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Anthems for the Arab Spring

From USA Today (UK edition)

Rappers provide anthems for the

Arab Spring

By Naomi Westland, Special for USA TODAY

Eighteenth-century French revolutionaries marched to La Marseillaise, and two centuries later, rock music spurred opposition to the Shah of Iran and Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. It’s no different with the uprisings in the Arab world.

  • Egyptian rapper El Deeb's song Stand Up Egyptian encouraged protests against the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.“Arab hip-hop, especially that coming out of Tunisia and Egypt, played a major role in creating the soundtrack to the so-called Arab Spring,” said Joshua Asen, a documentary filmmaker and writer of the Hip Hop Diplomacy blog.
(Photo by Jeff White – Egyptian rapper El Deeb’s song “Stand Up Egyptian” encouraged protests against the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.)

The “Arab Rappers Spring” began with a track called O Leader! by Tunisian hip-hop artist El General. The song gained popularity on the Internet even before street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, an act of protest that helped start the uprising that toppled the regime in Tunisia.

Soon after, two songs from Egyptian rap super group Arabian Knightz, NotYour Prisoner and Rebel, featuring former Fugees frontwoman Lauryn Hill, hit the airwaves and Internet.

“These tracks became the de facto anthems of Tahrir Square,” Asen said, referring to the heart of the Egyptian protest movement in Cairo. “They helped get thousands of young people out of Internet cafes and into the streets and kept them pumping their fists until regimes fell.”

In Yemen, rock music from a band called 3 Meters Away, led by medical student Ahmed Asery, has provided the soundtrack to ongoing anti-government demonstrations.

Syrian rappers have been vocal, too, but mostly from overseas. The repressive regime has offered little opportunity for non-traditional music to develop, according to Ulysses, author of the blog Revolutionary Arab Rap.

“If rappers speak out forcefully within Syria, the state will almost certainly silence them,” he said. “Most leading Syrian rappers, whether they are pro-revolution or pro-Assad, live outside the country.”

Within Syria, more traditional music has been the voice of resistance – and musicians have faced violence. Folk songs condemning President Bashar Assad and calling for democracy by artists such as Samih Choukeir and Ibrahim Qashoush are sung at protests across the country. When Qashoush’s song Come on Bashar, Time to Leavebecame a hit last summer, the singer disappeared.

His body was later found in the Orontes river with his throat slit and vocal chords torn out.

It’s not surprising that hip-hop has played such a major role in the uprisings, bloggers say.

From its beginnings in 1970s New York, hip-hop has often delved into claims of injustice, poverty and inequality. Before the revolutions, hip-hop was usually dismissed in theMiddle East as a form of Western music dealing with shallow subject matter. That changed as people wanted music with a message, Libyan hip-hop artist and blogger Ibn Thabit said.

“There has been a huge demand for revolutionary music, and people are recognizing hip-hop as an important medium of expression,” Thabit said.

Some regimes have clamped down. Despite recent changes in Morocco guaranteeing greater public freedom, rapper El Haqed was charged last month with insulting authorities in his song Dogs of the State, which made him the voice of last year’s protests demanding political change.

“Before the Libyan revolution, hip-hop was almost like a punk movement, a way to (anger) your parents,” Thabit said. “But once the uprisings began, even grandmothers were thanking me for what I was doing.”

El Deeb, a former banker born in Cairo but raised in the Persian Gulf region, moved back to Egypt in 2005 and didn’t like a lot of what he saw. He gave up a highly paid job to concentrate full time on hip-hop, he says.

“I started asking questions about corruption, sexual harassment of women, inequality, but I wasn’t getting any answers,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to find in my music.”

His song Stand Up Egyptian, a rallying cry to continue protests against the regime ruling his country, was sung by crowds in Tahrir Square.

Choukeir, Syria’s leading folk singer, whose song Ya Hef (Oh Shame) about last May’s Daraa massacre has become the anthem for revolution, left the country 18 months ago fearing for his safety. He lives in exile in Paris.

He has been writing songs about human rights for 30 years and is well known in the Arab world. Ya Hef brought him international recognition. Within a week, it had millions of hits on YouTube, and protesters were marching the streets, singing out the words. Choukeir heard that the song had even been sung in mosques.

“They know I’m not a religious singer, but even the muezzins were singing it,” he said. “It is an honor that my music is giving people the energy to resist.”

As progress toward democracy moves forward, the singers say they still have work to do.

“The new Egyptian government could be corrupt,” El Deeb said. “I’ll be keeping an eye on them. There will always be things to talk about.”

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