From protest songs to revolutionary anthems

Protesters of the Arab Spring are realising the power of music, and finding their voices in styles from folk to hip hop.

Arab hip hop has become one of the defining cultural motifs of the revolts of the last eight months [GALLO/GETTY]

“My music may be soft, but I’m a warrior on stage.”

So explained Tunisian folk rock singer Emel Mathlouthi as we sat in the restaurant of the African Hotel after almost eight hours of rehearsal for a concert she performed at the Museum of Carthage two days later. It was a defiant remark, coming in response to a discussion of the much-celebrated role of hip hop in the Tunisian revolution, and Mathlouthi certainly had a point.

Rappers like Tunisia’s El General have received hundreds of thousands of YouTube hits and repeated international attention for writing their songs supporting the revolution. But watch Mathlouthi’s rendition of “Kilmati Houra” (My Word is Free), which she performed on the street on amidst the crowd on Bourghiba Avenue on a chilly winter’s evening in the middle of the revolution, and the power of a simple voice, without drum machines, effusive anger and the other aspects of hip hop, becomes clear.

On the Street, but not of the Street?

There are many reasons Arab hip hop has become one of the defining cultural motifs of the revolts of the last eight months. It’s gritty, angry, and evokes the kind of urban imagery – poverty, unemployment, police brutality, lack of life chances – that were at the heart of hip hop culture before it was taken over by bling. Today, Tunis, Cairo and other Arab capitals have, in one sense, inherited the mantle of Compton, Oakland or Brooklyn, where much of the most famous political American rap emerged.

In contrast, Mathlouthi’s songs recall the generation prior, reminding us of folk music’s powerful role in the American civil rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. And so it was not surprising that as we talked about the evolution of her music, she turned to singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan before I could mention them.

“At first, I had rock band and we played covers of hard bands like In Flames, the Dark Tranquility, The Gathering and Italian gothic group Lacuna Coil. But then I switched to softer music after listening to Baez and Dylan, and realised what you could do with just a guitar and voice. My music became more revolutionary as it became softer.”

Mathlouthi’s insight about the power of softness struck a chord with me, as it mirrored precisely the experience of Egypt’s Ramy Essam, another metalhead turned acoustic singer who became one of the main voices of Tahrir Square.

Already sold on the importance of hip hop to the Tunisian revolution, when I first heard Essam’s version of his soon to be famous song “Irhal” (“Leave Now!” the Egyptian equivalent of the ubiquitous slogan “Dégage!” In Tunisia), featuring just him singing over his acoustic guitar, I immediately called a producer friend to work on a hip hop remix with drums and bass. To my ears, they would help turn a great protest song into a revolutionary anthem. But as soon as I watched the crowd react to him performing it live in Tahrir a few days later it became clear that the extra instrumentation were superfluous.

Reinventing tradition

A generation before either Essam or Mathlouthi were born, legendary Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam and his oud, often joined by his reknowned poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, inspired Egyptians with their highly charged songs that railed against state violence and the sufferings of Egypt’s – and by extension the Arab world’s – poor and working classes. Negm’s famous “The Donkey and the Foal”, which has long been understood as an allusion to Mubarak and his son and would-be successor Gamal, was also set to music by Essam, w

“I started Tanboura as a response not merely to local oppression, but to the penetration of a commercial aesthetic that almost destroyed traditional music in egypt, and the mentality and authentic values that existed with it.”

Zakaria Ibrahim, founder of Tanboura and director of El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music

ho, like Mathlouthi and just about every other singer or rapper I know, has been strongly inspired by Sheikh Imam.

Another generation of traditional musicians today carries the mantle of Sheikh Imam and the still very much alive Ahmed Fouad Negm, whose devil-may-care attitude and humorous and poetic style of attacking Mubarak in the final years of his rule became a template for the artistically rich protests at Tahrir.

But it wasn’t just Negm’s poetry that brought a traditional feel to the Tahrir protests. One of the main musical highlights of the 18 day protests was the performance by celebrated folklore group Tanboura. They brought a tradition of protest music from the Suez Canal region that has taken on Nasser, Sadat and the Israeli occupation with equal vigor. For their actions members have, like Imam and Negm before them, faced prison and worse at the hands of the regime.

For Zakaria Ibrahim, founder of Tanboura and director of El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music, Tanboura’s popularity is inseparable from its dual role as a voice of protest and a regenerator of traditional styles of music that recently were in danger of disappearing completely.

“I started Tanboura,” Ibrahim explains, “as a response not merely to local oppression, but to the penetration of a commercial aesthetic that almost destroyed traditional music in Egypt, and the mentality and authentic values that existed with it.”

Scholars might blanche before such a seemingly rose-colored view of “tradition” and “authenticity”, given that so-called traditional and authentic Egyptian culture is certainly not free of prejudice, oppression and violence. But Ibrahim’s focus here is on music, not society as a whole.

“Before it was just our traditional music in the street. People shared it because it expressed their hopes and needs. We sang against repression, against longing to go home after the Israeli conquest of Sinai, we had the same desires to ask for democracy and holding the government accountable, and just like today we went to prison for it. But then with the commercialisation of music songs changed completely. Instead of people sharing, now it became just commercial, without art, while the remaining traditional groups had to play for Mubarak and be controlled by his system to survive. They lost their freedom.”

