Hip hop and the Arab uprisings

People shouldn't divide Arabic rappers into pro- and anti-revolution camps and castigate one side - the Arabic hip-hip scene is too nuanced and complex for that. But if unity only comes at the expense of social justice, the Arab world will be even worse off than before.

This article is a preview for openDemocracy's February 29 event, Rap and the Arab Spring, at the University of East London that will feature three leading Arab rappers from Egypt, Iraq and Libya. It is free and open to the public.

Ever since "Arab Spring" became the dominant shorthand for the revolutionary uprisings that began in December 2010, writers have been taking issue with the term. Rami Khouri considers the phrase dehumanizing and Orientalist because it downplays the agency, initiative, and courage of people fighting for dignity against brutal, authoritarian regimes. Seasons just happen, but people make revolutions happen. In Arabic, the most common terms are intifada (uprising), sahwa (awakening), and thawra (a revolt or revolution). In English, I think the phrase 'the Arab uprisings' works best because, with the partial exceptions of Libya and Tunisia, these events have not fundamentally transformed any country's social relations, political dynamics, or power structures. There have not been any revolutions yet. The injustices and deprivations that inspired the revolts remain largely intact, as does the influence of the local elites and international interests who have run the Arab world into the ground. The past year has witnessed a remarkable flowering of social and political consciousness in the Arab world.

In 2011, Arabic hip-hop, much like the Arab world itself, did not see any fundamental changes to the power structures that govern it. While the Arab uprisings certainly strengthened the social and political consciousness of Arabic hip-hop, that consciousness was already quite strong before 2011. The Arab uprisings gave Arabic hip-hop a new energy, vitality, and inter-connectedness, and in Libya and perhaps Tunisia, it could be said that they have sparked a 'revolution' in the Arab world's hip-hop scenes.

 The diaspora and the international media

The Arab uprisings have changed Arabic hip-hop by greatly raising the profile of Arab rappers across the world and spurring intensive collaboration among them. As the producer Excentrik told Aisha Fukushima, "Yeah, there’s an Arab hip-hop scene, but it’s a global scene, it’s not like a localized scene...it’s random because it’s so big and so spread apart.” Before 2011, international coverage of Arab hip-hop artists was quite rare  The youth-driven nature of the recent uprisings, though, has made Arab rappers, especially those in the diaspora, a go-to source of insight. This can be problematic because western observers tend to overestimate Arabic hip-hop's role in the uprisings. Many are also so enthusiastic about seeing Arabs adopt western cultural forms that they often seem contemptuous of other cultures. Despite these distortions, international media coverage has played a critical role in expanding Arabic hip-hop's audience, spreading the revolutionaries' message, and helping artists from across the diaspora and the Middle East to forge a more unified, vibrant, and coherent Arab hip-hop movement.

Since January 2011, the Libyan-American emcee Khaled M., the Syrian-American emcee and poet Omar Offendum, and the Iraqi-Canadian emcee the Narcycist have become fixtures in the English-language media. Narcy and Offendum drew worldwide media attention when they released the song "#Jan25 Egypt" at the height of the Egyptian Revolution. Al Jazeera English interviewed Omar Offendum on February 8. Earlier that week, Egypt's Arabian Knightz risked their lives by releasing "Not Your Prisoner," a ferociously anti-regime track to which two diaspora Palestinians, Fredwreck and Shadia Mansour, also contributed. The song "Can't Take Our Freedom" turned the Libyan-American Khaled M. and the Anglo-Iraqi rapper Lowkey into sought-after interviewees as well. CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera English, and the BBC have all devoted extensive coverage to Arabic hip-hop over the past year.

None of these artists have made it big. Omar Offendum works as an architect. The Narcicyst is an academic, journalist, and exhibition curator. Khaled M. makes ends meet by doing live shows at small venues and universities. Not even Lowkey, whose new, independently-produced album "Soundtrack to the Struggle" debuted at #1 on iTunes' UK hip hop chart, is a rich man. However, as Lowkey says, "the truth is you don't need a fortune to be fortunate." By staying independent, these artists can maintain their creative and political integrity and serve as fantastic mentors and role models for up-and-coming Arab artists across the world. 

