop in a negative light since many are only aware of the genre’s commercial transformation into the misogynistic and violent world of gangster rap. Amir said that people in Sleimani, which claims to be the most liberal city in Iraq, characterize “rap music with murder and drugs.  People here feel shamed by these songs. They’d rather listen to songs about politics.” From Amir’s account, the hip-hop scene in Greater Kurdistan still requires a sound fan base for the hip-hop scene to survive.  In order for Kurdish hip-hop to gain widespread appeal, artists must look past the causeless genre of gangster rap, and instead harken back to the hip-hop of social injustice and protest.

Hama Rapper, who has been rapping over twelve years, reminisces about Kurdish Iraq’s “Golden Age of Hip-Hop” from 2007-2009. He jokes, “I found out about rap from the wrong cassette.”  Hip-Hop in Kurdish Iraq, he believes, has become too politicized creating many divisions.  The slightest reference toward a certain political party can forever alienate fans that have particular political affiliations.  Hama Rapper says his career became blocked by his connection to the political party Goran because certain news stations refused to play his songs

However, Hama Rapper, believes the non-lyrical aspects of hip-hop still remain the main obstacles to the emerging scene.  He does not see much potential because of the lack of record producers and the few beat makers “create boundaries to expressing yourself.” Most Kurdish hip-hop borrows American and European beats.  Hama Rapper, however, incorporated samples from popular Kurdish folksongs into his hit track “Horaman.” He believes there must be more of an effort on constructing a unique sound to Kurdish hip-hop.

Hip-Hop started off as voices for the voiceless, and it represented people on the social fringe. As the Kurdstry to move from the periphery to the center in determining a new Middle East, this music has the potential to build support for their nationalist cause.  Just as Sipan rapped “We Exist” the music can span the divide between the currently divided peoples.

The Kurds have been culturally isolated for far too long. The peshmerga fighters have fought in the mountains since the Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916.  With the geography  of the Middle East uncertain, the next wave of Kurdish resistance should not focus on the traditional battlefields.   With the world still knowing little about the Kurds, Kurdish rappers including Serhado and Sipan have used their own adaptation of hip-hop with its simple, catchy lyrics to articulate their people’s concerns and aspirations within Greater Kurdistan .  Even Abdullah Ocalan, the charismatic, imprisoned leader who founded the militant Kurdistan Workers’s Party (PKK), recognizes this “awakening”.  In his Newroz speech delivered from prison in the Sea of Marmara, he said: “Time for the guns to fall silent and for ideas to speak.”  Cue up the vocals and let the war of words begin.

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