Jordanian hip-hop on the rise

The Jordanian rapper, Satti, wants to promote the borderless potential of hip-hop. Vincent Dwyer reports.

One side of Ahmed’s recording studio is dedicated to his diverse collection of vinyl records. There are rare 45-inch singles mixed with Rick James cuts as well as the original soundtrack of Grease. Next to this shelf is Ahmad’s desk, with drum sample machines and a clutter of notes. For eight hours a day, this is his office.

“I was wack as shit when I first started,” he says of his early days as a young rapper from Irbid, Jordan.

“I was writing in English for some time, but it wasn’t good, it wasn’t my language,” Ahmad says. “Now I only write Arabic raps.”

The 33-year-old is clearly dedicated. Ahmad – who goes by the stage name of Satti – has been recording music professionally for five years. However, hip-hop had a greater influence much earlier in his life.

“I was 14 years-old when a friend of my uncles came home from the States with some cassettes,” Ahmad explains. “The first thing I did was grab one of those cassettes – which was Rass Kass’ Soul on Ice. I hadn’t heard anything like that before. I swear to God, it got me interested from there.”

Ahmad’s love for the genre grew as he began to familiarise himself with the likes of Masta Ace, Wu-Tang Clan and MF Doom. He says hip-hop helped him understand the saying “music got no language”.

Ironically, it was also hip-hop that taught Ahmad how to speak English.

“Back then, we didn’t learn good English in schools,” he says. “So I started listening to more and more (music). I would also watch movies without subtitles, just to know exactly what they were saying.”

Just like his music, Ahmad’s outlook on life is borderless and universal. He’s also opposed to being pigeonholed as an ‘Arab rapper’ or political rapper.

“There’s a lot of cats these days who grew up (only) listening to Arab hip-hop. But that’s not right,” he says. “You need to go back to the roots of the thing and then come all the way up.”

For Ahmad, Jordanian hip-hop is at a crossroads. Many of his contemporaries have dropped off in recent years due to a lack of attention from the public. Ahmad says people need to understand hip-hop isn’t distinctly Western but also has roots in Arab culture.

This includes the long-standing Arab tradition of Haddaya, in which two poets engage in verbal dialogue and try to deride each other. Haddaya was (and still is) performed at weddings, and resembles a modern-day rap battle. Ahmad wants young Arab rappers to balance their influences between Middle Eastern culture and the rhythmic stylings of modern hip-hop developed in the ghettos of New York in the 1970s.

“It’s a beautiful culture,” he says. “This music can cross borders, cells, walls, anything!”

Ahmad’s rapping is both nuanced and rapid-fire. His samples incorporate ’90s boombox-era beats with classical instrumentation.

But where several Jordanian rappers draw on regional turmoil for emotional impact, Ahmad wants his music to stay apolitical and creatively “complicated”.

“I don’t want to be presented as a ‘political artist’,” he says. “I want to be presented as an artist.”

With his debut album due for release early this year, Ahmad is beaming and is passionate about his art and his future.

“Hip-hop is a gamble, but I chose to take it,” he says. “I’m definitely taking it somewhere (and) I know it’s going to get me somewhere.”

For Satti, culture and influence always come secondary to enthusiasm.