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The New Hybridities of Arab Musical Intifadas

[Image from screen shot of video below.] [Image from screen shot of video below.]

"My music may be soft, but I'm a warrior on stage."

So declared Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi as she explained how a girl who started off playing covers for melodic death metal bands like In Flames, Dark Tranquility, and The Gathering wound up electrifying her fellow protesters in front of the Municipal Theatre during the Jasmine Revolution with a folk song.

Mathlouthi’s haunting voice inspired the crowd but folk music is not generally thought of as the music of Arab “youth” who, according to communus opinio, spearheaded the revolutionary protests across the Arab world. Instead, in the years preceding the revolutionary, an explosion of late 2010 scholars and journalists took increasing notice of the burgeoning hip-hop and metal scenes across the Arab world and broader Middle East.

And with good reason. Both extreme metal and hardcore rap have long featured dissonant, even jarring music that is often marked in equal measure by the sophistication of and difficulty in listening to it. Lyrically, the grittiness, anger and themes such as poverty, unemployment, police brutality, and lack of life opportunities—were at the heart of American hip hop culture before it wase taken over by bling. Similarly, extreme metal’s focus on war, corruption, and chaos played a major role in the genre’s increasing popularity with young people across the Middle East and North Africa in the last twenty years.

So it is not surprising that for so many observers of the protests that have swept across the Arab world in the last year, the musical harbinger of the so-called “Arab Spring” was the song “Rais lebled

(Leader of the Country) by Tunisian rapper El Général. The dissonant, minor mode of this song’s melody, the often spitfire delivery of angry lyrics, and the starkness of his video, all made it a perfect reflection of a generation about to explode. When El Général, born Hamada Ben Amor, was arrested after the song’s release, his fame was secured as was hip-hop’s role in capturing the mood of his generation.

Egypt’s metal music scene did not produce a revolutionary song with the popularity of “Rais lebled” in Tunis. But extreme forms of metal, such as death, thrash, black, and doom metal have been more popular than hip hop in the country, producing some of the most powerful examples of this increasingly globalized genre of music. At the same time, as in many other Arab and Muslim countries, since Egypt’s 1997 Satanic metal scare just being a metalhead, especially in public, bordered on an explicit political act, given how directly the ethics and sonic and visual aesthetics of the metal scene challenged the country’s patriarchal authoritarian culture and political system.

Indeed, just as rappers (and indeed other artists) were well-represented among the activists and protesters in the Tunisian revolution, in Egypt a large share of the the metalheads I know were involved in the protests in some form, whether as activists within various pro-democracy groups or, at the least, coming regularly to Tahrir square and other centers of protest around the country. Artists from both genres have played a similar role in protests across the region in the last decade, including in Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran.

Would Adorno Headbang?

During the last twenty years in which both heavy metal and hiphop have developed in the Arab and larger Muslim majority worlds, the closed nature of the political spheres in the region helped encourage these scenes to become sites of subcultural and even countercultural production. The music they have produced is the very antithesis of the far more popular, hyper-commercialized and corporatized (or “Rotana-ized”) Arab pop, whose European and American predecessors Adorno so thoroughly despised. They also stand in opposition to the largely depoliticized and musically unchallenging religious pop of stars like Sami Yusuf and Ali Gohar, who as Walter Armbrust points out, tend not merely to leave unchallenged and even reinforce patriarchal values, but offer aesthetic endorsement of the existing system through the themes and locations of their videos (which are often set in the suburban modernist manions of the nouveau riche, while the old modern center of Cairo, epitomized by Tahrir and the city's gritty working class quarters, are largely ignored).

In contrast to Arab pop—whether of the sexy Diva or more chaste crooner variety—the metal and rap subcultures offered a social and cultural space where opposition to their parent culture (including, of course, their parents) could be articulated through cultural performance and local, do-it-yourself, and largely uncommodified consumption. Over time, and with many setbacks, this process encouraged the same “breaking through the wall of fear” and imagining of different futures that would be crucial to the the successful calls for mass protests around the region that began in Tunisia in late 2010.

