How Big Hass sold hip hop to Saudi Arabia

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Brash hip hop and conservative Saudi Arabia are two things that wouldn’t seem to be a natural fit. But Hassane Dennaoui, blogger at ReVolt Radio and Mix FM Jeddah radio show host, thinks hip hop has something to offer Saudi and the Arab world more generally. “It’s time for us as a region to elevate, to wake up,” he says. “Music could be a tool for that.”

From his online platforms, on which he is known as Big Hass, he posts video performances and interviews he’s done with regional hip hop artists, including some based in Saudi, in an attempt to divorce the genre and culture from what he feels is the “wrong image, [that] of gangsta culture, violence, sex, and drugs.” Instead, he emphasizes the potential in hip hop for social justice and empowerment, and a form of expression for young Saudis.

And young Saudis have responded, in force: Dennaoui has over 5,000 followers on Twitter, his blog attracts between 8 and 12,000 readers each month, a e-magazine he recently launched with his wife has garnered about 3,000 readers per issue, a series of events called The Beat aimed to give local artists a venue are routinely packed, and his radio show Laish Hip Hop? (Why Hip Hop? in English) is the station’s top rated weekly show.

It didn’t start out like this, of course. A theme running through Dennaoui’s career as the Arab world’s premier hip hop curator is, rather predictably, that of fighting uphill battles to get his music heard. When Dennaoui first launched his blog in 2009, after being introduced to politically-aware Arabic hip hop by a Canadian friend (he cites the Palestinian-British MC Shadia Mansour and Iraqi-Canadian The Narcicyst as being particularly influential), it was receiving an “embarrassing” number of hits, he reminisces, around 200 per month. But as he began making a name for himself in the region’s music scene, conducting video interviews with artists and organizing events around the Arab world, including a particularly successful show in Beirut in July 2010, traffic began picking up, as did his notoriety.

The next hurdle to jump was getting access to a larger audience. He flew to radio stations in Lebanon, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE, shopping his idea for a radio show playing Arabic hip hop. At each station, he remembers, there was seemingly the same Lebanese man “telling me that his station doesn’t support Arabic hip hop, but I was welcome to mix Jay Z and 50 Cent.” Preferring to stay true to his mission rather than play mainstream American “champagne music,” as he calls it, to a large audience, he demurred, and returned home to Jeddah, “heartbroken.” Later, when a Mix FM station opened in Saudi, he tried again. “It took me six months to convince them,” he says, and when he first went on the air in July 2012, he was working without pay.

But this battle was just beginning. After his first show, the station received angry messages from listeners, calling Dennaoui an “infidel” and a stooge for America. Though “devastated,” he addressed the issue head on. Preparing for the next week’s show, he wrote out a script, and introduced, in Arabic rather than English, “elements and culture of hip hop and how it spread, [as well as] the goal of the show, in a way my audience could relate to.”

It’s this measured approach to criticism that has helped Dennaoui build a viable, monetizable brand. Addressing people directly who are offended by or dubious of Arabic hip hop has been a successful tactic for him in attracting listeners and readers – he says that “the Saudi community is slowly grasping the idea” – as well as in securing sponsorship deals, both of which started rolling in about four weeks after his radio debut. An early sponsor was Lipton tea, whose marketing team used Dennaoui’s show to help push a product aimed at young people; sportswear giant Adidas soon followed suit. When approaching a potential client, he meets with them in person to “explain the goal of the show… usually once they see my passion for this genre and what I am trying to do for the local scene here, they are impressed” enough to buy a sponsorship package from Mix FM.

But Dennaoui doesn’t see significant returns from Mix FM’s sponsorship deals, or, indeed, any of his ventures, except a few of the events he’s hosted. “So far,” he says, “I have yet to generate any revenue from my blog or magazine.” Plans are in the works to charge for ad submissions to the blog, but maximizing revenue is not a priority for Dennaoui: he says that making money “is not my main goal as I already have a nine-to-five job [as an advertising executive], and that’s where my income comes from.”

It’s building Arabic hip hop as a movement and Big Hass as a brand, rather than any actual or potential profit, that keeps him hungry. Not only does he believe that hip hop can help young Arabs express themselves – helping them deal in a healthy way with stress caused by the political and socioeconomic turmoil rending the region – but hip hop can help bring the Arab world through these troubled times. The scene is already changing, he says: young Saudi MCs who have been featured on his show are “gaining confidence and releasing more songs and videos which can only improve things.”

He sees this movement becoming financially viable thanks to the incredible rates of connectivity among the Saudi population are also pushing things forward. According to Dennaoui, “the internet has a huge role to play in the future of local music. More so than constricting record deals with irrelevant labels, the internet will facilitate the creation of “our own movement and our own venues, and help convince the world we have something to say,” and may allow some artists to earn a living, through blogs, events, and zines.

The hip hop he disseminates is “not a product, but an ideology,” Dennaoui says, one which holds up the ideal of many options and free choice in entertainment – and one that he hopes can be extrapolated beyond the sphere of music.

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