A third perspective: Stronghold Sound’s new hip hop album, Khat Thalet, reviewed

The lyrics are all in colloquial Arabic, with artists using different dialects and referring to idioms, metaphors, and historical events from a variety of socio-political contexts, targeting Arabic-speaking communities from North Africa to the Gulf.   

Lina Shaikhouni
13 March 2013

I remember watching the news with my parents and friends in Saudi Arabia in December 2010, as tens of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to demand the downfall of Ben Ali’s regime. As events escalated and uprisings continued around different countries in the region, I could not help but feel excited. I soon questioned whether my own country, Syria, would follow suit.

Many Syrians, including myself, could not imagine for one moment that the uprisings would spill over into Syria. Two years after being proven wrong by the mass uprisings that erupted in Daraa in 2011, the people’s continued struggle has produced a public political scene that looks nothing like it did three years ago. Stronghold Sound’s new album “Khat Thaleth” affirms this change and provides the listener with examples of the political discourses that are currently prevalent on the ground.   

Today, more people are committed to devising creative means to keep the revolutionary momentum going in the region. This album is an anthology of the creative ways in which people are using artistic and cultural forms of expression in order to continue on the path of exposing the corruption of formal politics in different contexts. I should note that my impression of the album is limited to the 7-track version of the album that is available for download on Stronghold Sound’s website. That said, one of the aspects of the album that struck me as noteworthy is the fact that the lyrics are all in colloquial Arabic, with artists using different dialects and referring to idioms, metaphors, and historical events that are prevalent in a variety of socio-political contexts around the region. The album therefore targets Arabic-speaking communities from North Africa to the Gulf.    

The title of the album translates in English to “third train track,” which, according to its press release, is a “metaphor for a third way of looking at the polarized context in the region, as well as a reference to the ‘Hijaz’ railroad that used to connect much of the Arab world.” Several hip hop artists coming from Tunisia all the way to Iraq have contributed in the production of tracks in the album that include politically charged lyrics. From beginning to end, these artists bring to the fore controversial issues that might have been swept under the rug in most strata in society. At a time when a sense of disillusionment reigns over the street in several Arab countries, the artists that have contributed to this work show their commitment to opening up spaces for public dialogue and discussion about controversial issues.

Issues range from imperialism and crony capitalism, to the conspiracies and exploitation of the people by their local rulers. The music purveys an acerbic cynicism towards both local and global politics, a growing sentiment in their region. Not surprisingly, Palestine is a focal point in many of the lyrics. Their intelligent sentimemnts and catchy rhymes continuously refer to the hypocrisy of Arab rulers, especially when it comes to their commitment to the rhetoric of ‘resistance.’ The first track, “Min Al Awal” (“From the Beginning”), ends with the trenchant line, “I won’t reconcile with Israel to topple the regime! Against Israel and the regime, every regime!” While many hip-hop artists have long been rapping and producing tracks in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, the current political context in which this album has been released, along with the fact that these lyrics are all in different Arabic dialects, reflects the will to reinforce long-established political solidarities between the peoples in different Arab countries and Palestinians. At the end of the day, it is the people in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab countries that have been in true solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and not those political regimes.

There is no escaping the on-going Syrian struggle and several artists thankfully do not stick to the cliché of focusing on the Palestinian struggle, while massacres are also happening elsewhere in the region. In at least four tracks, several artists invoke the politics of the struggle in Syria. It is in these tracks that the most controversial and powerful lyrics claim our attention. In “Boov,” the Syrian band from Damascus, “Latlateh” – which roughly translates to “ramblings” or “chitchat” – takes us on a graphic and emotionally-charged journey through the thoughts of the spirit of two men who were recently murdered by a raid on (or maybe an explosion in ) a neighbourhood in Damascus. As their spirits float around the scene of the incident, Latlateh provides the listener with a taste of the ghastly and shocking situation on the ground in “Bilad Al-Sham (the countries of Al-Sham), that get no sleep.”

By invoking the political ferment around the Syrian struggle, several tracks in the album refer to more general and common frustrations shared across the region, lyrics tackling conspiracies and contradictions that plague regimes across several countries, from the Gulf and Iraq, to Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia. These topics that are rapped about are familiar to anyone with any political nous in the region. However, the thrill in listening to the tracks stems from the clever rhymes and metaphors, along with the tone of assertion and defiance that seep through these songs. The album seems to channel one revolutionary motto from 2011 until it reverberates across the region: the people will no longer be silenced. As “Al-Haqq” (“The Truth”) states in his track “Rad Al-Shaab” (“The People’s Answer”) “The people don’t die,” and as long as they are alive, they will keep on challenging the political regimes that have long dismissed the people’s will.

Compellingly, these artists reveal in their lyrics a sense of newly-formed (or re-formed) solidarities spreading across Arab borders, with people identifying common struggles and frustrations. All in all, the raps in “Khat Thaleth” demonstrate how the revolutionary spark that has spread across the region has less to do with formal politics and regimes, and more to do with Al-Shaab (the People).

However, the voices of certain strata in these communities are left out. In particular, the lyrics fail to say much if anything about the pivotal role of women in the struggle for political freedom in the region. In fact, the only instances in which gender stereotypes and norms are invoked and challenged are in the context of the commercialization of sexuality in the media, which is only a small part of the wider discrimination that women face and have been struggling against. Today, the region witnesses an ever-increasing number of women activists fighting against tyranny and the exploitation of women’s rights rhetoric by regimes who claim to promote a certain elitist understanding of gender equality. As a work that aims to “deliver critical blows to the various political systems in place, and offer sharp social commentary as well as sober realities currently being faced on the ground,” ignoring the impact and prevalence of women in the struggle is terribly disappointing. 

Nevertheless, the political weight of “Khat Thaleth” cannot be ignored. As mentioned in the album’s press release, this compilation of artworks is an attempt to revive a form of politically-committed artistic expression. I may not be a big fan of hip-hop as a genre, but the political messages sent through a number of these tracks certainly resonate with me. The power I sense in this album stems from the fact that its tracks are in Arabic, invoking a personal connection between Arabic listeners and these lyrics. So the incorporation of traditional elements into some of these tracks, such as the introduction of the folkloric “Mawwal” – a classic musical genre used in several Arab countries such as Lebanon and Syria – at the beginning of “Ya Deeb” by El-Rass and Al-Sayyed Darwish, reinforces this connection in “Khat Thaleth.” As the historical struggle for rights and freedom continues, people will continue to devise freshly creative ways to express their resistance to the formal political order.   

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