Straight from the hood, it's rap from the street — except the hood is the Arab world, and the streets are countries in turmoil.
By Karl Bostic, NBC News
A bazaar in Libya's rebel capital of Benghazi might not appear to be the most obvious place to find a would-be Jay-Z.
But 18-year-old Boge and many others like him are pushing the boundaries of freedom of expression across the Middle East. The rappers have even been credited with helping to spark the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that deposed three long-serving dictators and rocked several other regimes.
Boge, who says he learned English from rap, is following in the footsteps of his hip-hop heroes KRS-One, Nas and Ice Cube.
"Our families are dying but yeah we're still tough, Gadhafi is trying to assassinate us," he rhymes during an impromptu performance amid vendors selling flags, shirts and hats in revolutionary colors at a market in the eastern Libyan city where the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi began.
Boge recalls how rap was treated as a criminal offense under Gadhafi's rule. Two of his friends were arrested by the once-feared secret police — who were quick to stamp out any signs of political dissent.
"They used to put us in prison just for rapping," says Boge, who grew up on a diet of Western TV and American hip hop. "I rap to prove something to myself — and the world."
"Rap is dangerous" to the "system," Libyan rapper 'Boge' tells NBC's Karl Bostic.
This phenomenon is not just confined to Libya. Rap music has inspired freedom fighters and pro-democracy protesters from Tunisia to Bahrain.
When 20-year-old Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor — known as "El General" — attacked President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a song he posted online late last year it captured the imagination of a population hooked on Facebook and fed-up with injustice.
Entitled "Rais Lebled," the song chastised Tunisia's leader for not listening to his people who were "living like dogs" and forced to drink from a "cup of suffering." El General was subsequently arrested but his anthem helped to ignite the spark which eventually ended with thousands of people taking to the streets in January. Ben Ali later fled the country.
"I'm trying to repair what the ex-government broke," Tunisian hip-hop artist AJ (aka Glorious) says.
At one recent concert in Monastir, the youthful crowd was filled with as much love for El General as they were for their country, repeatedly shouting "Vive Tunisie" (Long live Tunisia).
The same infectious brand of rap, revolution, and patriotism was evident in Cairo as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office after decades of rule and also amongst Palestinians in the West Bank, who face different challenges in staging their own "thawra" — or revolution.
The significant factor is youth: 60 percent people in the Arab world are aged under 30. Rap popularized calls for reform and the Internet spread that message like wildfire.
Hip-hop artist Omar Offendum tells NBC's Karl Bostic that the youth are fed up with what is happening in the Middle East.
Some of the leading names in movement include:
- Bahrain-based DJ Outlaw, who is best known for "Arab World Unite,"an anthem which is more about a spirit of togetherness than actual revolution.
- Deeb, who works as a financial analyst by day at a Cairo bank but toils away at music as he dreams of a better Egypt.
- Syrian-American Omar Offendum, who is considered one of the most eloquent Arab hip hop artists. He lives in Los Angeles.
- Dave Kirreh, an Arab who lives in East Jerusalem, who highlights not only problems with the Israelis but also infighting between Fatah and Hamas.
- "AJ", the godfather of hip hop in Yemen, was born in Ohio but took his love of funk and rap from the '70s and '80s to the conservative country four years ago.
Egyptian hip-hop artist 'Deeb' says it is "beautiful" to see hip-hop become the language of revolution.
Back in Libya, Boge admits that he hopes rap will give him the opportunity to travel. Following the fall of Tripoli, he will have new songs to sing about a free Libya.