June 19, 2014 1:03 pm

For young Middle East musicians, music is political

AMMAN, JORDAN – It’s not every day you hear a rap song about public health insurance.

But for Jordanian artist Amer Al-Taher, shouting lyrics about contradictions Jordan’s health care system is an important public service.

“I have to give them something helpful for their lives,” he says.

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The 26-year-old rapper weaves political messages into his songs, often drawing audiences to a concert with raps about more ordinary topics (“silly commercial songs” as he puts it) and then hitting them with lyrics about issues that affect everyday life.

Hence the rap about health insurance.

“When I have the flu, you give me free medicine, but when I need surgery, I should pay for this. How do you expect me to pay for this, while I’m asking you to give me medicines for my flu?”

And, he says, audiences respond.

“Whenever I drop a punch line, people are like, ‘Ah!’” he says. “They love that.”

“We’re not trying to get people out to the streets and cheer for removing the king or whatever,” he says. (Insulting the royal family is illegal in Jordan. Al-Taher, like most others, is careful to abide by that rule)

“I wish Jordan stays how it is. I don’t have a problem whatsoever with our main politics.”

Instead, he says he’s interested in improving the standards of living.

Rap is a great way to spread this message, he thinks: People remember rhymes and verse – he points to the Koran as an example.

“I believe that rhymes touch you. It can deliver you a specific message,” he says. It’s why he started writing poetry as a teenager in Saudi Arabia, and why he raps now.

“I can’t be this selfish rapper who talks about myself, my life,” he says. Instead, “I’m trying to help them with my words, to ask for their rights.”

WATCH: Eskenderella music video for the song “Safha Gedida” – which translates to “A New Page.”

Before Egypt’s revolution, Alexandrian folk-rockers Eskenderella played songs critical of then-President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The 13-member band participated in protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere, both as musicians and as protestors.

Now that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – a general under Mubarak who led the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi – is in charge, people aren’t interested in those kinds of critical songs any more, says Hazem Shaheen, the band’s lead singer and oud player.

So the band sang instead about people’s courage during the revolution, and how they have transformed.

Music should reflect the circumstances that people live in, Shaheen says.

The revolution was like “witnessing the birth of a totally new humankind to the Earth,” he says, through a translator.

Shaheen sees himself as a musician and artist first, however.

“I think the art is the revolution.”

Eskenderella’s reinterpretation of traditional songs and poetry is revolutionary, he says, because it’s different than the standard pop that people usually listen to. He hopes that people will listen to better music instead, because “that will be nutrition for the soul.”

Still, he feels politics has a special place right now in Middle Eastern music.

“The world will be shaped by the revolutions happening in this region. So that’s why you will find lots of politics and music and they are intermingling together.”

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