Young men like Reagan and Nour can be spotted on the streets of the Bronx or in South Central Los Angeles, belting out their rap flows and talking proudly about their hip hop group V.I.P.
These two 20-year-olds, however, are sitting in a local coffee shop in Hadayek Maadi.
What makes Reagan and Nour’s music unique is not merely their locale. Both are Sudanese refugees who, along with a handful of other African refugee youth in Cairo, have turned to music as their hope for resettlement and a brighter future shrinks.
As violence increases among Sudanese male youth involved in local street gangs in Cairo – demonstrated most severely with the fatal stabbing outside the American University in Cairo in June 2007 – hip hop groups work as a healthy coping mechanism to deal with the harsh reality. It also acts as an avenue for camaraderie outside of the gang scene.
“It has been shown in a variety of settings that there is a direct link between increased ability to express oneself and decreased levels of violence, said Natalie Forcier, founder of the Campaign for Internationally Displaced Youth [CIDY]. The program is under the non-profit organization called the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies that works to develop the natural talents of refugee youth through various techniques of creative expression like poetry and music.
“The goal is trying to get them to express themselves in some way. Because right now all the anger and resentment is just being bottled up, Forcier explained.
Indeed, V.I.P’s song lyrics – sung in Arabic, English and French – have more to do with unity among people of the world than the typical sex, drugs and violence-centered lyrics typically associated with hip hop genre.
Both Nour and Reagan regard themselves as messengers, charting their life stories through their music. In one song, Nour raps about hurtfully being labeled a “Janjaweed by his fellow Sudanese, in reference to his hometown Darfur where the infamous militia group is most prevalent.
A common theme found in their lyrics is racial intolerance.
“We started to let the people know the Sudanese situation by rapping, Nour said.
There are around six well-known African refugee hip hop groups in Cairo that perform regularly at venues like the Townhouse Gallery, El-Sawy Culture Wheel and The Factory in Maadi, while many other groups spring up on a more ad hoc basis.
For lucky, a 23-year-old Sudanese male solo rap artist who began writing his own lyrics at a young age, rapping is more personal. He spoke of singing as a way “to release the bad things off my chest.
All hip hop artists interviewed expressed a cultural connection with Africa via their medium of choice for expression: rap music. They live in a society that is not their own, yet rap remains distinctly African, perhaps the only artistic link to their cultures.
“I think there is just the fact that [rap] is different and successful, Forcier said. “It’s the easiest way for them to identify themselves as not being Egyptian in any way.
According to Forcier, Sudanese men are discriminated against by the Egyptian society in which they live. To make matters worst, they are also discriminated against by fellow Sudanese who associate all refugee youth with gang violence, blaming them for tainting refugees’ already frail image in Egypt.
“Sometimes the older Sudanese people think [rap] is for the criminals, Lucky said.
Not only do hip hop groups provide a positive outlet for expression for the Sudanese youth, Forcier went on to explain, they are also starting to change the general disregard from the elder African refugee community.
“It’s the racism from the Egyptians and the ageism from the Sudanese community, and all they have is each other, Forcier said. “It’s not really hip hop versus gangs, it’s hip hop versus violence.
While the popularity of hip hop groups among the African refugee community is on the rise, these young musicians face a number of obstacles from the onset, namely such as lack of practice space and money.
V.I.P. rotates their practice sessions from one home of the group’s members to another, while the Future Boys, a five-member rap group consisting of four Sudanese and one Eritrean, practice at St. Andrew’s Refugee Center in downtown Cairo.
One objective of CIDY’s mission is to find more performance and practice spaces to increase opportunities for refugee youth to become involved in hip hop.
“When I am on stage and people watch me, I feel like I have a future, said Dmbek, a member of the Future Boys.
The organization also planning on developing music classes and is currently producing an album featuring local refugee hip hop artists, which is due out in Fall 2008. V.I.P., Lucky and Dmbek from the Future Boys are all planning to record for the album.