- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

BEIRUT (Agence France-Presse)

With their baggy jeans, baseball caps and earrings, Lebanon’s new rap music stars could almost be mistaken for their U.S. urban ghetto counterparts, except that the lyrics tell a Christian story.

In Lebanon, a country that does not tolerate religious provocation, the group Militia, formed by two young Christians, treads a fine line by rapping and dancing about the glory of God.

“From the bowels of hell, the Lord crossed the darkness,” thunder the lyrics of the two-man band, which claims to be the first to spread the Christian message through the medium of Arabic hip-hop.

Charles Makriss, 27, and Marun Adolph, 23, have released their first album after winning over a skeptical public.

“We are the first to sing Christian hip-hop in Arabic. In the beginning when we started holding concerts with these types of songs, many people, particularly the older generation, were very hostile. It was a shock,” Mr. Makriss, a writer and break dance choreographer, said.

“Then one day, we were singing at a gig close to a church and I saw a priest clapping really enthusiastically,” said the musician, who saw this as a sign the group’s message was getting through.

Hip-hop is not new to the Arab world. From Morocco to the Palestinian territories, dozens of Arabic rap groups have sprung up over the past few years. But religious hip-hop is less well known.

“Here, in the Middle East, people frown on the idea of singing songs involving sacred texts,” Mr. Adolph said.

In Islam, singing passages from the Koran holy book is completely forbidden, although the Muslim call to prayer is itself a form of singing called “tajwid.”

In 1999, religious officials issued a fatwa against Lebanese singer-songwriter Marcel Khalife for “Ana Yussef, ya Abi” (Oh my Father, I am Joseph), a song that included words from a verse in the Koran.

Mr. Makriss and Mr. Adolph do not see anything wrong with singing Christian psalms and chants in a hip-hop style and point to the Book of Psalms, which they say clearly endorses putting religious texts to music.

“It is written in the Old Testament, ‘Praise him with trumpet sound. Praise him with the lute and harp. Praise him with the tambourine and with dance.’ How much more explicit can you get?” Mr. Makriss asked.

Their new approach has won some backing from the influential Maronite church, the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon.

“If young people want to sing the Gospels in this way outside church, we have no problem with that,” Yussef Tannus, a Maronite priest and former official at the music faculty of St. Esprit University in Kaslik, told AFP.

“It is possible that rap is a means of bringing young people closer to God, but these new talents must be guided by the church,” he added.

However, even among the young people supposedly attracted by this new style of music, there are those who remain unconvinced.

“I prefer the traditional style,” said Christian Rula Nehme, 28. “Hip-hop is too extreme to be music for the Gospels. It damages the sacred character of the text.” But Catherine Yaghi, 24, disagrees. “On the contrary, it is very beautiful. Hip-hop communicates the message in a much stronger and more dynamic way,” she said.

God is a central theme throughout Militia’s music.

“When a man kills his brother, will he escape the wrath of the Almighty? My Lord, save Beirut,” they sing in “Lubnan waynak?” (Lebanon, where are you?) referring to the bloodshed that has plagued the country.

But why would a band with such a powerful Christian message choose to call itself Militia? “Because we are a militia of love, in this world full of violence,” Mr. Makriss said.

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