Photograph via Flickr by Tori Aarseth.

Singers and rap artists in the Middle East and North Africa have done more than simply provide the soundtrack to the revolutions and protests across the region this past year. Music (among other possible dissident art forms) can and has been a powerful participant in the region’s cultural and political narratives of dissent, providing a widely accessible medium for rejecting systems of oppression. Rappers and crooners and rock singers have been carving out their own innovative spaces for dissidence at protest rallies and over the Internet, rejecting continued censorship of expression, spreading rallying cries, and giving the giant musical middle finger to injustice and dictatorship. It’s an embrace of freedom of expression and a stand against systemic cultural repression and censorship that has often prevented more alternative artists from connecting with their audiences.

Singers like Egyptian Ramy Essam and rappers like Tunisian El Général have braved the threat of physical harm to create powerful pieces of protest music that capture the spirit and the demands of the movement and the experiences of oppression. The songs are often calls to duty and unity, repeating oft-heard slogans and catchphrases of the movements—like “ayd wahid,” meaning “one hand”—and referring to unity in the face of oppression, sometimes as a general statement of unity, sometimes meant to speak across a Muslim-Christian divide, and sometimes in an attempt to reach out to armed forces. The songs are detailed in their complaints and accusations, provocative in their references and practically joyful in their calls to rise up against tyranny. Some of them are very overt calls to arms, like Libyan rapper Ibn Thabit’s “Call to the Libyan Youth.” Others contain appeals to pathos and humanity, like El Général’s “Rais Lebled (Mr. President),” which addresses Ben Ali directly, detailing the suffering and misery of the Tunisian people: “You are still a father, you wouldn’t be alright with your children coming to harm/This message comes from one of your children/ I’m telling you of suffering, people living like dogs.”

Rappers like Ibn Thabit and El Général, as well as MC Deeb, El Haked, and rap trio the Arabian Knightz, and represent the new place for rap and hip-hop in the lexicon of contemporary protest music. Rap is becoming an increasingly popular and groundbreaking genre in the Arab world and offers a potent medium for producing messages of rage and hardship, particularly as part of the youthful voice and spirit of many of these uprisings. The activism of younger generations has been a catalyzing impulse and helped these movements develop, so it’s fitting that a genre seen as similarly young and forceful is often the voice of the revolutions. A number of the most notable songs from the reform movements have been rap songs. In Egypt, one of the favorites has been “Rebel,” a piece by popular Cairene trio Arabian Knightz, known for switching between Arabic and English in their lyrics. The song was made a few days into the revolution and released on February 6, 2011, when the group was finally able to access the Internet. One of the most potent lines is “They killed us, they slaughtered us, they imprisoned us, they tortured us, they made us afraid, they terrorized us, and they ignored us/The Egyptian people will not die.” Moroccan rapper El Haked (The Indignant) is noted for his song, “No More Silence!” in which he raps about the dissatisfaction of the Moroccans with the corruption, indignity, and injustice and the need to rise up: “We have no choice but to fight for our rights./ Silence won’t benefit us. I am the child of the people and I’m not scared!”

The power held by singers as political agents and voices for movements is perhaps most evident… [in] the response of the political establishment to their work.

Often these songs contain incredibly detailed elaborations of the suffering and experiences of living under these dictatorships—from restriction of freedoms of speech and opinion, to neglect for socioeconomic woes, false imprisonment, torture, and corruption. Those in power, who senselessly ignore the plight of the people, are most frequently the subject of revolutionary songs. A Syrian rap song, “Bayan Raqm Wahid (Statement Number One),” posted anonymously to YouTube in order to avoid retribution, calls out the leaders and the false patriots as thieves and robbers who are “committing corruption in the name of power and authority.” El Général’s “Rais Lebled” by El Général contains a similar sentiment: “But the people’s money fills the fat bellies of sons of bitches/ They rob and plunder and refuse to leave power.” “Yalla Irhal, Ya Bashar” (Go On, Leave, Bashar!) calls out the crimes of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian people very specifically, as well as those of his feared and reviled brother Maher, commander of the Republican Guard.

Mockery isn’t out of the question, either. Humor can often be a tool used against the regimes. Ramy Essam put to music a satirical poem by longtime dissident poet Ahmad Fouad Negm, long known for his willingness speak out in his poetry using the Egyptian colloquial dialect. The poem, “The Donkey and the Foal,” is the tale of a foal who pressures his father to hand over the duties of pulling a cart, making a verbal caricature of the power struggle between Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal.

