The article “Amaani Yahya: Reaching out through Rap” was published on the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington website.
Amaani Yahya might not be the first Yemeni woman to rap, but she is one of the first to use the artform to try to reach people outside Yemen. Rapping in English, Amaani has been able to address Yemeni issues not only among her community but with people around the world. Rap for her is “a mission” – a means to communicate with the young generation, and particularly to advocate for women’s rights. AGSIW spoke with Amaani about what she has added to the artistic scene in Yemen and her endeavors to push social boundaries and find a place for herself and her causes.
AGSIW: How was the rap scene in Yemen before you entered it? Were there many other Yemeni rappers?
Amaani: In general, Arabic rap was mainly used for “dissing” others – speaking disrespectfully or to criticize others. As such, rapping and rap listeners in the Arab countries had mainly a negative connotation, and the same thing applies to Yemen. There were some Yemeni rappers but they were not very famous or popular.
AGSIW: You are considered the first female Yemeni rapper. How did you break into this world?
Amaani: When I first got into the rap world I was not very interested in it. I used to listen to different song genres like rock, metal, and classic rock. Becoming a rapper happened by chance. I used to write my diaries, and I would write them poetically in English. I like rhyming the sentences with each other. Then, in 2011, me and a group of Yemeni youths decided to celebrate Eid al-Adha by organizing a youth gathering in a cultural foundation called the Basement. It was located in a coffee shop called [Agora]. This foundation used to organize art events every weekend and invite singers and musicians. I rapped my diaries for the first time in this gathering and another girl played the guitar. After numerous performances, I started to get invitations to perform from French and British language academies. It was hard to sing in public spaces, especially since I am a female. Some Yemenis do not like this idea and many strongly reject it.
AGSIW: You sing in English about Yemen. But many Yemenis do not speak English. Who is your audience?
Amaani: I did a few raps in Arabic. However, I choose to continue singing in English as when I started to rap it was “cool” in Yemen to speak English, and it was a trend among the youth there to take English courses in English language centers. Thus, singing in English was beneficial to me to attract the young generation to my songs and my messages. Another reason to rap in English was that in Yemen we have different dialects. If I choose to sing with one of these dialects, it might cause the people in Yemen to focus on my dialect to classify me as Northern or Southern Yemeni. This could get me into meaningless discrimination issues and lose some of my audience.
Moreover, I want the people outside Yemen to listen to these messages and to the issues I am trying to shed light on with my raps. I want to address my messages to the world and not just to Yemenis. And that’s actually what has happened. Many people now from different countries have heard about problems for women in Yemen through my raps.
AGSIW: As a female rapper in Yemen, what are some of the difficulties you have faced?
Amaani: Not wearing a hijab was the most controversial issue I faced. Some people say I am not a Yemeni national and that I came from the United States to brainwash Yemeni youths. Singing in English caused the same problem to me. I think the way I dressed, singing in English, discussing feminist topics, and fighting misogyny were a bit shocking for them.
AGSIW: What are the messages that you try to address in your songs?
Amaani: First, I sang about Yemeni women and the mistreatment they receive. But now after I have lived outside Yemen, I have realized that it is not only Yemeni women who are being mistreated; all the women around the world face the same problems, especially during wartime. So, in my songs, I am always keen to encourage women to express themselves and to follow their interests.
AGSIW: You are also a volunteer artist for Oxfam. Can you tell us more about this?
Amaani: Oxfam has a musician-activist program that many artists around the world are part of to advocate for human rights through their artwork. I was first invited by Oxfam to be part of this program in Lebanon. Rappers from Egypt, Jordan, and I went to Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon to meet abused women who suffer from sexual harassment, underage marriage, and many other issues. We talked with them to understand their situation and to better know what they need. We wrote an Arabic rap called “Imraah Hurra” [A Free Woman] to advocate for women’s rights in these camps. Now I am part of Oxfam International and Oxfam asked me to be a representative artist for Oxfam Arabia in New York.
Marwa Fakih is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.