[This article is Part 1 of 2 in this series on music politics in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings.]
“But there is always a need to keep community before coercion, criticism before mere solidarity and vigilance ahead of assent.”
-Edward Said, Culture and imperialism p. 63
Cairo, Tahrir Square February 2012. Graffiti by local artists in remembrance of the martyrs of the January 25 revolution. (photo by author.)
One Thursday afternoon in mid-August 2011, I was sitting in a minivan on the road heading from Damascus to Homs. The boiling heat melted my joints. It was muggy, and it took a long time to pass through the sluggish traffic on the main roads leading out of Damascus. Wide boulevards shrunk to a single lane by state security checkpoints in anticipation of the protests that came out after prayers every Friday.
Novel political sentiments sprouted profusely in 2011, and by August of that year, every moment felt like it was pregnant with a historical manifestation. I was sitting in that minivan thinking about the last nine months since many Arab streets had flourished with immense energy, producing realities we had thought impossible. Up until that moment, the Arab uprisings were still an infant struggling out of the womb of the last century, not knowing whether it would see the light or get strangled to death by the umbilical cord of post-colonial imperialist designs. The popular explosions that stormed the Arab world, from Tunisia to Yemen in 2011, took many of us by surprise. Attention was hijacked by the fast changes that were mediated by a constant flow of information flooding our screens. It was a refreshing spectacle to watch in real time when tyrants were toppled in the streets. It was hypnotizing to listen to slogans chanted in broad daylight that used to be whispered carefully in the dark.
In the heat of that historical moment, I started getting fidgety in Beirut and decided to hop to Syria with a journalist friend. But before we took a taxi from Beirut, I made sure to pack my smartphone with a selection of MP3 tracks that had dominated my playlist at that time. As I rocked, swayed and got drenched in sweat in that minivan, the Palestinian rap crew Katibe 5 fired livid lyrics in my ears. I remember lip-syncing and repeating one song: “El-Jamiat.” This was one of my favorite tracks on that album. The song had opened my ears to the criticism of rampant corruption and opportunism by international and local NGOs operating inside Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. At that intense moment of politicization, instigated by the uprisings, I felt a sense of close identification with this home-grown form of musical expression. I can still sense the childlike intransigence, that almost militant conviction, that I only listened to politically driven music at that moment. As the zeitgeist of the uprisings struck my consciousness, I felt a sudden repulsion against all kinds of commercial music.
Katibe 5, the Palestinian rap outfit from Borj al-Barajni camp, had dropped their first album in the summer of 2010. The DIY (do it yourself) music produced by five rappers featured a list of tracks packed with frames of reality from the most marginalized communities in Lebanon.
“El-Jamiat (the NGOs) are the pimps of our times,” the angry vocals of the Palestinian refugees echoed in my ears as I sat in that minivan trying to see for myself how the wind of change felt, next door, in Syria.
In 2011, millions of Arab youth experienced a sort of perceptual shift that jolted us to look beyond the blinders of nationalist identity. Suddenly, we realised how similar we were to one another and how foreign and distant we all felt from each other just two weeks before the uprisings. This sentiment was captured well by some of our peers who utilized new forms of visual stimuli accompanied with new sounds and acoustics that transformed our Arab sonic experience ever since.
Palestinian rapper Shahed one member of the rap outfit Katibe 5 during a performance in Beirut in 2013. (photo by author)
Recomposing Arabic Protest Music
Mr. President your people are dead, many people eat from garbage,
and you see what is happening in the country.
Misery everywhere and people who have not found a place to sleep.
I am speaking in the name of the people who are suffering
and were put under the feet.
Following the release of the above track on 6 January 2011, rapper El General was detained by Tunisian police for questioning. His story made news everywhere, and his track “Rayes Lebled” went more and more viral on social media each minute he spent in jail. When his arrest story was printed on the front pages of Western media outlets, rap music, alongside Facebook, were mistakenly glorified to explain how and why the uprisings had spread out across the Arab world. Rayya El-Zein has written about how the framework of neoliberal orientalism has built a fantasy about the Arab rapper. She explained that Western mainstream media are “eager to imagine Arab youth in non-threatening modes of resistance that are directly related to American culture. The rapper speaking truth to power is a very easy character for audiences to imagine; at the same time, he is a totally benign figure that caricatures authoritarian regimes as all the same bad guys.” El-Zein has argued that when the West focuses on creative youth, it does not have to understand how Western powers are complicit.
