[This article is Part 2 of 2 in this series on music politics in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings. Click here to read Part 1 of the Post-Arab Uprisings: Music Politics series.]
A Real Mutation, a New Generation
In the post-Arab uprisings era, Arabic alternative artists, especially in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon, became a recognizable medium for promoting a specific individualist lifestyle based on fetishizing identities and commodified music catered to satisfy immediate needs. Rappers started spitting bars in advertisements for mobile phone companies. Western corporations like McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and Red Bull co-opted talents and turned them into mascots for their brands. The content of Arabic rap songs became increasingly filled with personal boasting and aggressive libidinous alter-egos promising to crush and kill and slay some (un)known other(s). However, in the Mahraganat variants, one felt the vibrations of a low-frequency wobbly nihilism fed by a gnawing envy against the monied elites.
Egyptian Mahraganat music came to my attention around 2015. One night I was DJing at a party in Beirut when someone asked if I could play Mahraganat. I spent the rest of the night downloading and playing this wild genre, firing the dance floor until the early morning. The music of Mahraganat appealed to me when I listened carefully and felt that this genre was produced by ear musicians. Those who come from impoverished neighborhoods with an instinctual talent to pick up tunes by ear and compose from there on budget laptops tend to create wonders.
Mahraganat is the plural of maragan, which means festival. Mahraganat is a street festival music that combines electronic beats, street noise, Egyptian old-school samples, and a lyrical flow emulating rap. Mahraganat artists tend to write lyrics with shocking-comic effects, with topics ranging around daily socio-economic hardships. The off-the-grid genre is also known for sensual insinuations and lustrous lyrics bemoaning unfulfilled and deprived desires. From my experience, I have learned that people like Mahraganat music for the fact that it does not try to speak the politically correct middle-upper-class terminologies (unless a Mahraganat artist was performing in one of MBS’s “openness” festivals in Saudi Arabia). There in the holy land of Islam, words in songs are flipped and instead of hashish performers use halib (milk) and instead of khamer (alcohol) they use tamer (dates).
When Maraganat started becoming popular around 2011, its shaabi lyrics were heavily influenced by the 25 January revolution. Since then, it seems that those outside the city have turned their music into a language full of obscenities as their only revenge against the middle class and the elites who were co-opted by the military regime. From day one of its inception, around 2005, Maraganat music was not meant to be an item acquired by the privilege of purchase power. This music was disseminated by people who revelled in its heresy and shared tracks on USBs or via Bluetooth. It’s also noteworthy that this kind of DIY music, in the poorest neighbourhoods of Egypt, seems impossible to subdue by the elites. It’s too shaabi for such music to be dressed in the conservative ethics of the ruling elite. Hani Shaker, the head of the Egyptian music syndicate, can never fathom the meaning behind the nicknames of Mahraganat artists precisely because they were given to them by their people.
In this light, Mahraganat took the airwaves with a polyphony of sounds assembled from necessity as the mother of all do-it-yourself music. Mahraganat composers forged this genre by cutting elements from rap and hip-hop music and synthesizing it with electronic oriental keyboards that accentuate the shaabi musical components. The energy of Mahraganat music compresses the need of artists to break the cycle of boredom and alienation through their in-your-face beats, lyrics, and flamboyant performances.
Members of the Mahraganat band ELPOWER EL3ALY from their recent track Sawabek on YouTube
“We love the stage and the audience; it doesn’t matter if it’s a gig or a wedding. It could be the entrance of a building. Anywhere that has people and energy,” explained one artist from the band Al-Power-Al-Aly (the loud power). It’s as if, through this form of music, they found the only tangible creation that is left for them to own and be proud of the recognition their production had won. Uncompromisingly down with their people, Al-Power proudly spoke about how “we love to make people happy, a gig or a wedding are all the same. I personally just want to sing anywhere, it doesn't matter.”
Watching Mahraganat artists perform, one can feel their contagious hype, as the nerve ends start to tingle and vibrate with the undeterred energy embedded in this music. “You don’t sit down and listen to Mahraganat. It’s kind of a mood, played in a wedding party or during a gathering with friends. We’d have fun getting hyped,” said another member of the Mahraganat band Al-Power-al-Aly in this Ma3zef interview. The young artist, in his early twenties, went on emphasizing, “You don’t play a mahragan and kick back.” To justify the loud power aspect of what they do, he explained in a matter-of-fact tone: “That’s the difference, our generation is all about getting hyped and running pranks. The generation of Mahraganat is the generation of youth who are getting attacked by people and no one is trying to understand them instead of listening to what they have been saying.”
Such innovations by the lumpenproletariat of the Egyptian population have always tingled the feelings of the elites. On the one hand, the conservative elites think of this noise as a nuisance, confirming their class prejudice and stereotypes about the lack of “manners” and the “ignorance” in the slums. On the other hand, the liberal elites drool at the sight of shaabi street aesthetics; they get infatuated with such novelties and when they “can’t believe it” or “can’t get enough of it,” they go on fetishizing aspects of poverty, the poor and their creations. The same liberal elites will move further to monetize and package their pet idea according to the market standards so they can deprive the poor from listening to their music for free.
