Music has been one of the most invigorating and beautiful forms of activism across the Middle East and North Africa during the revolutions and uprisings of 2011. People have rallied around the musicians and their messages, from rappers like Morocco`s El Haked or Tunisia`s El Général to singers like Syria`s Ibrahim Qashoush and Egypt`s Ramy Essam. The music is a lasting and emotionally rich record of the demands and sentiments of protesters and revolutionaries. It expresses the decades of suffering, corruption, and oppression under autocratic rule. France24`s multimedia documentary, The Songs of Tahrir Square: Music at the Heart of the Revolution, is a welcome contribution to the growing discussion about artistic and musical elements of protests in the Middle East. (It exists in a French edition as well, under the name Tahrir, je chante ton nom, which is essentially identical in terms of content and structure.)
This documentary is important in its content, but also in the emotional narrative it presents. In his recently published memoir, Revolution 2.0, Wael Ghonim recounts pairing an activist video with music by Haitham Said. He writes: "people found the fusion of images, lyrics, and music inspiring and moving." The video he made "created an emotional bond between the cause and the target audience." That is what the footage and material presented in this documentary do: create an emotional connection with the music, instead of simply collecting it for its interest value. The Songs of Tahrir Square is interactive and visual as well as musical. The songs themselves are almost as much about seeing the vigor and passion of the performances and the crowds of people who sing and chant along with them as they are about the lyrical content. Not much could replace the sense of popular force behind such sentiments as the sight of those audiences.
Put together by Hussein Emara and Priscille Lafitte, the web documentary presents itself as a journey through the music of Tahrir, allowing the viewer to navigate a map of Cairo`s musical hotspots. At each post, you can watch video clips and read brief backgrounders on the dissident folk tunes of Tahrir Square or the Islamic music of Wellsbox Productions and Al-Noor Mosque. They play with this concept of musical geography well, most notably in the transitions between points on the map. The documentary does not simply focus on Tahrir—in wust el-balad or the center of Cairo; instead, it includes influences scattered across the city. Each move, from mosque to university, is accompanied by footage of driving through the streets of the capital, full of disjointed motion, fleeting and vibrant street scenes, and the sounds of traffic. These transitions are a welcome addition, perhaps technically unnecessary, but an intelligent aesthetic touch that adds to the broader concept.
The lovely part of work like this is that it draws attention to the work of Tahrir`s poets and musicians, many of whom have been active members of the protest movement and have faced the consequences of their dissidence. Ramy Essam, who naturally is featured prominently in Emara and Lafitte`s work, has participated in rallies from the eighteen-day revolution last January and February to demonstrations this fall and winter against Field Marshal Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, even being arrested and beaten in early March. His songs are well known for their catchy incorporations of popular sentiment and phrasings, like the ubiquitous shout "Irhal! (Leave!)" transformed by Essam into a musical anthem. He similarly has incorporated other popular slogans like "Bread, Freedom and Social Equality!" into his rhythms and lyrics. Dissident poet Ahmad Fouad Negm, whose satirical poem "The Donkey and the Foal" was put to music by Essam, has been challenging corruption and oppression since before Mubarak came to power. Negm appears in a long interview in this documentary, where he says that his “inspiration comes from the Egyptian people” and their musical talents, as well as their talent for sarcasm. The acknowledgment of the beauty and the storied complexity of the political music heard this year is important.
Ultimately, the musician`s political voice is a voice for freedom of speech and expression. It is one of the most central elements of these protests: the desire and the demand to be genuinely free in that most basic of senses. Emara and Lafitte include a stop at the headquarters of Mubarak`s old party, the NDP, and there document Mubarak’s suppression of alternative and dissenting musical voices in favor of sycophantic tunes and singers who sang in favor of his regime. They interview artists like Ali Al-Haggar and Fathy Salama about being forced to fawn over Mubarak and the extravagance of the shows put on in the former president’s honor. The choice to add this into the mix of protest music shows an attention to the broader story of the political elements of the Egyptian musical scene, and the pressure put on musicians to fall into step with the government.
While the documentary includes figures like Essam and Negm, who have become internationally acknowledged for their music and politics, it also showcases lesser-known bands like Eskenderella or underground electro-sha’bi and hip-hop artists. The Songs of Tahrir Square is a presentation of a wide range of largely under-discussed political music, like Eskenderella`s "NewLeaf" or the moderate Islamist music produced by Wellsbox Productions.
Hip hop remains fairly nascent in Egypt’s political and cultural scenes (in the Arab world, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria have developed fairly strong rap scenes, but this has not been true to a great extent elsewhere), but certainly has a newfound and vocal presence, particularly among the political youth. Electro-sha‘bi, which mixes elements of electronic and rap music with the more traditional sha‘bi, or folk music (sha‘b means people), originated in Algeria. The web documentary covers electro-sha‘bi on its stop in the Cairo suburb known as As-Salam City, briefly showing the youthful vibes of some of the urban DJs and MCs pioneering the new and eclectic genre. The introductory clip demonstrates excellently the way in which the Arabic language is rhythmically suited to the quick poetic beats of this hip hop style: “The people and the government / The machine-guns and the batons / I’m going to speak about the man who stands up / who resists, who dies.”
The documentary does not cover (and perhaps structurally could not accommodate) the broader picture of Arab political rappers, as represented by solo artists like MC Deeb or MC Amin and rap groups like the Arabian Knightz or Revolution Records (all profiled in this Community Times article). These artists were vocally active during the January 25th revolution, and continue to produce songs against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Revolution Records has recently released a song called "Kazeboon [Liars]," which is posted with a translation at MEMRI.
After I had virtually traveled from Tahrir Square to the suburb of As-Salam city, I wanted to hear and see more. I think this documentary does a thoughtful and complex job of presenting a vibrant look at the context and influences for Egypt`s music of dissent, but I feel there was even more the documentary could have chosen to show and tell: more about the growing rap scene in Egypt, or extra clips of songs for viewers to peruse. This is actually a criticism born out of my appreciation of what this documentary does, and not a criticism that strikes at the function, significance, or overall execution of the work, which presents a beautiful and complex vision of Egyptian political music.