When El General was released from jail, his lyrics were recited passionately by young protesters in many Arab cities. This wave of popular response gave street credence and recognition to a genre of music that used to be viewed as a subculture attended to by those with a taste for American or French hip hop.
After Tunisian President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the hard rock artist Rami Essam played guitar and sang his iconic song “Irhal” in front of millions of protesters. It was so galvanizing to watch Egyptians of all ages and colors thundering back the refrain: yasqut yasqut Hosni Mubarak. Shortly after Ben Ali fell, the Egyptian president was taken down. However, Mubarak refused to flee to exile. He stubbornly insisted on spending the rest of his life and dying in Egypt. In a brutal contrast, Rami Essam, whose lyrics became the anthem of the revolution in 2011, was forced to leave Egypt by 2014. He lives in exile in Europe.
In the spring of 2012, I was hired as a DJ to play at a birthday party in Beirut. At some point after the candles were blown and the party attendees were busy cutting and eating the birthday cake, I played an Arabic rap track called “Istishraq” (Orientalism). The track was a fresh collaboration by two rappers, one from Lebanon and another from Jordan; it questioned the “situation of the white man” parachuting over the Arab uprisings. The two artists were inspired by the monumental book of the late philosopher Edward Said. Halfway through the song, the bar owner came rushing at me from behind the bar. He was eyeballing me in a way that told me he was going to inquire about the music. This young man with a ponytail dangling halfway down his back enquired with amazement: “What is this music? Who made it? And where did you download it from?” He then snapped a photo of the playing track on my laptop screen. “Great music! I didn’t know there was rap in Arabic,” he said as he patted my back, “but can you for now stick to the birthday atmosphere?” I nodded and pressed play on Walid Tawfik’s “Happy Birthday to You.”
The years that followed the 2011 uprisings were a time when my DJ library was gradually transformed by new independent music that was dropping along the beat of the rebellion on the streets. Whenever I was hired to DJ in Beirut’s pubs, cafes, and clubs, I was moved by a compulsive vocation to fill the ambiance with music that had meaning. I thought that such public spaces should be filled with the music coming from the streets with new narratives. During that time, there was a big appetite for songs packed with politically-charged punchlines laid over delicious electronic beats that lubricated the political messages. From my position as DJ, I felt a sort of moral obligation to disseminate these non-commercial novelties online and offline.
The wave of Arab uprisings produced many forms of politically-charged alternative music. Speaking to one of the artists whose music appeared with five stars on my playlist back then, I asked Tarik Abu Kwaik, known by his performing name as Far3i, to reflect on the last ten years of music. Far3i recalled how he and other artists “owe” their fame to the wave of uprising in 2011: “To me the Arab uprisings and the wave that it created were like our producer. Today, you need to spend money and hire advertisement companies to get the same level of attention that the uprisings had given us.” Far3i spoke about how “the moment of the Bo Azizi created a boom for alternative music” that flourished on the digital sound waves. “We were called the alternative back then, but in that sense, we were the mainstream of that moment of 2011.”
As we listened to Deeb and Far3i rap over acoustic guitar sessions in praise of rebelling Arab streets, new politically-charged musicians started popping up on a daily basis. The internet during that time became an active jukebox featuring new tracks shared and distributed on social media platforms. Among the many sounds that proliferated with the protests, Arabic rap became the loudest. Many young artists recorded their tracks on good quality mics in makeshift studios in their bedrooms and went on uploading tracks on Soundcloud. From then on, new collaborations from different Arab cities stretched out the sonic space of the Arab uprisings. According to Rayya El-Zein, “rap was powerful in many cases because it allowed for new perspectives that we hadn't heard before, or that we hadn't heard articulated with so much confidence in public before.” In retrospect, I think Arabic rap sounded different back then because it gave an unhindered space for raw punchlines that extolled collectivist and individualist expressions in Arabic. El-Zein explained that “that ‘individualist’ expression, if you like, was only able to be that powerful because it spoke to shared experiences.”
