Friday, December 16, 2011

Hip Hop and How Arab Youth Interact With Revolution

Note: Many thanks to Bassam Gergi and the folks at OpenDemocracy for reaching out to me and kindly publishing the following piece in their Arab Awakening section. To read "Hip Hop Revolution" on OpenDemocracy, please click here.  

How Has Hip Hop Impacted the Way Young People Interact With the Revolution?

Hip hop is a fundamentally subversive genre. It has become a universal medium of social and political expression for young, dissident, and marginalized people everywhere. What Arabic hip hop has given the Arab world is a widely-accessible and unfiltered medium for disseminating revolutionary ideas. It's important not to overstate the influence of Arabic hip hop on the Arab uprisings, though. Arabic hip hop is an underground phenomenon. Since there's no real Arabic hip hop industry to speak of, Arabic-language rap artists must distribute their music online or sign with Western labels. Despite this, the genre's popularity and influence are growing remarkably fast because Arabic hip hop powerfully speaks to our desire for dignity, human rights, and a brighter future.

The Internet and the Revolution
Social media and expanded internet access weren't the cause of the Arab uprisings, but they were crucial to their success. In 2008, massive protests erupted in the southern Tunisian mining town of Redeyef. For six months, 3,000 police besieged this city of 25,000 people while its citizens bravely demonstrated against corruption and chronic unemployment. Because of the state's violent repression and its stranglehold on media outlets, the protests failed to spread or gain much attention. Without developed social networks, the thousands of Redeyef's citizens who obtained protest footage on CDs or computers had no way to let most Tunisians see it. Fahem Boukaddous, a Tunisian journalist who covered the protests, said, "In 2008, Facebook wasn't at all well-known, especially in poor cities like here." In fact, fewer than 30,000 Tunisians were on Facebook when Redeyef exploded in early 2008.  By the end of 2010, Tunisia's internet landscape had been transformed. A January 2011 survey found that Tunisia, a country of 10 million, had 1.97 million Facebook users - 18.6% of Tunisia's entire population and 54.73% of its online population. By this time, Facebook, along with YouTube and sites such as, had become the primary medium for distributing Arabic hip hop. The internet's great gift was that it allowed Tunisians and Arabs, for the first time, to effortlessly share their testimony with each other and with the world.

The Aura of Hip Hop
You can legally download almost any revolutionary Arabic hip hop song for free online - that's exactly what the artists want. As Mark Levine argues, the uncommodified, do-it-yourself character of this hip hop gives it “the aura” that pre-modernity artistic expression enjoyed.  This aura, which "previously had given art such aesthetic, and thus social power by highlighting its singularity, irreplaceable and incommensurable value, was for all practical purposes lost" because of the commercialization of the music industry in the 20th century. That's a really complicated way of saying, "Arabic rap is awesome because its rappers aren't sell-outs." Commercialization inevitably leads artists to compromise their politics and their message because every music industry is run by rich, powerful people with a huge investment in the status quo. The Arabic music industry is especially reactionary and patriarchal. "A lot of the music that comes from here, from the region, is pop," El Général told Lauren Bohn. "It's all the same and it isn't art. They're making harmful actions to arts, actually. There's no engagement. And music without engagement isn't art." Many Arab artists, including El Deeb and Arabian Knightz, have lamented how foreign media supports and promotes Arabic hip hop more than Arabic media does. The reason is simple. Arabic hip hop scares Arab elites because it's profoundly subversive, while Western elites like Arabic hip hop because it makes the revolutions seem non-radical and friendly to the West. To understand Arabic hip hop, though, you need to approach it on its own terms, not on yours.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Ibn Thabit, Libya's Leading Rapper, Retires from Hip-Hop

Note: I'm happy to announce that the wonderful has brought me on board and made me a contributing blogger. It's quite an honor see my blog's name next to The Moor Next Door, Kamil Pasha, and Muftah's other superstar contributing bloggers, so I'm very grateful for the opportunity.

Ibn Thabit, Libya's leading rapper, announced his retirement from hip hop this week (video here). Although Ibn Thabit is largely unknown by the Western media, he's almost universally known among the Libyan diaspora and has a big fan base in Libya itself. Ibn Thabit is the person who first got me interested in Arabic hip hop, so it's a tough moment for me and for many other fans of his as well. He doesn't give many details about his motivation or future plans in his video, but he did say this: he never wanted his music to bring him fame or money. His only goal was to help Libya overthrow Gaddafi's regime (he's not kidding - every song of his is political and Libya-focused). Now, he says, he wants to help build a new Libya in a different way. On Twitter, he wrote:
for peeps that know me, this is not gonna be a big surprise. for everyone else, jawdropper...All praise to The Merciful. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders.
In 2008, Ibn Thabit began posting songs on YouTube that denounced the government of Muammar al-Gaddafi and called for its overthrow. The pseudonym he chose suggests both deep piety and a respect for the wordsmith's craft, for Hassan Ibn Thabit was the favorite poet of the Prophet Muhammad . Attaching his real name to his work would have led to certain arrest and torture, for Gaddafi's Libya was one of the world's most suffocating, oppressive, and arbitrary police states. Gaddafi even banned all foreign language instruction in Libya from 1986 until the mid-1990s. When 2011 began, despite Libya's great oil wealth, unemployment was at 33% and 67% of Libyans were living on less than $2 a day. This was the situation that inspired both Ibn Thabit's music and Libya's revolution. His conversations over the phone and internet with Tripoli residents about what the Tunisian Revolution might mean for Libya are what inspired the song "The Question," which he released in late January. On February 14, 2011, one day before the revolution's first protests began, Ibn Thabit released, "A Call to the Youth of Libya" (click here for the full lyrics). He has so much to say that he doesn't even bother with a chorus - the entire song is verse:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How Egypt's Rappers Warned SCAF About the Current Uprising

