There was a time, long ago, when hip-hop music did matter. A relatively novel genre, hip-hop and rap were born in the African American ghettos in the 70s to act as one of the few outlets for unprivileged kids to communicate their anger and frustration with discriminative politicies.
Gil Scott-Heron, the godfather of rap, introduced a genre that combined African beats with uncommon melodies and a distinctive rhythmic delivery. Lyrics were sharp, vigorous and exceptionally dynamic. By the 80s, rappers such as Run DMC, X-Clan and – most of all – Public Enemy succeeded in establishing hip-hop as the most politically, socially, and culturally relevant musical genre of its time.
Tupac Shakur took the genre to a new level, introducing it to the American suburbs and mainstream music.
As hip-hop became a popular, overriding music force around the world, rappers acutely deviated from their course with sex, bling bling, cash and graphic violence growing to dominate the main themes of the genre.
A new type of clean, socially responsible hip-hop emerged lately on the fringes to counter the current conventions. In doing so though, the new rappers severed the true soul of rap, replacing it with a tamer, dull and largely artificial form that has little significance.
Native Deen, one of the leading bands of an Islamic rap movement that emerged post-9/11, is a prime example of this new breed.
The American trio produces music influenced by their faith and devotion to God with occasional compositions involving social issues, discussed through the prism of Islam. They made their Cairo debut last week, performing for two consecutive nights at Azhar Park last Friday and Sawy Cultural Center on Saturday.
The concert kicked off with a percussion line, followed by the first song of the evening that begins with a verse from the Quran. The song goes on to strike the audience with one rhyme after another about the hybrid nature of the Muslim world, the kindness of Islam and the bond all Muslims share. It seems to go on forever with no clear destination or coherent context.
The second song is a celebration of Ramadan with a melody that resembles nursery rhymes. With words that urge young Muslims to channel their time in praying instead of watching movies, a series of extended preaching commenced.
“Save Me From Khataya (Sins), a self-explanatory song, continues the trend.
“Be at the Top superficially addresses Muslim stereotyping in the media. “The Top was the first proper rap number of the night and the first exhibit of the band’s inability to create imaginative rapping flows, and their predictability.
Signs of potential temporarily flash throughout the famous hymn “Tala’ Al Badr Alayna. With endearing, gentle xylophone jingles and the voices of the trio crooning collectively in harmony, the band’s rendition is a different and earnest effort suffused with beautiful soulfulness.
“For the Prophets, an ode to Prophets Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (PBUT) saw the trio briefly recount their stories and legacies, was another highlight.
A percussion solo precedes “Praise Allah; another lovely number that follows closely the formula of “Al Badr. The solo is probably the most daring and exciting segment of the night.
The band finished their gig with a return to the tacky with “M.U.S.L.I.M, another cut that expresses how the band members “are blessed to be Muslims.
Native Deen is essentially a Muslim soul band promoting themselves as a rap outfit. Their stage movements, uniformed hand gestures and brand of singing are deeply influenced by black soul and RnB. However, their rapping contains none of the urgency, edge or fun of the best of the genre.
None of the beats churned out on Saturday are memorable and the themes of their songs are excessively redundant. They seem sincere and their faith-based passion is quite palpable and admirable, but sincerity alone can’t create good music.
Producing good religious records that are innovative but not preachy is a hard feat that eluded dozens of illustrious musicians. Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, produced some of his flattest records of his career when he attempted to discuss his new Christian faith with “Slow Train Coming and “Saved.
Few artists though have proven that religious belief can create great, original and thoughtful music. Sufjan Stevens injected his sublime “Seven Swans with profound spirituality and reflective perspective on biblical parables. Senegalese Youssou D’nour produced the most ambitious and awe-inspiring Islamic record in recent history in the shape of 2004’s “Egypt.
Native Deen are, at best, a below average band too timid to try anything adventurous like D’nour. They fail at being both a rap outfit and a religious band. It’s difficult to envision them travelling beyond their limited cult status.