Cairo, Tahrir Square 2012. Graffiti by local artists expressing criticism of the muslim brotherhood's post-elections trejectory. In the left corner one graffiti reads: document your revolution. (photo by author)
Arab uprisings birthed a generation of young artists who played a role of aesthetical ambassadors spreading and expressing the spirit of the time. The most prominent aspect that was heard the loudest by a new wave of artists was identity. The question of Arab identity created a short-lived cultural exchange among young Arab artists. These attempts sought to connect a geo-historic space transcending post-colonial nationalist identity constructs. This was a time when artists from Syria sang in praise of Bo Azizi in Tunisia, artists from Libya sang for the liberation of Palestine, and Palestinian artists in exile sang for the Egyptians rebelling in Tahrir.
Armada Bizerta were among those artists who came from Tunisia to Beirut to collaborate in a pan-Arab album called Khat Thaleth (third line). The tracks in the album encapsulated the spirit of the moment. The lyrics were written collectively and coordinated to stir the intellect toward a pan-Arab discursive connection. This was an attempt to rearticulate the commonalities in the dimensions of Arab-Islamic identity. Through technical lyricism, eclectic productions, and an increasingly active listenership, Arab artists had assimilated the electronic art-form and made it their own, digging up texts from an enormous Arabic lexicon and introducing new words and sharp punchlines as their weapons of choice. Khat Thaleth epitomized the persona of the politically-charged artist who supported the unity of uprisings in different cities, criticized counterrevolutionary attempts, and actively participated in the Arab uprisings.
Khat Thaleth resulted in a comprehensive twenty-three-track compilation that covered a wide spectrum of this new wave of conscious music. The album featured artists from Palestine, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. The album’s title referred to a third train railway, a metaphor of a third way for looking at the polarized political atmosphere that was shaping up two years after the uprisings. The artists behind the album aimed at amplifying a historical reference to the Hijaz railroad that used to connect Arab lands at a time when peoples’ movement was unhindered by artificial borders.
8 february 2013 During the album release party of Khat Thaleth at Metro al-Madina theater Beirut. On the left Syrian Rapper and producer Watar and on the right Syrian rapper and producer Darwish.
The album release party was an unusual night that took place on 8 February 2013 at Metro al-Madina theater in Beirut. The massive line-up of Arab emcees on stage was a one-of-a-kind spectacle. That night felt as if the audience and artists had, unconsciously, teamed-up to deliver punchlines and refrains centred around the revival of Arab collectivist discourse. The Arabic language was seated as queen of the castle that was erected in the underground venue. In a moment of intense transcendence and chemical peaking, the artists on stage started a long round of freestyle acapella rap. When the round reached the only English-rapping Canadian-Iraqi rapper, he freestyled in English. His deviation was brutally booed by the audience, who challenged him to rap in Arabic. What followed was a moment of intense silence punctured by hisses and diabolical laughs from the audience while the man standing facing them tried to untie his mother tongue to no avail. The audience were hot, untouchable; their spirits had drunk heavy punchlines, flowed in distilled Syrian, Palestinian, Tunisian, Egyptian and Lebanese Arabic accents. The night was saved as the mic was quickly passed and the punchlines resumed, the lyrical buzz uninterrupted.
Khat Thaleth Lebanese Rapper Ed Abass and in the back DJ Lethal Skillz the oldest and most established turntablist in the Arab hip-hop scene.
DIY: Music, Uprisings
In the early days of the uprisings, people learned from each other with an unprecedented rapidity. The wave of rebellion ignited a liberating impetus for many Arab artists with the aim of breaking the socio-political restrictions that hampered their artistic creation. At that time, art became, through integration into the movements of the masses, an expression of the rebelling streets and an ambiance echoing the sentiments of the people who slept in the squares.
The years 2011 and 2012 were a time when the artist's creativity was not (yet) motivated by short-term personal interests aimed at fame or profit. Rather, creativity mediated a popular expression towards the existing regimes across the Arab world. In this sense, the uprisings saw a unique process of inspiration, which revealed the artist and the creator in each one of us.
El-Far3i remarked on this phenomenon. When the wave of Arab uprisings expanded the scope of collaborations, alternative artists like himself were brought to the fore of the music scene and forged new genres. “There were always alternative bands in Egypt, Beirut, and Jordan, and they used to collaborate, but the moment of Bo Azizi took that scene to a different level.” Far3i also shed light on the fact that back then, people in the streets were vocalizing their demands in an undeterred language. “The big terms that were shouted bravely on the streets galvanized artists to raise the bar and say whatever they wanted without being afraid.” In contrast, today many artists become motivated by the fear of being cancelled.
