It’s early evening in Dubai and Malikah is apologising. For being a tough woman to pin down, for being busy, but most amusingly for having the best New Year’s Eve ever in Beirut.
“Yeah, I’ve been busy,” she says with a laugh. “I quit my job, I went to Europe and Canada, I wrote and recorded my album, and now I’m in the process of mixing and mastering, but it’s taking longer than expected because I’m being lazy and busy back at work again. But now I’ve set a deadline, because if I didn’t I was going to sleep on it forever.”
Written in France and recorded in Montreal, the album’s expected release date is somewhere around the end of February or the beginning of March, although its title is still undecided. Most of the tracks have been produced by LA-based Fredwreck, with the project itself funded by Red Bull, for whom Malikah is an ambassador and opinion leader. Considering she’s been delivering fiery and opinionated lyrics since she first hit the scene at the age of 16, it’s hard to believe no previous album has been released. But the wait is almost over.
“I’m denouncing, pointing fingers, I’m criticising the upcoming generation and commenting on whatever is happening around me,” she says. “Women who are fake and plastic, young girls who fall in love stupidly, ego trips and being proud of being an Arab. Women who don’t want to be educated or don’t care about education and just want to get married and sit at home. And even when they get married they don’t really want to take care of their husbands, while their maids raise the children. This is what’s on the album.”
Is it angry? Are you angry?
“Some tracks are angry but I guess I’ve matured as an artist,” she replies. “I’m less of a machine gun now and I have more laid-back flows. But I am aggressive on stage. I’ve always been a hardcore rapper, even when it’s laid-back. I still feel a sense of anger.”
“Because there’s so much that’s messed up. Just look around you. Politics, everyday situations, egos. And although I do empower women that doesn’t mean I’m okay with what all women are doing. Sometimes you find a lot of women doing things that you do not agree with, or that you do not really respect or stand up for. I’m criticising them, asking them to do the right thing, to stand up for themselves.
“Also, we’re somehow stuck in the political aspect of hip hop because of the revolutions and everything that’s happened. Most rappers only talk about political topics, and that’s wrong. At the end of the day hip hop needs to be bigger than politics. Rappers should be able to speak about everything they want to speak about, whether it’s fun, positive, sad or its personal or it’s political. It needs to have a bigger spectrum. Arabic hip hop was like that at the beginning; until all the revolutions happened. Then it was like there was a certain general feel that you have to talk about politics if you’re a rapper. It was one of the reasons why I slowed down. I wasn’t interested in writing anymore because I don’t want to be stuck in this one theme only.”
Flamboyant, with mad bushy hair and contagious confidence, Malikah’s real name is Lynn Fattouh. The inflection, intonation and content of her tracks are often angry, confronting inequality in Lebanese society, the plight of the Palestinian people, and other topics that frustrate, although she insists she has mellowed in the past few years. On stage she is a storm of electricity, discharging lyrics with a rawness of energy that borders on the harsh; revelling in an attitude that enables her to push at certain boundaries within the societies in which she grew up.
“When I first started to rap it was the whole thought of being able to say what’s on my mind and speak out loud that appealed to me. There was this whole power and beauty behind it. I’m a very opinionated person so I always felt the need to say what’s on my mind and to show how I analysed different incidents and different things. I was super passionate about it – and I still am – but not as much as I was before. My main motivation now is to be able to influence people in a positive way. It’s amazing when you see someone come to you and say ‘you changed my mind’, or ‘you opened my eyes and I realised this’. It influences you because you’re like ‘okay, I have a duty, people are listening to me so I need to be careful what I say. I need to be careful that I keep doing what I’m doing because maybe I can influence some positive change’. The rappers in Tunisia or Egypt at the beginning of the revolutions played a key role in everything that happened. They influenced people on a very big scale.”
The distinction between hip hop and Arabic hip hop is important, not only for Malikah, who was born in Marseilles to Lebanese and Algerian parents and grew up in Beirut, but to an increasing number of Arabic hip hop adherents across the region. US hip hop – or a commercialised version of US hip hop performed by Arabs – is not something they relate to in any way. It is also not representative of the Arabic scene, which attempts to uphold the original tenets of rap culture by promoting unity, peace, love, truth and respect.
“I was rapping in English until 2006,” Malikah once told me. “But in 2006 the war with Israel started and it affected me on so many levels. At that moment I wanted to write a song to my people, to talk to them, to comfort them, to tell them what I thought about what was happening. I started writing in English but then I thought ‘why would I choose to speak in English?’ Why aren’t I speaking Arabic? Arabic is one of greatest languages; very complex and very expressive, and I’m very proud to be an Arab. At that moment I took a vow that I would never rap in any other language than Arabic.”
