The boy with the Arab rap
Saudi hip hopper Qusai Khidr tells James Wilkinson about rap, politics, social issues and freedom of speech. Discuss this article
When NWA released Straight Outta Compton in 1988, the track ‘F*** Tha Police’ caused a wave of outrage and controversy across the US. So imagine what it was like for Qusai Khidr, then a kid in Saudi Arabia, whose experiences of foreign music had been limited to the likes of Michael Jackson, George Michael and Phil Collins. ‘That was a real shock to the system. It was so hardcore and new,’ he grins, ‘I was like, “Damn, they’re cursing!”’
A shock it may have been, but this exposure was also a formative moment in Qusai’s life. Having already written himself off as a singer – ‘I didn’t have the voice for that’ – he now realised that he could still express himself through this strange new genre. He spent his schooldays recording mixtapes, and later went to university in America, where he began to get first-hand experience of the US rap scene.
‘I always used to hang out in the areas that would have hip hop music,’ he recalls. ‘You’d see rappers beatboxing on the corners and I was like, “Hey, I used to see guys like this on TV; now they’re right in front of me!” And I thought I’d sound really whack in front of them, so I started watching them and taking notes.’ As Qusai took notes, the rappers took notice. They schooled him not only in producing beats and rhymes, but also in the business side of things, like running and promoting shows.
And, while he was putting his nose to the grindstone, Saudi Arabia was waking up to his music. His track, ‘Jeddah’, sparked a flurry of interested calls and emails from fans, leading to his return to Saudi in 2005, where he subsequently became a local sensation and, in 2007, a presenter on MTV Arabia’s Hip HopNa. And now he’s released his debut album, Don Legend The Kamelion.
‘I wanted to introduce my tradition, my culture and the subjects that we talk about in the Middle East. We have so much to talk about; we have technology and we have a whole civilisation that’s developing. Look at Dubai as a prime example – it’s considered one of the biggest and most beautiful cities in the world.’
He might have a lot to talk about, but in the politically restrictive society of Saudi, Qusai has to be careful what he says. ‘People from all ages who didn’t know anything about hip hop are going to be listening, so I don’t attack subjects, I address subjects,’ he says. ‘When you’re in the States you’ve got freedom of speech, but when you’re in Saudi you’d better watch what you say with respect to your culture, your religion, your tradition and your elders.
‘People ask me, “Are you going to attack political issues?” And I say, “No, I’m going to be addressing social issues.” Who am I to criticise politicians or individuals? As a citizen I am going to talk about what I see around me, the social issues – but with respect, because I know these are my limits and I should not pass them, not like in the States.’
So does it bother him to be living in a restrictive country, especially after seeing the US’s freedom of speech? ‘I can’t lie about this – it bothers any individual to see things that they don’t like and can’t talk about. But there’s always a way. In the song “Salaam” [“Peace”] I didn’t go into details, I just touched the surface: “The power of politics has washed our minds/Greed became the weapon so they bomb/And kill the blood of innocent children with their free will/So fight the power, lend a helping hand/One nation under God we stand.” If you read between the lines there is depth and detail, but that’s as far as I can go. I know everyone’s smart enough to figure it out; why do we have to bring it straight out?’
He may have only just released his first full album, but Qusai’s ambition is to show the world his vision of modern Arabia. And while he’s prepared to make concessions for his own culture, he’s more wary of compromising for global success. ‘If they ask me to change, I will say, “What is this change? Is it positive? Is it something that I can take to my advantage and be smart about?” But I won’t compromise my values. We’ve had enough violence and sex and all that b*******. When I do a show in the States, that’s the same show I’m going to do in Europe and the same show I’m going to do in Asia, with respect to my culture and theirs.’
But those thoughts are for the future. For now Qusai is just enjoying the fruits of his labours. ‘So far I’m living my dream. And it’s only the beginning.’
Qusai Khidr’s album, Don Legend The Kamelion, is available in stores
Time Out Abu Dhabi,
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