As you're well aware, Egypt is in the midst of a revolutionary uprising against SCAF, the ruling military junta that took over after the January 25th Revolution forced Mubarak from power. This all started on Friday, November 18 when, with parliamentary elections just a few weeks way, various currents and movements of Egyptian Islamism came together for a huge rally in Tahrir Square. They were protesting how the latest draft of the constitutional principles document gives SCAF an overwhelming and permanent influence on Egyptian politics. Most of Egypt's liberal and leftist activists decided against participating because of their differences with the Islamist movements. The Islamist demonstrators went home that night, but about 200 mostly leftist protesters set up tents and staged a modest sit-in in Tahrir to air their grievances, including SCAF's attacks on free expression, its detention of prominent activists, its imprisonment of over 12,000 civilians through military tribunals, and its utter unwillingness to begin reforming any of Egypt's major institutions (particularly the Ministry of Interior's police and security forces) and hold them to account. So when security forces cavalierly stormed the Tahrir encampment and broke it up with extreme prejudice, they unexpectedly created the spark that ignited what could very well become the Second Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

News of the violence spread immediately. Thousands of people poured into Cairo's early morning darkness to confront the security forces and re-occupy Tahrir Square. Violence, tear gas, rubber bullets, bird shot, and reported live ammunition have only inspired more people to join the protests. The past few days have seen Egypt's largest demonstrations since the January 25th Revolution - not only in Cairo but in cities throughout the country, most notably Ismailia and Alexandria. The fiercest fighting has been on Mohamed Mahmoud street, which links Tahrir Square to the nearby Interior Ministry. At least 30 people have died so far, but the protests and sit-ins and clashes have only grown in size and intensity. The protests have passed an important threshold because the security forces cannot forcefully disperse them with anything short of a horrific massacre that would destroy SCAF's ability to govern. SCAF can only get the protesters off the streets with a political solution - and the protesters know it. SCAF has therefore offered concessions by apologizing for "deaths of the martyrs" and promising to hand over power to a civilian government in June. The protesters, though, say they will not stop until SCAF steps down from power and hands the country over to a "national salvation government" that represents the full spectrum of Egyptian politics [update on November 30th: well, the elections broke up the protests in a way the security forces could not. There will definitely be more demonstrations in the coming months, though]

One striking aspect of the current uprising is the prescient way in which revolutionary Egyptian rappers Ramy Donjewan and Ahmed Rock of Revolution Records had threatened SCAF that it would come. Such an uprising seemed far-fetched this summer, when the revolutionaries' continuous sit-ins at Tahrir Square and aloofness from the concerns of ordinary Egyptians turned public opinion overwhelmingly against them. The Egyptian blogger Zeinobia powerfully documented their missteps in a soul-searching blog post from August 3rd. During this gloomy, demoralizing summer, Ramy Donjewan released a brash, brave, and profoundly threatening song entitled "Message to Tantawi." In the chorus, he raps in a haunting tone:
The blood of my brothers is so expensive, so precious, O Tantawi,
and we will NOT be threatened.
And what happened before can happen again, O Tantawi,
if our demands are not implemented.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

El Général, Hip Hop, and the Tunisian Revolution

Update, January 2012: David Peisner, author of "Inside Tunisia's Hip-Hop Revolution," shared some great insights with me about Tunisian hip hop via email. Mr. Peisner has graciously allowed me to repost our correspondence here, so please scroll to the bottom of this article to read his comments.

Like many people, I first took notice of Arabic hip hop because of El Général and the Tunisian Revolution. The story has practically passed into mythology now. For a few critical days, a 21 year-old rapper from Sfax had a more powerful voice than the dictator of Tunisia himself. On October 23, Tunisia will hold the first truly free elections in its history when it elects a new constitutional assembly. El Général's story illuminates, with a vividness that few others can match, how Tunisia got to this point and where it might be going from here.

