Names don’t always fit their owners. But “Thaer” [ثائر] translates as “Revolutionary” in Arabic, and this is probably the best place to start when describing the man who calls himself The Beatbox Elephant.
In my phone, he puts his name as ‘Tee’- it’s what everyone calls him, and by everyone, I mean a substantial chunk of Amman’s social scene- he’s got a lot of friends.
When he’s not getting paid to make drum machine noises with his throat, he works as a bartender at Cafe de Paris, located in the Weibdeh neighborhood [جبل اللويبدة]. He’s the musical curator for the place, as well. During happy hour he can be seen swaggering around, mouthing the words to Biggie, Nas and a multitude of other 90’s legends that play in the background as he socializes and gets orders for customers, simultaneously. He’s got a natural presence to him; it’s not hard to notice when Tee’s entered a room because of all the people who flock to say hello to him, where ever he goes. He’s a self-described social butterfly, but more accurately a born hype man; maybe it’s fate that he’s one the first hip hop names on the scene in Amman. For most of our conversation, a cigarette sticks out of the corner of his mouth; a progressively thickening cloud of smoke swirls around us as we talk about where he found his love for the movement.
Thaer, 25, is the oldest of three and has the vibe of the cool big brother who’s had to help take care of things in the past. He lives in Amman, but identifies as Palestinian. His grandfather moved from Jaffa with his family in 1948, after the Israeli occupation. It’s two generations back, but it provides an important backdrop to who Thaer is. He never met his grandfather, but praises his hard work. He was a man who opened up multiple small, independent businesses in Amman, selling primarily women’s accessories [makeup, jewelry, etc.] and who paved the success for the future. A lot of the businesses his grandfather owned are still around, scattered about the old downtown area. His dad is a taxi driver and speaks 4 languages- French, Italian, English and, of course, Arabic. It’s a family making something out of nothing, a theme that carries on with Tee.
Politics are also deeply infused in Thaer’s persona- a trait he says he picked up primarily from his mom. I picked up on his views as a Palestinian early on after meeting him. I was talking with a friend about my plans to visit friends in Israel the night before our conversation, when Tee weighed in suddenly- saying something along the lines of “Israel doesn’t exist man, it’s always been Palestine.” I understand that’s a common perspective in this area, and so I decided that night not to share with him that I’m Jewish, coming back with the lame response, “Hey, I’m just here for the beer not the politics.” But the following afternoon, I decided to get into it a little more with him.
It turns out my faith doesn’t really matter to Thaer. Politics and religion are, of course, related in the Middle East. But from his perspective, they don’t directly mix. He’s not Anti-Semitic, just proud of his roots. “There’s a difference between a dude that supports what’s happening in Palestine and a dude that doesn’t,” he explains. “Because for me, if you support it, then this conversation is over, but if you don’t we can talk. Because you, [being] a Jew, I don’t give a fuck… you have your religion and you practice yours the right way and I practice mine the right way… Religion is the way you treat people.”
It’s an interesting, nuanced perspective for someone to have in 2016. Times are heated- we’re having this conversation just a day after the attack in Istanbul. But part of Tee’s whole mission is to take his politics and translate it into a non-violent forum, thus his love of music and hip-hop culture in general. “The message I’ve want to deliver is to get the culture, not the violence, out of Hip Hop. And so I took the culture and did it my way. Mixing the techniques with the Arabic flavor, did this and that and boom now my community is big. We throw a competition every year, for young beatboxers to go on stage and to win that title, the king of the beat… I love that you can express your feelings through an art.”
Thaer’s cousin got him into rap music when he was 6; he was 12 when he first got into the beatboxing aspect of Hip Hop. “A homeboy a mine showed me a song with beatboxing, and I was like, ‘what’s this?’ and he said ‘it’s beatbox, just watch it’ and I watched it and I literally fell in love with it. It was Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body-remember that?”
He figured out how to mimic the beatboxing perfectly after listening for about 30 minutes. “When I started off, I had a partner, he quit now, he was like ‘there’s no potential’ and I was like there is, and I kept on going with it. And now I’ve got all these shows and I’m the official MC of Redbull Jordan now.” He tells me he was the first beatboxer in Amman and that now there’s a community of 44 and growing.
That expansion didn’t come without struggle. Thaer and two of his friends were actually taken to prison for a day, before getting bailed out by his family. He was 14. “We got locked up at 7, and at 9, our parents got us out. Because we were just kids, why would you lock kids up? Because we were dancing? There’s no law for that. You can’t say no to someone because they were breakdancing or beatboxing or rapping. We weren’t even doing it for the money, we were just having fun… We had the confidence that we weren’t doing anything wrong. It was good days.” He has a reminiscent look in his eyes and a smile on his face when he tells me this. “I just fought for it, I was just against everybody. My family wasn’t for it, my mom didn’t like it, and then I took her to a show and was like ‘this is what I do,’ after that, she was like ‘do your thing,’ she got convinced.”
The culture’s gradually more accepting in the past decade, with the help of a stubborn attitude and hard work. “We used to get locked up back in the days for doing this. It was like ‘you’re a beatboxer? you’re a breakdancer? you’re a rapper?’ they would lock you up, because they didn’t know the culture. And after royalty here started looking us up and then being like ‘yo, we want you for a show,’ everybody knew what we did. Because we
don’t rap in English, we rap in Arabic, we rhyme in Arabic. Because rhyming in Arabic, that existed way back… We don’t talk about cars or money or whatever because we don’t have it, we talk about issues and about what’s happening about revolution and stuff.”
Tee believes Hip Hop in Amman maintains a purer form than the current American rap culture of “Money, cars and bitches, y’know or whatever,” He credits this to keeping the message specifically about making a stand for the culture rather than using the culture to make a name for himself. “When you take it and you put your culture into it, it’s different. The roots we know, the homework we’ve done. It’s a different concept, you can’t rap commercially if you don’t have ‘It,’ if you don’t have the supplies. You can’t be rapping about how you’re riding in a Ferrari if you don’t have it.” He sees Hip Hop in Jordan and the region in general getting bigger, and while he does worry about the money in the music industry potentially watering down the message, he keeps working to develop
it into the culture he loves.”In the Middle East in general [Hip Hop] is getting big. I hope it grows bigger and goes in right path. I hope so. I don’t know what’s going to happen when
there’s more money. Today, we don’t have record labels so we record our own stuff and pay for our own studio hours. It’s fucking hard to be honest. But for the passion, for the love, we keep going.”
We talk about our favorite rappers for awhile and some of our least favorite, though the conversation wraps up as more people walk into the cafe. Customers of Thaer’s are also usually friends of his too, so I wait and watch him while he schmoozes. But after our talk, I see his humor and zeal through a different light entirely. Beneath Thaer’s extroverted persona, there’s a gritty dedication to Hip Hop and his own identity-over time they’ve melded into one and the same. That dedication has allowed him to build his world. “Now, my strength when I go on stage is when the people scream. I was afraid of that when I first started. And then, after that, the second time, third time, fourth time, I was like ‘I wanna hear them scream!’… And now when I’m out in the street, whenever I’m walking somewhere I get people coming up to me like ‘hey man, I saw you at this,’ ‘you’ve been there,’ ‘hey, what’s up man.’ It’s cool, I like that.”
Images used with permission from Thaer Nahed Fahmawi