Mark LeVine, We’ll Play till We Die: Journeys Across a Decade of Revolutionary Music in the Muslim World (University of California Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Mark LeVine (ML): We’ll Play till We Die is a continuation and deepening of the stories and relationships that I chronicled in Heavy Metal Islam, published in 2008. This book picks up where Heavy Metal Islam left off and continues till the present day, with the chapters covering the same countries and artists while introducing a new generation of musicians, artists, and activists I have met and worked with during the last decade and a half. First and foremost, the goal of both books has been to share the amazing music of artists in what I term “extreme youth music” (EYM) scenes across the MENA. But whereas the first book explored the possibility of music serving as a political and potentially revolutionary force for the generation of artists and activists who created and populated the EYM scenes, We’ll Play till We Die saw those artists suddenly thrust into the middle of major protests and even revolutionary action while a new generation entered and transformed the scenes.
The second motivation was a response to something the founder of the Egyptian Nile Delta group El Tanboura, Zakaria Ibrahim said to me not long before the pandemic erupted. In response to my asking him why he continued performing despite all the difficulties presented by the present regime, the lack of tourism and possibilities for touring, and other factors that made it hard to continue his work, he told me: “We’ll play till we die.” It perfectly captured the attitude of most every musician I know in the MENA and larger Muslim world. It is in tribute to the courage, brilliance, and virtuosity of these artists, many of whom have been imprisoned and/or exiled in the last decade, as well as the many activists who were also nurtured in the DIY underground music scenes, that I wanted to document the music and the politics in which it become embroiled, and share my experiences as widely as possible.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ML: The research for this book demonstrated that the skills that were important to creating and growing underground, ostracized, and often repressed DIY music scenes covered in Heavy Metal Islam turned out to be important to building grassroots political movements as well. So it is not surprising that many of the young metalheads and rappers I discussed in Heavy Metal Islam naturally moved into activism as new spaces for political action opened; some would play important roles organizing the 2010-13 protests across the region, in Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, and other countries.
But it was not just the transfer of skills, such as in social media publicity, or even digitally creating, distributing, and consuming culture outside of the control of either governments or corporations that was so important. These artists and the scenes that revolved around the music are the embodiment of what can be termed twenty-first-century critical theory: they are innovative and self-reflexive, working to understand, push, and transcend the limits of how music can move people physically, spiritually, and politically. (I first explored these issues in an October 2011 piece for Jadaliyya, “New Hybridities of Arab Musical Intifadas”). As important, they are arising out of struggle against various forms of marginalization and repression, which in this case began in earnest with the Satanic metal scares of the mid/late-'90s through mid-'00s.
Writing We’ll Play till We Die allowed—in fact, forced—me to address issues I have long been grappling with about how to include in my writing the artists and activists I have collaborated with and even come to call friends. What kind of role can I play as someone who studies, works with and is often close to artists who do not particularly require others to tell their stories or explain their music on their behalf—and indeed, who are also regularly, if not continuously, narrating their lives and views in public, via social media as well as their art? How does one chronicle, interpret, and assess the lives, art, and praxis of people who are constantly chronicling, reflecting on, and transforming themselves at the same time? And how does that role change when they are under threat of censorship, imprisonment, or worse, because of their art?
Having been one of the first people to bring Latin American decolonial theory into Middle East studies (with my 1999 dissertation and later book, Overthrowing Geography), it was very important for me to offer a decolonial narrative surrounding the increasingly powerful role of music in the MENA during the era of the uprisings—that is, one that grounded the music historically as well as aesthetically in the longue durée. My approach ultimately was inspired by my increasing engagement with Indigenous research methodologies, which focus on how research impacts the people and communities one is studying, taking their lead in developing research agendas, and working in an open, respectful, non-extractive, relational, and collaborative engagement with them, which led to my writing most chapters with the artists from the region and the conclusion with colleagues who have shared similar experiences.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ML: This book is deeply related to my previous work, particularly Heavy Metal Islam. It continues to chronicle the lives of musicians and activists I have known for going on twenty years now. Some of them, like Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who was one of the OG metalheads in Egypt, have become deeply intertwined with the subsequent political history of the country. In his case, this has led to his brutal imprisonment for most of the last decade; in many other cases, it has led to exile or worse. In this book, however, I wanted to delve deeper into how the artists I knew best would narrate the events and history of which they were a part; the collaborative writing process enabled that to unfold. Finally, by collectively writing the epilog with three leading scholars of music in Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey—Nihad Siamdoust, Jeremy Wallach, and Pierre Hecker, respectively—we were able to define what I believe is a state of the art for studying youth music and particularly EYM, and to propose an agenda for future research.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ML: I hope the book has a broad audience because I think the artists and their music featured in the book deserve the widest possible hearing by everyone. In the case of music like Pakistan's Sufi inspired progressive metal and rock, as epitomized by Coke Studio's collaborations between leading Sufi and Rock and metal artists, the results are utterly original and spine-tinglingly good. And Pakistan, especially its northernmost regions which are now horrifically damaged by flooding, constitutes one of the most avant-garde and amazing musical locations on the planet, joined by Cairo’s electronica scene, Gaza’s garage rock, and Casablanca’s women-led trap scene (to name just a few).