It might be difficult to imagine Theodor Adorno strategizing about the best way to critique—and transform—globalized consumer society alongside a long-haired, Cannibal Corpse t-shirt wearing Egyptian metalhead. As anyone who has a passing familiarity with his aesthetic theory knows, Adorno believed that most every style of music with which he was familiar outside the avant garde of modern classical music, and specifically Schoenberg and his disciples, was at best hopelessly depoliticized. Whether jazz or other forms of pop music, these genres were in his view parasitically incorporated into the culture industry; they were little more than a “capitulation to barbarism,” incapable of performing the critical function Adorno assigned to music in the larger struggle against oppressive political systems.

But whether Adorno would accept it or not, the self-reflexivity and willingness to critique society by its own referents that have characterized the best exemplars of extreme metal and political hip-hop are legitimate heirs of the tradition of critical engagement that have defined Adorno's oeuvre and that of his Frankfurt School colleagues. While critics have long labeled both metal and rap as juvenile, hedonistic, and even nihilistic forms of music, this interpretation is far off the mark when it comes to the more political forms of both genres. They function not merely as the CNN—or in the case of the Arab world, al-Jazeera—of the streets, but as their oped page as well, both educating their audience about political and social realities in their societies and the possibility of creating more positive futures.

Even aesthetically, the relationship between Schoenberg on the one hand, and Napalm Death and Ice-T or their Arab/Muslim counterparts on the other, is not as distant Adorno—or we—might imagine. Like Adorno's beloved post-World War One, twelve-tone classical music, extreme forms of metal and rap stear clear of the tonalities and harmonies that “resolve” dissonance back to the tonic notes and chords that characterize the most popular “classic” forms of classical music (however powerful and challenging these styles might have been when they emerged, Adorno argued that by the1920s they merely reinforced the ideological resolution of the many political and social challenges facing modern societies).

On the other hand, as a performance of the kind of immanent critique that Adorno and his Frankfurt School colleagues believed could reveal the basic contradictions underlying the hegemonic ideologies within a culture, extreme forms of metal and hiphop pierce through the kind of uncritical, often unitary identities that “mainstream” art reinforces, exposing the internal contradictions in society so they can no longer be ignored. Listen to early Black Sabbath

or N.W.A. Nigaz With Attitude 

before Ozzy Osbourne and Dr. Dre became celebrities—or rather commodities. You cannot help but feel uncomfortable about the world around you. Similarly, the music and lyrics of Arab rap groups—like the Palestinian DAM (blood in Arabic and Hebrew) or Tunisian LAK3Y, or thrash metal groups Scarab of Egypt and Acrassicauda of Iraq—brutally highlight the dystopian realities of the present.

As Adorno would have wanted, artists in these scenes have tended to see their music as illuminating the “absurd, blindly-violent element of the system”; there are few happy endings or “spurious harmonies” in the music put out by the serious metal and rap artists I have encountered across the Arabic-speaking and larger Muslim majority world. Instead, their art moves far from mere diversion or entertainment towards a living embodiment of an aesthetic politics that Adorno tried hard (perhaps vainly) to remind the rest of us that the best music must possess in order to awaken people from their ideological slumbers.

For them and him, music is understood as having the capacity, and function, of expressing “modernity's highest order of truth” and “truths behind reality's masks”—the masks of neocolonialism, neoliberalism, neopatriarchy, and the violence of contemporary capitalism that sustain all three. The best rap and metal in the region succeeds because it manages to avoid both the kind of “extreme consciousness of doom” that leads to aesthetic nihilism, hyper-stylized violence and other forms of artistic “idle chatter,” while also avoiding the kind of surrender to the culture industry which leads even the most well-intentioned of mainstream artists to “collaborate with culture as its salaried and honoured nuisance” rather than challenge it directly from the margins.

In other words: Don't sell out like Metallica and Dr. Dre.

Ultimately, the negative—minor or atonal, dissonant and jarring—musical and lyrical aesthetics of extreme metal or hardcore political hiphop reflects the kind of “negative dialectics” and consequent “nonidentity” Adorno believed were crutical to producing critical yet positive alternatives to oppressive political systems and the culture industries that serve them. As an Iranian metalhead described the positive power of metal and rap music’s seemingly obsessive focus on violence, death, and other negative themes: “You can't imagine how a music about death can affirm life.”

