Hip hop is a fundamentally subversive genre
In the midst of the Arab Spring there is a group of dedicated young hip hop artists who are using their medium to disseminate revolutionary ideas. This piece documents how hip hop has impacted on the way young people interact with the revolution in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.
Hip hop is a fundamentally subversive genre. It has become a universal medium of social and political expression for young, dissident, and marginalized people everywhere. What Arabic hip hop has given the Arab world is a widely-accessible and unfiltered medium for disseminating revolutionary ideas. It’s important not to overstate the influence of Arabic hip hop on the Arab uprisings, though. Arabic hip hop is an underground phenomenon. Since there’s no real Arabic hip hop industry to speak of, Arabic-language rap artists must distribute their music online or sign with western labels. Despite this, the genre’s popularity and influence are growing remarkably fast because Arabic hip hop powerfully speaks to our desire for dignity, human rights, and a brighter future.
The internet and the revolution
Social media and expanded internet access weren’t the cause of the Arab uprisings, but they were crucial to their success. In 2008, massive protests erupted in the southern Tunisian mining town of Redeyef. For six months, 3,000 police besieged this city of 25,000 people while its citizens bravely demonstrated against corruption and chronic unemployment. Because of the state’s violent repression and its stranglehold on media outlets, the protests failed to spread or gain much attention. Without developed social networks, the thousands of Redeyef’s citizens who obtained protest footage on CDs or computers had no way to let most Tunisians see it. Fahem Boukaddous, a Tunisian journalist who covered the protests, said, “In 2008, Facebook wasn’t at all well-known, especially in poor cities like here.” In fact, fewer than 30,000 Tunisians were on Facebook when Redeyef exploded in early 2008. By the end of 2010, Tunisia’s internet landscape had been transformed. A January 2011 survey found that Tunisia, a country of 10 million, had 1.97 million Facebook users – 18.6% of Tunisia’s entire population and 54.73% of its online population. By this time, Facebook, along with YouTube and sites such as ReverbNation.com, had become the primary medium for distributing Arabic hip hop. The internet’s great gift was that it allowed Tunisians and Arabs, for the first time, to effortlessly share their testimony with each other and with the world.
The aura of hip hop
You can legally download almost any revolutionary Arabic hip hop song for free online – that’s exactly what the artists want. As Mark Levine argues, the uncommodified, do-it-yourself character of this hip hop gives it “the aura” that pre-modernity artistic expression enjoyed. This aura, which “previously had given art such aesthetic, and thus social power by highlighting its singularity, irreplaceable and incommensurable value, was for all practical purposes lost” because of the commercialization of the music industry in the twentieth century. That’s a really complicated way of saying, “Arabic rap is awesome because its rappers aren’t sell-outs.” Commercialization inevitably leads artists to compromise their politics and their message because every music industry is run by rich, powerful people with a huge investment in the status quo. The Arabic music industry is especially reactionary and patriarchal. “A lot of the music that comes from here, from the region, is pop,” El Général told Lauren Bohn. “It’s all the same and it isn’t art. They’re making harmful inroads into the arts, actually. There’s no engagement. And music without engagement isn’t art.” Many Arab artists, including El Deeb and Arabian Knightz, have lamented how foreign media supports and promotes Arabic hip hop more than Arabic media does. The reason is simple. Arabic hip hop scares Arab elites because it’s profoundly subversive, while western elites like Arabic hip hop because it makes the revolutions seem non-radical and friendly to the west. To understand Arabic hip hop, though, you need to approach it on its own terms, not on yours.
El Général and the Tunisian Revolution
On November 7, 2010, Hamada Ben-Amor, a young rapper from Sfax known as “El Général,” posted this jeremiad against the regime of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Youtube and Facebook (Full lyrics here):
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