Iraq’s ‘latmiyat’ rap has youth appeal but conservatives not amused
MIDHATIYA - As the black-clad rapper spat lyrics into the microphone on stage, the Iraqi boys below beat their chests in mourning. He was, after all, paying homage to venerated slain Shia figurehead Hussein.
The ear-splitting drum beats reverberated around the hall as Iraqi teenagers shouted back rhymes venerating the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson and other honoured figures in Islam.
In parts of conservative Iraq, a religious movement within the Shia sect has adapted the traditional “latmiyat” — chanted verses mourning Muslim icons — to Western-style rap to keep young people interested in religion.
It appears to be getting attention but also fuelling controversy.
In Midhatiya, a town 100km south of Baghdad, teens in matching red shirts stood shoulder to shoulder in their local place of worship as if preparing for prayer but when the speakers crackled to life, they blared a staccato drum beat and the voice of a young performer in a black robe, rhyming with a speed befitting New York’s fiercest underground rap battles.
Even the elderly religious figures, including Sheikh Salem al-Janahi, along the back wall swayed to the rhythm.
Janahi hails from the Mahmoud al-Sarkhi movement, which has championed “Husseini” rap and is regularly accused of distorting conservative traditions.
Straining to make himself heard over the loud music, Janahi said his more traditional counterparts “had gotten involved in corruption and politics, so young people began running away from religion.”
Religion and politics are deeply intertwined in Iraq, where government posts have been allocated according to sect since the US-led invasion in 2003.
The country’s 40 million people are mostly Shias, with a burgeoning youth population navigating an increasingly Westernised society.
That, said “Husseini” rapper Karrar al-Bederi, is exactly why this hybrid style of worship is necessary. “Young people abandoned religion and morality because of backward, classical clerics,” he said.
In comments peppered with Quranic verses, he said the refusal to meet young Muslims halfway turned the youth towards “crime, drug use, ignorance and atheism.” To fight this, he and fellow Muslims appropriated rap — usually associated with the “invader” United States — to create a religiously focused form of worship.
“It has become one of the important ways we reach out to youth, to spread a message of peace, moderation but morals as well,” said Bederi.
It has also brought social media stardom to some performers, whose modernised “latmiyats” earned them tens of thousands of online views.
One video published on Facebook showed a rapper in jeans and a cap, standing in a grassy field featuring a tall date palm, Iraq’s national tree. “My Lord is unrivalled. He taught me to act with respect. I want to talk about the cause of our imam,” he sang. In other footage, men in green appeared to enter a trance, slamming their chests faster and faster to an electronic tune.
However, even as they electrify crowds, the raps spark anger among clerics, shocked to see traditional psalms so distorted.
Shia Imam Latif al-Amidi, for one, is not a fan.
“Religious deviant movements that have emerged recently have taken advantage of weak religious knowledge among young people to introduce to Islam things that have nothing to do with religion. These movements brought singers, dancing and DJs into Islam, using the excuse that they want to attract youth,” Amidi said.
Aside from “anasheeds,” which are hymns performed without instruments, the permissibility of music in Islamic worship is disputed. Hard-line clerics say Islam forbids all music, even in daily life outside the mosque; other Muslim movements, including Iraq’s Sufis, use drums and dance in their worship.
The “latmiyat” predate Islam, going back 4,000 years to Iraq’s Babylonian history but have their own icons, including Bassem al-Karbalai, in modern-day Iraq.
Iraq’s Shia authorities have yet to issue a religious ruling on whether the rapped “latmiyat” is acceptable according to Shia dogma. The format has never been performed or used as a style of worship in the country’s two main Shia holy cities, Najaf and Karbala.
That has not deterred Bederi, however, who argued: “We have to address young people with the tools they know.”