We speak to Desert Heat founder about the state of Arab hip-hop
Heavy hip-hop beats slam over a minor melody drone. There are glitches and samples as the rhymes fly thick and fast. It could be the latest hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
But listen closer, and the guy on the mic appears to be rapping about a falcon. Check the video, and the figure striking gangsta poses is garbed in traditional Emirati dress. Welcome to Illmiyah’s world.
‘Falcon’ is the first single from the Emirati rapper’s debut solo album, Stereotyped, a startlingly honest work addressing the global preconceptions of Arab males. Significantly, it was released last week, on National Day. ‘Khandura and leather sandals / Play with the beast I leave your mindset mangled,’ he rhymes on the lead single.
‘I’m telling anyone who’s Arab that hip-hop is not exclusively for the West,’ says Illmiyah, who takes his name from combining the Arabic ‘ilm’ (‘knowledge’) and ‘miyah’ (‘100’, as in 100 percent). It’s a name that should already be familiar to thousands of fans of Desert Heat, the Emirati hip-hop duo of brothers Salim (‘Illmiyah’) and Abdullah Dahman (‘Arableak’). Formed a decade ago with the goal of addressing prejudices following 9/11, and said to be the first Emiratis to rap in English wearing khanduras in the desert, they cut a striking image. They played huge gigs supporting names such as Snoop Dogg in Abu Dhabi last year (who came onstage after them wearing Emirati garb), while 2008’s debut LP When The Desert Speaks, rapped in a mix of English and Arabic, included divisive tunes such as ‘Terror Alert’, which paints a picture of a breeding ground for terrorism among young disillusioned Arab men.
But Illmiyah’s solo album, two years in the making, is a different bag. The 31-year-old has moved from the general to the personal, opening up to share intimate details of his personal life. ‘I feel lost, I feel hopeless,’ he sings on opening track ‘Illuminate’. On ‘Stressed Out’ he shares delicate autobiographical details: his mother ‘breaking down’, suffering depression in his mid-20s, burying close friends, and failed relationships.
‘The stereotype is that all Emiratis have an oil field in their back yard and a Porsche outside, but we were a normal family,’ says Illmiyah, his warm, measured tones contrasting with the streetwise stage persona. ‘But in Arab culture we don’t like to talk about hard times. I played [the album] to my parents and they said, “You can’t put it out, what will people say? What will people think?”’
But it’s not all darkness in Illmiyah’s world. There’s the playful way he litters rhymes with references to local landmarks. In ‘Ride Out’, he offers, ‘We can dine at the Burj / Milkshakes down in Satwa,’ before proclaiming, ‘Damn! That girl ishotter than Liwa.’
And it wouldn’t be hip-hop without a few sly boasts. On ‘Mendi (We Ain’t Got Beef)’, Illmiyah begins, ‘Okay inzain it is I Mr UAE / Natural born chef I don’t need a secret recipe /Besides I know I sound good, I use local delicacies / You know who they call me? Young Sheikh Socrates.’
Perhaps the album’s most striking performance is ‘Hey Hip-hop’, an open ‘love letter’ to the genre that has fascinated the artist since he first heard an LL Cool J record aged 11. Illmiyah serenades the musical genre like a girl, singing, ‘It was a dream /You and I in the Middle East / You really made me feel like another me /Then left me alone / Regardless I wrote you this song,’ and ‘Memories of long walks at the parks / We would hang out just talk in the dark’.
With the album now on shelves, Illmiyah, who has a day job at Dubai Airport as well as running JLT’s Kilma Studios where the album was recorded, is now planning to collaborate with his younger brother again. Desert Heat never split: they’re still gigging, and Arableak frequently appears at Illmiyah’s solo gigs. Next year they’re hoping to go international, putting together an album of collaborations with rappers in Europe. For now, though, Illmiyah has his hands full promoting Stereotyped.
‘The aim of this album is to fight the stereotypes of everything,’ he adds. ‘I want to show that as an Arab growing up in Dubai you can come up [the same] as any artist. We are capable of doing everything. We have the tallest tower in the world – we don’t really need it, but we built it just because we could – so if we say we can be the best hip-hop artists, we can do it.’ Stereotyped is available in Virgin Megastores now.