Emirati rappers take to stage to alter misconceptions

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In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, two Emirati rappers picked up their mikes and set out to challenge a world of misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims - and rap music.

Yet their pro-Muslim agenda and cautious approach to religion, politics and society did not prevent their only album, which came out in 2008, from being banned in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and more liberal Kuwait.

The Dahman brothers, Salem, 29, and Abdullah, 24, known as Illmiyah (Arabic for knowledgeable) and Arableak (fusing Arab and bleak), formed Desert Heat in their hometown of Dubai, the most relaxed and westernised Gulf Arab state but where authorities still crack down on people who push the limits.

In their baggy jeans and baseball caps, with big watches and flashy rings, the brothers look like regular rappers. But their lyrics, in a mixture of Arabic and English, are far from the staple rap language of drugs, violence and swearing.

After the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing scrutiny of the Muslim world, the duo decided that their passion for rap might enable them to use the music to deliver a more serious message.

"It was a challenge. We used to talk about the Palestinian struggle, the Arabs. Then we said 'let's talk about September 11, about terrorism, about Islam, about being labeled something we're not,'" says Illmiyah.

Asked why their songs were banned in Saudi Arabia, Illmiyah replies angrily: "Exactly, why? We don't know why. There are Saudi rappers whose albums are being released there and if you listen to them, they have cuss words... You'll hold your head and say, 'wow, how are they saying this!'"

"It's funny that we're getting banned in Saudi and Kuwait when Snoop Dogg is being sold in Jeddah."

Desert Heat view themselves as an alternative to Western rap that Arab and Muslim youths can relate to, and say they aim to create "positive change" through their songs.

Challenging the norms of a music genre commonly considered very negative in the Gulf region, Desert Heat trade the popular hip-hop themes for new ones, ranging from love and respect for one's mother to Arab-Islamic history.

In one of their songs, "Did you know?", they speak of a once glorious Arab and Muslim past.

"We started the rap battles," the song proclaims. "Tribes exchanged verses in Arabic poetry."

- 'Morally, we can't do that' -

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The song's lyrics have generated a lot of positive feedback, Illmiyah says. "A lot of kids come up to us and say: 'yo, we did this, we're proud.'"

While the rappers are keen to try to explain what they believe flashes through the mind of a Palestinian suicide bomber, as in one of their songs, "Terror Alert", they prefer to avoid political issues closer to home.

"If we talk about Iran and the UAE ... about the Iranians making bombs. We don't know what the situation is. Don't talk about something unless you are sure about it," Illmiyah says.

Although they did manage to get a phrase into one of their songs about Dubai's recent economic downturn "without pissing people off."

The brothers claim their songs have even led US soldiers in Iraq to quit the military after buying their albums while on vacation in the United Arab Emirates.

They "emailed us saying 'we've left the army because of your songs.'"

Illmiyah and Arableak have a message for both Arabs and Westerners, urging their own people to "be proud, don't be inferior," while telling Westerners "we're not terrorists, we're not ignorant. We don't treat our women like cattle and keep them in tents."

They have expressed support for the French government's decision to ban the face veil worn by Muslim women, which they say is "the choice of the French people."

They are currently working on a song tackling child marriage, which is common in poverty-stricken Yemen, while planning to write another that promotes education.

The rappers say they have already gained attention outside the Middle East, with fans in Australia, Canada, Germany, and France.

Their next album, due out on October 10, will be produced by their younger brother Saeed, and their manager hopes the pair will soon "perform in all the major cities of Asia and make Desert Heat an international name."

When the brothers came up with the idea of forming a rap band, their family did not object but they warned them against "selling their souls."

"Our father was very open minded but said make sure your values are not lost, meaning don't do things that are not in our tradition and culture, don't swear and don't have alcohol in our videos or songs."

The brothers have obediently followed his advice.

The Muslim duo say they were offered a large sum of money "by huge cigarette and alcohol companies" to advertise their brands but had to turn them down after they were asked to dye their hair and "walk in with six girls" and have alcohol bottles in the scene.

"Morally, we can't do that," Illmiyah says.

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