The new DIY techniques that spread out during Arab uprisings unearthed a tradition of geo-historical political connections and exchange of ideas. In addition, the digital waves that transcended borders, featuring new protest content, were crucial in the creation of copycat networks benefitting from shared ideas and know-how. The exchange of organizational tactics between protest movements, across Arab cities during the uprisings, felt for a moment like a kind of virtual pan-Arab communism. Such connections became a vitalizing occurrence that nourished a neglected collectivist Arab identity.
As soon as smartphones and internet connection became affordable necessities by a bigger section of the Arab population, an assortment of low-budget Chinese laptops entered the market and expanded the pool of creativity. This period became the zenith of all kinds of knowledge production and exchange of expertise: artists shared on their social media profiles links to download free pirated production programs and post-production mastering tips. Filmmakers and journalists came together and founded independent media apparatus that hummed with dedication, not motivated by the size of funding. This was the spirit of volunteering and working together that produced the aesthetics of a common cause. This is how the space of creativity became accessible, for the first time, beyond the scope of the upper-middle class purchase power. This led, if only for a short period, to a broad network of organic collaborations, whether between protest movements, people in solidarity over video connections, or independent artists. The digital shared space gave a glimpse of the benefits of connecting people in an Arab body that has been severed by post-colonial artificial borders and a military occupation stabbing its heart since 1948.
After mass movements succeeded in making possible new kinds of social connections, by the start of 2013, musical representations of local realities still echoed shades of universal Arab discourse. However, by the end of 2013, a sentiment of resignation was provoked by the realization that politically-charged music could not materialize organized politics. Then the uprisings ebbed and flowed before mutating into fragmentations, severe repression, and civil strife; by spring 2014, the demand for politically-engaged music started becoming confined to specific social circles. By this time alternative artists had cultivated a recognition that allowed them some sustenance. When the streets emptied, artists moved to the clubs, artistic cafes, cultural centres, and music festivals sponsored by a variety of cultural NGOs, Red Bull energy drink, and a plethora of liberal upper-class intelligentsia who grew an acquired taste for subversive talents.
In Egypt following the Rabea massacre, politically-charged artists had to flee or stay and sever their links with Tahrir and the politics that was born on 25 January 2011. Shortly after, new faces on the Egyptian hip hop scene popped on bright stages in mainstream venues and concerts singing in praise of stability. When clubs and festival organizers were no longer interested in political punchlines, artists who found their voices during the uprisings went on tours in Europe and North America. Such artists, fresh out of Egypt, delivered nostalgic revolution-theater ballads to the longing diaspora in the safety and seclusion of their adopted countries, while the situation back home looked bleak. Other Egyptian artists found jobs in marketing and advertising and moved to the UAE, which did not prevent them from producing aggressive or depressive rap music, but it did filter out all the politically-charged references they used to spill in their previous tracks. Many of the alternative bands who remained in Egypt were coerced to produce music about the pros of stability and security brought by the new regime.
Around summer 2014, many Arab localities saw a trend of niche music festivals curated in the desert, in privately owned beach clubs, or up in the mountains in the privacy of country clubs, where alternative artists got invited to perform their politically-charged music to a selected audience. Many in the audience responded mainly to the synthesized old-school Arabic-sampled rhythms and melodies, fat bass lines, and stomping 808 drum kit. This was also the time of metamorphism that took politically-charged expression from a collectivist melody and slid toward the personal individualistic stylized rant mode. This was the period that saw the start of disappointments and a feeling of despairing loneliness started to creep out of the microphones. It seems, in retrospect, that when the collectivist soul of the uprisings was choked to death, politically-charged music started drifting toward a humanitarian/individual-rights discourse.
2012 Alexandria Egypt. Graffitti in red reads: Yasqut (downfall). Clock graffiti reads: your time is up O council (SCAF). (photo by author)
In 2014, the Syrian civil war had created another wave of refugees who arrived and lifted the music scene in Lebanon. Syrian artists who fled to Beirut revitalized the Lebanese arts scene in general, and their talent and success provoked a Lebanese chauvinist reaction. Lebanese TV shows became watchable, thanks to the merger of Syrian actors and directors and funds. Through the international attention that was intensely concentrated on Syrian refugees, many Syrian artists found refuge and sponsorship for their talents. So, when a wave of Syrian rappers first arrived in Beirut in 2012, followed by another in 2014, their creative impulse was contagious and refreshing. This exodus found in Beirut the rap outfit Mosoukh (Mutants), a polyphony of Syrian, Palestinian-Syrian, and Lebanese rappers, who created a subculture around them. The members of the rap crew, with their fans and friends, swung back and forth, for residence and live performances, between the touristic areas of Hamra and Mar Mikhail in Beirut.
