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Yemeni rapper tells youth pick up mics not guns

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
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Yemen's hip-hop struggle
  • Yemeni-American rapper, AJ, wants to guide Yemen's young away from extremism
  • Runs Yemen Music House, a place where aspiring musicians can get help and guidance
  • AJ: "It's been quite an opportunity to work with a lot of the youngsters"

San'a, Yemen (CNN) -- Spend some time in Yemen's capital and you start hearing a similar refrain. It's unavoidable -- everywhere you turn a chorus of voices bemoaning the issues and difficulties at hand. After all, Yemen is a country full of worsening conflict, deepening poverty, increasing terror, and a growing water crisis.

And then there's AJ, considered Yemen's "Godfather of Rap," a hip hop artist who's tired of the same old sad song. "This is a beautiful country," AJ told CNN. "It just needs a little tweaking." Something he's always intended to do with his music.

Born in Ohio, the Yemeni-American fell in love with and started performing hip hop while growing up in the U.S.. He moved back to Yemen thinking it would be easy to start a movement. But it was more difficult than he could have imagined.

"When I first came here, it was kind of awkward," said AJ. "'Cause I see they have [rapper] 2Pac in these stores and they have all these people doing gangsta rap and cursing and they're selling it. But here I am and I come and all of a sudden they want to censor what I have to say. You know, but I know that this is just part of Yemen. TIY -- This is Yemen, you know, you have to roll with the punches."

I had a lot of success with incorporating mismar (a wind instrument) in one of my first songs that was very popular.
--AJ, Yemeni-American hip hop artist

He tried staying positive, projecting his own unique brand of San'a swagger, but AJ encountered many Yemenis who thought only negatively about hip hop. The complaints he heard most often?

"'All their sagging with their jeans, it's half way down their butt,'" AJ describes in a voice mimicking his early detractors. But there was more: "You know they're gonna have shows with girls and guys and they're gonna do drugs and drink and they're gonna curse."

AJ was growing increasingly tired of trying to counter the misconceptions when he first discovered how to win over locals. Utilizing traditional Yemeni melodies and instruments in his songs is what first allowed him to grab the attention of audiences.

"I had a lot of success with incorporating the mismar, a wind instrument, in one of my first songs that was very popular," said AJ. "I figured, the mismar is used at weddings and celebrations, and it's sort of like the Pied Piper.

"Once you hear it, you have to come out and see what's going on ... And so, I figured, if that works, let me try it with the oud [a stringed instrument], let me try it with the flute ... So far, I've been very fortunate."

Then he realized he'd also have to refine his message, and more specifically, his lyrics. According to AJ, Yemeni audiences spend far more time scrutinizing song words than they do simply enjoying the music.

"They're really listening," AJ explained. "So, if you're saying something, you have to really say something."

AJ decided to start writing and rapping about more homegrown issues, like combating terrorism. And in a country with a growing threat from al Qaeda and a staggering amount of poverty, he started to feel a responsibility to the next generation.

"I figure 65 percent of Yemen is under 30," AJ said. "A lot of the bad things that go on, they use people that are young, insecure, uneducated, and they'll fill their heads with a lot of nonsense, and then some poor kid is out there blowing himself up. Why? Because he doesn't have anywhere to turn -- no one else to turn to."

Which is why AJ considers the Yemen Music House so important. It's more than just a base for his country's aspiring rappers, it's a place for him to mentor and for them to learn -- something that makes AJ very happy.

Nadeem Al-Eryani, a 24-year-old producer and rapper, is one of AJ's biggest fans. The young musician who is half-Yemeni half-Russian shares both his mentor's passion and frustration.

"Here in Yemen, people think hip hop is all about drugs; hip hop is all about women, naked women," Nadeem told CNN. "But we're trying to show them the good spot, avoiding the bad spot."

Nadeem says he's also faced restrictions, but that there's one topic that will never be problematic -- even in Yemen. "It's a well known fact that you can always rap about love," said Nadeem. "Yeah, that's acceptable everywhere."

AJ, for his part, knows the importance of imparting a positive message: "It's been quite an opportunity to work with a lot of the youngsters that are up and coming," he said. "And trying to show them the right way to do things, where they don't have to curse and they don't have to, you know, try to be hard."

If all goes according to plan, AJ's young musicians who are so aware of Yemen's problems, will continue to perform, send a positive message, and always choose microphones over militants.