On November 7, 2010, Hamada Ben-Amor, a young rapper from Sfax known as "El Général," posted this jeremiad against the regime of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Youtube and Facebook:

"Rais lebled" 
The video begins with a clip from Tunisian state television of Ben Ali attempting to soothe a sobbing schoolchild. The little boy, whose parents have evidently taught him something of the regime's true nature, must be terrified about being face-to-face with the dictator who destroyed so many Tunisians' lives. Ben Ali, clearly flustered, tells the child, "Why are you worried? Would you tell me something? Don't be afraid!"


The video then cuts to El Général, smoking a cigarette and hiding his face in shadows like Hal Halbrook's Deep Throat in All the President's Men. Général conceals his face with shadows, digital alterations, and a baseball cap throughout the video. Intriguingly, though, he seems to reveal enough of himself and his mannerisms to let his acquaintances (and, presumably, the secret police) figure out his real identity. El Général's friend and fellow rapper RTM told David Peisner of Spin that, "When Hamada recorded ["Rais lebled"], I tried to convince him to be worried. Rap like this may lead him to death. I tried to convince him to convey his message implicitly. He just smiled and told me he's ready for the consequences." El Général acknowledges these entreaties in "Rais lebled" when he raps, "I see so much injustice and that's why I chose to speak/even though many people told me that my end will be execution." In fact, El Général had no idea what was in store for him. "I expected it might get me in trouble but I didn't think the president would be ousted," he told Peisner. "I didn't know there would be a revolution." 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Introduction: Welcome!

Welcome to Revolutionary Arab Rap! This blog aims to explore what Arabic hip hop can tell us about the current Arab uprisings and the changing relationship between Arab citizens and their governments. My objectives are:

1. To help new audiences enjoy, understand, and celebrate Arabic hip hop.
2. To help people improve their Arabic and find resources for studying the language.
3. To provide a useful resource for people interested in high-quality journalism, social media, and academic work on the Middle East.
4. To show solidarity with Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and everywhere else where people fight for their freedom.

What I call "my blog" is actually two blogs:
1. Revolutionary Arab Rap (my main site). My posts about the key players, themes, contexts, and local scenes in the Arabic hip hop game go here.
2. Revolutionary Arab Rap: The Index (a companion site). In each post here, I provide a song's Arabic lyrics and their English translation in a Universal Subtitles video (above the jump) and in a full written text (below the jump).

Hip hop has become a universal medium of social and political expression for young, dissident, and marginalized peoples. It's helping the people of Arab world, most of whom are younger than 30, find new ways to raise their voices. It's important, though, not to overstate the influence of Arabic hip hop on the Arab uprisings. Arabic-langauge hip hop is an underground phenomenon, not a mainstream one like Al Jazeera is. There's no real hip hop "industry" to speak of in the Arab world. Arabic-language rap artists must promote their work online or sign with Western record labels. Despite all this, the genre's popularity and influence are growing remarkably fast. Rappers in Libya and Tunisia have shaken the most nightmarish of regimes to their cores. Arab hip hop is blowing up because it speaks so powerfully to Arabs' desire for dignity, human rights, and a brighter future.

Lastly, here's a couple shout-outs to people who inspired me to start this blog.

The people at Khalas/ The Khalas Mixtape Vol. 1, entitled "Mish B3eed," is what made Arabic hip hop accessible and engaging to me for the first time. So I downloaded Mish B3eed and started listening to it just when the Libyan Revolution was getting started.

Ibn Thabit, @TasnimQ, and Mohammad Nabbous: The music of the Libyan rapper Ibn Thabit is opened what my eyes to Arabic hip hop. I liked his music so much - and I was so frustrated that I could find no written Arabic lyrics for it - that one day I simply started writing the words down myself. Tasnim's Ibn Thabit translations and videos inspired me to start translating them myself. Tasnim has been a wonderful mentor and she has helped me with most of my Libyan song translations. As for Mohammad Nabbous, I intently watched Libya Alhurra TV, Libya's first independent news channel, from his first broadcasts on February 19th until a sniper shot him dead on March 19th. He was a true revolutionary.

Andy Morgan, Lauren Bohn, and David Peisner are journalists who have put out the best pieces on Arabic hip hop that have appeared in Western media. In February, The Guardian published Morgan's "From fear to fury: how the Arab world found its voice." In July, Foreign Policy published Bohn's "Rapping the Revolution." In August, SPIN published Peisner's Inside Tunisia's Hip-Hop Revolution. I liked these articles because they helped make Arabic hip hop more accessible, addressed the heart of its concerns, and presented it on its own terms and with its artists' own voices. I hope to do the same with this blog.

As of posting this, I've posted the Arabic lyrics and English translation for about 20 songs (please take a look at them here). I have posts coming soon on El Général, Ibn Thabit, #Jan25, reconciliation, women in Arabic hip hop, and Islam's role in the genre, so stay tuned and follow me @ArabRevRap on Twitter. If you have any questions, topics you'd like me to treat, or songs you would like me to translate, please drop me a line via ulysses [dot] rap [at] or Twitter. Thank you.