Arabic media, international media, and the Arab entertainment industry 

The uprisings have not changed Arabic hip-hop's basic relationship with the Arabic media and the Arabic music industry. The Arab entertainment industry is still an intimate part of the corrupt, rotten structure of Arab state politics and the raw political subversiveness of Arabic hip-hop terrifies it. The revolutionary Egyptian rappers Arabian Knightz and Deeb regularly complain that western media supports and promotes Arabic hip-hop far more than the Arabic media does (although western media's reasons are not always honourable). Even in Morocco, the only Arab country where Arabic hip-hop enjoys substantial commercial success, rappers such as L3arbé decry how little support society gives to hip-hop artists. These realities force Arabic hip-hop to be an underground, uncommodified, do-it-yourself genre.

On the Saudi, Lebanese, and Egyptian radio and satellite channels that dominate the Arab world's musical preferences, hip-hop is either heavily pop-ified or a shallow imitation of mainstream American rap. The Egyptian rapper Hoss, for example, got heavy satellite TV rotation by singing with the now-disgraced but still ubiquitous Egyptian pop superstar Tamer Hosny. Rotana, the Arab world's most powerful music company, signed Blak R to be its first Saudi hip-hop act. Blak R's songs, such as the hyper-sexualized "She's Hot Like Summer" and the jaw-droppingly sycophantic "Love Letter to the Prince Sultan," tellingly illustrate just what kind of hip-hop is deemed acceptable by the powers that be in the Arab world.

Even in the politically conscious hip-hop that it supports (it's a niche market), the Arab music industry allows very little reformism, much less revolutionary sentiment, in its lyrics. To his credit, Bahrain's DJ Outlaw, one of the Arab world's leading producers, uses his mixtapes to promote some excellent revolutionary Arabic hip-hop. Yet DJ Outlaw has shown little solidarity with his fellow Bahrainis' fight for freedom. On March 14, 2011, he released "Bahrain Unite," an upbeat, positive track that calls for unity, dialogue, and reconciliation. The problem? That very same day, Saudi Arabia spearheaded an invasion    into the country that crushed Bahrain's pro-democracy movement. Today, Bahrain suffers under near-apartheid levels of repression and discrimination that only a fundamental reordering of society could address. No one should blame DJ Outlaw for not speaking out against the government. The Bahraini regime arrested, tortured, and exiled the footballer Alaa Hubail, the country's greatest athlete, for supporting the February 14 Movement, so imagine what they would do to a dissident hip-hop DJ. Outlaw could have avoided reinforcing the regime's disingenuous narratives about "dialogue" by steering clear of politics. He might have supported revolutionary movements in other countries while maintaining a prudent silence about his homeland, as the Iranian rappers Emad Ghavidel and Hamad Fard do in their remarkable song "The Battle for Homs." Yet by emphasizing Arab unity above everything else, the artists in DJ Outlaw's song "Arab World Unite" largely ignore the question of how to achieve human rights, social justice, and a more representative government. While the track does feature one revolutionary rapper in Rush of Arabian Knightz, it also features Syria's Murder Eyez and the Ben Ali regime's favourite rapper Balti.

The Syrian Revolution has torn the Syrian hip-hop community apart. Of Syria's three leading hip-hop acts, Eslam Jawaad and Murder Eyez openly back the Assad regime while Black Bannerz wholeheartedly supports the revolution. The shattering of Syria's hip-hop scene makes the the burning desire for Arab unity in "Arab World Unite" quite understandable. People certainly shouldn't divide Arabic rappers into pro- and anti-revolution camps and castigate one side - the Arabic hip-hip scene is usually too nuanced and complex for that. But if unity only comes at the expense of social justice, the Arab world will be even worse off than before.

