Lyrics Revolt. Directed by Shannon Farhoud, Melanie Fridgant, Rana Khaled, and Ashlene Ramadan. Torath Productions, 2012.
The film is titled Lyrics Revolt. But, as the women from Torath Productions have demonstrated in their documentary, lyrics do much more than just revolt. They have played a significant role in the contemporary history of the Arab world. Lyrics unite. Lyrics express. Lyrics enrage. Lyrics communicate. These modes of expression are not ordered in a hierarchy of significance, as the film makes evident. Rather, they are simultaneous, cohesive, and integral functions of the music that Lyrics Revolt features. This multi-layered significance renders the art political and the political artistic. The music cannot be situated in a binary assessment of art as either a social message or art simply for art’s sake. Rap and hip-hop are neither passive superfluities nor political tools. As Qusai, a Saudi Arabian artist, put it: “We’re not politicians. We’re not businessmen. We’re not soldiers. We are hip-hop artists.”
Using clips from nearly a dozen interviews with artists, the filmmakers splice these with the artists’ own music and videos, along with video and stills of the recent uprisings in the region. In these clips, the artists explore both the personal significance of their craft (hip-hop, rap, DJing, beatboxing, and graffiti art are all featured) as well as their views on its social context. In various instances, they describe the music as a method of communication with their fellow citizens, as a vehicle to express frustration during times of crisis, and as a form of documenting and witnessing social realities: revolution, poverty, authoritarianism, repression, police brutality, and occupation (specifically of Palestine.)
Since it does not include narration, the film relies heavily on interview segments. These take place in various locations: in the artists’ homes or studios, in parks or in the street. The segments are grouped into chapters. The first is entitled “Artists and the Arab Spring,” the second “History of Arab Hip-Hop,” and the third “Arab Spring.” The titles themselves are somewhat problematic, as the term “Arab Spring” does not adequately capture the experiences of the artists, who were making music and addressing issues before, during, and after uprisings. Nor do these titles adequately capture the experiences of those (in Palestine, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia, for instance) who did not see significant changes in the political situation in their countries as part of an “Arab Spring.”
Additionally, the clips in each chapter do not necessarily correspond to these overarching themes. The film does not follow any particular storyline, and so the chapters and organization seem a bit arbitrary and meandering. However, this is made up for by the richness of the interview content and the fantastic choice of interlocutors. The film features a diversity of locations and experiences. The artists are from Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, and come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Most were born and raised in these countries, though others grew up or were educated abroad.
Of particular note is the strong representation of female artists in the film. In an otherwise male-dominated genre, these women are included not as a special category of “female artists,” as tokens or as a subset of masculinity. The filmmakers include these women as equal contributors, offering their own unique views—undoubtedly, but not explicitly, informed by their experiences as women—as citizens and individuals living through tumultuous times. For example, Farah Abdel Latif, an Egyptian beatboxer, describes using music to express emotion: “For the first time [the people] say the truth and they say what they feel, without fear.”
The diversity of interviews demonstrates the robustness of Arabic hip-hop. If any doubts existed as to whether it might be considered a legitimate genre in its own right, these are dispelled in the film. While rooted in a lineage of hip-hop from the US and Europe (particularly France, as several of the artists make reference to the maghrebin rap that emanated from the banlieues to North Africa), Arabic hip-hop is distinct.
Of course, as the title of the film suggests, one of the most distinctive features of Arabic hip-hop is its political embeddedness. Several of the artists in the film describe this as distinguishing them from “habibi” or “pop” music in the region. While hip-hop music has historically had strong political underpinnings, this feature is particularly salient given the continued unrest in the artists’ home countries. At the time when the film was being made, the artists faced (and continue to face) various degrees of political and economic instability. Kareem Edel Eissa, of the group Arabian Knightz, explained that life in Egypt is like a soap opera. Egyptian rappers have enough material in the news, in political life, he said, that they do not need to rhyme about personal problems. Tareq Abu Kwalik, a Palestinian artist, adds: “Arabic rap reflects people’s feelings from the street.”
This particular political embeddedness—the embrace of street politics—is shared by all of the artists featured in the film. The uprisings themselves were enacted in the street, not only as a physical location, but as an ideological venue. The film demonstrates how hip-hop took its place as a mode of articulation of these politics. While all of the rappers and hip-hop artists in the film were active in their respective rap/hip-hop scene before 2011, those from Libya, Tunisia and Egypt specifically reference the downfall of authoritarian regimes in these countries as influencing these scenes. Khaled M, a Libyan rapper, explains that prior to the revolution in Libya, “you could only get popular if you were making pro-Gaddafi music—pro-Gaddafi propaganda.” Crack, a Tunisian group, references the revolution as emboldening new artists to enter the scene. For all of the artists, the political changes had significance for each of them as individual critical citizens, offering new inspiration for the content of their performances and providing an opening for greater freedom of expression.
But the music was not only informed by what happened in the street, it informed the street as well. Mohamed El-Deeb performed in Tahrir; El General’s “Rayes El Bled” inspired demonstrations; a remix of Lauryn Hill’s “Rebel” by Kareem of Arabian Knightz’ was played on a protester’s cell phone during the first uprisings in Egypt. These are not tangential anecdotes, and the film narrates not only the personal stories of these artists, but also the development of the genre and its relationship to the political uprising.
During these uprisings, the street became important as a political venue where the multitude of voices rendered subaltern by an authoritarian regime recognized one another and engaged in discourse and action. Hip-hop music too has always been present as an artistic venue where radical views, often marginalized in the mainstream, are developed (often literally) in concert with one another. Because of the alignment between the state and nationalist pop acts, Eissa explained that after 25 January, those in Tahrir turned to hip-hop. Its underground nature, outside of and antithetical to the regime, expressed and recorded the events in a way that spoke directly to those who were confronting the regime.
A second feature treated in the film is the artists’ consciousness of the language that they are using. For while the artists refer to the genre as such—Arabic—the language is often combined with other languages (predominantly English or French). The artists explain their use English or French explicitly as conduits to communicate with the West and to confront stereotypes of Arabs. Rather than framing this tactic in terms of marketing to a Western audience, or as replication of American or European hip-hop, Eissa says: “It’s very important for us to do English songs because nothing will change our image in the Western world…unless we start doing stuff in their language.”
This perspective on the use of Western languages is not shared by all artists in the film. Many of the artists believe that Arabic is sufficient to express the depth of feeling and sentiment of the artists, and as a way to build solidarity in the region (while many may speak either English or French, most often even a local dialect would be easier to understand for the majority of those living in the Middle East/North Africa). Malikah, a Lebanese rap artist, described first rapping in English before switching to Arabic after the war in Lebanon in 2005. She asked herself:
Why am I writing in English? I’ve never heard any American rapper trying to rap in Arabic. Even if most Lebanese people speak English…Arabic is a beautiful language [that] everybody from the Arab world can understand. It’s a way for us to communicate.
Fareeq El Atrash of Lebanese Crew also explains that mixing local dialect with fusha Arabic allows a wider range of Arabic-speaking population to access their music.
By forgoing narration throughout the documentary, the filmmakers also emphasize the importance of the artists’ voices in their music. Although it is never stated explicitly, at a time where the contours and implementations of democracy are being reimagined and reformed, the motifs of plurality, inclusion, and voice are subtly present in the film through the words of the artists. This makes the work important not only for those interested in a study of music and culture, but also those seeking to better understand from where social and political changes originates.
As Abu Kwaik explains, rap and hip-hop did something that no group of politicians, academics, analysts, or journalists could have done in the region: “Rap predicted the revolutions.”