Hip-hop to urban wear: This is Ashekman (Lebanon)
There are those who equate graffiti with vandalism. For straight-laced listeners, hip-hop that’s critical of Lebanon’s sectarian system and state policies generally is the musical equivalent of vandalism. So it may seem paradoxical that a pair of rapping street artists could become successful entrepreneurs. Meet identical twins Omar and Mohamed Kabbani – aka Ashekman: Lebanese American University graphic design graduates, rappers, graffiti artists and, most recently, clothing designers.
By Martin Armstrong (in Lebanon’s The Daily Star)
“A while back we got phone calls from American University of Beirut, Lebanese American University and ALBA (Beirut based Arts college) asking for us to come in and do short graffiti courses for the students,” Mohamed recalls. “We were pleased, flattered and surprised. After the course we joked with the students, ‘Now we have taught you how to be vandals, it is up to you not to be caught by the police.’”
These self-tagged “children of the shelter” – as kids in the 1980s they played in bomb-shelters and basements to avoid West Beirut shelling – the Kabbanis made their wax debut in 2005 when they featured in the Lebanese rap crew Aks’Ser, fronted by Rayes Bek, who released a self-titled disk on EMI.
The name “Ashekman,” Lebanese slang derived from the French term for a car muffler, is meant to reflect the duo’s raw, uncut style. Influenced by French rap collectives like NTM and IAM and notorious for the political content of their rap, Ashekman’s firebrand lyrics have targeted corruption, injustice and those the duo perceived to be guilty of perpetrating them. In this they’re not unlike other rap musicians.
They’ve also had run-ins with the local censor. Some gigs were shut down, they say, and their 2006 debut album “Nasher Ghassil” was rejected several times by the censorship bureau before tweaks got it approved.
“It was like a compliment … Like they feared our message, creating a storm actually brought what we were saying out of the shadows into the light,” Mohamed said.
On their 2011 CD “Ashekmanphobia” the brothers maintain the intensity of their fledgling rap days.
“Man landed on the Moon, now he’s heading to Mars,” the duo rap in Arabic, “but the mixture of politics and religion will take us all to the slaughterhouse.”
Their third album titled “1983” (the year of their births) is scheduled for a 2013 release. Lyrically, the tunes seek to incorporate themes and ideas inspired by the Arab Spring, while channeling memories of growing up in Beirut. These will be stretched over a back-to-basics boom-bap soundscape reminiscent of a mid-’90s sound.
“There will be a few life lessons in there that you’re not going to pick up at school,” remarks Omar.
Ashekman began with hip-hop but they found graffiti at the same time they started rhyming. Ashekman say their street art, like their music, is motivated by the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword. As with their rap, Ashekman’s graffiti and urban wear are composed exclusively in Arabic.
They have sprayed Beirut’s facades with a range of sentiments.
“Divide and Rule” refers to both the Sykes Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, which during the First World War set out to divide this region between the British, the French and the Zionists.
“The street is ours” speaks both to the rappers’ local presence and, more generally, that the streets belong to the people.
“The walls of your country are for you and your son” is a bit of a two-finger salute to Beirut’s property developers who the brothers, like other critically minded citizens, feel are uninterested in preserving the city’s architectural heritage.
The brothers say they were strongly influenced by the tagging culture of different Civil War-era militias.
“When we were growing up, passing through different neighborhoods we would notice all the different militias had their own tags representing their presence and ownership of different areas,” recalls Mohamed.
“This idea of ruling the streets through stencils was a real influence.”
“Plus our father holds a master’s in political science and our mother is an artist,” rejoins Omar.
“When you mix these two together being graffiti artists seems quite natural,” he adds.
Jackson Allers, the Beirut-based managing editor of online international hip-hop magazine “worldhiphopmarket.com,” has argued that Ashekman’s music is less important to Lebanese hip-hop culture than their street art.
“They are veterans of the scene and garner respect for their work ethic and professionalism,” says Allers.
“I don’t see them as at the forefront of the evolution of Lebanese hip-hop. Where they really shine is their street art, a contribution to one of the pillars of hip-hop.”
For the brothers, the three elements of their output – rap, street art and design – are inseparable.
“We always say that Ashekman is like an umbrella composed of these three elements,” says Omar.
“Together they form the whole. It gives us flexibility … I can work on recording and then focus on the street art.”
Ashekman Urban Wear opened up shop on Jean D’Arc Street, just off Hamra Street, in 2007. The brothers have shipped their designs as far afield as America, the U.K. and Australia.
Ashekman began designing T-shirts to wear while performing – in order to provide an identity separate from the U.S. brands that monopolize hip-hop culture. The designs were well received. This encouraged the brothers to establish their own brand of Lebanese urban wear, both as a creative outlet and to help finance their music. In the process, the group say it has developed the classical kufi, diwani and naskhi styles of classical Arabic calligraphy into a form of graffiti typography.
“Originally we had two designs, then six,” Mohamed says.
“Now we have over 40. The idea is that they are special purchases, limited edition, so there is a real sense of originality and identity when you are wearing them.”
While the group’s T-shirt designs follow the same rhetorical drift as their tags, they tend to be more sardonic and humorous than their lyrics and graffiti.
One design carries the phrase “Father of the Skull” – a moniker popular among Civil War-era militia leaders, neighborhood strong men, snipers and the like.
The T-shirt bearing the sobriquet is a manly shade of pink.
Another design pokes fun at Lebanese automotive culture.
“Everyone has cars,” it reads, “but my uncle has a …”
The caption is completed with a rendering of a Hummer – the (poorly designed) GM vehicle the U.S. army purchased to replace the jeep, which was immediately put on the market. The joke is that “Hummer” and “himmar” (donkey) are pronounced similarly.
“Ashekman is a two-[man] army, and after a decade we’re still concrete solid,” says Omar.
“We would like to dedicate our third album to all who supported Ashekman since day one. From music to graffiti to street wear, Ashekman is representing Lebanese hip-hop to the full.”