Arabs Rise for Rights, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Arab Spring Set to Music

CAIRO, Dec 6 2011 (IPS) - The ability of artists to lyrically articulate the growing rage amongst disgruntled youth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has seen the emergence of politicised rap as a hidden weapon during the region’s Arab Spring.

Music has always played a pivotal role in many of the world’s social movements, so it was of no surprise that the youth-driven uprisings that ousted three long-standing leaders in the Arab world included a strong musical component.

Among the most powerful forms of music to emerge during these protests has been Arabic rap.

“There are of course other forms of music that have the ability to transform messages but rap is an outspoken way of addressing what’s wrong in your society and having the voice of the streets be heard,” Martin Fernando Jakobsen, creator of the youth-based initiative for Palestinian youth, Turntables in the Camps tells IPS.

“In the case of the uprisings that took place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it was political dissident rappers that had an impact because of their ability to echo the people’s suffering.”

The synchronicity of popular uprisings in the Arab world is not a new phenomenon. In 1919, Tunisian protestors demanded a new constitution while Egyptians took to the streets with daily strikes that eventually led to the toppling of their government, and provincial leaders in Libya worked relentlessly to safeguard their newly liberated republic.

So just like Twitter or Facebook, rap – which is becoming one of the fastest growing genres in the MENA region – didn’t cause the 2011 upheavals, but it has emerged as a political force among urban Arab youth.

On Nov. 7 last year 22-year-old Hamada Ben Amor, also known as El General, released ‘Rais Lebled’, an open letter in music, to former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali asking him to end corruption and poverty. The ‘letter’ marked the anniversary of Ben Ali’s succession to power.

The tune was considered the battle hymn for Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolt’, which youth activists in Bahrain and Cairo later adopted.

Following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouaziz, the young Tunisian street vendor whose public outcry enraged youth and sparked the revolution, El General released ‘Tounes Bladna’ or ‘Tunisia, Our Country’ on Dec. 22.

Soon after, in the early hours of Jan. 6, dozens of security forces burst into his home in the southern port- city of Sfax and hauled the rapper off to the Ministry of Interior building in the capital Tunis where he was detained and subjected to intense interrogation for three days.

“I believe that music can change something and the best example is what happened in Tunisia,” says Edd Abbas, lead singer of the Lebanese rap group Fareeq al-Atrash, in an interview with IPS. “El General was that trigger for the people to take to the streets to demand an end to Ben Ali’s rule. It was the voice of the people that got him out of jail.

“Rap is becoming special because we’re using the people’s language to challenge our leaders and their policies,” adds Abbas. “On a larger scale, it crosses borders because if I speak about something that’s happening in Lebanon, other Arabs will relate due to our issues being very similar.”

Arab youth aged 15 to 30 accounts for nearly a fifth of the Arab population.

A survey of youth in nine Arab states released by the public relations firm Asda’a Burson-Marsteller in 2010 revealed that the greatest priority for young Arabs is to live in a democratic country.

Tired of the traditional forms of going about politics, Arab youth have silently turned to a vibrant underground cultural scene coupled with social media tools to mobilise a politically conscious generation to the streets. For some, rappers who are always pushing the boundaries of freedom of expression, offer a different kind of political party. Palestinian activists like Da Arab MC’s (DAM) and female rapper Shadia Mansour have used this form of artistic expression to raise awareness around the plight of Palestinians and their quest for freedom.

“Even before the uprisings started, rap was talking about resistance, the need for change and the liberation of Palestine. It’s an effective tool to deliver our frustration while balancing entertainment with a message. Point blank, this is how we do politics,” Ramallah-based rapper and producer Boikutt tells IPS.

“However, just as rap has been repackaged in the U.S. and Europe, there’s this potential in the Arab world to try and dilute our message from what’s meant to be hard-core and real with a softer commercial style. For them, this form of communication is a threat due to its power of reaching the people directly.”

“Change will not happen overnight, it takes time,” Egyptian rapper MC Deeb tells IPS. “Unfortunately the majority of Egyptians who are surviving on low daily wages won’t understand this concept because as the economy continues to plunge it will cause people to start questioning what gains were made and why even after former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster we’re still protesting,” adds MC Deeb.

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