Arab hip-hop and rap artists get inspired by recent events
On January 25, 2011, the day of the first major demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the 28-year-old Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum, aka Omar A Chakaki, went to his studio in Los Angeles and wrote a verse calling for the overthrow of the former president Hosni Mubarak.
He called a fellow rapper, the Iraqi-Canadian and Dubai-born Yassin Alsalman - more widely known as The Narcicyst.
"Yo, Yassin," he said. "Do you have time to write a verse?"
The Narcicyst did and recorded it that same day in Montreal. Quickly the stars aligned: The HBO Def Poet Amir Sulaiman sent in a third verse from Atlanta.
Freeway, an American Muslim MC, sent a verse from Philadelphia. And finally, the Palestinian-Canadian R&B vocalist Ayah did the hook. Everything was produced by Sami Matar, a Palestinian-American composer from California, and within three days #Jan25Egypt hit YouTube:
"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
The words are Gandhi's but the voice is Offendum's, laid over a backdrop of rows of praying men being dispersed by a water canon. Then, saluting the 26-year-old Tunisian vegetable-seller whose self-immolation prompted the Tunisian revolution, The Narcicyst raps:
"But first God rest the soul of those who choose to be free, from poverty they rose, knee-deep in robbery, souls will plummet and burn like Mohammed Bouazizi. From Cairo to Baghdad."
On the day of the video upload, tweets from Tahrir Square started ticking in, thanking the artists.
Within a week the track had been viewed more than 100,000 times, mainly in the Middle East. A Libyan, Yemeni and Syrian uprising later, the number has more than doubled.
Four weeks after the studio recording, Offendum and The Narcicyst were invited to Dearborn, Michigan for From Gaza to Detroit, a benefit concert for the New York-based NGO Existence is Resistance, together with leading Arab Diaspora voices in the genre, including the British-Palestinian Shadia Mansour, the 25-year-old Iraqi-British Lowkey, also known as Dennis Kareem, and the Libyan-American Khaled M, 26.
"Monday is when we released it; Friday is when Mubarak stepped down," Offendum said before a sound check at Dearborn's Hyatt hotel.
He quickly added: "Not that we had anything to do with that!"
Everyone laughed when The Narcicyst shot back: "No, it was all Omar's verse!"
Although The Narcicyst was obviously joking about taking credit for Mubarak's overthrow, all these months later it is safe to say that hip-hop from the Arab diaspora has become a soundtrack for the Arab and north African uprisings.
That same night in Dearborn, and as the Libyan people were protesting against Qadaffi, Khaled M and Lowkey wrote the track Can't Take our Freedom. Consolidated views on YouTube now exceed 200,000.
"If you watch the video it's obviously about Libya, but if you just listen to the audio, I don't one time mention Qadaffi or Libya," said Khaled M, whose off-stage name is Khaled Ahmed. "I did that so people from any country, Arab or non-Arab could relate to it."
Lowkey, who this month released his first album Soundtrack to the Struggle, is careful about attaching too much importance to the influence of their music.
"I don't think we can be arrogant enough to assume that music can influence the situation." said Lowkey in March. "It can oil the wheels, but the struggle is out there, the music provides the soundtrack to the struggle in my view."
Mansour, who was featured on Not Your Prisoner by Egyptian Knightz, a leading hip-hop group in Egypt, thinks music is just another part of the evolving struggle.
"Artists have been making songs about revolutions for years," she said in Dearborn.
The Narcicyst, who has meanwhile published a book called Diatribe of a Dying Tribe in March and just released a free live album for download, nodded in agreement.
"You look at Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, who had political tracks, it was different because then it couldn't be disseminated digitally."
Social media is helping the artists get their message out; all of them are on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, many with thousands of followers.
"We are also the media," said Mansour, who recently signed with the Public Enemy label Slam Jamz and is working on her first album. "We are delivering a message and we put them into songs and play the big part."
While the Arab Diaspora artists may be reluctant to attribute much political influence to their music, they admit that the politics in the Middle East have a huge personal impact on them.
"Any people who attempt to free themselves from neo-colonial rule should give all of us as humans a sense of pride because they are reclaiming their own dignity, humanity and independence," said Lowkey.
No one is perhaps as elated as Khaled M, the son of a political refugee. When the Libyan revolution first began, Khaled M wanted to go. But his family and friends there told him it was better for him to stay in America and help raise awareness.
"My Twitter turned almost 100 per cent political, talking about Libya," Khaled M said.
That alienated some fans, but attracted others, especially in Libya, where he now has numerous invitations to perform.
"But I'm a fan of them," he said of the attention. "I want to get their autograph, they were the ones facing true danger on a daily basis. So it's a little embarrassing, but more than anything I just want to see my homeland."
For Mansour, the Arab revolts have shown that political and cultural conscience is still alive within her own generation.
"The revolution was started by a young man who is part of our generation," she said. "As someone in her 20s, it makes you feel part of it."
For Offendum and The Narcicyst, the Egyptian revolution was both spiritually and artistically inspiring.
"Egypt is really central to a lot of Middle Eastern politics and culture, so the fact that it was happening in the most populous country in the Middle East, a place for so much of our music and our thoughts and our history, was big," said Offendum.
Now it's happening in Syria, and when Offendum is not on Skype with his family there, he is either touring or in the studio working on his second album. It will include his newest track Domino effect - The Time Is Now.
"We never thought we would see this in our lifetime," said The Narcicyst.
"I mean look at us - Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi - with hip-hop we finally have an opportunity to let go of that socio-political baggage that our parents' generations had to deal with and look to something new, a pan-Arabic identity that is not the nationalism, which may have been put out in the 1950s, but something new."
Updated: November 28, 2011 04:00 AM