She has kept to her word. She has also continued to take pride in her Arab heritage, while also providing exposure for the underground music scenes in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and the UAE, notably during her tenure as host of Rotana Musika TV’s flagship show Shababiback in 2009. She has performed with the likes of Omar Offendum, The Narcycist, Eslam Jawaad and DJ Lethal Skillz, as well as international hip-hop royalty, performing in Beirut with Statik Selekta and Eric Coleman. In 2011 she opened for Snoop Dogg in Abu Dhabi.
“The West came up with this stereotype about us that destroyed our image, but we know that it’s not us, we know who we are, how we treat people and what we believe in,” she told me a couple of years ago. “All the wars and all the people who died, the corruption, the poverty, the lack of education, the fact that many people can’t go to the hospital for medical treatment; all these things together led us to say ‘okay, it’s time to do something’. We’re not going to fight with weapons, we’re going to fight with our voice, with our lyrics. The b-boys are going to fight with their moves, the graffiti artists are going to fight with what they write, and the DJ is going to fight with his scratching and his sampling. And that’s how we started our own war, which is a peaceful war. And we believe that this war is stronger than the war with weapons. We chose art, we chose speech and words, which are far more powerful than anything else.”
She touches on the subject of zajal. Virtually unknown outside of the Maghreb and the Levant, zajal is the art of poetic duelling in which two poets challenge each other with improvised verses set to music. It requires an audience that understands cultural cross-references, puns and interplays. If you don’t understand Arabic, it’s meaningless, even as a musical form. Zajal’s similarity to hip hop is obvious, especially in relation to rap battles, which require no previously composed lyrics and feed off crowd reaction.
“When I was about 17 I was invited on to a Lebanese TV show called Zaven to talk about hip hop’s similarity to zajal, with its battling poets and improvised lyrics,” says Malikah, who works for an advertising agency during the day. “I’ve always said that we’ve always had hip hop culture within us, we just never called it hip hop. In Egypt there’s Arabic hip hop, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, everywhere. We use Arabic instruments, we use our language, we wear the keffiyeh, we talk about what we are going through. It has progressed so far since I began at 16. No studios would record for us, no producers would give us beats, no venues would invite us because hip hop was nothing back then. There was no respect for this art form in the Arab world. So we just used to sit there and cypher the whole day, battle, and have fun. No beat, nothing, just a cappella.”
Is the scene getting stronger now?
“Yes. There are a lot of rappers coming through,” she says. “Just in Egypt alone there are probably a hundred new rappers every day. Out of these you’ll get at least five that will have that top quality. But there are no women. Female rappers in the Arab scene are very rare. We have been the same number of women for a while now.”
“I don’t know. But as a woman you really need to be tough to do this. You need to be strong. It’s not an easy thing. I never really worried because on the regular day-to-day and before I was a rapper I was always a tough girl. I never had to make any particular effort. I was just doing my music the way I do it, the way I do everything in my life. But maybe there aren’t enough women who are that fearless. Or maybe those women who are aren’t interested in hip hop. I know for a fact it’s not any random woman who can do this. She needs to be very strong and she needs to not be intimidated easily. She needs to look at men and not feel like they’re better than her. She needs to feel that, ‘yeah, I can be just as good’.”
A graduate of the American University College of Science and Technology in Beirut, Malikah is known as the ‘Queen of Arab hip hop’ and is one of the genre’s pre-eminent voices. Alongside MCs such as London-based Shadia Mansour – ‘the First Lady of Arabic Hip Hop’ – she occupies a prime position in a small circle that constitutes the Arab world’s best female rappers. “Malikah is very different to Lynn, they’re two different people. I’m not schizophrenic, but I have alter egos,” she adds with a laugh. “I need to live both lives.”
“It was always my dream to be able to just do music and I know a bunch of rappers who are able to do it and I’m very jealous. The problem is you can’t really live off music, especially if you’re into Arabic hip hop; unless you’re happy with making just as much as you can to survive, but that’s not what I want. I support my family, I have responsibilities, so I could never just count on my music. Music is not a stable income and I never want to find myself in a situation where I have to sell out or change who I am, or change my opinion or what I stand for just because I need money to pay the rent at the end of the month. It’s empowering to have a job and not rely solely on the music, but in the future I’ve been thinking that it’s time for me to switch. In my creative zone I feel I need to grow, to move to something else. I can’t just stick to hip hop. Sometimes I feel I’ve been doing that for too long and my creativity could stagnate. I want different outlets and I’m working on them.”
* Published in Emirates Man, February 2015
* Photograph: Fares Sokhon