The Return of the Aura?

From an Adornian perspective, the negative dialectical manouvres enabled, or at least encouraged, by post-Great War classical music or post-Cold War hiphop and metal allowed them to fulfill the ultimate function of immanent criticism: to enable a positive synthesis, or irreducible hybridization of identities. Such identities can not be subsumed under any dominant ideology or political and economic narrative and therefore cannot serve to reinforce them.

In so doing, these musical genres also address a central problem posed by Walter Benjamin, whose work on the industrialized and commodified production and circulation of art profoundly influenced Adorno’s. Benjamin believed that with modern mass—what he terms “mechanical”production and circulations of art, “the aura” that previously had given art such aesthetic, and thus social power by highlighting its singularity, irreplaceable and incommensurable value, was for all practical purposes lost.

For Benjamin, the disappearance of the aura of art was a positive development because it allowed for artistic production that no longer ritualistically served existing power structures. Specifically, art liberated from its aura would enable new and even revolutionary visions of the future to be put forth, which held the possibility of liberating the masses from totalizing ideologies such as fascism or capitalism.

Of course, Adorno similarly understood the power of mass produced, commodified cultural production. But he saw the process more negatively than Benjamin did, as epitomized by his understanding of “Hollywood’s star system”, which Benjamin saw as representing the last gasp of the aura but Adorno saw as the exemplar of the culture industry. Art and cultural production could perhaps be stripped of their natural aura, but that aura would be replaced by the aura of style: a “stereotyped appropriation of everything for the purpose of mechanical reproduction that eliminated every unprepared and unresolved discord”.

What seems clear is that, at least in the Middle East and North Africa region, in the years leading up to the current revolutionary moment, the growing popularity of metal and rap music represents a return of the aura to local music scenes. Both Benjamin and Adorno believed that a remnant, or perhaps better, specter of the original aura remained within works of art even in the mechanical/industrial age. This spector becomes visible in the kind of critical art represented by the groups discussed here, contributing to the continued “excessiveness”, “aesthetic deviance”, and “pointing elsewhere” towards cultural difference and a different future that characterize the best exemplars of the music.

How is this reflected in the music? As Reda Zine, one of the founders of the Moroccan metal scene and a longtime political activist put it, “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.” The music remains relevant only as long as the link between the aesthetic and the political within it remains. The difficulty of commodifying hiphop and especially metal in the Muslim majority worlds is a primary reason for the continued coincidence of aesthetic and the political motivations in the two genres.

There are many reasons for this difficulty; they include the history of censorship against the genres (although this has been made less relevant with the spread of the internet); technological advancements in music production, which allow artiststs to record professional quality recordings literally in their homes and therefore lessen the importance of securing major label funding to record and release music; the grassroots, DIY ethics of the scenes; the need of artists to disseminate their music freely on facebook, myspace and similar social networking sites to spread awareness and gain fans; the lack of interest by most Arab entertainment and mobile phone companies in licensing the music, which is a primary method of commodification in Arab pop; and the ease of pirating digital music.

As Moe Hamzeh, leader of one of the most talented and successful Arab rock/metal groups, Beriut's The Kordz, explains, while Arab rock or rap artists obviously want to be successful, the relative lack of interest in the two genres by Rotana and other Arab media conglomerates has been a blessing from an aesthetic perspective. It has saved them from the inevitable fate of all commercialized popular music, whether American hiphop and hair metal to Arab video-clip driven pop. At the same time, the lack of commercialization has made the public performance of the music, usually in small group settings or festivals geared specifically to fans of the genres, the crucial means of creating audiences and building solidarity among their communities of fans.

All these factors lead me to argue that in the age of digital reproduction the largely uncommodified and still sub and counter-cultural hardcore metal and rap scenes have witnessed the return of the aura that Benjamin argued was largely lost—or at least lost to view—with the onset of the era of mechanical reproduction and industrialized/commodified circulation and consumption over a century ago. And this return of the aura has made the scenes that much more powerful and meaningful to their followers. When you listen to “Rais Lebled” or a host of other Middle Eastern or North African rap and metal songs they literally “bleed history” (As Benjamin scholar Carsten Strathausen so eloquently describes auratic power); the music and words together bare the disconnect between the promises of authoritarian states like Ben Ali's Tunisia or Mubarak's Egypt and their dystopian realities these leaders worked so hard—and ultimately fruitlessly—to conceal.