The recent uproar caused by this untamed genre took a dramatic turn when Hani Shaker imposed a ban on Mahraganat artists. Hani Shaker used to be known in the early and mid-nineties for his emo-depressive love songs. He once released a track that epitomized his music career: the birthday of my wound. His recent ban on Mahraganat was a sign of such upper-class resentments against shaabi expressions. The ban forced artists, DJs, and bands who play music recorded on a flash drive to stop performing in public venues. The ban on memory sticks was said to be in favor of hiring (analogue) musicians to ensure the employment of music syndicate members who were affected by their replacement with playback on memory sticks. This decision was followed by another ban which prevented selected Mahraganat artists from singing, because their music is “transgressing pronunciations and words that violated the morals and customs and infringed on the firm foundations of Egyptian society.” This ban in 2020 was met with a gigantic wave of solidarity, which made one Mahraganat track rank second for the most listened to on SoundCloud globally. Many Mahraganat artists have made it to big levels of fame and success, bypassing the gatekeepers of cultural institutions like Hani Shaker who doesn’t recognize electronic music.
A typical Mahraganat local gig features a stage set somewhere in a cul-de-sac or a narrow alley. On stage stand two or three young emcees dressed in imitation designer brands, faces tired, but with spirits higher than high. Their voices shout out words of jubilation summoning the atmosphere of the festival they are throwing.
Joker, the manager of Al-Power-Al-Aly, spoke in the same interview about how he feels as a man in his late forties managing these young talents. “I don’t have to like the music; we are two different generations after all.” He went on explaining that this music is about “the merging of two generations. That’s how Mahraganat has become a recent thing. So, it’s quite new for my generation.” As for the fact that this kind of music has resisted all attempts to nip it in the bud, Joker said, “People keep saying that Mahraganat is just a hype that will die off, for a while now.” But it will not. “It’s a real mutation, a new generation. In the end this is the new generation, and you won’t be able to change them. You must keep up with them as they go their own way.”
Arabic rap and Mahraganat are conceivably imagined as fruits of the riot of the vernacular music that became popular during the first two years of the uprisings. However, “rap” as title has never sat well with some Arab artists, who rap on beats but refuse to be called “rappers.” It is as if by being called “rappers,” they are declaring a cultural consolidation by emulating a foreign product. In this sense, Mahraganat artists escaped this dilemma of authenticity by the fact that theirs was picked and composed by ear and made original from the very start.
Cultural Superimposition: The Battle
It was in the mid-2010s when the American Battle Rap reached Beirut. At that time, watching this mode of entertainment felt like a Facebook comment section went astray and materialized in real life. The importation of the Battle Rap to the Arabic-speaking world brought with it the perception of global cultural industries, promoting America’s brand of vulgarness, criminality, racism and violence dressed as freedom of speech. Such Americanization of the Arabic spoken word arrived at a time when ISIS’s savage images of Hollywood-inspired violence went viral. Dressed in the form of “street art,” the Battle Rap looked like another variant of commodified “freedom” posture.
Syrian rapper Darwish on the right vs. Jordanian/Palestinian rapper Synaptic on the left. photo from YouTube video.
The Syrian rapper and producer Darwish spoke to me in an interview as he tried to frame that form of entertainment in a local sense. He rationalized that “the battle rap had an equivalence in Arabic poetry known as Heja’a.” Darwish spoke about the artist’s drive for a lyrical battle in a universal sense, as “when two people utilise the power of the word in order to synthesize the negative energy that lies in every human.” The urge to perform such negativity, Darwish says, “depends on the psychology of each person and their personal motives.” As for his personal motives, Darwish emphasizes that they are about “the full exposure of the depth of the Arabic text without music.” In his first Battle Rap, Darwish decided to go against the grain and turn this lyrical confrontation into a “complementary battle.” Darwish waxed poetic about the battle rap, “because I utilize the daily language we use, from a reformist approach in terms of how we disrespect each other and why.”
Darwish vs. Synaptic was a one-of-a-kind “complementary battle.” It was also the last of its kind. Thereafter, the battle rap in Beirut remained a vicious scene held inside upper-class venues with private security arrangements to contain the high levels of testosterone that linger on and around the stage.
A couple of years after its inception, the battle rap in Beirut (known as the Arena ME) found a limited space for obscure SoundCloud rappers, and wannabe battle rappers, to bring their friends to hype them up while they barked insults at each other (in Arabic and English), sponsored by Red Bull. The Arena battles featured rappers from Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and other places. These young men took the stage and butchered each other’s families, religions, sects, culture, and politics while flaunting chauvinist nationalism amid volleys of accusations of treachery. When these elements are pointed out to rappers who, when not “battling,” rap about all sorts of political/social projections in their music, they often fall back on the argument that, “as a rapper it’s all entertainment and to me it’s just another way to branch out to new audience.”
When I spoke to rapper and producer Nasser Shorbaji (aka Chyno) about Arena ME, the battle rap that he founded and brought to Lebanon with his partner Joe Hajj, he said, “We thought Lebanon would be a fitting place to bring rappers from the Middle East to battle each other.”
However, when I asked Chyno if such a form of niche entertainment needed advertisement, he quickly dismissed it saying, “When two guys go at each other, like really go at each other, people come to watch. For example, when people see an accident, a car accident, they stop to watch. You know what I’m saying. So, people want to see competition-level entertainment.”