Transformational change: Libya and Tunisia  

It's no coincidence that the two rap scenes most transformed by the "Arab Spring" are in the two countries that have experienced the most profound societal change: Tunisia and Libya. Hip-hop played a genuinely vital role in the Tunisian Revolution, although it needed a good dose of serendipity to do it. In November 2010, El Général, an obscure rapper from Sfax, released a jeremiad against Tunisia's president entitled “Rais lebled.” It immediately became an underground sensation. Soon afterward, Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked pro-democracy demonstrations across Tunisia. The world hardly even noticed the revolution until the secret police arrested El Général on January 6. The arrest backfired spectacularly - it brought Tunisia far more international attention than anything else had since the uprising began. Realizing its mistake, the government freed El Général after three days. It didn't matter. On January 14, president Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and the new government began the country's transition to democracy.

The revolution has dramatically changed the way Tunisian society views hip hop. Before, it was seen as music for thugs and gangsters. El Général's parents strongly discouraged him from pursuing it. Now, they're proud of his profession. Even Al Jazeera interviewed El Général. "Now everyone is looking at rappers as the new elite of the country," the journalist Haythem El Mekki told David Peisner. "When everyone was silent, they spoke up. When everyone was at home, they went to the streets shouting and fighting against the police. So today the old generation are feeling guilty and giving rap much more respect." In fact, even Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist al-Nahda party that now governs Tunisia, has proudly stated that he prefers hip-hop to traditional mizwid folk music, Tunisia's most popular genre.

Click here to read more about El Général and the Tunisian Revolution

The struggle against Muammar al-Gaddafi completely transformed the Libyan hip-hop scene. Indeed, the cultural flowering that accompanied the Libyan Revolution practically created a new hip-hop scene from scratch. Before 2011, Libya's intense isolation and repression meant that it lacked the cultural hip-hop bonds that, say, Tunisia or Palestine enjoy. Yaseen, a Libyan-American activist with EnoughGaddafi.com who compiled the Mish B3eed mixtape, told me that Libyan rap was mostly "a weak attempt at imitating gangsta rap of the US." Most rappers (e.g. Double Zero) were beefing with each other and cussing throughout their entire songs, often in broken English. According to Yaseen, the only decent pre-revolution Libyan rap came from Ibn Thabit, MC Swat, and a guy named Toshy/Sheba. From 2008 onward, Ibn Thabit risked his life by calling for revolution in Libya. His music attacks Gaddafi’s rule and celebrates Libya’s culture and people. “Ibn Thabit really transformed what it meant to be a rapper in Libya," Yaseen says. "It made younger people feel that this revolution was theirs and added a new dimension to the revolutionary culture.”After Sirte fell, Ibn Thabit announced his retirement from hip-hop, but Libya's remarkable hip-hop renaissance is still going strong. "I'm really excited," says Yaseen, "to see what will come out of the rap scene in Libya in the coming years once everyone tires of doing their respective Ibn Thabit or MC Swat impressions."

MC Swat's song 'Freedom of Expression'

Click here for the full lyrics for MC Swat's "Freedom of Expression"

Palestine and Lebanon: Arabic Hip-Hop in fast-forward  

The Palestinian and Lebanese hip-hop scenes have much in common. Lebanon and Palestine's hip-hop scenes both blossomed in the late 1990s - much earlier than in most other Arab countries. They are the Arab world's two most fully trilingual hip-hop scenes (Arabic, English, and French for Lebanon; Arabic, English, and Hebrew for Palestine). The Second Intifada (2000-2004) gave Palestinian hip-hop a tremendously high level of political consciousness and the July War (2006) had a similar effect on Lebanese hip-hop. Both Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories suffer from paralyzed governments and fratricidal political establishments that are unable to fundamentally address poverty, unemployment, gender inequality, national sovereignty, and other vital issues. In recent years, Israeli military offensives have inflicted major economic setbacks, infrastructure damage, and loss of human life upon both societies. Palestinians in both Israel and Lebanon are under-served and disadvantaged minorities. Lastly, Lebanon and Palestine both have enormous, vibrant, and diverse diasporas with strong links to their homelands.

