Saudi Hip-Hop's Painful Birth

Listen to excerpts from the songs "Leila" and then "From Silence" by Saudi hip-hop group Dark2Men. The group is a finalist in an MTV Arabia hip-hop competition in a strict Muslim kingdom that views singing and dancing as shameful. Audio courtesy Dark2Men
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 22, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- For many years, the members of the Saudi hip-hop group Dark2Men performed mostly in living rooms for their friends. They hid their pastime from relatives who view singing and dancing as shameful in this strict Muslim kingdom where concerts, theaters and movies are banned.

But that all changed last month after the group auditioned for a hip-hop competition on MTV Arabia -- launched in November as the latest addition to the MTV network -- and became one of eight finalists from the Middle East.

The channel produced a video clip of Dark2Men that aired in late January and flew the finalists to Dubai for the contest finale, which was taped Thursday and will be broadcast across the region next month.

"We used to sing about scratching our way to the surface," said lead rapper Hani Zain, 27, a gangly computer programmer at a bank. "We finally made it to the light."

In a kingdom where the Koran serves as the constitution, Dark2Men's rapid ascent from obscurity to the waiting room of pop fame has brought its three young members a mix of elation and misery.

Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest places, and the group's tenuous leap into the realm of MTV is in many ways the story of the kingdom's own struggle with the effects of intrusive Western-style modernity.

There are no nightclubs or concerts in Saudi Arabia because of social and religious codes that also ban alcohol and the mixing of unrelated men and women. Local radio and television stations play mainly Arabic pop music. With those limitations, the group's biggest ambition had been to cut a CD.

What they got instead was a television appearance viewed by thousands in the Arab world.

Their fathers, who had never seen them perform, were ashamed and angry as they watched them rapping and dancing in the video on television.

Their fiancees, in a country where women are not allowed to drive and must cover their hair and wear a cloak in public, were unhappy about the trip to Dubai, where men and women mix freely and alcohol is readily available.

The time they needed to spend on practicing and attending the competition put them at risk of losing raises and promotions.

"This should be the happiest time of my life, but it's really the most difficult," said Tamer Farhan, 24, a human resources assistant at a hospital who taught himself English by watching American movies and television shows.

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