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French Version

On Lebanese hip-hop scene Omarz takes point with brand of powerful rap

24-year-old musician makes waves as demo CD played on BBC radio but gets no airtime at home

The Swiss-born, Paris-based artist Thomas Hirschhorn said "The trap for an artist is not the market.

The danger is to lose the mission!" Hirschhorn was referring to the plastic and fine arts, but his words apply as much to the (albeit) small crew of underground musical artists that exist in Lebanon.

For them, be it in the genres of heavy rock (The Kordz), punk-pop (The New Government) or hip-hop (Kitaayoun), the mission is not only to survive in an impossible market against the Arab bubblegum pop of Yuri Mrakadi (with songs like "Arabiyun Ana") or Maria (with songs like "Ilaab"), but to speak their minds.

And in almost all cases speaking their minds means speaking out their opposition to the current social, political and sectarian strife the nation is suffering, and their own needs and wants as the disaffected youth of today.

Such groups' music is of course about entertainment too, and about making music itself, but equally if not more importantly it is also about making a statement.

One of the youngest and most important artists to come out of Lebanon's underground scene this year is the multi-talented rapper Omarz (real name Amro Tohme), whose recently self-released demo CD contains some of the most powerful and personal lyrics heard here for some time. If anyone has a mission that will never be lost to the market it is him.

Rapping in both Arabic and English ("because I'll reach the West with English and prove that rappers from the Arab world are as good as any in Brooklyn") Omarz - the moniker stands for One Man Army Rises Zealously - is an extraordinarily talented 24-year-old Muslim of Lebanese-Egyptian parentage who settled in Beirut 10 years ago, having been born in Cairo then raised in Greece.

The importance of his work and the quality of his talent in the hip-hop genre is such that Omarz is currently getting airplay in the United Kingdom - the one fusha track on the record "Ghadab al-Jabbar" was aired on Radio One Xtra, the BBC's flagship digital radio and street music station last Saturday.

"You know hip-hop is violent. It's a violent, aggressive and angry type of music. It was born out of the frustrations of the impoverished and beaten-down black Americans, and that is what so many young Arabs are using rap to express themselves today, from Palestine to Egypt to Lebanon," Omarz explains in an American-accented English growl.

"I don't expect my stuff to be aired here but I hope it will. I'm inspired from Lebanon. It derives a lot from the Lebanese war, and I think it fits hip-hop because we are surrounded by a lot of anger here, in Lebanon and in the Middle East. We, the youth, have issues to talk about and I do that. I hope it empowers the Lebanese and Arab young," he says.

Working with his close friend and rapper Eslam (Wissam Khodur currently based in London) as part of the crew Desert Dragons founded in 1998, Omarz's path has not been easy. In 2003 the pair were kicked off the stage at the Become One concert in Beirut held to promote peace and to protest the American invasion of Iraq for doing just that - speaking out violently against American and Israeli policies.

"Yeah that was some bad s*** but it only spurred us on more and raised the profile of what we doing. It told us we doing things right. We are the only group to be kicked off the stage in Lebanon because of political reasons," Omarz says in his defense.

Watching that concert at the time, Omarz and Eslam, their heads wrapped in balaclavas, stormed the stage with such power and fury the audience and the organizers did not know what hit them. It may have been violent and surprising but it served their purpose, it made an impact.

Though as Desert Dragons the pair are not currently working together due to their physical separation - a previously recorded dancefloor-oriented track "Rock On" featuring the legendary British Jungle DJ, U.K. Apache is due to be released in Britain later this year - it is Omarz's current work that is making his voice heard and showing the liveliness of Beirut's underground rap scene.

Working with his beats man Johnny Damascus (real name Johnny Nasr) under the name Oriental Robotics, with the input and aid of leading local hip-hop and jungle DJ Lethal Skillz (Hussein Mao) as well as fellow rapper Grandsunn (Ray Tannir) and producer Scizzers (Sebou Pamboukian), Omarz has produced a fresh record populated with tight, stripped down beats, Arabic samples from famous political speeches, and raw vocal rhyming.

"God Slave The Queen" opens with a nationalistic and anti-British speech of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser given just after he nationalized the Suez Canal. The song itself features Omarz's aggressive rapping in a litany of accusations against the British monarchy, Lord Balfour (of the 1917 Balfour Declaration fame which agreed in principle to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine), and British policies towards Arabs.

It is a jarring work but not one motivated by any unjust or overriding hatred of the British. Instead the song is inspired by Omarz's frustrating own experience.

"Look I wouldn't have written this song if I had been happily living with my girlfriend in London and studying music there. But they screwed me, and never gave me any reason why. Just stamped no entry like I was nonperson," he says.

Twice refused a visa to study in London by the British Embassy in Beirut without any cause he says, despite the fact that he had already been accepted at a London music college, had paid a part of the fees, had somewhere to stay and satisfied the financial requirements in Lebanon, "God Slave The Queen" was the result, and it is one that many Lebanese and Arabs with similar experience will relate to.

The second and third tracks "Technology iz a Terrorist and the Pentagon iz a Pentagram" and "Gesturez of Genocide" follow up on this critical theme toward the West.

"The British monarchy has bestowed a dark past on the world and now America has taken that role, America is the new U.K.," Omarz says. "So both these tracks are about injustice. Musically they are examples of straight-up, orthodox hip-hop, no hooks, no harmonies, no bullshit."

Is this strongly political bent to his rapping the reason for his name?

"One Man Army Rises Zealously is basically just me expressing my struggle. I am not part of any political party in Lebanon, or anywhere. I pledge allegiance to my flag. But I will not witness the digitization of society and humanity and the march of globalism because I am not part of a political group. I am fighting on an individual level. You do not have to go to war to be part of war," he answers.

The most personal track on the album is the Arabic one, "Ghadab al-Jabbar," featuring a chorus adapted from the chants Omarz had to sing at boot camp during his Lebanese military service. It is about the erosion of Arab culture in the face of the West.

"I mean you know fight against the idea that defending your lands makes you a terrorist, or that we are forced to accept a Western form of democracy by our own rulers and outside rulers even if that form of democracy is not necessarily right for us," Omarz says.

"On this record, I am speaking out for hip-hop and the Arab youth of today. Lebanon made me who I am and hip-hop made me who I am and with it I can fight injustice."

As Hirschhorn said: "Art does matter today because with art I can fight resentment, hatred and cynicism. As an artist I am a warrior."

Beirut 03-10-2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star

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