I asked him about showcasing a controversial import in a country like Lebanon which is full of political sensitivities, sectarian taboos and unspoken truths. Chyno said, “In terms of the Arena, we don’t hold any bars. Its freedom of speech, whatever you want to say.” He went on explaining that being “in the Middle East we are in a place where there is a lot of censorship. Another thing that I find amazing is that we have the Arena in Beirut or Lebanon that we have some certain liberties in what we want to say, not fully but better than other places.” He then recalled an incident when chauvinism met narcissism and they both got drunk on pints of adrenalin in one rapper’s head. “We had an issue with Mawqif Heyadi (neutral position) when basically Mohandas called Kaz a traitor for Kaz being Palestinian (from Jordan) and not objecting to the Jordanian King.” Chyno remarked on the awkwardness that this incident had created, saying, “It’s a bit heavy, you know. Also, the fact that they can’t address that there. Also, to him he is Palestinian. He can’t just go and address him (the King) impolitely. There were rumors online before we released the video that Mohandas was going to dis the King. People contacted us not to release the video but, in the end, we did release it as it is because we believe in freedom of speech.”
I remember in the summer of 2015, while watching the YouTube video of the first battle rap in Beirut, that I couldn’t help but think: why do we keep importing the worst aspects of American consumerist culture unfiltered? While writing this, I came across an interview with Wael Halaq in which he said something that resonated with this text (my translation): “Since the late nineteenth century, the Arab and Islamic civilization has been obsessed and fascinated by the West. As if the West is a world of magic that we aspire to belong to without questioning and inquiring. Since that period, the West has become the focus of admiration and appreciation, as if everything it does, thinks and produces is correct and natural.”
I asked Chyno to talk about their first battle in Beirut, the one that shocked many behind their screens, and the reaction that was luckily contained within the vicinity of that sub-sub-culture. He agreed that “at the battle Dizaster vs Edd Abbas, Dizaster said some nasty racist stuff against Edd about being black. And people went with it because they are used to watching American racist battles.”
To the argument that entertainers often contend that “people just went with it,” one is always left wondering if the “it” justifies importing and encouraging such racist exhibitions. If you package and represent to people a violent racist behavior dressed as entertainment, do you then expect manifestations of harmony and understanding among people who “went with it”?
One would think that the alternative music scene has come a long way from the days when it called for pan-Arab unity; when songs were a crisscross melody about brotherhood, sisterhood, and solidarity, sung in the most common denominator in our identity that is weaved and embroidered with our mother tongue. The battle rap, Chyno says, “has a social value. I don’t know if it’s a positive or negative value. It helps to open the conversation in the Middle East. I don’t know. Freedom of speech you know. And cross understanding of culture, because we come from different places, we come from Jordan and Lebanon. Defending our culture, attacking other culture(s) which play on the references of metaphor in your punchlines.”
In the post-Arab uprising era, an aggressive American form of entertainment has been imported to some Arab countries as a devalue of Arab lyrical culture. In Lebanon, this form of entertainment found a niche among a handful of enthusiasts, creating another sub-culture, confined in a tiny social bubble that gets validation from online viewers spread out virtually across the globe. This form of verbal abuse dressed as entertainment doesn’t require much scrutiny to appear as another American product rendered for local consumption. It’s a form of trolling that does not resemble any shade of the lyrical eloquence and linguistic acrobatics heard in Zajal: the geo-historical tradition of word play that stretches from the Galeel coast in Palestine, threading its way through Lebanon’s coastline, rolling on tongs all the way to Syria. It is inaccurate and a misleading distortion to insist on comparing the local copy of the American battle rap to the venomous calmness that lies in thousands of years of practice of the poetic culture known as Hija'a.
In Egypt, the battle rap remains strictly an indoors activity. In YouTube videos, one can see scores of young men packed against each other in a circle, galvanizing two rappers spitting muffled insults inside someone’s apartment. “There is one battle in Cairo and another one in Alexandria, but we do not want to name the people behind it. The most famous one is called Ya Trab Ya Tmoot (Rap or Die). I think there is one in Kuwait as well,” said Chyno before adding, “in Egypt rappers cannot talk shit about the regime so they go at each other.”
Militant Arabic Music
The importation of an American form of entertainment to disrespect each other’s cultures coincided with the war on Yemen. A wealthy Arab Kingdom decided to subjugate their neighbours, the most impoverished people in the Arab world, by bombing schools and funerals with American-made weapons. The battle rap also coincided with the proliferation of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In such a calamitous atmosphere, Chyno and his partner Joe Hajj decided that it was fitting to introduce a form of entertainment that thrives on the competition of young Arab men to humiliate each other for a cheering crowd.
As a result, one cannot help but speculate with scepticism: how come foreign-local-liberal sponsorship never endows money on violent forms of entertainment that could be productive? How come those who call themselves “conscious rappers,” those who are too obsessed with their own purity, succumbed the moment the power behind mainstream entertainment tickled their desire for fame and fortune? How did these rappers imagine themselves when they criticized the Islamic resistance against the Israeli occupation of Palestine from the stage of an upper-class nightclub? How come in the post-Arab uprisings era, a public space was utilized to ship young Arab men to be represented in a spectacle of fratricide became cool? How come none of the above are willing to learn by example from the real underground Arab youth; those who quietly volunteer to dig tunnels with tablespoons; those who sacrifice everything they accumulated in life, as top engineers and brilliant inventors, so they could pass the know-how of manufacturing technologies that enabled us to impose an equation of deterrence against our collective enemy for the first time since 1948?