As I kept DJing on the weekends in different venues around Beirut, I made sure that politically-charged tracks still had their share on my playlist. Remarkably, by this time I started getting more requests from venues where I spun to not play “political stuff tonight.” When I was not DJing, I went to all the rap gigs, but as time slipped by, I started noticing a change in the audience. It was then when I remarked how the first wave of people attending these concerts (2011–2012) came to the venue as if they were attending a protest: standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the stage and training their ears in waiting for that one punchline that they were there for; the one verse that said in many ways: the people want to topple the regime. It hit me that after the coup in Egypt in 2013, a gradual change of audience started to occur. One night I was playing at a club and when I dropped Bassem Yousef’s satirical song many people on the dance floor stopped dancing as the lyrics rolled. One woman asked if I could play Rubi instead. By the summer of 2015, there was a whole different set of young people, who were teenagers in 2011 and had by now grown a taste for cool electronic beats laid over controversial Arabic lyrics.
By this time, fans had grown an increasing familiarity with the performing artist, mediated by the day-to-day intimate connections on Facebook. This newfound intimacy was translated in concerts to what seemed like a personally curated experience. Listeners now transcended the surrounding collective in their listening experience. You did not need to be part of the revelling crowd; you were having your own experience directly with the artist. It’s a listening phenomenon that Rayya el-Zein explains as the “thing that makes audiences listen so carefully and attentively in Arabic rap concerts, and that is predicated really on listeners being able to listen alone beforehand (or after)—is really this feeling of 'what is he (the rapper) going to say that's going to spin or invert or spit on what I know?'”
It seemed that when the revolution faded out from the mix, the aesthetics that it birthed were what was left of it. Sometimes in these gigs, one would spot the faces of the sons and daughters of the wealthiest people in the country, sporting for such radical events the most expensive swag in town as they made sure to look simultaneously chic and shaabi. True Religion jeans and an original Banksy t-shirt in those gigs represented individuality without any obvious class symbolism (if you disregard the one thousand dollar iPhone they were snapping selfies with).
In August 2015, I attended a rap concert in Beirut called Shad Asab that literally translates as: “to pull the nerve.” I went to the concert that night, intrigued by the party's title. Backstage, I sat with the seven rappers who were performing that night to find out why they had chosen such a title for their gig. The rap outfit Mosoukh all agreed that Shad Asab was a cry out for “the need to galvanize the collective spirit,” during a post-uprisings phase when disappointment and a feeling of despair hangover recently politicized Arab youth.
Outside the stage, at Metro al-Madina theater, I mingled between the audience who had gathered next to the bar in a narrow hallway drinking, smoking and chattering effusively. A young man told me that he listened to Arabic rap because of “the eloquence of rhetorical expression and use of Arabic language.” Then I found myself gravitating toward the massive eyeglasses sported by a woman in her early twenties, eavesdropping on our talk. She was sipping on her cocktail and holding a cigarette. I asked her what this kind of music meant for her. She contemplated for a second then said, “I am half Syrian and half Yemeni, and the concept of identity and belonging has always created a dilemma for me that I couldn’t answer.” When I asked her what she meant by identity, she put down her drink and illustrated between puffs of smoke how, on a personal intimate level, this music felt as if it had spoken to her. “When Arabic rap entered my world after the uprisings, this form of music reflected the same thoughts that were running through my head, that I could not articulate as Arabic rap did. Arabic rap gave me a clear concept of my identity.”
This concert in Beirut was a cry out that rapped about social injustices in the language of civil society and it ended on a high note. Syrian rapper Darwish and Lebanese rapper Bu Nasser dropped their new collaboration at the end of the concert. Their new track fired up many in the audience, who shouted the catchy refrain all the way out to the street after the concert: long live the rioting. The lyrics of their track became a demonstration jingle and a graffiti tagline during the trash protests that took place in Beirut at the time. The title of the concert embodied an unspoken anxiety: in the absence of the grand wave of rebelling masses, the collectivist spirit that gave birth to that kind of musical expression had started evaporating.
