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: