Monday, January 26, 2009

Yas: Iran's Hip-Hop Sensation (Huffington Post)

Since its genesis in the South Bronx in the 1980's, hip-hop has become one of America's most prolific exports reaching places you might expect, like Africa and Latin America, and places you might not, like Iran. Yas, a 27-year-old rapper from Tehran, first heard hip-hop at the age of 16 when his father started bringing him Tupac albums from his business trips abroad. Since then, he has become the first and only rapper to legally release his music in Iran and tour
internationally playing dates in Dubai, London, New York and Los Angeles.

Yas doesn't speak English, but once he heard the rhythm, rhyme schemes, emotion and passion in Tupac's voice, he was extremely affected by the power of hip-hop. When his father died abruptly, Yas became the sole provider for his family at the age of 18, and hip-hop was the only outlet for his emotion and anguish. "When I started to listen to the music and I heard the strength of his voice I really started to feel the energy of the music coming through. I really enjoyed the way he flowed and rhymed on the beat."

While Yas could feel the power and emotion of hip-hop without understanding the lyrics, it was when he began to translate Tupac songs that he realized the real power of hip-hop's message.

"After a while I started to pay closer attention to the music [and] I realized there was a lot more there to it, he was talking about real issues. I started to translate the lyrics and realized he's singing about society and the culture, about his perspective. I realized then that any kind of music that was going to stick around and have any kind of lasting effect had to say something real. It had to have a message and a deeper significance to it, in any kind of genre."

Persian culture has produced some of the world's most esteemed poets. Yas was inspired by Tupac's style and message, but he was also inspired by his own life and culture. "Hip-hop began in America, but Iran has had one of the longest traditions of poetry of any in the world. Poetry is in our blood. If he could sing about his life and pain and his culture, why couldn't I do the same thing in my own language, and that's where it all began."

Any music, books, or film to be released publicly in Iran have to be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. I asked Yas why he's been able to get past the censorship, "The more you limit something the more it becomes popular. Rap is a new style of music in
Iran. The people that censor things don't acknowledge rap as something to be taken seriously just yet. Even though it's extremely popular."

Yas was quick to point out American hip-hop artists like Tupac faced similar barriers and biases. In the early 90's, Dan Quayle was only willing to acknowledge hip-hop as being obscene and offensive, denying its legitimacy as an art form. "Nobody wanted to believe that hip-hop
would be a legitimate art form, just like nobody would believe there'd be a black president in America just like Tupac said in Changes. He said we'd never see it. It's very interesting to see that changes are happening and no one would've believed hip-hop would be popular in Iran,
but now you walk down the street, and there isn't a single car that isn't listening to hip-hop."

Yas is an ambassador for music's ability to bridge gaps and break barriers. He would like to see the United States and Iran as allies and would like to use music and culture to facilitate that friendship, "I can see from coming to the US and having seen both sides, the people of Iran want peace and want good relations with America, and people over here want the same thing, from what I've seen. I think right now is a good time to open up a friendship and change directions. It's important that we use music to show that the people have no issues with each other, that the people have no problems with each other.

"Our two cultures are a great match. One of my goals when I'm here is to work with a great American rapper to help me get my message out to a wider audience. I'd like to take a step forward with American hiphop." Yas is cognizant of the international appeal of his music
and tries to stay conscious of that when he writes in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, "One of my main goals is to put Persian rap on the map, but my biggest goal is to get my voice out to the world. Why should it matter that my language happens to be Farsi? My words are about my culture but also about the world as a whole."

Check out Yas on Myspace and YouTube here and here.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Album Review: Femi Kuti-Day By Day (Afropop Worldwide)

Day By Day, the first studio album by Femi Kuti in seven years out November 18th on Downtown Records, re-established the prince of Afrobeat as a voice in the contemporary Afrobeat community. His trademark punchy horn lines and passionate vocals represent Femi's style having grown but not changed significantly. He still has his own style, his own sound, and his own message, different from his father Fela and brother Seun.

As the son of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Afrobeat pioneer, African musical icon, and international protest figure, Femi played in his legendary father's band, Egypt 80, from a young age. He later broke away from Egypt 80 to start his own band, Positive Force, which played at The Shrine, Fela's home club in Lagos, Nigeria, one night a week. Femi has long displayed his father's passion for social justice and political action, but has differed from Fela on many fronts including his religious views and AIDS.

A few of the tracks on Day by Day are studio versions of songs performed on Africa Shrine, Femi's live album and Concert DVD such as "Oyimbo" and "One Two". Almost every song on the album has a strong political message like "Tell Me" and "Demo Crazy". Several of the tracks have a soft, jazzy feel at times such as "Tension Grip Africa" and "Untitled". Using the organ, guitar, trumpet, and various percussion instruments, Femi creates a soft backdrop against which the powerful horn section of Positive Force clashes.

"Do You Know?", a track that starts off with a funky bass line and Femi asking, "Do you know Miles Davis? Do you know John Coltrane? Dizzy Gilespie? Duke Ellington? Do you know Billy Holliday?" has a particularly funky groove. The guitar and organ parts are emphasized in a sly, scratchy manner in the early part of the song before the horn section comes in as a whole and then solos. Femi has been honing his keyboard skills for the past several years. His progress is evident on this track as the funky jazz vibe furnished by the keys and guitar parts is especially accentuated.

A few of the tracks are studio versions of songs performed on Africa Shrine, Femi's live album and Concert DVD such as "Oyimbo" and "One Two". Almost every song on the album has a strong political message like "Tell Me" and "Demo Crazy".

When younger brother Seun released his album Many Things earlier this year, a lot of people in the music community were ready to forget about Femi. People were ready to ordain Seun as the leader of the next generation of Afrobeat. Seun and Femi are very different and Day by Day is a clear example why. Seun, playing with Egypt 80, is picking up where his father left off, playing the same style and representing Fela's legacy. Femi has never been concerned with being the next Fela. Postivie Force and Egypt 80 co-existed for several years before Fela's death. Femi has always had his own style and sound, and Day by Day is a continuation of Femi's legacy of originality.

Femi Kuti