Underrated and willfully ignored by the liberal elite are those who make video clips boasting about their sacrifices that changed the course of the history of struggle against the invaders. The case of music as a militant art form amid a military occupation has always sounded with a burning determination against submission. In Yemen, a militant electro-musical expression has proliferated since the Saudi-led coalition first waged their brutal war seven years ago. While the resistance in Yemen, led by Ansar-Allah, has evolved and developed substantial capabilities and know-how on technical and geo-strategic levels, they are still unable to make any face-saving gains, declare victory, and end the war. In a similar spirit, the Yemeni militant music that started with the resistance has also evolved technical skills that drew millions of thirsty listeners, in and outside Yemen, to revel in its powerful vibrations. Al-Zawamil is an ancient Yemeni lyrical folk expression. Al-Zamel (singular) is a style of tribal poetry distinguished by its shortness that rarely exceeds two verses. A Yemeni friend told me once that “that style of signing would have disappeared had it not been for Ansar Allah who brought it back.” This sentiment is heard in videos emitting the tunes of Issa al-Laith played from smartphones on the front. This is how militant Yemeni music was revived to orchestrate the galvanizing spirit of the Yemeni warrior. In many tracks, one hears lyrics recounting the many empires that failed to subdue Yemen: go ask the Romans and the Ottomans and the British how they all tried to conquer us and failed.
The repertoire of Arabic militant music sung by Palestinians in our midst has taken different tonal shapes in the last hundred years. It was from occupied Palestine where I first heard punchlines spoken in bursts of anger against the violence of the Zionist military occupation: “who’s the terrorist? I’m the terrorist? How am I a terrorist while living in my country? Who’s the terrorist? You are the terrorist!”
In 2006 during the Israeli war on Lebanon, I was volunteering with the Samidoun youth initiative in Sanayeh Park in Beirut. A group of volunteers had set up a relief operation to aid and help displaced people from the south. One night after I finished my shift, a friend asked if I wanted to go with them to collect donations from a fundraiser in Rabia, an upper-class town in Mount Lebanon. On the way to the fundraiser, the roads were war-calm and empty. Suddenly the driver pressed a CD into the stereo and the sound instantly came out from the door speaker next to my foot: meen irhabi! The refrain was so raw and captivating at that moment, it hit me deep. My whole body was captured by this unusual Arabic music. When we got to the fundraiser with our days-without-shower bodily scents, we found out that it was a party. After long minutes of mingling and feeling self-conscious while passing through rich whiffs of expensive smelling perfumes, we took the envelope we came for. At this point, the DJ in the backyard started to warm up for his set, playing ambient psychedelic music. Shortly after, the dance floor started to gather pace. This was our cue to return to Sanayeh. A sense of relief dawned on us as soon as we exited that villa, and the moment we sat back in the white 1981 BMW, my friend pressed play and turned the volume all the way up. The social awkwardness we felt at that party, which was less than an hour away from where Israeli bombs were flattening buildings in the southern suburbs, was remedied by the return of the angry hisses of DAM: kif irhabi wa ana aish fi bladi!
That was how I found out that there was Arabic rap by the Palestinian crew DAM. Later, while I was DJing at a house party in Beirut in 2008, I played DAM. When the beat dropped, a girl emerged from the crowd smiling at me. She handed me a USB stick and said, “here play this after DAM.” That random memory stick introduced me to the music of Ramallah Underground. This introduction to another level of Palestinian rap fixed my attention on the things they spoke about; it also expanded my perception about music growing under the occupation. At that time, before I started reading books about Palestine, I listened attentively to what Muqataa and Asifeh were rapping about in their songs. They were talking about life under military occupation in a way I never heard elsewhere, and I liked what I heard.
Personally, and in retrospect, I think that the rap music experience in Palestine was always different from other Arab localities that had a go at rap and hip hop. To help expand my understanding about the nuances of the rap scene in Palestine, I asked Rayya El-Zein how would she describe the Palestinian rap experience as different from the rest? Rayya said that “besides the occupation, the rap scene in Palestine has been hugely affected by two things. One: the global success of DAM, and two: the person of Muqata'a (boikutt). Most of the press talks about DAM. But most of the rappers in Palestine today idolised Ramallah Underground and grew up and were mentored in a way by Muqata'a.”
Ramallah-based artist and producer Muqata’a released his latest album Kamil Manqus in 2021. The eight track album, he explains here, “is intended to invoke the ‘voices of ancestors,’ and relate to an Arabic alphanumeric science which combines letters and numbers to communicate with the ‘immaterial world.’” Rayya El-Zien says, “Muqata’a has a huge influence that has not been talked about in the aesthetic development of rap in Palestine and that is largely resonant with the new wave of rappers/trap in Palestine because it is so different from DAM.” Muqata’a utilizes the ambiance of local streets in the production of his music. In this way, the attuned listener gets an audio glimpse of the everyday acoustics in Palestine. Rayya El-Zein further explained how “many rappers approached or experimented with ugly and disorienting sound.” This was another way of bringing elements of the artist’s daily experience through noise pollution. “Muqata'a calls it sound that is ‘wisekh’ (dirty) as a deliberate practice of filtering out listeners.” She explained that Muqata’a’s merging of daily acoustics and dirty sound is an influence “borrowing from trends in Glitch and other more experimental genres.”
