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MTV Arabia gives Middle Eastern youth a new voice.
When MTV launched its Middle Eastern channel in November 2007, some observers were skeptical about how revolutionary a concept it really was. With more than a dozen music channels on air, Arab audiences already had seen a lot of music-oriented programming.
But MTV’s parent company, Viacom, was confident it was tapping into a high-potential emerging market. With its mix of 70 percent Western music and 30 percent Arabic, MTV Arabia was hoping to serve a different audience than its competitors, who were more focused on Arabic pop music.
Headquartered in Dubai and broadcasting throughout the region, MTV promised to bring a distinct blend of East and West to viewers from Egypt to Morocco and Kuwait to Saudi Arabia. But what no one predicted was the way it would blend Eastern and Western sounds. Much to the surprise of viewers who have tuned in over the last year, the network delivered on popularizing a new sound in the Middle East: Arabic hip-hop, a blend of Western-style hip-hop street beats performed in both English and Arabic.
The arrival of MTV Arabia provided a unique opportunity for many young Arab artists who long had been influenced by Western musical styles but had their own cultural twist on it, explains Dany Neville, MTV’s official DJ.
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Neville, whose family originally hails from Lebanon, grew up just outside of Dubai. “Most of us from here grew up listening to American music. It has been a great influence.” Neville, whose real name is Dany Nabil, got his break hosting a show on Dubai radio at just 17. “Back then, all the English-speaking DJs were from the U.K. or Australia,” he says. Producers gave him the on-air name Neville instead of Nabil. “It’s just stuck since then.”
Neville is today one of Dubai’s preeminent DJs and a veteran in the young music scene. Along with his role at MTV, he continues to host a popular radio program called The Edge on Dubai’s Radio One and has been responsible for discovering many emerging artists from the region.
“Bit by bit, I saw a lot of home-grown artists coming to me with their music, and it was really good,” he says. Neville started feeding some of this to MTV and it took off. He helped create a hit show on MTV Arabia called Hip HopNa, dedicated to scouting new hip-hop talent from the region. With 200 million viewers across the Middle East, the exposure from the program has been phenomenal for young music acts. “These kids are getting record deals now. MTV has been a great stepping stone for them, which they never had before,” says Neville.
In the past, Arab youth looked West in search of opportunity, but now they are finding it at their doorsteps. Lebanese-born and Dubai-raised Karl Wolf recently won an MTV Europe Award for best Arab act. Though he is a Canadian citizen now and has made a name for himself in the Canadian music industry, his rise to stardom was fast-tracked in the Middle East by the arrival of MTV Arabia. His hit single “Africa,” a remake of the popular Eighties song, was the first music video ever to play on MTV Arabia when it launched.
“My music is what MTV Arabia is all about—a fusion between North American and Arabic flavors,” he says. Though he sings in English, Wolf’s music reflects his Arabic heritage. His second single, “Butterflies,” incorporates Arabic drum beats. The sexy video features a troupe of belly dancers.
“Our objective is to support talented Arab stars like Karl and let them brush shoulders with some of the most respected artists in the world and enable them to perform as representatives of our culture,” says Samr Al Marzouqi, channel manager of MTV Arabia.
Arabic hip-hop also is giving youth a pop-culture outlet to convey more serious messages in a very politically charged region of the world.
Yassin Alsalman, 26, has been making waves in the Middle East with his rebuttal rap to a song by Busta Rhymes titled “Arab Money.” The lyrics of the song extol the oil wealth in the Middle East and the rich lifestyle of Arabs. “I was at a club here in Dubai and Arabs were getting down to it, and I realized it was not right. I have been a huge Busta Rhymes fan for a long time, but it was disappointing.
“The song talks of rolling up in Dubai, buying $20 million lofts and taking private jets to Baghdad,” says Alsalman. “I don’t want to call him an ignorant man, but maybe they are just not aware of the Middle Eastern plight. Kids in Palestine can’t shop at these malls. The Middle East isn’t just Dubai. This is a great template, but most of our places are war stricken or under the rule of a dictator,” says Alsalman, who performs using his stage name, The Narcicyst. In his response, The Narcicyst chides Busta for his ignorance with lines like, “God show you the light…The pain in my people’s blood runs thicker than oil fields.”
Perhaps the most offensive part was the hook of Rhymes’ song, which is a garble of words that is supposed to sound like Arabic but in actuality is just gibberish. Alsalman, who’s family is originally from Basra, Iraq, also grew up outside of his homeland. But he is proud of Iraq’s musical tradition and culture. “If only they had actually used some real Arabic words, people in this part of the world could have genuinely embraced this song.”
Soon after The Narcicyst posted his rebuttal song, titled “Real Arab Money,” online, Rhymes called him to apologize “for the misunderstanding created by [‘Arab Money’],” according to a story originally posted on AllHipHop.com. This report was later confirmed in The National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates. “He pulled the track and the remix that came out with it after the negative feedback going on in the Arab and Muslim community,” Alsalman told The National. “He called me personally and said he wanted to tell the Arab and Muslim community that he apologized.” Rhymes pulled the track, which is a major hit for the American rapper, from radio stations and stores worldwide, and also planned to take steps to have it removed from the Internet.
Alsalman now lives in Canada, but recently has come back to his native Dubai to work on a movie project. He’s also shopping around for a label for his latest album, P.H.A.T.W.A., which stands for Political Hip-Hop Attracting the World’s Attention. Avenues such as MTV Arabia, he says, help make Dubai a legitimate force in the international music community. “One of the most heartbreaking things about the war is, not only did the infrastructure go, [but] the museums were destroyed [and] the culture is getting deleted. Sometimes it feels like we’re being reversed into stone ages.”
Yet these avenues are creating something new in the region that captures the spirit of the East and West. “Our generation of Arabs is a global generation. We don’t belong in any one place or box,” says Alsalman. They have found a home, musically speaking.