22-year-old singer, who has had to flee her troubled homeland, is determined to use her music to highlight women’s rights, child marriage and sexual harassment in the Arab world.
It’s day three of the Liverpool Arab Arts festival, but one of its performers hasn’t yet been to a single event. Amani Yahya - billed as Yemen’s first female rapper - is still thousands of miles away. With her homeland on the brink of civil war, Yahya, along with her family, has had to flee to Saudi Arabia, where the kingdom’s strict rules mean her fledging musical career has come to an abrupt halt.
On top of this, her visa to attend the UK festival has been denied. “I was so excited to be coming to the UK,” says the 22-year-old, who started rapping in her bedroom while at high school.
“It was a little bit of hope - that I could come to the arts festival and meet new people. They said the invitation to the festival didn’t have an official stamp, but I think it was my nationality. They think everyone who comes from Yemen is looking for asylum.”
But, if exile and war would be enough to crush most people, the disappointment at missing the festival is the only time her upbeat tone falters. And, she points out, this is not the first setback she has faced. Her first public performances, while low key, sparked outrage in the increasingly conservative Yemeni society. Schooled in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked, it was only when she returned to Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, to study dentistry that she first considered following her musical ambitions.
“There was a small coffee shop beside my house, where people would gather to talk about music and books. It was new to me because you don’t find people who want to talk about those things everywhere here. So, I used to go there every day.”
Her friends convinced her to perform, and the event, where Yahya was accompanied by a female guitarist, Alaa’ Haider, was a success, leading to more gigs at private parties and even at the French and American embassies.
Newspaper articles followed, and the BBC filmed Yahya and Haider performing together. But the media attention quickly led to a terrifying backlash.
“[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.”
Yahya, however, refused to be cowed. “My mom would have been really worried if she had known. So I decided not to tell people and just carry on. 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 says.
“But my dad loves music and my parents always taught me to speak my mind.”
Yahya - who started writing lyrics in her diary at high school and taught herself to rap by listening to artists such as Lil Wayne - says this is why she is determined to focus on the problems Yemeni women face.
“I have personal songs, too - about my life experiences. But 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.”
One song in particular, Maryam, focuses on the story of a woman Yahya met, who had been married at 11. In 2006, the UN estimated that 52% of girls in Yemen were married under the age of 18, and it was only in January this year that the minimum age of 18 for a marriage was fixed in the constitution. It’s a topic that makes Yahya’s voice turn steely.
“In the villages especially, people don’t realise how bad child marriages are. But, to me, it’s like murdering someone,” she says flatly. “Trying to get an eight-year-old married when her body isn’t ready - girls have died because of this.”
Yahya says she uses English because she wants these issues to be heard outside the Arab world, and because it stops people making assumptions about her based on her accent. But, she points out, it’s also because “in Yemen the youth want to speak English because they think it’s cool”.
However, she believes her choice of western music means she has little chance of being taken on by a recording company in Yemen, even if the political conflict is resolved.
“We don’t have a music industry, which supports young talent - especially foreign art. They say I am just copying Americans ... it is not ‘Yemeni’. To me, that’s sad because art has no nationality.”
But a hardening stance against female performers and music in general, is also an issue.
“There are older female singers here, and in the old days there was a strong tradition of female artists in general, but now we have lost that. Now they don’t like women singing.”
Yahya says it is this rich cultural heritage of Yemen that inspires her work - and adds to the horror she feels that the Unesco-protected “ Old City “ in Sana’a is now in the line of fire.
“It is so calm and magical. I would go twice a week in the morning, to get inspired. In the modern areas people are strict, but there you will hear old men singing, and see shops filled with musical instruments.”
Because she is not a Saudi citizen, Yahya says she cannot continue her dentistry degree, and must be careful not to upset the authorities in Saudi, closing off the opportunity of performing in the underground music scene.
“If I did anything wrong, they would deport my whole family. I can’t study, I can’t do music, it is really hard,” she says sadly. But then, as soon as the words are out of her mouth, her fearlessness returns. “I am going to do music again ... even if I have to buy my own mic. I will find a way. I will shine.”