Ashekman (aa-SHAKE-mon) is a hip-hop duo that embraces all aspects of hip-hop, and, true to the tradition of the musical form, have added their own style, flare and message. The group consists of a pair of twins – Omar and Mohammad Kabbani – who were 18 years old when they started rapping and making graffiti art almost 14 years ago. They have built their music into a brand and clothing line, and have gained notoriety for their social commentary and creative use of pop culture references in all the mediums they work in.
In the song, called Ya Reit, meaning “I wish,” or “hopefully,” Ashekman talk about the challenges facing most Lebanese as the country’s cost of living skyrockets and making an honest living becomes more difficult by the day.
The chorus basically says: “I hope you are able to build a house…But [the effort] will make your run into a wall.” In other words, a normal Lebanese person will destroy him or herself trying to save the money to build a house since most people cannot afford it.
Omar Kabbani says the name groups name means “exhaust pipe” in Lebanese Arabic.
“It has symbolic meaning –all the dirt of the car comes out through the Ashekman,” Kabbani said. “So we do the same thing in our music and art – we try to expose the bad things in society through our music, and that’s Ashekman.”
Kabbani says hip-hop combines politics, social commentary, and art – and that it’s only natural that he and his brother use it to express themselves. Their father had a master’s degree in political science and their mother is a painter. As teenagers, they had plenty of material to write about: Lebanon was recovering from a 15-year civil war. So, they began writing about the injustices and political issues they heard about – from the taxi driver who couldn’t pay for his
childrens’ school to Lebanon’s assassinations, bombings and militias.
“In the region, especially in Lebanon, you have two choices to blow some steam: either you go and hold an AK-47 and shoot people, or you use your art to express yourself,” he said. “Of course we use the peaceful form of art, and that’s hip-hop.”
That attitude is reflected in one of their tracks, Always Positive.
The track is filled with references to Lebanese pop culture and history, and commentary on the state of the country.
At one point in the track, the duo talk about how expensive it is to live in Lebanon – and the stratified nature of the country – by playing on the old cliché that Lebanon is “the Switzerland of the Middle East.” They rap: “you need a visa to visit it, two hours to cross it, and two tires to block it” – a reference to the burning tires often employed by rival political factions to shut down parts of the country.
Kabbani says that in addition to the sarcasm he and his brother use to mock the country’s leaders and political turmoil, that this track also shows their love for Beirut and Lebanon.
“You hear About Lebanon in the international news, because of bombings and war, and I wanted to show the positive side of the Lebanese scene,” he said.
Ashekman are also known for their commitment to the Arabic language and Lebanese culture in their graffiti. They made a song about it, called “The Walls Are Talking” about the political and social commentary on Beirut’s walls.
They are famous for their tags, which have mocked the country’s bickering politicians and numerous political vacuums over the years by suggesting subtly that a Japanese anime character from the 1990’s – Grendizer – should be president of Lebanon.
“We also did Bomberman. This game – this video game character who puts bombs and runs,” Kabbani said. “It’s really old. So when there were three or four explosions here in Beirut, wrote “matloub” or “wanted.” We were being cynical and serious at the same time.”
Kabbani says he and his brother only use Arabic in their music, design and graffiti – which is political in itself.
“A new generation sees us as doing the hip Arabic, because Arabic is becoming not cool – people speak English or French, so we are trying to make the Arabic language cool again,” he said. “That’s partly how Ashekman was born – especially the t-shirts and graffiti, because we wanted to make the younger generation proud of their heritage and proud of their culture.”
Jackson Allers is a journalist who watches Lebanon’s hip-hop scene closely. He says the Kabbani brothers are the “workhorses” of Lebanon’s hip hop scene.
“They are very hard working, musical, hardworking graffiti brothers that have seen the possibilities of growing their audience base through their friends and peer networks, so it’s different from the rest of the rap community, and done in DIY way, “ Allers said. “They produced their own shows, and got to certain elements of the youth populations that relate to what they’re doing, and had a lot of influence on the walls around Beirut with their signature graffiti pieces. So they represent a very specific niche.”
Allers say says the group’s lyrics are representative of Arabic hip-hop, generally, in that most rappers in the Arab world have very country-specific experiences, and thus lyrics, social and political commentary – even pop culture references – vary greatly.
Allers says hip-hop has grown in popularity in the past twenty years, although its practitioners and fans are still a small minority in the Arabic-speaking world.
He says the Arab uprisings allowed rappers in previously oppressive and restrictive countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to voice their opinions openly.
The most obvious effect of the Arab uprisings on hip-hop in Lebanon, Allers says, is the appearance of Syrian rappers.
“They’ve had the inability to speak their minds,” he said. “Only after the advent of the Syrian war, with the Syrian refugee influx into Beirut and into Jordan, have you had a very active Syrian rap contingent coming up through the ranks, and able to say what they want.”
As for Ashekman, they’re still growing and working hard. They currently have a store where they sell their art and designs in Beirut – and they’re hoping to expand to Dubai.