In many tracks, interviews and social media posts, I have heard Palestinian rappers say that they don’t like to be called, or refer to themselves, as “rappers.” When I asked Rayya why she thought there was an insistence in Palestine more than any other place on not being a “rapper,” she explained: “It is probably the same reason why they are so reluctant to talk about what they do as 'resistance' that they are reluctant to call it 'rap.'” Palestinian Shab Jdeed makes the case in this interview, emphasizing, “I’m not willing to be a rapper, and I don’t even like the term (rapper) itself.”
The year 2018 brought to my playlist new voices and hit tracks from Palestine. It was the year when artist and producer Al Nather collaborated with Shab Jdeed and took our ears by storm when they dropped a delicious collection of Palestinian synthesized Trap music. In a Ma3azif interview in 2019, Shab Jdeed talks about his creative process: “Is there any coherent story line to these lyrics? Or a structure, or is it about something clear cut that I can explain to my mother for example or anyone really? No.” He adds, “It is the way it is, and for it to be explained, it would be a goddamn film. It will take me a long time to explain each song and it would be boring.” The way Shab Jdeed spoke about his mode of creation sounded like heat-of-the-moment inspiration bursts in opposition to a constructive mode of building an expressive ballad or song. This style of writing probably encapsulates the sense of urgency and uncertainty that one feels while living under a clear and present danger: a military occupation. Shab Jdeed recalls an example of the creative process of writing a hit song: “for example if I was going to the studio and I get stopped by the (Israeli occupation) military and they ruff me up and keep me at the checkpoint for a couple of hours, then when I go after that to the studio, I make a hit.”
In May 2018, just a few days before the commemoration of Nakba, BLTNM dropped Shab Jdeed’s monumental video clip for his song Ko7ol w 3atme. In the same interview, Shab Jdeed described how this track reflects the daily struggle Palestinians go through each morning at the Qalandia checkpoint. The images featured in the video and the lyrics written by Shab Jdeed are frames of reality “we have to go through every day. In the morning you find lanes for cars, six lanes for pedestrians, and we must wait in a certain area, surrounded by cages and so on. You need a workshop to go through the checkpoint. You need some practice before you can pass through Qalandia, on my best day I could do it in 15 minutes.”
Shab Jdeed and Al-Nather founded BLTNM that year and the two have been prolific ever since. Their audio-visual content represents unfiltered aspects of their immediate surroundings. Just like Muqata’a had used samples of everyday sounds from Palestine, Shab Jdeed says that when he is writing, he addresses himself to “the flowering youth.” Those “who look like this.” He pauses to point at his t-shirt and the tracksuit bottoms he was wearing and goes on emphasizing that it's “not the university graduates, nor the schooled, the educated intellectual class.” His lyrics are sung to “those in the streets who talk the talk and know what’s up. These are the people I try to talk to.”
Shab Jdeed spoke firmly when he said, “BLTNM is an institution, it gets work done. BLTNM is more important than the Shab Jdeed project. Shab Jdeed is a way to promote BLTNM you can say.” BLTNM, whose motto is “a family without a father,” is an independent digital record label based in Ramallah. In the “about” statement on their website, the record label presents itself as a medium to support and promote artists across the Arab World by releasing music, organizing tours, and securing press coverage for their artists. “We want to become the go-to place for Arab artists to create and release their music, without succumbing to the creative compromises often demanded by big labels. The plan is to make our culture the mainstream culture.” This last section in their statement is what attests most to their music, and the fact that it is uncompromisingly coming from under the eyes and ears of the occupation in Palestine commands respect. In this light, there is no fear of exaggeration when saying that BLTNM could be viewed as a cultural fortress standing tall in the face of the storms of normalization and cultural engineering that started blowing from the Gulf in 2018.
Normalization: the Dumbing Down of Arab Intellect
The year 2018 was a time when normalization and peace initiatives by some Arab states, which have never been at war with Israel, became public. That same year the Arab world saw an opening for big music and entertainment corporations that were summoned to promote “openness” and dumb down the Arab intellect.
In 2018, Warner Music Group Middle East announced that it will cover “Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.” Just like that, Palestine was removed from the map of the Arab-Islamic world. This omission of Palestine from the music-map dropped simultaneously with the wave of normalization that was pressed by Trump and his son-in-law in partnership with Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This was how the door was opened for Israel to enter military-political-economic-cultural alliances with the colonial tribes in the Gulf. This is how, since 2018, the work on erasing Palestine from the map and from people’s consciousness and imagination have taken shape in not-so-subtle attempts, as the exclusion of Palestine from the rest of the Arab musi- map. Or as we saw in May 2021 when the Zionist settlers attempted ethnic cleansing of the Sheikh Jarah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms censored, in both Arabic and English, posts that included words like “Palestine,” “resistance,” and “Hamas,” to mention a few examples.
