Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kurdistan’s Rappin’ Baby ‘Bama

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and 18-year-old Kayan is just emerging from his bedroom. It was another busy all-nighter for this Kurdish musician – writing lyrics for a new rap song about life in Iraq.

Terrorist, Kayan’s first political song, was the way he channeled his anger and sadness when a friend’s father was killed by militias in Baghdad. He hasn’t decided on a title for this new song yet.

“It’s about wishes and askin’ God to bring me back to a day when I can fix things,” he says. “I don’t know how much I remember, but I’m gonna spit some.”

When Kayan sings, his waifish frame is typically in constant motion—a loose silver wrist watch sliding up and down his undulating arm, black dress shoes tapping below well-pressed jeans. This kid is definitely talented, and he carries himself with an endearing confidence.

“I brought hip-hop and rap to Kurdistan,” he tells me with a wide grin. “Aw-ight,” he adds before I have a chance to react. It’s the first time I’ve heard this uniquely American urban English in Iraq, and Kayan has all the right body language to pull it off. Nothing about it would seem strange – except, I suppose, that I’m in northeastern Iraq, not Brooklyn or Compton, and Kayan is a dead ringer for Barack Obama.

If hip-hop was going to start somewhere in Kurdistan, it’s appropriate that it started here in Kayan’s home city, Sulaymaniyah. Suly (what the locals call it) is considered the cultural center of Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northern Iraq that’s tucked into the Azmar mountains. Kids may have been exposed to rap on the internet (Kayan first discovered 50 Cent’s In Da Club online), but before Kayan and his friends started performing, no one was rapping live. And while his bedroom recording studio is still the center of his operations, he opened a “real” studio last year, and convinced a local radio station to play his music. He sings, he mixes, he masters... but most of all he loves writing lyrics.

Let’s just imagine this won’t ever happen… all the family sittin’ down and laughin’… Take me back to the days when I was a little kid….I could use one wish just to fix things a little bit…

At a time when hip hop critics in the U.S. decry the genre’s lack of political substance, Kayan and his friends are turning up the political heat. Like Grandmaster Flash in the 1980s, the youth in Kurdistan—in Iraq—still have something to say, and they want to share it with the world.

For many years, the flower of our hopes was downtrodden, the fresh rose of spring was the blood of the youth…

These words, though, aren’t Kayan’s. They belong to his great-grandfather, Piramerd, the famous Kurdish philosopher, poet and journalist. Piramerd’s face is etched on buildings here, and there’s even a holiday in his name.

“He’s the legend. We have art in our veins – in our blood. I brought hip hop and he brought poetry,” Kayan says, understandably proud of his family heritage. “In our family, there’s a lot of poets, singers – only me rapper – so, that’s something cool.”

Six decades after his grandfather found inspiration from the hardship of his people, Kayan draws from that same emotional well.

There’s a proverb that defines Kurdish life, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. When elephants make love, the grass also suffers.”

God, can I get a wish? 30 million people have one wish. It’s peace.

Kayan is the grass in this part of the world. That makes his music something worth listening to. And his Obama good looks make him one... well, two... in a million.


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