At once joyous and angry, a mix of raucous, percussive, and crooning, in-your-face and tear-jerking, in sounds that are neither entirely Western or entirely Eastern, but something new, these songs tend to tie into a number of common revolutionary themes. Songs often invoke nationalism, a populist nationalism, of course, and a sense of revolutionary solidarity with other uprisings.

There are words heard over and over in rap, folk, pop: houria (freedom), asha’ab (the people), shaheed (martyr), dum (blood), kartoush (bullets), shaaria’ (street), sout (voice). Many remind the people of the martyrs, who have died for the cause and of all the work that has been put into the fight and the long years spent under dictatorship. In “Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free),” Tunisian Amel Methlouthi sings “…don’t forget the cause of our misery/ And don’t forget those who betrayed us.” There is also a frequent element of pride and honoring the fight and the effort put into the revolution, like in the celebratory “Sout al-Horeya (Voice of Freedom),” a collaboration by Egyptian musicians like Amir Eid (from the band Cairokee) and Hany Adel (from Wust El-Balad): “I went down to the streets, vowing not to return/And wrote with my blood on every street/ Our voices reached those who could not hear them/And we broke through all barriers/Our weapons are our dreams.”

The power held by singers as political agents and voices for movements is perhaps most evident not in the popularity of their lyrics, or the number of hits their videos receive on YouTube, but by the response of the political establishment to their work. After the eighteen-day uprising in Egypt, Ramy Essam, author and singer of the anthemic “Irhal! (Leave!),” was detained and severely beaten by the army. El Général was censored, prevented from performing, spied on and detained for three days by Ben Ali’s forces after releasing “Tunis Bladna (Tunis, Our Country).” Moroccan rapper Mouad Belrhouate, who raps under El-Haked (The Indignant), was imprisoned in September on fabricated charges of assault and only recently released, broke taboos with his lyrical challenges to royal power. Syrian Ibrahim Qashoush, described by some as a former cement-layer, by others as a fireman, turned his amateur passions for poetry toward creating Syria’s most popular piece of protest music, “Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar (Go On, Leave, Bashar),” which has been sung loudly by rallying crowds in his home city of Hama, was killed by Syrian security forces, his vocal cords cut out and his body left floating in a nearby river. The symbolism of the way in which he was murdered is inescapable. The crackdown on musicians is a tactic that seems to backfire on regimes. El Général’s arrest not only launched him to greater fame, but also enraged protesting Tunisians and demonstrated the Ben Ali regime’s growing fear in the face of an increasingly bold population. Moroccan El Haked’s imprisonment similarly served to highlight the ways in which the monarchy operates and to anger people who agree with his messages.

Freedoms of expression, speech, and assembly have all been critical themes of the protest and central demands of the revolutions and reform movements that have sprung up in North Africa and the Middle East. Music, long suppressed under various regimes, has become an ultimate and unifying form of political expression, performed to and sung by the congregations of persistent demonstrators in Tahrir, Pearl Roundabout, Tunis, Sana’a, Damascus, and Benghazi. Protest music is also a rejection of the slick musicians that characterized some of the popular music of pre-revolution days. Egyptian Amr Diab, known for romantic hits like “Habibi Ya Nour el Eyn (My Love, Light of My Eye),” and for a sycophantic tribute to Hosni Mubarak called “Wahid Menena (One of Us)” which contains lyrics like “He who holds Egypt’s name high/is worth more to us than our own lives,” fled Egypt for the UK on his private jet at the start of the revolution. Tamer Hosny, another Egyptian pop star, came out in support of Mubarak in the early days of the revolution and had to be saved by police from the crowds when he visited Tahrir. He then recanted, saying he had been misled by the state media about the intentions of the protesters and tearfully put his support behind the revolution.

The cultural resurgence of the Amazigh (more commonly known as the Berber) in North Africa as a result of revolutions across the coast reminds us that Arab is not the only cultural identity present in the Middle East and North Africa. In Libya, where a significant Amazigh population is found, particularly in the Western mountains, Gaddhafi’s rule involved harsh regulations on their cultural expressions, such as forbidding them to speak in their own language, Tamazight. With the revolution, however, came new freedoms and an increase in the cultural use of their language. A handful of video recordings of their revolutionary folk music have made it onto the Internet, like one of Amazigh fighters singing around a campfire in the Nafusa mountains, an area of heavy fighting during the war: “Give me your hand so we can go to Benghazi/The city of freedom/ So we can go to Zawiya/The city of martyrs/So we can go to Zintan/The city of knights.”