In WMG's statement on their new operations in the “Middle East,” they declared that “the new division is based in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, which is an important creative hub for A&R, as well as being one of the main centres for regional media and technology.” In the music streaming game, big entertainment hunts for talent to vet and set them in an algorithmically-rigged race on streaming platforms like Spotify. The way I understand A&R or Artists and Repertoire is that it’s about propping an artist for branding: building and crafting an image of an individualist persona in the guise of a role model. This is how the artist is canned as a curated product, sold as a cultural package, produced to represent an image of an identity that is liberal and desirable, curated to target a specific demographic of niche consumers.
A&R became a known phenomenon during the development of the recording industry. As the commercialization of the phonograph ramped up during the mid-twentieth century, the music industry was splitting from two sectors into three: publishing, performing, and now, recording. Today, however, “data-driven A&R” is one of the “music industry's most guarded secrets.” “Even before the acquisition of Sodatone by Warner Music Group, major and big indie record labels started to switch their mindsets and focus on the advantages of a data-driven approach.”
In a 2016 interview, Aton Ben-Horin, Global VP/A&R of the Warner Music Group, says, “Although music is a universal language, every territory has its own culture and music scene. My role on the global side is to provide support or resources where needed to the A&Rs and artists in the various Warner international territories.”
The operation to take on the music scene in the Arab world began with their Beirut office which was set up in 2018. WMG Middle East Managing Director Moe Hamzeh leads “the new operation” that “will step up the marketing and promotion of WMG’s international artists, as well as growing a local roster of Arabic artists and repertoire.” In another interview, Moe spoke about “increasing digital penetration” of Arab listeners for “monetising their huge enthusiasm for music.” Furthermore, he went on to explain that “we can only continue doing that and generating revenue to invest in the next generation of artists, if countries across the region provide a decent legal framework for us to operate.”
In 2018, Aton Ben-Horin was appointed an ambassador of peace by Creative Community for Peace. CCFP is a soft power arm of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) machine, another weapon in the apartheid state’s arsenal for cultural disinformation. At the ceremony when he became a peace ambassador, “he described his performance of a song he wrote about the Holocaust before a crowd of 7,000 during a March of the Living trip to Israel.” He also cautioned that, “whatever your thoughts on the Middle East, the music should never be silenced.” As for the case of the BDS pressure campaign for artists to boycott the apartheid settler-colonial occupation of Palestine, Aton Ben-Horin stressed that “It’s not about picking sides, but sadly, many artists are getting false information about what’s happening there and are pressured to cancel their show.” Aton Ben-Horin inaccurately described Israel as the region’s “only democracy, a place where Christians and Muslims live as well as Jews.” Here one should not forget to mention that “the only democracy” is specialized in manufacturing and experimenting on Palestinians before exporting antidemocratic tools to their newly befriended Arab autocrats. As the case of the Pegasus software that led to stifling dissent through phone hacking by a malware manufactured by the private Israeli security company NSOGroup. Or by deploying cultural hegemonic tools as the case of the thirty-one-million-dollar campaign led by Concert to advance, through cultural operations, the occupation’s narrative after it failed during the battle of the Sword of Quds.
In December 2021 during the XP music industry conference in Saudi Arabia, Moe Hamzeh was asked in an interview by MBW’s World Leaders: “What misconceptions about the region would you like to correct?” Hamzeh answered brazenly that “too often the Middle East has been in the headlines internationally because of political issues, but that masks the story of a region whose economy is growing powerfully and a people who are embracing change.” Such misguided reflections came at the same time the UN estimated that 78 percent of the Lebanese population was living below the poverty line. The story he was masking was the fact that “Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, supported by the UK and US militaries,'' was “responsible for 67% of reported civilian casualties in the war in Yemen, and are the cause of the majority of explosive violence against children.” The real, sad “story of the region” that he omitted was the one that showed how, since the start of the war on Yemen, more than “1,372 children have been killed and 916 injured by airstrikes.”
This agent of openness for MBS emphasized the utility of music, which “is about joy and celebration and is a great tool for cultural dialogue. I hope it helps bring people together.” I couldn’t help but think that the “economic growth” that he mentioned was an illusion sustained by those subservient to small social bubbles in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council in general. Of course, he was not talking about the new generation on the brink of starvation in Yemen caused by an inhumane siege by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia. That seven years of war have robbed Yemenis of their older-than-history culture of happiness. As for the parts about the “people who are embracing change” and music as a “great tool for cultural dialogue” that “helps bring people together”. Such phrase dropping sounds akin to hints at normalization with the occupation of Palestine since that kind of “dialogue” had come together in Bahrain, the UAE and KSA.
There seems to be a link between WMG’s erasure of Palestine from the map and the sort of change that will be fed to people by A&R curated artists and the “openness” freak show running in Saudi Arabia. Madawi al-Rasheed illustrated here that connection by showing how “MBS can continue to deploy his media resources to erode Arab public support for the Palestinians, until the critical point is reached when Saudi normalisation becomes a fait accompli that would not cost him his life or undermine the legitimacy of the Saudi regime.”
The careful selection of words by WMG Middle East operators resonated with the resentments caused by the recent BDS victory in Australia. It's hard to miss the context of what Moe Hamzeh had said when it was echoed by those of Warner Records CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck. He had recently protested the boycott of the Sydney Festival by over one hundred artists. In a statement that he signed with other industry figures, Aaron Bay-Schuck bemoaned the usual canard: “we believe the cultural boycott movement is an affront to both Palestinians and Israelis who are working to advance peace through compromise, exchange, and mutual recognition.”
