Ryan Gaylord’s Conspicuous Acts of Listening

One of the great things about a liberal arts education is the way it can catch a student by surprise and open up a whole new world—Arabic hip-hop, for instance. Ryan Gaylord had no concept of it when he came to Duke—not surpising, since he had no interest in hip-hop and no command of Arabic. A year and a half later, a dissident Moroccan rapper was citing Gaylord’s work with appreciation.

The stage was set by Gaylord’s decision to sign up for an Arabic class during his first semester at Duke. “To be honest,” he says, “I wasn’t that into it when I got started. I just needed a language and I’m part Syrian. I was trying to get more involved in that culture, I guess.” Later in the year, he was into it enough to sign up for DukeEngage Cairo, and that was “an absolutely life-changing experience.” Back at Duke, he declared a major in Asian & Middle East Studies, with a concentration in Arabic.

Music was one thing Gaylord did not have to start from scratch—he was one of the rare students able to test out of the first semester of Duke’s music theory sequence. He joined the a cappella group Speak of the Devil and soon became its primary arranger (he is now music director), and honed his skills as a producer, as well. But he’s also, in his own words, “kind of a music snob,” and couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for hip-hop.

It was thanks to a new course offered in Spring 2013 that Gaylord’s production skills and Arabic studies coalesced around hip-hop. When Azeddine Chergui developed the class, called Arabic Dialect Through Music, his main idea was to help students connect the language spoken in the classroom, Modern Standard Arabic, to the language they’d hear on the street in, say, Egypt or Lebanon. But Chergui had other ideas, too. One of them was that music would be a great way for students to engage the flood of cultural production that followed in the wake of Arab Spring, when hip-hop emerged as an especially potent form of protest.

The most conspicuous proof of the connection students could make to this music was a video posted on YouTube last April, featuring four Duke students—Mayyadda Major, Desmond Lee, Lawrence Nemeh, and Gaylord. The song they covered, “No to Dictatorship,” was a collaboration between four Sudanese musicians, created the previous summer. They declared that they were “from different tribes, backgrounds and geographic locations” but “united… as one mic and as one voice,” in pointed defiance of the Sudanese regime’s divisive rhetoric.

The Duke version presents a striking juxtaposition of language and image. Turn off the sound and what you see is four American college students making the characteristic gestures of American hip-hop. The setting is all-American, too, especially for viewers familiar with Duke. Lawrence Nemeh’s lively video plays on the sharp contrast between two iconic campus backdrops, the graffiti bridge and the Chapel.

It’s about the last place you’d expect to get an earful of Arabic, but turn on the sound and there it is—dense, emphatic Arabic, especially in the rapped verses. In the chorus the voices come together for the highly infectious hook. By the third or fourth time it comes around you’re likely to find that you, too, are singing in Arabic.

The ultimate mark of the video’s success is the reception it got from Arabic speakers in and around Sudan. The comment that set the tone early on is from the rapper who goes by the screen name Aymanmao—the one whose onomatopoetic exuberance launches the fourth verse of the original right over the language barrier. His comment—“Maximum Respect”—is simple but emphatic, and has been echoed many times. A few months later, Mista-D, the reggae-inflected singer behind the third verse, left his respects, as well. There is also an appreciative comment from NasJota, the American-based producer.

It was not part of Chergui’s plan to have the students echo the music back to the Arabic world, much less for them to reach out and touch the musicians there. But thanks to the amazing, world-shrinking effect of social media, his students were able to close a loop. It’s clear from their track that the musicians who created “No to Dictatorship” are astute listeners to American music, so it must have been satisfying for them to hear it returned from America in their own language.

One thing in particular that Chergui didn’t plan for—couldn’t have counted on, in fact—is Gaylord. “I was blessed to have somebody like him in my class,” Chergui says, “because he is a musician himself, and a great music producer.” It’s important to note that, while the video was a direct outgrowth of the class, it was actually an extracurricular project that involved two students, Major and Nemeh, who weren’t enrolled in the class. So there was a second blessing to go along with the first—a group of talented students, creatively engaged with the language they’re studying just for the satisfaction of it.

Chergui’s first taste of Gaylord’s production skill was an impressive vocal arrangement of “Hamdoulillah,” an Arabic version of the Leonard Cohen classic, “Hallelujah.” A few weeks later, Gaylord teamed up with Lee to cover a much edgier piece. “Dogs of the State,” by the dissident Moroccan rapper known as El Haqed (“The Angry One”), is a scathing blast at police corruption that cost its creator a year in jail, in spite of strenuous protests from human rights campaigners.

Gaylord posted the cover to Soundcloud and tweeted it, using a twitter handle and hashtags created by the jailed artist’s supporters, who retweeted with enthusiasm. Maria Karim—a documentarian who was assisting El Haqed as producer and advocate, earning a spell in jail for herself in the process—tweeted back, “U made us all very happy.” In a Skype conversation soon after, she told Gaylord and Lee that El Haqed was impressed and pleased by what they’d done with his song.

A few weeks later, Chergui played a YouTube video for the class. It was a press conference given by El Haqed, who had just been released. “He said he learned a lot of things in his prison experience,” Chergui says, “and one of them was the extent of the solidarity with him. And he thanked the Americans who sang his song, of course referring to Ryan and Desmond.”

As he reports in the the video at the top of the post, Gaylord travelled to North Africa last summer and arranged meetings with a number of musicians. One of them was a “soft-spoken, modest, and incredibly thoughtful” young Moroccan named Mouad Belghouat, otherwise known as The Angry One. He and Gaylord are currently collaborating on a new track.

For Chergui, who plays guitar and oud, the real impetus for his Arabic music class was his own experience when he was in his students’ position. “I remember when I was learning English,” he says, “that playing English songs, like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, helped me a lot.”

Chergui figured that Arabic songs would help his students in the same way, and Gaylord reports that, indeed, they did. “Words that I know from songs that I cover, I never forget. Whenever those come up, like I hear them on a radio broadcast or I see them on a test, I think, oh, got that one, no problem.”

Gaylord also developed an ear for hip-hop, thanks to the raw passion and political urgency of the Arabic tracks. When the musician behind it is “getting jailed for speaking his mind,” Gaylord says, “the act of covering a song takes on so much more meaning.” Nothing by Kanye West had ever seemed so meaningful.

But there’s another very basic difference between Gaylord’s experience of American and Arabic rap—he never had to listen as closely to Kanye as he did to the Arabic tracks he covered. In their musical detail, Gaylord’s covers are quite attentive to the original. They represent impressive acts of listening and deciphering, and it’s hard to be indifferent when you’re paying such close attention. There’s an impressive act of listening behind the performances, too. These were, after all, intermediate-level students working at the limit of their comprehension, dealing with thickets of colloquial language in an unfamiliar dialect, but they absorbed enough to give a performance that’s both passionate and credible to native speakers.

When the Arabic songs that Gaylord, Major, Nemeh and Lee recorded were posted on the internet, they became conspicuous acts of listening. That must have been one of the messages they transmitted to the other side of the world—someone in America is listening, not covertly but conspicuously, and with admiration.