Of the many, many North African and Middle Eastern rappers who have tied themselves to revolutions and messages of politics and social change, nearly all of them have music and mix albums available for free and legal download online…

The revolutionary music, particularly rap and hip-hop, does not come exclusively from within the region. There are a number of Arab-American performers with strong personal ties to their homelands who rap in solidarity with the struggles overseas, bringing their own awareness and expatriate commentary to the dissident politics of their countries of origin. Libyan-American rapper Khaled M, the son of opposition members who fled to Kentucky, spoke out in his popular song “Can’t Take Our Freedom.” Others, like Iraqi-Canadian performer The Narcicyst and Iraqi-British rapper Lowkey, do the same. Chief among these performers, however, is Omar Offendum, the LA resident and rap auteur who successfully combines East and West in his lyrical content and musical influences, mixing discussions of life as an Arab-American with conventional Western rap styles and traditional Middle Eastern musical sounds (“It’s hard livin’ in the west when I know the east got the best of me… ”). During the uprising against Mubarak in Egypt last winter, he collaborated with other artists (Amir Sulaiman, The Narcicyst, Ayah, and Freeway) to come up with the solidarity song “#Jan25 Egypt.” The song’s opening lines laud the use of citizen media and Al Jazeera’s news coverage: “I heard ’em say the revolution won’t be televised/ Al Jazeera proved them wrong/Twitter has them paralyzed.”

The ability of activists and singers to use their music to break convention and to challenge establishment is in part to do with the changing opportunities of technology. The inspiration and demand for this music is more attributable to the decades of repression to which the songs and artists are responding and the popular movements into which they are tapping than they are to YouTube or Twitter or the iPhone. The existence of these tools, of the Internet and of broadening means of mass communication, however, has allowed musical scenes to carve out spaces for themselves online and spread their messages through social media. These tools have done a great deal for the power of this growing body of music and its ability to slip out from underneath the thumbs of the governments trying to keep it at bay. The songs and the musicians have also acted as ambassadors of a sort, representatives to the outside world of the revolutions.

YouTube is flooded with videos, uploaded either by the groups themselves or by their fans. In many cases, the only sources for translations of these songs are in the subtitles and descriptions sections of the video posts, although a growing number of people are working to address that. The use of the Internet has provided a certain amount of shelter to some, allowing anonymous activism. For others, it has meant a rapid way to connect their music with other activists online and to spread revolutionary messages and messages of solidarity on a global level. For audiences, it has meant a new level of access to this music; you don’t have to physically be at rallies in Tahrir to hear Ramy Essam perform for the crowd, or live in Syria to listen to the chanting of “Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar!” It has allowed the artistic expressions of these revolutions to leave a much more permanent and archivable footprint, making the works more lasting and granting them continued and expanded voice and power.

The Internet is also responsible for documenting and archiving these songs and performers, preserving their messages and narratives. Of the many, many North African and Middle Eastern rappers who have tied themselves to revolutions and messages of politics and social change, nearly all of them have music and mix albums available for free and legal download online (like MC Deeb’s Cairofornia and all of Ibn Thabit’s songs). A Bahrain-based site called Mideast Tunes, headed by Esra’a al-Shafei, catalogs artists and their music by country and genre across the region. The site describes itself as a platform “to encourage, inspire and expose talented young artists across the region,” and is an important source for unknown, underground and alternative music in the Middle East. A blog named Revolutionary Arab Rap aims to index, translate and discuss the role of hip hop in the Arab world and is fast becoming an indispensable source for information and reference, having posted a number of transcriptions and translations of a wide variety of Arabic revolutionary hip hop songs. As yet, these places remain the sole collections and sources for documentation of a vast and critical body of work that uniquely expresses the events in the region over the past year. This is in itself social activism, compiling music, much of it made anonymously, much of it at odds with governments and some of it vocally politically for young residents of North Africa and the Middle East to access.

The repertoire of musical dissidence that has been performed in cities from Rabat to Hama provides a detailed documentation of the demands and experiences of the people rallying against oppression as well as an emotional narrative of revolution. Looking at the intensely passionate and talented body of work that has been performed to crowds, sung en masse, and posted far and wide across the Internet this past year, one can get a gripping perspective from inside the workings of vast political change in the region. The music provides a dynamic cultural and political narrative of upheaval.

Torie Rose DeGhett

Torie Rose DeGhett is the staff editor for Current Intelligence magazine as well as an independent writer and blogger.

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