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How Malikah Became the Queen of Arab Hip Hop

Malikah, Queen of Arab Hip-Hop

Malikah. Photo by Hassan Hajjaj.

The first time I ever saw Malikah perform was nearly two years ago at an underground hip hop show in a dingy warehouse in Al Quoz, Dubai. The only female performer at the show, Malikah had a fiery presence. The artist, who started performing 15 years ago—and in a face mask to hide her identity from disapproving conservatives—wore an oversized camo vest and her hair was pulled back into a swingy, single braid. Malikah’s infectious rhymes and pronounced frustrations, “يا إمرأة عم بحكيكي كَوني مرأة متلك صار لازم نواجه، لازم نخططلك يا إمرأة اصرخي صرخة الحرية باسم المرأة” (Hey woman I’m talking to you, because I’m a woman like you.) rung in my mind well after the show was over.

Malikah was originally drawn to the rap game at 15-years-old (she credits Lauryn Hill as her musical inspiration). Today, in a genre dominated by males, Malikah (now 30) distinguishes herself as one of the most outspoken female Arab rappers among the likes of established regional underground artists including The Recipe, The Narcyssist, and Qusai. With her lyrics, Malikah confronts inequalities, the ongoing plight of Palestinian people, and aims to empower women.

Before becoming the “Queen of Arab Hip Hop,” performing on the main stage at the Glastonbury music festival, and opening for Snoop Dogg in Abu Dhabi (2011), Malikah was born Lynn Fattouh to an Algerian mother and a Lebanese father in the seaside city of Marseille, France. The youngest of three children, Malikah grew up in war-torn Beirut, a city that served to inspire some of her most personal and evocative music.

What fuels Malikah’s growing fan base (that spans across Europe and the Arab world), is her dedication to battling negative stereotypes all too often attached to Arabs. “We’ve been typecast as savages, terrorists, aggressive—it’s all false,” she begins. “I’m very proud to be Arab—I’m proud of our culture and how welcoming and generous we are,” she continues. “It really hurts me to see how we’re portrayed.” Citing her lyrics as the catalyst that convinced her ultra traditional parents to finally come to terms with her career choice, she explains, “I want women to be who they are, to live their life to the fullest, and to take part in what is happening in their countries. The world has been ruled by men for far too long, and maybe if we [women] had more say, the world would be a better place.”

In the summer of 2006, the young artist had her first taste of success with a song penned in Arabic, Ya Lubnan (Ode to Lebanon). The song was conceived during the month-long conflict in Lebanon known as the July War. “That war affected me deeply,” explains Malikah, recalling memories of missiles exploding nearby, her house shaking from the impact, and neighbors dying mere feet away from her. “My country was being destroyed in front of me and so I wrote about it.” While writing the song, it casually occurred to her to pen the lyrics in Arabic. Though most Lebanese are fluent in English, and a message in the universal language would surely reach a broader audience, Malikah vowed from that moment to only write in her mother tongue. “Why should I speak English when I have my own beautiful language?” she asks. Fattouh—who formerly went by the stage name Lix—settled on the name Malikah, which translates to “queen” in Arabic. “The queen represents the people and that’s what I feel that I am doing,” she says of her name change. “Malikah just suits me.”

Malikah’s debut album, Archive, will include her own songs from the past decade and is set to launch next month.

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