Of course, the plight of musicians was no different than the plight of Egyptians more broadly. What’s interesting is that the same forces of neoliberalism – strongly associated with Gamal Mubarak and his cronies – that many analysts believe ultimately turned the old guard of the military-economic elite against the Mubaraks also drove traditional musicians like the members of Tanboura onto the streets.

“Mubarak was using the opening to the West to flood market with Western music,” Ibrahim explained, “but offered no support for traditional music. Now at least we can hope for support.”

Tradition and hybridity

Next Music Station: Tunisia

The popular protests that toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak succeeded in good measure because the dictatorial regimes they confronted were unable to stop the uncontrolled flow of information, whether through social media or satellite networks like  Al Jazeera (which in fact made unprecedented use of social media in its coverage of the protests).

The ability to share knowledge unbound by once powerful government censorship regimes both linked activists and protesters together and brought the realities of government repression and lies into clearer public view than ever before.

Among the most powerful forces for encouraging the unrestricted spread of knowledge and culture through the internet and its multifaceted forms of social media is the Creative Commons movement, of which, not surprisingly, Al Jazeera has been a major supporter.

As an academic and musician I have long felt that encouraging unrestricted, and as important, free circulation of knowledge and cultural products enabled by the use of Creative Commons’ legal mechanisms is crucial for the future of both art and scientific/academic knowledge in the global era.

At the beginning of July, Al Jazeera and Creative Commons joined together to sponsor the 3rd Creative Commons Arab Regional Meeting and Concert, fittingly held in Tunis. As many of the participants at the meeting, from Creative Commons Chairman Joi Ito to Tanboura member and one time Sheikh Imam disciple Yasser Shoukry, explained to Al Jazeera  journalist and tech expert Bilal Randaree, there is a strong affinity between the principles of Creative Commons and those of the Arab Spring.

Coming to the meeting I already had first hand experience of the activist and political implications of the kinds of circulation of knowledge enabled by Creative Commons. What I could not have imagined, however, was how the community created by CC could bring together traditional and contemporary forms of artistic production in ways that produced truly powerful and innovative hybrid forms of music and art.

For the meeting and concert we brought together well over a dozen artists from Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, and the US. Free of the pressure of creating a commercially viable product, our traditional singers from Egypt, Yasser Shoukry, and Tunisia, Alia Sellami, brilliantly teamed up with Tunisian rap groups Armada Bizerta and Lak3y and Gazan rapper Ayman Mghamis, to write two songs that epitomised the ongoing struggles faced by the young people who have led the Arab revolutions.

This includes the difficulty young Arabs face merely to travel outside their countries (many of the invited Gazan participants couldn’t get visas, while those that did waited three days at the border to get out. Ramy Essam was not permitted to leave Egypt), and the need to continue the revolutionary impetus even as the urge to return to “normalcy” grows by the day.

Blending the poetry of Negm and Abdel Rahman al Abnudi, Shoukry and Sellami provided the vocal foundation over which the rappers could let fly with some of the most intimate yet powerfully delivered truths of the struggles they have faced, and their peers continue to face, whether in Tunis, Cairo, Gaza or beyond.

For our part, the musicians brought together traditional Moroccan guimbris with acoustic guitars, distorted and multi-affected electric guitars and some incredibly funky bass guitar and percussion players thanks to the willingness of members of the other groups who participated in the concert to join our Creative Commons jam.

After only a few hours of rehearsing we had developed two powerful songs that gave our rappers and singers a unique sound which they used to collaborate over with a joyful vengeance. The rappers spat ou

“Among the greatest challenges facing artists…is the difficulty of actually creating the physical spaces for them to meet and collaborate.”

t in angry stacatto the realities of the moment in which we found ourselves; while Shoukry and Sellami offered voices of beauteous, calm tradition to remind us of where we’ve been and how to move beyond it to the next level.

And through it all, musical direcor and Moroccan metal pioneer, Reda Zine, focused on the Gnawa rhythms and melodies which have linked West African not only to southern Africa, but east across the entirety of North Africa and the Middle East. All guitarist/bloger Kerim Bouzouita and I had to do was add few choice guitar riffs and we had officially created a new genre of world music that has yet to be named.

The collaboration was a great success by the closing concert, and the musicians have pledged to complete writing and recording the songs so that they can be proplerly released via a CC license – which would allow other artists to build on our foundation to craft new and even better versions of the song. Two art workshops also joined the creative process, producing several wonderful videos that will be worked in more definitively once the songs are completed.

It is clear, from our experience, that among the greatest challenges facing artists in particular, and especially those particpants in the ongoing struggles for social and political change, is the difficulty of actually creating the physical spaces for them to meet and collaborate. This meeting and concert showed that however important new media and hi tech communications have clearly become, they are still no substitute for face to face interaction (a point equally well proven in the success of the revolutions once they actually moved from facebook to the streets in collaborative action).

At the same time we will continue to try to reach out to those who couldn’t meet with us through these forms of social media. We will bring them into the musical and visual dialogue as much as possible with the hope, always, that at the end of the day we’ll all be sharing the same real stage – whether at Tahrir, the Carthage Museum, or hopefully in the near future, the Damascus Citadel or rebuilt Pearl of Bahrain.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California: Irvine, and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeeras editorial policy.