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Iraqi rappers voice reality, pain: 'We livin' in hell'

From Arwa Damon, CNN
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Rapping in Iraq
  • Smashing Hits is an English-language rap group based in Baghdad
  • Its five members rap about life in Iraq, aiming to send "a message to the West"
  • One member says some of his lyrics are inspired by the deadly October 31 church siege

Baghdad (CNN) -- Wearing hooded sweatshirts, baseball hats and sports gear, the five young men alternated between nodding their heads to the rhythm and taking hold of the microphone to pour out their anger, their insights, their pain.

"No matter if you're Muslim, no matter if you're Christian, no matter the religion, we all are human," intones DK.

The scene and sounds wouldn't be unusual in many U.S. cities, where rap has been part of urban culture for decades.

But this is Baghdad.

Members of the Smashing Hits, as the quintet calls itself, are aware that their music may seem out of place in Iraq. Traditionally, the Middle Eastern country is better known for sounds emanating from instruments like the oud and rebab, rather than from a microphone or turntable.

Yet this group not only embraces American culture, it literally speaks its language -- modeling American idols Eminem and the late Tupac Shakur, and rapping exclusively in English rather than the native tongue of Arabic. The reason for that choice is that they want people in the West to understand what's really happening in their homeland.

"It's ... a message to the West ... to make them know who we are, things we can do here -- not just the violence, the terrorists," said Thoulfiqar Harith, or Fop, the group's 19-year-old founder.

Beyond speaking English, they feel that rap offers them an authentic, powerful medium to express what they see and how they feel. That's why, for the past two years, the friends say they have recorded self-written tracks inside a small studio and rapped at outside venues. While they hope their music will catch on, for now they say they fund the effort themselves.

During a recent performance before a small audience in a city field, the dark side of Baghdad was woven into many of their lyrics, as is the sentiment than many outside Iraq don't really understand what the situation is like.

Rapped one member, "We livin' in hell and nobody hears our calls; everyday in Baghdad, our tears do fall."

The hurt, and thus the lyrics, are raw and personal for men like DK, or Omar Ayad. His best friend Fadi, a 25-year-old neighbor whom he worked with at a newspaper, was among 70 killed on October 31, when militants stormed Baghdad's Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral, or Our Lady of Salvation Church.

Afterward, he penned a rap railing against the attackers who "in the name of Allah (tried) to kill my brother," as well as the "dead bodies in the streets."

A Muslim, Ayad said he grew up with many Christian friends, who have been increasingly targeted around the country because of their religion. The church siege, and the violence overall, hit him hard. But he said that he's glad to have an outlet with the Smashing Hits, not just to voice his feelings but also to bond with friends.

"The most important thing is they are really, really good guys," Ayad said of his fellow group members. "It's really hard to find people with good hearts, big hearts."