Photo via This Is Beirut

Rap & Beyond showcases the power and drive of womxn artists

It’s a little after 9:30 PM when the backstage room of KED begins to crowd with people slowly trickling in. The room is bursting with energy – the women in it are not afraid to flash their pink heels, lively make-up, or shower each other with compliments.

One hour in, and they’ve retreated behind the curtain for a vocal warm-up. Their voices almost transcend to the floors above, and it’s clear that they’re getting ready to put on a show.

Womxn artists have been known to be spectacular performers, often going above and beyond to entertain their audience for the duration of the show. The current tours of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, whose runtimes are up to 3 hours, are a testimony as to what womxn’s commitment to the craft can yield.

But in Beirut, with just a small stage, a projector, and their voices to carry, 10 womxn performers were getting ready to give the same stellar quality.

Rap & Beyond

Out of the 10 womxn, eight had just taken part in the Rap & Beyond residency the week before. For some, this would be their first time ever visiting and performing in Beirut.

The residency was organized by the team behind Beirut & Beyond, in collaboration with Mind the Gap & the The Museum of World Culture (Världskulturmuseet) who brought together these womxn from across the world for an all-expenses paid stay to work together, share lessons and advice, before finally taking the stage in KED to showcase their work thus far.

“It was interesting that the whole idea was that there would be other female artists involved, and that it wasn’t just me. It was gonna be a whole initiative, and I love the idea because they approached me, [saying like] “you’re gonna be one of the most suitable people for this kind of residency and everything.” And who wouldn’t want to perform here honestly? I love to perform here,” said Xena Elzhazli, a half-Egyptain and half-Lebanese artist.

Xena is a singer, songwriter who has been in the music industry since 2010. She first made her debut in 2013 with a few English covers, before joining a band that was making Arabic covers of English songs. The band dissolved in 2018, and Xena stopped making music temporarily before returning to it in 2019. Since then, she has switched her music to original Arabic and English songs.

“The residency has been so insanely enriching. It was better than I could have ever imagined. I don’t come off like this, but I’m actually quite a closed off person, hence I don’t really do collaborations. But I was little worried before I came here about how the energies of the different girls would mesh together, whether I would really resonate with anyone and whether anyone would really resonate with me,” said Nadine el Roubi, a Sudanese artist based in Boston, USA.

Nadine’s music focuses on feminism, female empowerment, and the intersection of complex identities and taking from her own background as a Sudanese, Egyptian and Iranian artist. She first started making music in 2018, where she first started out as a singer before shifting into rap in 2019.

In conversations with Beirut Today, many of the artists shared that the residency helped them exchange insights, advice, experiences and lots of personal moments they’ve experienced in their careers.

“My experience was a lot better than I expected. Even though I expected us to have more writing sessions, and more long nights where we stay up writing, we actually had more time to get to know each other. We wrote, but we spent most of the time really being inspired by each other’s stories,” said Laila Beshara, an Egyptian artist.

“It’s crazy! All of these girls have so much that they’ve experienced, and they have so much to say, but they’re so different from each other. Each one has a skill that the other doesn’t have. I’m learning a lot from that, it’s been very inspiring.”

Laila started out as a poet when she was around 10 or 11, and often practiced singing as a hobby. She doesn’t know exactly when she became a rapper, but she first began experimenting with musical genres before landing on a subgenre of hip hop.

Prior to the residency, the artists prepared by giving each other’s music a listen. According to Laila, this helped hype them all up and prepare them for the week to come.

Creating your own space

“What motivated me to do this residency was because I wanted to meet other women in the Arab rap scene. I was hoping I would get to work with them and at least build connections, because it’s not easy being a woman in the Middle East. It’s not easy being a woman in an industry that is incredibly male dominated. The women you see here are maybe like 50 percent of the women in the Arab world who do rap, compared to all of the men,” said Sabine Salame, a Lebanese rapper.

Sabine is a seasoned rapper within the Lebanese scene. Her music mostly covers topics related to her own thoughts and emotions, with a slight mix in of political and social issues.

Sabine highlighted an issue that rarely ever makes its way into the mainstream discourse. While recent years have shown women heavily breaking through the independent music scene, it has rarely opened up space for womxn rappers to take the stage. 

In contrast, male rappers are plentiful and dominant in the scene. Familiar names like El Rass, Wegz, Shabjdeed, Al Nather, and 4LFA come up.

But why? 

In retrospect, it is nearly always the same reasons: a discrepancy in the distribution of resources, rampant sexism and misoygny across the music industry, the favoritisim given to male rappers over female ones. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why womxn rappers have not been given the same breaks male rappers have, which only further asserts that there is a huge discrepancy in the distribution of resources.

The launch of Rap & Beyond is paving the way for womxn rappers to connect, network, share resources, and most importantly, create a new space for themselves when others have failed to make it for them. 

Rap & Beyond has not only connected powerful women together to share resources, but has cultivated friendship and camaraderie. Many of the womxn we spoke to expressed their delight at having met other womxn, giving the Arab world testimony of the good that can come when womxn are given the opportunity to practice their craft.

“For me, [what motivated me to do this residency] was connecting with other women in the business. It’s important to me, and I felt like we could exchange a lot of experiences and ideas and be creative together. That was the main thing honestly,” said Nayomi, an Iraqi/Swedich rapper. 

“We built a great friendship during these 10 days, and we collaborated. I feel like sometimes we’re almost the same woman, because we share so many similarities.”

Nayomi was born in Baghdad and raised in Sweden. She started off doing music in Swedish, before switching to Arabic two years ago. She describes her music as “music to have fun to”, where she tackles subjects such as being a woman in a positive light.

“I love working alone, but this did remind me of teamwork. I forgot how good that feeling was. It was a pleasure to have that back, to know that I have other females that I could depend on, to send the message that I’m trying to send,” said Minerva, a masked female rapper from Morocco.

Minerva’s music tries to instill motivational energy through her lyrics and her rhythm. She describes her music as something to listen to when any female feels weak or finds herself in a similar situation.

Morrocan artist Frizzy expressed how she was in a state of disbelief prior to the residency.

“At first, I thought this wasn’t going to be real. But I applied, because we can never know if we don’t try. So I applied and then I kept receiving emails from the page and I said okay, I think this is gonna be real. There was no way I was gonna say no to this because such an opportunity is not something that you would receive two times. Residencies are everywhere, so I felt that I should take this opportunity,” she said.

Frizzy is based in Rabat and started doing rap music two years ago. In the time since then, she has shifted towards pop music. Her music today is a mixture between the two.

Despite the hesitations and fears the artists faced prior to the residency, many left feeling rejuvenated and excited to launch the next chapter in their careers.

“I finally know we are cool, we are all sharing the same state of mind, and doing our sh*t together. I love it, and I think that I will come out [of this] with very interesting friendships,” said Medusa TN. Medusa is a Tunisian rapper based in Paris, and she describes her music as “a bunch of propositions that she wants to propose to the audience, mixed in with a little electro trap.”