Two months after the Shad Asab concert, the rap outfit Mosoukh performed together in one of their last gigs before they split and then had a fallout. It was a dreadful October night. That night alluded to the end of the road to the dwindling protest movement that engulfed downtown Beirut in summer 2015. After sunset, the wind blew, and the stinging cold autumn breeze summoned the end of the momentum of two months of protests. That night, after a long day of demonstrations, many young people felt as if the party was over, but no one wanted to go home yet. It was then when Mosoukh decided to take the protest to Metro al-Madina theater in Hamra. Word of mouth spread quickly, and two hours later the underground venue was packed with flaming bodies pressed against each other to the tip of the stage. There was no entrance fee that night since the owner of the venue could not help but sympathize with the scores of sweaty faces and adrenaline-shot bewildered eyes, arriving in droves at his boutique venue. I counted five or six undercover police. They stood dumbfounded in the middle of a crowd that knew how to listen and respond to the seven rappers who shouted to their microphones and gesticulated frantically on stage.
An interjection happened in the middle of that bizarre concert and was a sign of the glitches that started infecting the collectivist nerve cell. A young man suddenly jumped on stage and started dancing in a style of aggressive body jerks that felt as if he was performing the last dance of a slain bird. Hassan al-Rabeh, a Syrian dancer who found home in Beirut and became part of the entourage that followed the Mosoukh during the protests, took the stage and started stomping indignantly. While tripping over cables and bashing against the many rappers on stage, Hassan’s improvized dance turned a makeshift rap concert into an uproarious jungle. I started noticing how the more he sensed this tension pour on him, the more he was invigorated, pushing his twirling body to dance harder. Hassan’s actions on stage, and the way he rushed to block the rapper who had the mic, felt as if he was protesting being left out of the performance. One person started booing, and an orchestra of shouts ensued, calling on Hassan to get off the stage. This provoked Hassan and he started to move his body even more aggressively. When the music was abruptly stopped, he realized that he had gotten on the nerves of his friends, the rappers on stage. In a dejected spectacle, Hassan was removed from the stage.
That October night elucidated that the energy to pull the collective nerve that was summoned in August, at Shad Asab, and sustained a hype during the protests, was coming to a depressing end. Spirits collapsed when it all came tumbling down with a cold realization that the socio-political situation was going back to being worse than before the trash protests started. Perhaps Hassan was trying to express all this unspoken dread with choreography just as the rappers on stage were trying to articulate it with their lyrics.
This unspoken sentiment that many of us had started realizing was that in the previous two months during the trash protests, we heard so much loud emphasis about the “we,” but at each collectivist test for direct political action, individual short-term interests prevailed. The perplexing spectacle took center stage when it filtered and framed the demonstrations on social media with the “I” of performance. Five years after the Arab uprisings, the performing self during the protests in summer 2015 appeared as the spectacle that mattered the most. When the hype failed to materialize an organized mode of politics, those who were attracted by the chimaera of collectivism were left orphaned.
In the summer of 2016, the waves of migrations to the north were in full blow. Many alternative artists had packed their laptops and midis and emigrated to Europe, Canada and the United States. The Palestinian rap crew Katibe 5 became refugees again, spread out across Europe. At the same time, Mosoukh, who had called for Pulling the Nerve the year before, had started to devolve and split over internal personal feuds. Later, two members of the crew, the Syrian and Lebanese artists whose song was the anthem of the streets in 2015, had split up over petty personal issues that were fought over on Facebook. This time also saw a high rate of suicide among young Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The summer of 2016 was marked by a tragic incident that encapsulated the death of the collectivist spirit that was born in 2011.
On 22 June 2016, Hassan al-Rabeh, the dancer from the last concert by Mosoukh, twirled his last dance and let his body go off the seventh floor, parting with this world forever. I wrote back then in his memory that Hassan did not kill himself, Beirut killed him. I remember seeing Hassan hanging around the Mosoukh rap outfit; like many, he was influenced by their music and at times, like the stage incident above, he assumed a belonging to what they did. He used to sing along whenever a rap circle broke out in the middle of a demonstration in 2015. Then, towards the end of the summer, there were times when I found him by himself babbling rap lyrics while he sat on the sidewalk smoking. He had fled Damascus at the end of 2012, and I could tell each time I saw him around Hamra that Beirut’s pretentious social bubbles were chewing at his sanity. I remember how his eyes sank in their sockets each time we spoke. He had struck me as always upset, uttering things that made no sense to me, but did to him. I felt that he was always trying to convey what he felt in words that could not quite translate the immensity of his loneliness.
