When you think of world famous rappers, a few major names probably come to mind: Kanye, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Biggie, etc. However, if you asked us, we would have a very different answer. Ever since we started this website, we have come across a number of badass, brave women who may not make millions of dollar selling out Madison Square Garden, but they are making a huge and meaningful impact in the lives of many people.
Whether it is in Egypt, Afghanistan, India, or Myanmar, women are raising their voices through their art to bring awareness to social justice issues that are not being addressed in other ways. To us, these are platinum-worthy achievements, and we can add yet another one to the growing list. Amani Yahya is an artist from Yemen, and is reportedly the first female rapper in the country.
Like many of the women in the aforementioned countries, Amani is determined to use her music to discuss issues such as women’s rights, child marriage, and sexual harassment in the Arab world. Due to her homeland being on the brink of war, Amani had to escape to Saudi Arabia with her family.
Although she was schooled in Saudi Arabia, she returned to Yemen to study dentistry in 2010, and it was during that time she became interested in art and music. She started performing in 2012 accompanied by female guitarist Alaa’ Haider at The Basement Cultural Center in Sanaa. This venue, located near the site of anti-regime protests in 2011, became a place where many emerging young Yemeni artists started to gravitate toward. It used to be the Yemeni Knowledge Exchange Forum, which organized cultural and political events twice a week, but was unable to open consistently because of government opposition, according to The National.
The BBC did a report on Amani’s music, and she began getting requests to perform at bigger functions and take part in media interviews. This led to a backlash due to Yemen’s conservative culture.
“[People] panicked – they saw pictures of me without a hijab or abaya. I got anonymous phone calls and threats. They said I should stop what I was doing, that it was haram and that I should be ashamed,” Amani told the Guardian in an interview in 2015.
“Women in Yemen don’t show their talents because our society is so dominated by men, and they don’t support women … in music,” she added, but thankfully having supportive parents enabled her to continue her music.
She grew up listening to listening to rapper Lil Wayne and became inspired to use her musical gift to speak about the issues women face in her country, as well as her own personal experiences.
“I wanted to be a strong voice for Yemeni girls and talk about their issues. I have songs about women’s rights, child marriage and sexual harassment. People need to understand women can do things: they aren’t just born for marriage and children,” she said.
Yemen is one of the worst offenders for child marriage cases. According to the United Nations as well as government data, 52% of Yemeni girls are married off to men often much older than them by age 18, and 14% before the age of 15. In 2014 the country introduced the ground-breaking Child Rights Law which mandated the minimum age of marriage to be 18. It is a step in the right direction, but laws don’t automatically change strict cultural traditions overnight, that is going to take activism, awareness, and someone like Amani using her art to shed light on this issue.
One of her songs called Mery, which she performed a version of for the BBC, tells the story of an 11 year old girl she met who was married off to an older man. In the song, Amani expressed the sorrow of an innocent childhood snatched away, and the oppression faced by child brides.
“In the villages especially, people don’t realize how bad child marriages are. But, to me, it’s like murdering someone. Trying to get an eight-year-old married when her body isn’t ready – girls have died because of this,” said Amani.
Pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15-18 in countries like Yemen, according to the Girls Not Brides advocacy campaign. They also risk becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.
This is happening all over the world, but unfortunately, artists like Lil Wayne, 50 Cent or Kanye West are not using their elevated platforms to champion the end of this epidemic. Now do you see why we admire rappers like Amani Yahya so much?
It’s one of the reasons she sings in English, because she feels it is important her message spread to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, while she is living in Saudi Arabia, she cannot practice dentistry or perform publicly due to cultural conservative strictures surrounding women. Most of her performances happen underground, or overseas if she is lucky enough to travel.
She was denied a visa to the UK for a major festival in 2015 because she says the UK government are scared Yemeni’s just want to stay there and claim asylum. It has not stopped Amani for continuing her crusade to raise awareness about her beloved country and what her people are suffering.
“There are airstrikes. There are no schools open. There is only electricity for two hours a day. It’s hard to find water and food. They have shut down the media. People are really suffering,” she said.
This is the kind of artist we love to promote and hope her visibility will make a difference in the lives of many girls in Yemen.
Take a look at Amani performing her song Mery for Middle East Beats in the video below: