Music Between Cultures

    Soundtrack of the Revolution
    Pop Music as Rebellion and Social Protest

    Many musicians in the Arab world have provided a musical accompaniment to the popular uprisings in the region, with events reflected in the lyrics of their songs. Their rebellious and politically loaded sounds serve as a mouthpiece for the disenfranchised and excluded urban youth.

    During the past few months of the ‘Arab Spring’, many political observers in the West have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief over the vehemence and intensity of the popular uprisings against the despotic regimes in the Arab world. This merely highlights how reluctant they had been to acknowledge the widespread discontent in Arab civil societies. This is especially the case with the younger generation, which is rebelling forcefully against the suppression of artistic freedom and freedom of opinion, as well as against the wretched social circumstances in their countries – and has been doing so for quite some time.

    Young people, who today constitute the majority of the population in the Arab states, are those who for decades now have suffered the most. In Egypt, for example, they have borne the brunt of ‘Mubarak’s wars in his own house’, as the Egyptian sociologist Saad Edin Ibrahim expressed it. They have been the victims of legislation declaring states of emergency, of media censorship, of torture by the police, and of arbitrary legal proceedings. And it is this, the anger of a youth oppressed for decades, that has proved to be the final straw.

    Karim Kandeel, the front man and guitarist of the Cairo punk band Brain Candy, is part of this desperate generation that has already suffered for too long under the Mubarak regime. ‘We were brain dead. We were dying here - slowly but surely,’ says the 23-year-old, looking back on the bleak years of Egyptian cultural policy under Mubarak. ‘Half of our songs were therefore also about all the negative experiences we’d had in recent years, about the frustration and the feeling that we were imprisoned here for ever.’ Imprisoned within Mubarak’s political system, with no chance of introducing their music to a wider audience, as their rebellious sounds were too likely to annoy the political top brass on the Nile and also, supposedly, offend people’s religious sensibilities. But the unexpectedly swift downfall of the Pharaoh has given him new hope: ‘Actually, none of us believed any more that such a thing could ever happen. For the first time in what feels like an eternity we’re breathing the air of freedom.’

    The boys from Tahrir Square

    Kandeel’s sentiments are shared by many non-conformist rock and pop musicians who were persecuted and harassed by the state for decades – and who flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the eighteen-day uprising to express their displeasure with the regime. On the central square of liberation their tablas, tambourines, guitars and flutes provided a loud accompaniment for the demonstrators’ anti-Mubarak choirs. Among them was 27-year-old Mohammed El Deeb from Cairo, currently one of the most popular hip-hop artists in Egypt. With microphone in hand, directing his bitingly sarcastic wordplay against the regime, the young shooting star of the Egyptian rap scene drew all those young people on Tahrir Square under his spell – people who had already long since had enough of the social constraints and authoritarian prescriptions of the Mubarak era. From the very first day, Deeb was an active protester in Tahrir Square, and it was his voice that lent words and sound to the rebellious youth [cf. interview below]. In his song ‘Transitional Period’ [‘Fatra Enteqaleyya’], the poet and MC recalls the euphoric, revolutionary atmosphere during the protests in Tahrir Square and throughout the whole country:

    We’ve driven out the hated dictator, that damned Pharaoh / Thanks to Twitter and Facebook young revolutionaries in Egypt have found the language of truth / They say to us: No, not a stone will move, inshallah, until the end of the world / Our revolution comes from the people, peaceful and patriotic! / We want freedom, dignity and justice / The people were caught in the grip of an iron fist / Used and exploited by personal interests / They abused us all with violence / But on February 11th millions of people celebrated with us / Long may you live, brave Egypt; we have fought and won our freedom! / Transitional period, ad break, tea and Cleopatra cigarettes! / Yellow faces rhapsodise about the news! / Penalty - and the crowd is waiting for the goal / Every day we read in the paper about some new guy who robbed the country / Look in the mirror, give back the gold, aren’t you also responsible for the state the country’s in? / Should we really be surprised by all the false promises? / Infected by problems history was written / Just don’t imagine that the people are tired! / The people are cheering, they were oppressed for fifty years / Even before he was liberated the true Egyptian revolutionary laughed about the man behind Omar Suleiman / The true Egyptian revolutionary, after the liberation, after the celebration, cleaned the streets and the squares.

    Since the beginning of the uprising against the Mubarak regime, the leaden weight of the previous decades has suddenly fallen from the shoulders of young pop musicians and bands in particular – groups that have been encouraged by the political earthquake to formulate their anti-regime protests openly in their songs for the first time.

    Alongside Deeb, other hip-hop bands such as the Arabian Knightz from Cairo also addressed the theme of the anti-Mubarak revolution in their music. Their song ‘Not Your Prisoner!’ deals with the brutality of the Egyptian police during their attempt to put down the uprising. As the anti-Mubarak protests approached their climax, the crew of rappers, who sing in Arabic and English, called openly for the fall of the government in their song ‘Rebel!’. The Cairo hip-hop trio describes the piece as an ‘emotionally uplifting song that expresses the heart, the courage and the spirit of the Egyptian people, who are currently fighting a revolution against an oppressive regime’. In their music video ‘25th January’ - the start of the uprising against Mubarak – the rappers in The Narcicyst (feat. Amir Sulaiman, Ayah, Freeway, Omar Offendum) recall the revolution’s bloody course of events in the style of the American groups on which they model themselves.

    ‘Mr President, your people are dying!’

    The time when non-conformist rock and pop musicians in Egypt, such as those on Cairo’s heavy metal scene, were still watched, imprisoned and tortured by the security forces and publicly vilified as Satanists and junkies seems now at last to be well and truly over. But while, for fear of reprisals, Egypt’s persecuted underground musicians and bands never really articulated their protest against the Mubarak regime until the outbreak of the revolution, in the neighbouring Maghreb countries things developed quite differently.

    In Algeria – and more recently also in Tunisia – a generation of young, politically aware musicians was able to establish itself, one that consistently used rap and the power of the microphone to denounce the prevailing social injustices, corruption and nepotism of their countries’ political elites. Thus, during the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia, the protest song ‘Mr President, Your People Are Dying!’ [‘Rais Lebled’] by the rapper Hamada Ben Amor (also dubbed ‘El Général’) became overnight the song of the revolution and fired the Tunisian youth with enthusiasm.

    In this song, the 22-year-old hip-hop artist from the Tunisian port town of Sfax is scathingly critical of the love of extravagance and self-enrichment exhibited by President Ben Ali’s family and his entourage, and of the rampant poverty in his country. Via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, ‘El Général’ quickly became popular with many young Tunisians who felt exactly the same way he did. ‘Rais Lebled’ recently even secured Ben Amor a place on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Even before the outbreak of the rebellion against Ben Ali there was a massive response to the song in Tunisia – too massive for the authorities’ liking. On January 6th the Tunisian secret police quickly dragged Ben Amor off for interrogation and imprisoned him for a short time. ‘I simply talked about what was going on in Tunisia,’ he says. ‘I packed it all into a rapped letter to the president. For that I ended up in prison. They interrogated me for three days. They didn’t torture me – the president didn’t want to create any martyrs. He knew that we rappers are the mouthpiece of the Tunisian youth.’

    The Tunisian rapper Balti – alias Dragonbalti – is also regarded as an icon of the youthful hip-hop subculture because of his socio-critical lyrics. He too was for a long time a thorn in the side of Ben Ali’s police state.

    ‘Speak and die!’

    The great example for Tunisia’s rappers is undoubtedly the long-established hip-hop culture in Algeria, from which by the late 1990s the virus had already begun to spread across the whole of the Arab world. Algeria is regarded as the cradle of Arabic hip-hop. Rai pop, which had been so popular with the Algerian youth until the arrival of rap, was then completely overshadowed by it. During the so-called ‘black decade’, as the Algerians refer to the long-drawn-out civil war in their country, rap became the political mouthpiece of young people in the metropolises of Algiers, Annaba and Oran.