In this context, even if Adorno would not fancy the music of DAM or Scarab, he would have to appreciate how these artists have managed to maintain the desire to create serious music that reveals their society's most basic, normally veiled contradictions while retaining the desire of most every pop artist, however serious, to become popular and, if not to become rich, at least to make a decent living playing music. Indeed, these artists offer among the best evidence for Adorno's belief, as articulated in his masterwork Aesthetic Theory, that the aura never really disappears from artistic production in the age of industrial/mechanical reproduction and circulation. It remains there latent, waiting for the conditions to appear that will enable its reemergence. In our case, a combination technological innovation, cultural globalization, economic marginalization and political repression was the witches brew that enabled the aura to return to its rightful place surrounding the most powerful works of music of the day.

Adorno’s Nightmare

It is now almost a commonplace among music critics to compare extreme metal with atonal modern and contemporary classic music. Yet, if these intense and angry forms of music dominated the local scenes before and perhaps at the start of the current wave of protests, something strange—at least from an Adornian perspective—seems to have occurred to the music written, performed, and listened to by the youth generation once the revolutions commenced. It became happy, even joyful.

Put briefly, the music suddenly became, for lack of a better word, catchier, its sound warmer and inviting in the “traditional” sense of being easier to listen to, singable, and even, dare one say, happy and uplifting. Many of the most well-known, popular, and/or influential songs written during and after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions (which are the ones I have most studied) have catchy hooks. They are not as industrial or dissonant sounding as the more produced music described thus far, in particularly because they are played on acoustic guitars and traditional Arab instruments, or if composed electronically, based on melodies and/or harmonies that are less dissonant than “Rais Lebled” and the average Arab extreme metal song.

As these songs were performed at protests people learned the words and sang along—something that, not surprisingly, would be much harder to do with a brutally sung death metal song or angry, rapid-fire hip-hop lyrics. In fact, singers and rappers were actually smiling as they performed their music. And so were the crowds surrounding them. This is likely not the vibe Adorno imagined would surround the kind of immanently critical music he felt was necessary to wake people up to the false consciousness they had been mindlessly inhabiting. But it points to a crucial problem with Adorno’s musical aesthetic, at least form the standpoint of reception. The more abstract, atonal, and devoid of recognizable harmonies or rhythmic pulse a piece of music is, the harder it will be for it to inspire a large number of people. Once people are actually on the streets protesting rather than in their smaller subcultural gatherings, they need something catchier and more uplifting to sing along to than brutal vocals and rapid fire rhymes.

Folk Rules

In Tunis and Egypt, at least, many of the artists who were directly participating in the revolutions responded to this need, both out of musical intuition and practical necessity. To take a few examples, one can see this relationship in both the performance and reception of artists like Emel Mathlouthi, who performed "Ana Hura, Wa Kelemti Hura" (I am Free, My Words are Free at ground zero of the Tunisian Revolution, only hours before Ben Ali fled the country

or Ramy Essam and his seminal (Leave), as captured by the New York Times only a day or two after protesters had secured Tahrir Square; when the mood was still incredibly tense and violence was not just a possibility but ongoing reality. The smile on Essam’s face, which was there every time I saw him play at the Square, and since, is worth a thousands words. So is Mathlouthi’s broad smile.

 


 

It is worth noting that Essam, like Mathlouthi, began his musical trajectory as a metal fan. Both artists moved in a trajectory towards more acoustic, folk-style music, for aesthetic and practical reasons. On the one hand, the lyrics, melodies and rhythms are much more amenable to large-scale audience participation. On the other, it's a lot easier to travel around spontaneously creating revolutionary music with just an acoustic guitar than with a full metal band in towe, especially during a revolution.