Shortly after Hassan’s death, Syrian rapper and producer Al Asli, who used to be a member of Mosoukh and a friend of Hassan, released a song titled: Al-Rabeh Hassan (the winner Hassan). In this track, Al Asli eulogized Hassan’s death, remarking in one verse how he had rejected a chance to immigrate to a dancing academy in Sweden and preferred Lebanon despite its hardship. Al Asli ended his eulogy with the refrain: “He is the son of Sham who died as a bird, he didn’t die drowning.”
Syrian dancer Hassan al-Rabeh. (photo from his Facebook profile)
Nihilistic Individualism or Entertainment?
The lure of entertainment by musicians who were once repulsed by the mainstream music industry saw it now as a place to access the masses and monetize their talents. The moment of collective friction saw its peak when many conscious rappers got too obsessed with their own purity. By 2016, the shift to the performing-self caused turmoil which was expressed in jealousies, envy, and misunderstandings that led to beefs and dis tracks uploaded in vain. This was the atmosphere of the breakdown that splintered cross border groups and collaborations, each artist taking with them their social media followers.
In 2016, El-General was still unswerving, releasing tracks that expressed disappointment with the post-Ben Ali political process in Tunisia. On the other hand, during the summer of 2016, the rap scene in Tunisia (like other Arab countries) began its introverted individualist mode of expression. The ship that carried politically-charged music in 2011 had started sailing toward the realm of the self in entertainment.
“By bringing various artistic networks and resources together, Brik and Benz’s vision for WarZone is to provide Tunisians from all regions a means to find self-empowerment through art. For them, originality, creativity, and self-expression are what make hip-hop culture rich and vibrant,” said a Nawaat article. The WarZone in Tunisia was an initiative that found a space for aspiring rappers “to express different sides of their identities.” Said Souhayl Guesmi, one of the judges for the event, in the same Nawaat interview.
The shift to entertainment started simultaneously with the upcoming Atlanta Trap genre that found attentive ears among young Arabs. Trap rap was quickly emulated by artists like Samara from Tunisia. In his early days, Samara resembled the rap style of the American rapper Young Thug. Like Thug, Samara utilized an eccentric vocal style filtered through an extra dose of autotune mixing. In his videos, he flashes his unique fashionable representation that emphasizes being different. Samara took the flow of Arabic rap to a rhetoric of making it at any cost; projecting a lifestyle of luxury consumption, want and hedonism. His punchlines came out of poverty, deprivation and marginalization, and were rapped with a burning desire to bask in luxury.
The setbacks and divisions that followed Arab uprisings birthed a contempt by a new wave of youth who now detested organized politics and found, through their massive online following, a refuge in a personality cult made by a filter bubble. Without fear, the new wave of rappers copied and pasted the beats, the style of codeine-induced mumbling rap, the commodities, and images featured in music videos coming out of Atlanta. On Instagram, such bold young talents framed their alter-ego(s) in an inflated sense that has sanctioned impulse gratification and abundant fan validations. Samara’s brand of nihilistic hedonism at any cost took a tragic turn when he was arrested for possession of drugs and then was jailed in Dubai. The arrival of Samara coincided with a new wave of young Egyptian rappers, who mimicked with agility the Trap formulas coming out of Atlanta. Many Young Thugs and Travis Scotts suddenly appeared in videos mumbling in Arabic about petty personal issues. The hyper individualist content of their raps and the mumbling nature of the Trap flow saw the start of simulating an air of individualist dissidence akin to teenage punk displaying a performance ofaggression and rebellious individualism.
The end of 2016 witnessed a surge of musical novelties that synthesized traditional folk music from around the region of Greater Syria. This fetish for sampling traditional music and sounds, historically produced outside the city, started when Bjork collaborated with the Syrian wedding singer Omar Suliman. Thereafter, many Syrian and Palestinian artists started remixing traditional wedding music from the countryside with electro beats. One of the most successful groups among this new craze was the Palestinian group 47SOUL. A boy band put together by four Palestinian artists, 47SOUL merged the aesthetics of Dabkeh styles from around the region of Greater Syria with electronic sound effects and drum kits. The content of their music was Palestinian-centric from the start, and that became a hook that drew listeners thirsty for a Palestinian expression hybridized to the tempo of a globalized beat. With album titles such as “Semitics” and “Balfron Promise,” they successfully targeted their global audience. This new dance music followed in the steps of the recent refugees with tours and performances at dance festivals around the diaspora. The fame that the Palestinian band 47SOUL acquired, with their electronic Dabkeh music, forged a new dance genre that became known as Shamstep.