At the WMG Middle East YouTube channel, one finds Chyno (from the Arena ME battle rap) as a signed artist featured in videos talking, uncharacteristically, about “patriarchy” and “immigrants.” One also notices significant presence of two artists, Muslim Albanian Dua Lipa and the French DJ David Guetta who appears elsewhere as a fierce whitewasher of Israel’s cultural image.
In the same interview with Moe Hamzeh, Tarek Mounir, the former CEO of Deezer MENA, also spoke about “penetration.” He also wants to educate people that music is not for free: “The industry is growing fast, but we’ve still got challenges to overcome. Low credit card penetration means we need to be innovative about payment gateways; copyright regimes need to be updated and enforced.” He went on patronizingly, “We need to educate fans that music is worth paying for.”
Openness via Condom Rappers
In an article titled Saudi-Funded VICE Cries “Freedom” for Cuba, Mysteriously Silent on Saudi Human Rights Abuses, the author documented and catalogued VICE Media’s collaboration with MBS for whitewashing his war on Yemen and to advertise his “openness” to the world. “Hollywood Reporter announced on April 1, 2021 that VICE Media entered into a business partnership with the Saudi regime through the state-affiliated ‘soft power arm’ Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG). Since then, the news outlet has not run a single article or produced a single video about human rights abuses by the Saudi regime.”
I came across a YouTube video produced by VICE Arabia featuring artists signed by WMG. The ticklish signifier that provoked my curiosity to click on the video was the neon blue Durex Condoms banner. But I was mostly intrigued to check out what Synaptic was up to in such a set-up.
Synaptic, an artist once told me, “represents the alternative rap scene in its final days as it shifts to entertainment.” This is an interesting observation if one wants to gauge where and when alternative music made a shift to entertainment, because Synaptic is a good example. When this young Jordanian-Palestinian artist started appearing on the SoundCloud wave of the Trap variants in 2018, his signature was his heavily autotuned vocals and high-pitched adlibs. It was remarkable to observe how his rising star had shot up exponentially, with the agility he deployed to disseminate his brand. This is how Synaptic became widely known in no time: dropping nonstop collaborations with most of the artists who were produced by the wave of 2011 uprisings, he drew new fans and expanded his pool of listeners. I think the case of Synaptic is intriguing because it epitomizes the performing self in the current image-based virtual reality showbiz. Artists who take the same trajectory in their careers construct an identity out of introverted psychological materials furnished for self-advertising. The self becomes a commodity curated tirelessly for mass culture. In this way, talent is forced to an accelerated mode of production or “pimped like a butterfly” in order to maintain market relevancy before the artist hits thirty. One hears in their lyrics nostalgic references to popular films, or the mention of decontextualized fragments torn from a vast historical range of cultural tradition and heritage, framed haphazardly to fit the appetite of the contemporary listener. Such a new Arab self was not crafted to advertise the mass consumption of material goods, although it has a potential for catchy ads; its role is to perform as mascots of the “openness” that started in 2018.
For when MBS’s soft-power arm teams up with VICE to produce a Durex show featuring young Arab rappers signed by WMG, accompanied with soft-porn ambience and mellow colours, dim lights, and careful whispers, they are effectively trying to simulate a liberal desirable Arab model. Then it goes without saying that when MBS VICE and WMG curate and sponsor such cultural representations they are not aiming at making money by selling condoms.
Recently, I was hanging out with a group of artists and producers and when I brought up the VICE condoms show, we all giggled. One musician who was contacted by producers of the show grabbed my elbow and said, “they are offering 20,000 dollars for young artists to appear on the show to promote Arab sexuality and shit.” I wasn’t surprised since the condoms placement in the show spoke to this motivel. Another artist chimed, “he (Synaptic) is working so hard trying to make that money. That guy never takes a break.” In the end we all sighed at the irony regarding music that came on the wave of uprisings eleven years ago and is now deployed to dumb down the Arab intellect in such sleazy shows dressed as openness, sexuality and shit.
Palestine is the Map
During the Arab uprisings, in all the squares, in every city, there always was a significant presence of Palestine. In many demonstrations there were many Palestinian refugees who always functioned as revolutionary agents by instinct. These instinctual rebels have always played a dynamic role while organizing and politicizing since they were forced out of their land in 1948. Up until 2011, the Palestinians among the rest of us were the political agents that electrified the political imagination of the yearning Arab youth. The Palestinian factor within us left those traitors on the right unsettled in their towers; the Palestinian political compass has always functioned as a factor of delegitimization of the right-wing isolationist nationalism. Every branch of the protest movement in 2011 had something to learn from Palestine: how to organize, how to strike, how to mobilize the masses on the streets, how to write statements, and how to hit and run. This local organic knowledge was made available thanks to the historical repertoire of Palestinians fighting the Zionist military-gangs for more than one hundred years. In the consciousness of the generation of the Arab uprisings, the first intifada was the seed. The first Palestinian uprising grew by inventing tools of knowledge and establishing local networks that sustained, nourished, and flourished the second intifada. In the Arab revolutionary tradition, Palestine is where to look for precedence, for inspiration, and to learn how to struggle for liberation. And while the millions engulfed the streets of many Arab cities, the crushing waves of dissidence had one constant in the sea of political variables: the Palestinian flag. During the floods of emotions, proud Arab feelings mixed with high enthusiasm. Many people were electrified under the weight of the moment and the end of the path that was instantly summoned in the collective imagination. People felt that after the fall of the old guards; all this anger, energy and millions will be directed toward the liberation of Palestine.