In the Arab world, folk, or what might be termed traditional popular music such as sha’abi or sufi-inspired music, has a long history, and the music has often been as powerful as its amplified and harsher cousins. In Egypt, for example, a generation before Ramy Essam was born, legendary Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam poet Ahmed Fouad Negm inspired Egyptians with their highly charged songs that railed against state violence and the sufferings of Egypt's, and by extension the Arab world's, poor and working classes. During the February protests in Tahrir, more traditional folk groups like Tanboura rallied the crowds with music drawn not merely from Sheikh Imam but from the protest music of generations past, particularly from the Port Suez region.


Adorno did not think much of the aesthetic and political potential of folk music, which he tied both to nationalist and fascist sentiments. In its then present-day form (rather than traditional-historical form), he believed it to foster little more than a “pseudo-folk community,” particularly in its cultural and aesthetic historical trajectory in Germany. But in Egypt as in the United States, the music has played a more critical political role in struggles for political freedom and social justice.

Zakaria Ibrahim, Director of El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music and founder of El Tanbura, explains that the band’s popularity is inseparable from its dual role as a voice of protest and a regenerator of traditional styles of music that recently were in danger of disappearing completely because of a combination of market forces and government censorship. As Ibrahim recounts the origin of the band, “I started El Tanbura as a response not merely to local oppression, but to the penetration of a commercial aesthetic that almost destroyed traditional music in Egypt, and the mentality and authentic values that existed with it. Before, it was just our traditional music in the street. People shared it because it expressed their hopes and needs...But then, with the commercialization of music songs changed completely. Instead of people sharing, now it became just commercial, without art, while the remaining traditional groups had to play for Mubarak and be controlled by his system to survive. They lost their freedom."

New Forms of Hybridity Reflect the Changing Direction of History

One of the most interesting dynamics of the music I have discussed, whether extreme metal, hip-hop or more folk-styled music, is that their adoption and adaptation by Arabic-speaking and Muslim artists represents a powerful form of cultural hybridiziation, an aesthetic and sonic creolization that is not merely at the heart of cultural globalization in its most positive manifestation but among its most powerful engines. I term emerging styles as “post-hybrid” styles, by which I mean a deeper hybridity, one that moves beyond the surface hybridities of more commercialized cultural and sonic intermixings. In so doing, these post-hybrid styles provide local artists with a unique voice to not only “speak back” to the Western artists and cultures whose music they are drawing upon, but forward to new forms of cultural identity that are only now manifesting themselves with the phenomenon of protesters across the West, including the Midwestern United States, carrying songs explicitly declaring the influence and inspiration of Tahrir Square and Arab revolutions more broadly upon them.

Nothing brought this phenomenon home to me as powerfully as an evening I spent in September with the Tunisian hip-hop group, Armada Bizerta, who are one of the best rap crews not merely in North Africa or even the Arab world, but anywhere. I had worked with Armada Bizerte earlier in the summer as part of a Creative Commons workshop and conference, in which we collaborated with Egyptian, Palestinian, and Moroccan artists to produce and perform several songs together.

Even when their songs deal with police brutality (an all-to-common problem in Tunis), government repression, or in our case, harsh restrictions on immigration. The song we composed entitled “Mamnoua” (Forbidden) addressed the many obstacles to legal migration to Europe. When singing, the four members of Amarda Bizerta found it almost impossible not to smile. When I asked why, the answer was that the power of the music they were creating, and the knowledge that it was moving their compatriots and helping with the process of shaping their society, was what put smiles on their faces, as is evidenced by their performance on their first post-Revolutionary “all-star” song, “Enti Essout” (You are the Voice), recorded to help encourage young Tunisians to vote in the then upcoming elections.

The joyful aesthetics of groups such as Amarda Bizerta, Emel Mathlouthi, Ramy Essam, and other artists at the heart of youth-inspired revolutions challenges Adorno’s belief that critical music in the age of mass reproduction and consumption has to be, essentially, hard to listen to in order to make the listener think and perhaps even motivated to take some form of action. It seems that while in the pre-Revolutionary period, when cultural expression was still heavily policed, this indeed was the case—thus the power and popularity of genres like metal and hardcore rap. But with the explosion of political, cultural, and artistic energy of the protests a new aesthetic dynamic was born that, at least as of the time of this writing, remains quite powerful. As important, by drawing people literally closer together, the music brings them closer to its critical and transformational aura, closing a circle that was broken, according to Benjamin, with the mechanical reproduction and commodification of musi a century ago.

