Daring to be different: stereotypes crumble beneath Illmiyah's beats
Inner voice: Emirati rapper Illmiyah says it pains him Emiratis are stereotyped as born rich and privileged (Photo: Abdel-Krim Kallouche)
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A new hip-hop album released by a Dubai-based rapper has become all the rage in the UAE as it hits out against the typecasting of cultures, particularly Emiratis.
Titled Stereotyped, the 15-track album is making waves among both Emiratis and expatriates as it lends voice to an individual’s angst against cultural prejudices.
“It angers me that Emiratis are stereotyped as born rich and privileged,” the young singer and lyricist Illmiyah told XPRESS. “It pains me to find people talking about us as laidback or that we aspire for high positions without wanting to work. This is not just untrue but unfair too as we are like anyone else – we go through the same motions of life with the same struggles. So why the stereotype?”
The 30-year-old who works as an events officer at a leading government organisation said: “I grew up like anybody else and had a normal upbringing. I have had to teach myself so much, including my music. I started working part-time at the age of 18 and pitched in for the family.”
In 2008, Illmiyah launched himself as Desert Heat along with his brother Arableak and released his first album When the Desert Speaks. It was the first emphatic hip-hop statement to be made in the region by Arab youth.
He said a personal family experience prompted him to go hip-hop. He recalled how his brother, a student in 2001, was on his way to Canada for further studies when 9/11 occurred and he was forced to come back. “He was with our parents but couldn’t take the flight from Singapore. He was questioned because he was an Arab and a Muslim. A lot of our friends studying in the West said they were also targeted in the aftermath of 9/11. So we wanted to do something to fight this stereotype.”
According to Illmiyah, his albums are not about Emiratis or Arabs making a complaint. “It’s about stereotyping of people from any culture or country. These views come from lack of awareness and they must be corrected.”
He said the vast appeal of hip-hop made it the ideal medium to convey his message. “It’s a growing genre and a lot of people, especially the youth, relate to it. You can say so much in a verse or two.”
That he has struck the right chord is evident from the fact that he is booked all year round. He does around 100 shows a year, besides private concerts at universities, sports tournaments, retail events and shows. He has opened for big names such as Snoop Dogg, AKON and Missy Elliot, among others.
Illmiyah is quick to add that he has had to work doubly hard to get where he has as people readily embrace musicians from the West but are sceptical when it comes to homegrown talent.
However, he refuses to be boxed in as “local” talent. “Hip-hop doesn’t necessarily mean you sing with jeans and tattoos on. I continue to wear my kandura. There is no slang in my music. I sing in English as more people relate to the language.”
“I had to kill the beat; just to let my words breathe; so hopefully my lines can sleep; between the sheets of history …” goes one of his new tracks The Message.
“I deliberately wanted to keep the beat simple so people could focus on the message,” he said, even as he drew attention to another track called Brother.
“This is about the spirit of tolerance in the UAE where different cultures co-exist. We are proud of that and very thankful as well.”
By Sharmila Dhal