Rap and Revolution: From the Arab Spring to ISIL and Beyond

Rap and Revolution: From the Arab Spring to ISIL and Beyond

. 5 min read

Before 2010, the Middle Eastern rap scene was growing, but little-known. Tight information controls and cultural stigma marginalized the genre, until internal tensions boiled over and the Arab Spring began. Since then, from Tunisian street protests to anti-Gaddafi demonstrations to the ongoing fight against ISIL, rap has become one of the most visible mechanisms of a younger generation’s use of modern communication tools and creative energy to force social change.

Rap before the Arab Spring

Even before rappers like El General in Tunisia and Deeb in Egypt came to fame on the back of rapid regime change efforts, rap was widely regarded as a subversive genre. Dubbed the “black CNN,” rap originated in predominantly African-American communities in the United States’ big cities, where younger generations, seeing themselves stuck in intergenerational poverty and victimized by institutions like the police and mainstream media, invented the genre as an outlet for their frustrations and a call for social change. Songs like Tupac’s “Changes,” pointing out the legacy of institutionalized racism, and N.W.A.’s aptly named “F*ck Tha Police” brought public attention to the realities of minority communities commonly stereotyped as drug-addled, welfare-dependent “inner city” neighborhoods.

Rap’s unique appeal as a form of social protest also relates to its distribution channels. Before the Internet allowed anyone with a computer access to worldwide audiences, rap was almost exclusively played and popularized by small, local radio stations and community gatherings. This stands in sharp contrast to popular music at the time, which was distributed by nationwide record labels. And unlike most other music, the musicians, producers, and audiences, all mostly African-American, shared a common cultural identity that allowed them to unite around common life experiences. Of course, hip-hop’s popularity among non-black audiences and its eventual commercialization have perhaps diluted the trend since then, but even now, many famous rappers still draw from their “street” roots in their music and public appeal.

Rap during the Arab Spring

The same traits that made rap appealing to minorities in the West also attracted the attention of Middle Eastern protest artists. Like their African-American counterparts, protesters in the Arab world saw governments blind to their suffering and immune to traditional avenues of protest. But by the 2000s, when Middle Eastern rap began to take off, Arab protesters had the advantage of the Internet and social media, allowing them to circumvent state-owned TV stations and newspapers to broadcast their own version of the truth. For example, a Washington University study found that high social media activity preceded the resignations of both Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, with the number of domestic tweets on politically charged topics like regime change increasing by up to ten times in the buildup to those major political changes. Indeed, with the help of Facebook, Tunisian rapper El General’s “Rais Lebled” (“Head of State”) was on the lips of thousands of protesters, not just in Tunisia, where its lyrics directly targeted then-president Ben Ali, but also in Egypt and Bahrain as well. Across the region, some of rap’s appeal has also come from its association with traditional Arab poetry, grounding a new art form in old traditions.

But most of the music of the Arab Spring does not come from high-profile activists like El General. In Libya, for example, most protest rap comes and goes on social media, uncopyrighted and without managers or record labels - a trend that Khaled Mattawa, assistant professor of literature at the University of Michigan, deems “typical” of most popular music in the country. And for the most part, “established” rap artists stick to bland, apolitical subjects, for fear of government retaliation. In this sense, rap is just one instance of the broader trend of decentralization in social movements, drawing on a broad sense of discontent with the status quo to build popularity. Though transplanted to the other side of the world, rap in the Middle East seems to share its core characteristics with the Western rap of twenty years ago.

Rap after the Arab Spring

Though the Arab Spring revolutions ended largely in disappointment, their driving forces - prominent activists, public figures, and, of course, musicians - have not ceased in their calls for social reform. But music’s ability to mobilize audiences and spark movements has not gone unnoticed by the government. Even before the Arab Spring, governments had tried to co-opt protest art, with Tunisia’s government producing state films extolling the virtues of hip-hop as an alternative to radical jihadism. The post-Arab Spring world, however, has driven these efforts to new heights. Much like American rap in the 1990s, Middle Eastern rap, too, has begun to be folded into traditional mechanisms of state control. Now, pro-government demonstrators make songs of their own, battling for public attention and viral status. For example, in the ongoing Syrian civil war, most rap music in the country supports the Assad regime, with the government backing urban, relatively affluent rappers who relate little to the largely rural and poor rebels. And when all else fails, governments are now increasingly willing to turn to more drastic measures, shutting off access to social media sites or even the entire Internet to shut down communication between protesters and block their efforts to attract international sympathy.

At the same time, many artists have diversified their missions as well. Underground rappers in Tunisia who first gained prominence protesting against Ben Ali’s dictatorship now rail against the growing influence of Salafism, a literalist interpretation of Islam, in the country. Some of them, like Dya Hammadi, who gained fame by mobilizing the poor youth of his town of Regueb, have begun producing songs encouraging vulnerable youths to stay away from ISIL, which often recruits fighters from marginalized communities in surrounding nations. However, the shift from confronting individual dictators to attacking ideologies has not come without cost. Increasingly, Middle Eastern rappers have faced retaliation not just from governments wanting to suppress opposing views, but also religious fundamentalists aggravated by the perception that rappers are Western-influenced subversives undermining traditional values. Much like how Western cultural conservatives criticize the likes of Kendrick Lamar for glorifying materialism and anti-police violence, Middle Eastern conservatives now attribute similar characteristics to their own rappers. In an ironic twist of fate, though, some rappers have even joined the culturally conservative groups who profess to hate what they stand for. For example, Emino, a popular Tunisian rapper, himself joined ISIL in 2015, after being radicalized while in jail for drug charges.

Rap has also spread beyond Arab populations living in the Middle East. In an increasingly globalized world, Middle Eastern immigrants living in the West also use rap as an outlet for their struggles against Islamophobia, their hardships adapting to a new culture, and their internal conflict between their Western and Middle Eastern identities. Yassin Alsalman, for instance, a professor at Concordia University in Canada, is himself a rapper, releasing tracks examining stereotypes of Middle Easterners in the West. Indeed, with rap’s roots in both Middle Eastern poetry and Western cities, it has become an ideal form of expression for these populations as well.

Arab rap finds itself in a curious spot: while initially highly disruptive and effective in mobilizing change, its change in focus has triggered more backlash from sects initially largely tolerant of its aims. Combined with governments’ increasing willingness and ability to crack down on traditional distribution channels, rap, though increasingly popular among international audiences, remains assailed on all sides.

Image by Rais67, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.