ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The beat was good. Even the song's title, "Turn Your Swag Off," was catchy – but the lyrics needed some explanation.
"What does it all mean?" I asked.
"It's just about me rapping how cool and bad I am," said Adil Omar, an 18-year-old Pakistani rap artist.
"I don't get it," I told him.
"Look," he tried to explain, "I guess you could call it a protest song, but having fun with it, instead of taking myself too seriously. The violence is all comical and the sex is all comical. It's just a funny song."
"Oh, I see," I said, pretending to get it.
|VIDEO: Pakistani teen raps as a creative outlet|
Omar went on to explain that he often writes fictionalized or outrageous lyrics as metaphors for other things.
"In Pakistan today," Omar explained, "there are certain things you can't do, you can't promote. There are certain topics you can't tap into because it's a bit dangerous – like religion and politics." He said he is not an activist and stays away from rapping about governments. "You can't target certain individuals in Pakistan," he said, "but if you speak out against the West, then no one really cares."
Some Pakistani musicians have made headlines by tapping into the anti-Western and especially the anti-American sentiments gripping the country. I asked Omar about the band "co-Ven," and their song, "Ready to Die" which was singled out recently by the New York Times for its anti-American lyrics.
Omar didn't think that was cause for too much concern. "It [the song] was probably for shock value and people are just taking it too seriously," he said. "It's has always been either the really violent and explicit side of rock, rap and hip-hop that gets the news coverage or it's the protest side. It's always been a genre, its entertainment," he argued with a conviction that belies his years.
Privileged Pakistani rappers
Rap music was born out of rage. It began, over 20 years ago, as a cry against the deprivation and unequal opportunities in America's urban ghettoes. But today's Pakistani rappers, by contrast, are from the country's educated and privileged classes and at least by Omar's account – they are "just having fun."
Omar is a well-mannered and soft-spoken teenager who lives in a posh suburb of Islamabad. He attends a private high school and is hoping to get into an American university next year. He started to write rap lyrics, as a hobby, when he was 9 years old. But it may well have been the death of his father one year later when Omar decided his life's ambition was to become a full-time rapper.
"My mother thinks it's a bit extreme, but she is supportive of my music. She understands that it's the only thing I am probably good at," he said.
I asked him about the lyrics to his song, "The Writer," which say, "The world hates me so I hate the world."
"That's pretty strong stuff," I said. Omar laughed. "That was all about being so involved in your work that you have the feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world," he said, grinning.
He advised me not to take his writings so literally. "You thought it was anger," he said. "I'm not angry. I'm actually pretty happy, but maybe if I didn't have this outlet to write this stuff, I would be angry," he said.
Taking it to the Internet
Omar is not the only Pakistani teenager turning to rap music to voice their feelings. Earlier this year, Bakhtawar Bhutto, the 18-year-old daughter of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, mourned her slain mother in a rap rhythm she released on YouTube.
In her song, "I Would Take the Pain Away," Bhutto rapped about her grief: "Shot in the back of your ear, so young in 54th year, murdered with three kids left behind."// "Why did you have to go?"//" Why did you have to leave?" The teenager sang out her pain over a simple hip hop beat and edited video clips of her mother.
Like young musicians across the world, the Internet is the vehicle of choice for young independent Pakistani artists who are looking for their big breakthrough. Omar uploads his music on YouTube, as well as on Facebook and MySpace for maximum exposure.
Last year, a cyber chat with B-Real of Cypress Hill led to an invitation to B-Real's studio in Los Angeles and the opportunity to collaborate on the song, "Takeover."
He has also recorded with Penn, of Penn and Teller, and has a cameo appearance in a soon-to-be released, countercultural film, "Slackistan" – which is set in Islamabad and tries to knock down some of the stereotypes people in the West may have of Pakistan's youths.
Omar's popularity as a rapper is on the rise. Already, a few thousand fans worldwide have downloaded his music and follow him on the Internet. He's not sure what people like about him, but he hopes it's because his music is pure and he sings from his heart.
"Is it difficult to be a rapper in Pakistan?" I asked.
"Yes," Omar replied. "Not many people like it; it's a pretty small scene. So, I'd like to think of myself as a big fish in a small pond."