Music in the Middle East: How Hip Hop Affected the Arab Spring

“I heard them say/the revolution won’t be televised/Al Jazeera proved them wrong/Twitter has him paralyzed/80 million strong” – Omar “Offendum” Chakaki, #Jan25

Of the many factors that make up the impressive impact of the Arab Spring, the strategic use of media might be what best motivates those who wish for revolution and for definitive change in their lives. More specifically, the youth of the Middle East and North African regions are motivated by a musical component of their campaigns for revolution. From the adhans recited regularly in mosques to the impromptu songs of the troubadours in places such as Tahrir Square, music has both a motivational and a unifying effect on those who support the movement of the Arab Spring. In this modern age, however, there is a need for a musical genre that not only mobilizes activists for the struggle for democracy in those countries, but also unifies the youth living in the Middle East and North Africa to their cultural counterparts living elsewhere in the world.

In particular, the musical genres of rap and hip hop encourage activists in the Middle East and North Africa to work towards the pro-democracy movements. Although each artist has their own unique style, they share certain recurring themes, such as solidarity in basic human rights and protests against corrupt regimes. For example, Khaled M., a rapper and the son of a Libyan dissident, is well known for one of his singles, Can’t Take Our Freedom. One line in particular stands out: “Can’t take our freedom and take our soul/you are not the one that’s in control.” Khaled M. utilized the theme of a common humanity among the people to undermine the Gaddafi regime; he also wrote this song as an open letter from Libyans within and outside the country to the Gaddafi regime, asserting that such a government has no place in the modern world. Another possible factor to Khaled M.’s success in spreading the message of his song is his dual identity. The Libyans who opposed the Gaddafi regime were probably mobilized and motivated by his song because it resonated so strongly with them. However, it resonated just as powerfully with Libyans who had fled to other countries for various reasons. Even if they had never set foot in Libya, they had the chance to change history in the country that belonged to their ancestors. In short, the fact that Khaled M. is Libyan-American is the cause for his works to be accepted and adopted by Libyan communities around the world.

Perhaps the encompassing and mobilizing natures of rap and hip hop over the Arab Spring are most apparent in a collaborative work by Omar “Offendum” Chakaki (Syrian-American), The Narcicyst (Iraqi-Canadian), Sami Matar (Palestinian-American), Ayah (Palestinian-Canadian), Amir Suleiman (African-American), and MC Freeway (African-American). These artists from various cultural backgrounds banded together to make one song centered on the date of January 25, when the Egyptian protests, the demands for the removal of Hosni Mubarak, and the celebrations of shared humanity were at their loudest. The song itself is merely called #Jan25, hash tag included. Keeping in mind that many of the younger generation living outside of the Middle East and North Africa did not necessarily speak Arabic fluently, they created a smooth flow between the English and Arabic lyrics while simultaneously preserving the song’s meaning. In addition, Omar Offendum used the ideas of unity and action to his advantage in the song lyrics, particularly this line: “From Tunis to Khan Younis/the new moon shines bright/as The Man’s spoon was/as masses demand rights/and dispel rumors of disunity/communally removing the tumors…”

Behind the influential role of hip hop and rap on the Arab Spring is the power of language and communication. For example, the Egyptians’ protests prominently featured flags and banners with the following message, translated to English: “The people want to bring down the regime.” For years, these people had little, if any, significant political activity on their own, nor were they strong enough to create a collective moral self – at least, until the rise of hip hop and rap as social mediums for the dissenters. Language also holds a unifying component between the protestors who speak only either English and Arabic. Even in this age of information, the differences between the two cultures in their language make it much more difficult for them to communicate ideas between each other. The musicians responsible for bilingual songs like #Jan25 kept their audience in mind during the production phase. As a result, they have garnered many more fans from around the globe in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Essentially, their musical works are also social commentaries for their views on the Middle East as it is today. Such social commentaries are solid examples for the individual musician to become readily recognized and involved in world politics and global issues.

It has been over a year since the start of the Arab Spring, but the process of rebuilding the countries of the Middle East and North Africa will continue for quite a while. Positions of power are difficult to maintain and almost impossible to control in the Middle East and North Africa. But the people, particularly the youth, should have renewed motivation and a sense of unity. The music reflects the harsh realities that the people are forced to deal with in life, and so they respond by endeavoring to change their reality daily.

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