    ‘During the black decade in Algeria it made no difference whether you were an artist or a policeman. Everyone was afraid of the extremists, or of the army’s military operations,’ remembers Touat M’Hand, a musician with the hip-hop group Le Micro Brise le Silence [The Microphone Breaks the Silence], one of the most popular pioneering bands of the Algerian rap scene. ‘The great Algerian writer Tahar Djaout, who was murdered in 1993 during the civil war, once said: “If you are silent, you die; if you speak, you die too: so speak and die!” This sentence became our guiding principle: to tell it like it is, to break the silence and to call injustice by its name - despite the bombs, the terror, and the danger to your own life,’ says M’Hand.

    ‘Glocalisation’ and hip-hop

    What is fascinating about hip-hop are the images and sounds of the American music industry and the way these are adapted by local players to address local issues. Despite, or even because of, the extremely adverse circumstances that have prevailed in Algeria for the past twenty years, hip-hop has established itself overwhelmingly as the chosen form of expression for young people.

    As in many places around the world, hip-hop in Algeria provides evidence of a phenomenon which in cultural studies is referred to as ‘glocalisation’. Global and local phenomena do not oppose one another but are combined, influence each other, create syntheses. Whereas in its country of origin in particular hip-hop culture now seems to stand only for uninhibited hedonism and delusions of sex and violence, in countries like Algeria – and today also in Egypt, Tunisia and Palestine – hip-hop’s almost forgotten potential is coming to the fore. Rap here means talking about what is really going on, about the frequently depressing character of everyday life, about political injustice, terror, and war.

    More than ever, hip-hop today encapsulates the way young Algerians, who are now rebelling once more against the Bouteflika regime, feel about life. Years after the end of the civil war, their living conditions have not improved in any meaningful way. It is above all Algeria’s small economic and political elite who profit from the country’s rich natural resources: the high revenues from its oil and gas industries. The majority of the people go empty-handed – especially the Algerian youth.

    As Nabil Bouaiche of the Algerian hip-hop group Intik reports, their daily lives are dictated by poverty, unemployment, lack of housing, poor education and a general lack of prospects. ‘Seventy-five per cent of the Algerian population are young. That would actually be enough young people to build a wonderful country. But the opposite is the case! Young people are working their fingers to the bone and struggling just to stay alive. There are young people with degrees who have to get by waiting tables.’

    Most young musicians also lack the financial means to record their music. ‘We, for example, had to keep paying out of our own pockets in order to produce the records,’ says Nabil Bouaiche. ‘Once a band member even had to sell his shoes to pay the studio!’

    The next instalment of the Algerian tragedy

    The social plight of young people remains unchanged. In Algeria too this discontentment is threatening to boil over into an uprising by the disenfranchised against the ancien regime. During the bread riots of 1988 they rose up to demonstrate against the dictatorship of the FLN United Party under Chadli Benjedid. Even then the poor working-class district of Bab El-Oued was seen as the centre of the resistance. And it was in Bab El-Oued in the 1990s that the first vital, politicised hip-hop movement in the Arab world began to take shape.

    Today the youthful demonstrators from Bab El-Oued are again the focus of attention for the world’s media, who are waiting for them to rise up with microphones or stones in their hands against the same wretched social conditions as those of more than twenty years ago. Nothing has changed. This, the next instalment of the ‘Algerian tragedy’, was already condemned years ago by Le Micro Brise le Silence (MBS) in their cult song ‘Monsieur le Président’. 

    Mr President said: Algeria is a house of glass! / Come on, look here: it’s all fine, we’re friends! / Everywhere stuffed with corpses, from the terrace to the closet! / The whole world knows it! Why keep talking about it on TV?! / These people don’t kill any more, so leave them alone! / Our generals have stuffed their pockets; so what? / Who needs the names and numbers of the Swiss bank accounts? / We’re on the Cayman Islands / Our emigrés are having a little holiday, dipping into their slush funds / It’s all the same to the people in the villages, they won’t even be asked / If the worst comes to the worst, it’s just: ‘Your resignation, Mr President, thanks very much!’
    Arian Fariborz
    works as a journalist. His book Rock the Kasbah – Popmusik und Moderne im Orient [Rock the Kasbah – Pop Music and the Modern Age in the Orient] was published by Palmyra Verlag in 2010.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2011

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