All these factors have made Palestine and Lebanon's hip-hop scenes develop with remarkable speed and sophistication. DAM, the leading Palestinian rap group, drew worldwide attention in 2001 with their song, "Who's a Terrorist?" As Shadia Mansour, Sabreena Da Witch, Arapeyet, and TAR demonstrate, no Arab hip-hop scene features female rappers like Palestine's does, while with Malikah, Lebanon boasts the Arab world's biggest female rap star. The Palestinian diaspora and the solidarity of rappers across the Arab world have helped make Palestine perhaps the most internationally connected and thematically sophisticated Arabic hip-hop scene of all, as this video from early 2010 shows:

Palestinian hip hop is perhaps the most internationally connected and thematically sophisticated

Between 2006, when the current Egyptian hip-hop took shape, and January 25, 2011, Egyptian rappers slowly but steadily intensified the directness and political radicalism of their music. While the revolution opened a floodgate of creative and radical energies, Egyptian hip-hop remains an almost exclusively underground phenomenon. Today, the Egyptian people face a military government that is, in most respects, every bit as bad as Mubarak's. SCAF's profound mismanagement of the economy, its assault on Egyptian civil society, its unlawful imprisonment of thousands of civilians, its complete unwillingness to reform the security forces, and its desire preserve the military's dominant role in Egyptian politics mean that Egypt's revolutionaries - and the many rappers among them - face as great a nemesis as Mubarak himself. Egyptian hip-hop has become a key weapon against the current regime's propaganda.

Egyptian hip hop is a key weapon in the revolutionary arsenal

The story of "the Voice of the Streets," a concert that took place in Cairo on November 4 last year, illustrates just how pervasive and perverse the counter-revolution in Egypt has become. The event brought together Palestine's Boikutt, Lebanon's Malikah and Ed Abbas, Jordan's Khotta and DJ Sotosura, and Egypt's Deeb, Arabian Knightz, and MC Amin. It was quite possibly the single greatest concentration of Arabic hip-hop talent ever brought together in one place. Martin Jakobsen, the Danish DJ whose NGO Turntables in the Camp spent two months organizing the concert, told Jackson Allers, "Everything has stayed the same. You have to bribe your ****ing way through the process. The bribes we had to pay off to organize this event were unbelievable." On the night of the concert, the Interior Ministry and the Gezira Youth Club threw a wrench in everyone's plans. The club's director refused to admit a group of wounded protesters - many of them with eye patches or on crutches - because, she said, they were “criminals who were at the event to cause trouble.” At 8pm, the Interior Ministry officially cancelled the concert and threatened to arrest those who refused to disperse. The rappers and 500 of their fans trekked across town to the Darb 17 18 Cultural Center, where they held a remarkable and entirely impromptu concert. The successful concert showcased Arabic hip-hop's resourcefulness, vitality, and relevance to young Arabs' lives. As Allers puts it, a coherent, unified hip-hop movement is starting to really take shape - one that holds great potential for the future.

The Egyptian blogger and parliamentary candidate Mahmoud Salem (Sandmonkey) recently wrote:

"One of the biggest mistakes of this revolution... was that we allowed its political aspects to overshadow the cultural and social aspects. We have unleashed a torrent of art, music and creativity, and we don’t celebrate or enjoy it, or even promote it... In our arrogance and hubris we assumed that people will change by themselves, that they will act right... Sorry everyone, we were arrogant and idealistic. Forgive us.

The most important feature of Arabic hip-hop is its capacity to raise social consciousness and confront society's most intractable injustices. Soultana does that when she attacks patriarchy by rapping, “She’s selling her body because you are the buyer/And when she’s walking by, you act all Muslim.” Malikah does that when she declares, “We want progress, we want to learn, we want to shine, and we want to control our lives!” Ramy Donjewan does that when he cries out, "I'm against the government because I have value as a human being!" As Priscilla Smith Robertson writes in Revolutions of 1848, "The democratic spirit is elusive, and has first to be learned within a much smaller group even than a nation. It involves, first of all, a recognition in each man's soul that all other men are as good as he, at least potentially...  Democracy also involves the recognition in each man's soul that he is as good as other men, at least potentially." By helping people affirm the value of others and of themselves, Arabic hip-hop is, however modestly, helping create a more democratic future for the people of the Arab world.

About the author

Ulysses blogs on Revolutionary Arab Rap and examines social and political change in the Middle East and North Africa through the lens of Arabic hip hop. Ulysses can be found on twitter and at his blog