Photo from YouTube Daboor & Shabjdeed - Inn Ann (Prod. Al Nather) Palestinian rapper Daboor standing in the middle under a sign that reads: bureau of bravery
Today in 2022, Palestine still holds the true politically-charged vibrations without trying to assume that role pretentiously. But by virtue of remaining steadfast under the occupation, Palestinians emit to the rest of us that uncompromising, undefeated scowl. We saw that on Daboor’s face when he dropped his monumental track and said: “With bravery I set up shop!” It’s precisely this contagious bravery that Daboor introduced in May 2021 that will stand in the face of the cultural offensive and dispossession that we are all at risk in the Arab world and beyond.
The nineteen year old Palestinian artist Daboor is a new member of BLTNM. He spoke about the concept of bravery that he accentuated in his hit collaboration song with Shab Jdeed, Inn Ann. He said in this Ma3zif interview that “bravery is when a young man respects the people around him and everyone respects him back. Bravery against the occupation in a confrontation; what’s more than a man standing in front of you with an M16 and you are confronting him bare hands? This is bravery.”
Daboor’s rocketing fame struck the sky and lit the darkness casting over Palestinians fighting against ethnic cleansing from Sheikh al-Jarrah neighbourhood. His uncompromising lyrics energized rebelling spirits on every inch of historical Palestine. He stressed that “when I write my tracks, I care a lot about what I’m saying. I don’t pay much attention to the flow, it comes on its own, but I care about what I’m saying. That’s the most important.”
In 2021, BLTNM gave us three hits that pulled the nerve in Palestine and the Arab world. First came Shab Jdeed’s Amrikkka, a track with an elaborate video production reminiscent of the live images of the invasion of Iraq. In that song, Shab jeed gave a lyrical finger to America. The track caused some controversy because of the line about Sadam Hussain. This sentiment is echoed by many young Arabs who are not motivated by sympathy and support for the person of Saddam but rather as a recognition of an Arab regime that challenged America during a time when obedience had become the norm. Shab Moori, the visual director at BLTNM, commented that “we did not glorify Saddam Hussein. We said that the way he died was not fitting for an Arab leader, a dictator or not a dictator, to be hanged by America.” Next BLTNM dropped a captivating video for their new track JIB16 that opens with a hair-raising intro with the beseeching voice of Iraqi poet Muthafar al-Nawab. In the same video, while the pandemic choked millions in isolation, Shab Jdeed exhaled a Drill-like rap flow in this track, saying, “there is war at home, there are soldiers, and there is shooting.” Lastly, BLTNM’s biggest release, in May 2021, reverberated while Jerusalem’s minarets called on Mohamad al-Daif to fulfill his promise. Daboor and Shab Jdeed dropped one of the best tracks to come out in the last eleven years. Inn-Ann instantly became the daily spiritual mantra by millions of people longing for the liberation of Palestine. The viral video clip featured a new Palestinian generation that was describing themselves as “deep-rooted and unique like the port of Mocha” in Yemen.
Photo from YouTube Daboor & Shabjdeed - Inn Ann (Prod. Al Nather). On the right Daboor next to him Shab Jdeed in the left back corner Nather
In Palestine, the alternative music scene turns a full circle and becomes an organic cultural element made and inspired by local cooks and condiments. Daboor said that his influence was Shab Jdeed who had mentioned previously that his influence was DAM. “The first time I listened to Shab Jdeed after he released his Album Sindibad, I was like this guy represents the youth of Quds. I felt that this guy was talking about me and about what I’m going through every day, said eloquently, in a song that hits deep. This is how I found Shab Jdeed the most inspiring artist.” Daboor insisted that “the music that BLTNM produces is the kind no one else can produce. The fact that it’s a collective of youth from Quds and Ramallah is a unique thing you don’t find outside. We take consideration of the occupation all the time, we are all the sons of Quds and have problems with the military and its effects. So, I talk about what I’m living. I’m not going to talk about love because I’m not in love. And as for low spirit content, people are not lacking any depressiveness in their lives. We live in destruction all the time. Those who are going to listen to downers are going to get into a depressive state and so on. Leave love songs to the lovers. We are the people of hardship. We get hardened all the time.”
Shab Moori, the visual director at BLTNM, explained that “we are not making leather shoes. There are many tracks that don’t see the light. We don’t tend to release for the sake of dropping new tracks. We don’t get pressured by dropping new things, but the pressure is to drop something that is unlike anything else out there.”
Daboor went on dropping more hits after his highly acclaimed song Inn-Ann. In new tracks, he continues to sound with the same bravery-accentuated flow. Shortly after Daboor was introduced BLTNM released the first album of their fresh talent Fawzi. With such heavy calibres under its belt, BLTNM shows that the only way to remain independent from big entertainment is by working together towards an organized mode of cultural production that is bigger than the individual. As Shab jdeed said, “BLTNM is an institution, it gets things done, and it's more important than Shab Jdeed.” It’s this collectivist spirit that comes back at us sonically undeterred from the place of beginnings: Palestine.