Sampling One Culture, Creating Another

I would like to end this exploration by describing my experience with Armada Bizerta the last time I saw them in September 2011 in Bizerte. I came to Bizerte not long after returning from Sidi Bouzid to meet the band and perhaps continue recording “Mamnoua,” which we had begun at the Creative Commons meeting in July. When I arrived at the flat of the group’s “beatmaker”, Gela’i, he ushered me to his “studio”, which turned out to be a room of precisely six by nine feet, in an old washroom for his building. Yet, in this tiny room, with about one thousand dollars worth of equipment, decorated with the Tunisian and Palestinian flags along with the obligatory egg cartons to deaden the sound a bit (and only a bit, as it's nearly impossible to close the door or large window without suffocating), Gela’i was creating some of the most complex, sophisticated and, yes, beautiful grooves I have heard in years.

As we listened to the tracks and he and other band members took turns freestyling over the beats—always with a smile on their faces, as the video shows—I asked him how he created the beats and grooves.

For four to six hours a day, he explained, he sits in the studio, searching the internet for classic songs, ranging from Curtis Mayfield to Oum Kalthoum. He then samples the most appealing part of the song, creates a drum groove to lay under it, and then uses the synthesizer to program or play other parts. vocals into the new track.


For Muddy Waters, he took the groove from the song “Five Long Years” and built a sparse but hard grooving beat over it that literally forced our bodies to move to the rhythm.

For Nina Simone’s classic version of “I Put A Spell on You,” he took a break in the song featuring a string section, created a groove over it, and then skillfully weaved Simone’s haunting vocals into the new track. For Muddy Waters, he took the groove from the song “Five Long Years” and built a sparse but hard grooving beat over it that literally forced our bodies to move to the rhythm.

From Lawrence Hilton Jacobs’ “Holdin’ On” he took another string section (to which he happily mimicked playing along with as we played me the song) to create his groove, in a homage to one of his producer heroes, DJ Premier, who sampled the same song in a 2005 track for the artist AZ (readers are invited to decide for yourselves who got the best out of that sample.

It continued like this for song after song, moving from Oum Kalthoum’s “Enta Omri” to Curtis Mayfield’s “Black America,” each time a small element from the original song, perhaps not very outstanding within the context of the original recording, becomes the basis for a unique, powerful, and infectious groove that has Gela’i, other band members, and me, bouncing around the ridiculously in his tiny studio.

Of Adorno’s many insights into the ambivalent role of music within national cultures was that “a country’s music has become a political ideology by stressing national characteristics, appearing as a representative of the nation and everywhere confirming the national principle...Yet music, more than any other artistic medium, expresses the national principle’s antinomies as well.”

What the kind of joyful hybridity exemplified by the production style of Armada Bizerta and myriad other rap groups around the Arab and larger Muslim worlds (and across Africa) reveal is that even within one genre of music, such as hip hop, talented artists can create innumerable sonic tapestries to match, and help shape, the national mood—from dissonant anger to joyful creativity—as the political and cultural situation on the ground changes. Their flexibility is key to their function as the kind immanent critique Adorno and other critical theorists hoped would be able to “reliquify” the “congealed” ideologically bounded identities imposed by authoritarian regimes on their citizens.

In so doing, these artists have not only helped reshape their own political and aesthetic cultures, but they have also opened new perspectives and pathways for their peers in Europe and the United States to creatively deploy the full vocabulary of global cultural production to help shake up and uncongeal political and economic systems that suddenly seem as archaic and even more sclerotic than the ones that have passed into the proverbial dustbin of history.

It remains to be seen whether Americans and Europeans, so used to providing the “original” music and culture which others have long sampled, will prove as adept as the “new generation” of Arab revolutionaries in adapting the tools and ideas of others to create their own cultural, political, and economic hybrids. But if the experience of the last year is any indication, without doing so there is little chance of the current wave of protests across the West producing the kind of large-scale transformation now underway, however problematically, in the Arab world.

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