Palestinian band 47SOUL. Electronic Dabkeh performance from the video clip of their track Dabke System on YouTube.
On the other hand, alternative bands like Mashrou’ Leila found more success as a niche. Their music became increasingly identified by young listeners who heard in Mashrou’s music a nostalgia for acts like Queen, and perceived the band not merely as an ensemble of musicians but as a representation of an identity.
Toward the end of 2017, the Beirut-based BDS campaign reached out to Mashrou' Leila urging the band to “protect your name from pink washing and exploitation” by Israel. The BDS campaign in Lebanon urged the band to speak out against Israeli endeavours, calling on them to issue a statement condemning false acts of “solidarity.” The warning was then posted as a public notice explaining that BDS had sent the statement to the band but “never received an answer.” This led BDS to publish their letter publicly as a warning about Israel’s classic attempts to manipulate social contradictions to its own ends.
In 2019, the organization of the Lebanese international festivals, Byblos, banned a concert by Mashrou’ Leila "to prevent bloodshed." The cancellation of Mashrou’ Leila from the festival was a demand made by the Christian Maronite Church, which accused the band of blasphemy and insulting sacred religious rites. In support of the statement expressed by Maronite religious officials, many Lebanese went on a rampage demanding that the concert be cancelled. Public outrage on social media took a monstrous shape in comment sections that exacerbated to a dangerous level homophobia that was followed by death threats made against the band members. A chaotic moment of Christian fundamentalist nationalism exploded on social media platforms that shocked many westernised elites in Lebanon. In an act of solidarity with the banned band, Yo-Yo ma played a cello rendition of Mashrou’ Leila’s Tayf at the end of his performance at the Byblos festival in Lebanon.
In Morocco in 2019, Mashrou’ Leila caused a wave of controversy like the one they had caused in Egypt two years before. Mashrou’ Leila’s performance, at the Mawazine Festival at the Mohammed V Theater, sparked outrage and anger among Moroccans after one person in the audience raised the LGBTQ rainbow flag. This was not the first time this festival featured acts that upset many Moroccans. Before Mashrou’ Leila’s flag incident, Jennifer Lopez was condemned for dressing in a way that did not respect the customs of the country.
In 2017, the rainbow flag was raised at a concert by Mashrou’ Leila in Egypt, which prompted the Syndicate of Musical Professions in Egypt to ban the band from performing or participating in concerts in the country. Mashrou’ Leila’s concert in Egypt was followed by the tragic story of Sarah Hegazy, who had raised the rainbow flag. Sarah was imprisoned and tortured in Egypt, then driven into exile. In 2020, she took her life after struggling with depression. Sarah, who was a software developer and a Queer activist, was eulogised by many on social media following the news of her suicide. When I read the last words written by Sarah, I couldn’t help but think about Hassan al-Rabeh who took his life in 2016.
At first, I could not understand what was the common denominator between Hassan and Sarah. Then I realized that these two individuals represented a loneliness that many Arab youth in the post-uprising era had started to struggle with. It’s as if the friction between hard reality and virtual reality created a sense of burning uncertainty in those who might have felt that they were part of a collective or a movement that did not materialize around them when needed.
The crushing of any shades of politics in musical expression created new victims in Egypt in 2018 when Rami Essam dropped from his exile another hard-hitting song: Balaha. The song’s catchy lyrics insulted the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, causing an ego injury that resulted in the arrest of six people. One of those arrested in 2018 was the 24-year-old filmmaker Shadi Habash, following his role as director of the Balaha video. In 2020, the young filmmaker died inside Cairo’s infamous Tora prison complex, from “health issues not yet specified.” The song “Balaha” presented a subtle satirical take on the general-turned-president. The Egyptian regime’s harsh reaction to four and a half minutes of musical satire demonstrated the levels of intolerance and insecurity about anything that reminded people of the spirit of 25 January 2011. The crushing of those who had anything to do with the production of Balaha was a message that clearly conveyed that after the coup in 2013, the military regime in Egypt was hyper vigilant and intent on suffocating any expression that carries the whiffs of memory of those moments when the fear barrier was momentarily suspended.