Music of The Revolution: How Songs of Protest Have Rallied Demonstrators
Music almost always plays a pivotal role in protest movements, with songs and chants unifying dissidents in their rallying cries. Unlike movements of decades past, however, protest music made popular during the recent revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond spread virally with the help YouTube and Facebook.
Twenty-one-year-old Hamada Ben Amor, known as El Général—an underground rapper living in the town of Sfax south of Tunis—uploaded a song he had written called "Rais Le Bled" ("President, Your Country") to Facebook on November 7. The rap called out then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for the problems faced by average Tunisians trying to make a living, including food scarcity, a lack of freedom of speech, and unemployment with lyrics like: "Mr. President, your people are dying/People are eating rubbish/Look at what is happening/Miseries everywhere Mr. President/I talk with no fear/Although I know I will only get troubles/I see injustice everywhere."
The rap was picked up by local TV station Tunivision and Al-Jazeera and resonated with many Tunisians who quickly began sharing the song. Soon enough, the government blocked the musician’s Facebook page and cut off his mobile phone. Despite the attempt to make his music disappear, El Général’s song quickly became the anthem of the Jasmine Revolution.
El Général then recorded another song of protest call "Tounes Bladna" ("Tunisia Our Country") on December 22. By that point, Ali’s regime had had enough with the musician. El Général was arrested by state security on January 6, taken to the Ministry of Interior, and interrogated for three days.
He tells The Guardian, "They kept asking me which political party I worked for. 'Don't you know it's forbidden to sing songs like that?' they said. But I just answered, 'Why? I'm only telling the truth.' I was in there for three days, but it felt like three years." The public was outraged and began demanding his release. The pressure mounted on the government worked and he was soon released from detention.
Since Ben Ali left office on January 14, El Général’s tunes have continued to serve as a rallying cry for other demonstrators in the Middle East, and his work has proven to be popular among demonstrators in Bahrain.
Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm ("Uncle Ahmed"), a popular voice for the poor who has spent 18 of his 81 years in Egyptian prisons, wrote “The Donkey and the Foal," a commentary about then-president Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal. Musician Ramy Essam, who had taken to playing in Tahrir Square during the protest, set the poem to music and sang the song as Negm stood beside him.
Essam then penned the song "Leave," inspired by the slogans and chants being shouted around Tahrir Square:
“We are all united as one,
And what we ask for,
Is just one thing: Leave! Leave! (x3)
Down, down Husni Mubarak! (x4)
The people demand: Bring down the regime! (x4)
He is going away. We are not going anywhere! (x4)
We are all united as one,
And what we ask for,
Is just one thing: Leave! Leave! Leave! (x4)”
Amir and Adel Eid from the Egyptian rock band Cairo-Kee gathered up other artists to record "Sout Al Horeya" ("The Voice of Freedom"), which quickly became another anthem for the revolution. The video for the song was shot entirely inside Tahrir Square during the revolution using a basic digital SLR camera.
“I went down to the streets vowing not to return, and wrote with my blood on every street.
Our voices reached those who could not hear them
And we broke through all barriers
Our weapon was our dreams
And tomorrow is looking as bright as it seems....”
Traditional songs have also played an important role in demonstrations. Libyans in the liberated eastern parts of the country forged bonds by singing the old national anthem while waving the tricolor flag from before Gaddafi came to power in 1969 as “a symbol of the reinvention of the Libyans.”
In this video, the massive crowd in Beghanzi sings the old anthem to share their pride in being liberated.
ARAB RAP DIASPORA
The Narcicyst, an Iraqi-born rapper living in Toronto, joined with other musicians from the Arabic rap diaspora in North America, such as Omar Offendum, Amir Sulaiman, and Canadian R&B singer Ayah, to record a track called "#Jan25 Egypt," based off the popular hashtag used during the demonstrations in Egypt. In an Al Jazeera English interview, Omar said that it’s a “song of solidarity with the Egyptian people and [a way] to open it up [what’s happening in Egypt] to an audience in the United States.” The song starts:
"I heard ’em say
The revolution won't be televised
Aljazeera proved ’em wrong
Twitter has him paralyzed
80 million strong
And ain't no longer gonna be terrorized
Organized - Mobilized - Vocalized
On the side of TRUTH
Um il-Dunya's living proof
That its a matter of time
before the chicken is home to roost"
LOOKING FOR MORE MUSIC?
Check out Mideast Tunes, a hub launched by Mideast Youth for the region’s underground and alternative music scenes. You can browse music by country or genre. The site has highlighted a number of other protest songs coming out of the region for its listeners (1, 2).
Abdulla Darrat, co-founder of the enoughgaddafi.com (Khalas) site run by a Libyan exiles (now found at http://feb17.info), put together a "mixtape" featuring hip-hop artists from the region. The mix, called "Mish B3eed," or "Not Far," features songs describing the conditions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. It can be downloaded here.
Durrat says, “[These musicians and emcees] very successfully put into words a lot of the sentiments that young people in the area are carrying with them, and they're voicing really the struggle of...everyday people.”
Are any popular protest songs missing? Share them in the comments below!