x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere had music to keep them going

Music played an important role in recent Middle East revolutions, from To The President, a song that catalysed the movement to unseat Tunisia's leader, to Leave, a tune written in the fervour of Cairo's Tahrir Square, Gemma Champ writes

Mashrou'Leila, a Lebanese band with a hybrid sound, sing about freedom, cultural liberty and social justice.
Mashrou'Leila, a Lebanese band with a hybrid sound, sing about freedom, cultural liberty and social justice.

The idea that there was a "soundtrack to the Arab Spring" that drove the protests forward has long held currency and speaks directly to the catalysing effect of powerful revolutionary songs by the likes of the Tunisian rapper El General and singer Ramy Essam.

El General's Rayes Le Bled (To The President) has achieved notoriety as the song that finally pushed the country into protest against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ramy Essam's Irhal (Leave!), written in Egypt's Tahrir Square, was taken up with glee by the protesters, and found him fame - and torture, months later, at the hands of the Egyptian military.

And while the Arab Spring may have since taken on a different form, the protest music lives on.

Mashrou'Leila, the Lebanese indie rock band, did not provide the soundtrack to the Arab Spring. They do not sing to achieve the removal of a tyrant or the downfall of the military.

But they are every bit as important to the revolutionary cause, because they sing about the human problems of freedom, cultural liberty and social justice - the problems at the very heart of any rebellion against authority.

"These things go hand in hand," argues the band's lead singer Hamed Sinno. "I think a big part of what's driving the political revolutions isn't just a symbolic need to get rid of a certain system in abstraction: it's the repercussions of that system and the way the system affects your day-to-day experience, your freedoms as an individual, your sexual liberties, your gender liberties, your economic liberties.

"All of these things are what politics is about; it's what people are fighting for, so I don't think it's a sort of tangential undercurrent as much as just a big part of this whole of power and resistance."

Sinno and his contemporaries have grown up more globally aware than any generation before them, thanks to the internet, and it may be that their influence will have more enduring power than the explosive songs of the revolution.

They are certainly, in offering a more palatable version of anger, able to insinuate themselves into the mainstream and, as a result, able to attract the world's attention.

For example, when Mashrou'Leila bowed to their fans' pressure and said they would not support the Red Hot Chili Peppers for their Beirut gig this summer, after the Chili Peppers refused to boycott Tel Aviv as part of their tour, it was the result of an entirely internet-mobilised campaign, and the story quickly gained international attention.

Sinno's view is that this is a change that, over the last five years, has freed artists in the Arab world both to produce more protest music and to widen the field of causes to protest about.

Thus he is able to sing as much about his sexuality or inter-religious love as about the bombs and wars that plagued Lebanon during his childhood.

"We have this sort of unprecedented ability to bypass production and management and distribution and whatever, and just plunge our stuff straight into a mainstream audience," he explains.

"So there's a lot less censorship. There's this intense variegation of niche, if you want; there's a lot more that you can listen to, and because of that most cultural producers will end up finding an audience."

And that sheer quantity and variety of music being created and posted online makes it all the harder for the censorship authorities to keep up.

"[People feel freer] to say the things that they'd like to say, if for nothing else than because we don't have to go through censorship any more; it's very easy to post your stuff online," says Sinno.

"Obviously there are repercussions, and it takes a lot of courage at some point to do that - like what happened with Zaid Hamdan, censorship will end up coming back to you, but it's very interesting to see that level of back and forth is happening between musical and cultural production and this rigid system."

It was a full three years after the former Soapkills singer Zeid Hamdan had posted his song General Souleiman online that the Lebanese authorities came across it, through a simple accident of an advertising executive sharing the song, and as soon as Hamdan was arrested, social and traditional media mobilised across the region, and he was released the following day.

"There are lots of people that have said things that are much more compromising than anything that Zeid said, which is where it begins to get very, very funny," Sinno points out. "This isn't something that's being done consistently with any particular rubrik of what should and should not be allowed into the mainstream."

In fact, Sinno believes that self-censorship is a bigger problem than that of the authorities, although it is prompted by the occasional crackdowns that are brutal enough to stay in people's memories.

But, as connections grow through the internet, a sense of community seems, to some degree, to be overriding that fear.

"It is where I think things like the internet become a lot more interesting, because people know that other people actually relate so you're more likely to say something out loud than you were before, because there are more support systems for that," says Sinno.

"You can feel the general interest in the mainstream starting to wane, and people start to tribalise into little musical cultures, and I think that's helped a lot with allowing [freedom to speak].

"I mean especially in Egypt, where there's been so much music that's critical of the political system that would have otherwise been absurd given the level of censorship that we tend to witness in the Arab world."

Unlike the music tribes of the West, though, the fans of Arab protest music are not divided by genre.

The satirical songs of the late Sheikh Imam, accompanied simply on the oud but devastating in their sarcasm, are as important as the corruscating hip hop of Ramallah Underground and the highly produced, earthily vernacular rapping of Oka w Ortega.

Those who love hip hop do not, as in other musical arenas, scorn the indie rock of Mashrou'Leila, the reggae-trip-hop of Soapkills or Zeid and the Wings, or the gentle accordion of Youssra El Hawary, because they are all presenting the same message, if in different forms.

Sinno sums it up: "There's a genre of protest music at this point that bypasses style or anything, and that's the most interesting thing about it.

"You end up assessing musical rigour based on political content. So it's easy at this point to say that there's very great protest music coming out of the region."

Gemma Champ is a regular contributor to The Review