2008, the year I first published Heavy Metal Islam, also witnessed the first international conference of “heavy metal studies,” held in Salzburg Austria. While only a few papers addressed metal in the Arab/Muslim world, it was already clear that global metal studies was becoming central to the evolution of the still young field of metal studies. Today, metal, hip hop, hardcore, and other forms of EYM are, as a rule, studied from a global perspective. We’ll Play till We Die hopes to engage with and further develop this robust field with a transregional and transdisciplinary focus.
I hope this book will be also read by sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and historians, all of whom I hope will be inspired to recognize that music as well as other forms of artistic production offers untapped resources for understanding, researching, writing, and teaching about the Arab/Muslim world.
Finally, I hope students will read this book. As a teacher, it has become clear how beneficial it is to include music in most of my courses on the histories and contemporary dynamics of MENA societies. Even when teaching about early Islam, bringing in music immediately makes the lecture visceral and engaging, and helps illuminate the plurality of belief and practice across time and place.
For those interested, a Spotify playlist contains most of the songs discussed in the book, except those that were recorded as part of videos of protests and uploaded to YouTube but were never officially released.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ML: I have just published a co-edited volume with Sune Haugbolle, Altered States: The Remaking of the Political in the Arab World (Routledge, 2022) - discussed in this NEWTON - which brings together a group of scholars utilizing the pioneering work of Timothy Mitchell on the “limits” of the state to explore the transformations, political practices, and subjectivities in the Arab world since the eruption of the uprisings in 2010.
I am also working on two collaborative monographs for UC Press. One is titled Art Beyond the Edge: Creativity and Conflict in a Necroliberal Age, co-written with my UCI colleague Bryan Reynolds, which explores the role of art in situations of intense social and political conflict. The second, Marginalia of a Revolution, brings together debris, detritus, and seemingly throw-away objects, events, stories, and discourses from the uprisings that tell a hidden story of this still unfinished era.
Finally, with a group of scholars at Sydney University led by Arabic Studies Chair Lucia Sorbera, I am curating an exhibition that narrates the experience of cultural artistic activism developed by marginalized urban communities in Egypt, Nigeria, and Australia.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 3, “Palestine/Israel: Uprising in Music”)
Composed by Mark LeVine, Saz and Abed Hathout, mixed by Abed, produced by Mark.
The collaboration that brought the Walled Off Hotel [in Bethlehem] to fruition was also involved in the creation of the Palestine Music Expo (PMX) beginning in 2017. Conceived by Rami Younis, Martin Goldschmidt, DAM's Mahmoud Jrere, and Khalas's Abed Hathout, the idea of PMX has from the start been twofold: bring leading European and American music industry professionals to Ramallah to be introduced to the best Palestinian musical talent in the Occupied Territories and among Palestinian citizens of Israel, with the goal of both making connections that could lead to great exposure, provide professional education through panels and listening sessions, and distribute their music and invitations to perform abroad, while, at the same time, help educate the industry about the Occupation and nonviolent strategies of solidarity and resistance, including BDS.
Over three years PMX more than doubled the number of delegates attending, averaging over fifteen hundred people per night in year three, despite the violence of the Gaza conflict and obvious surveillance, which led to a purposefully low-key public campaign for the festival. If the musical highlight of the first edition was Khalas’s killer reunion show, the second edition had more star appeal as well as political poignancy. The star in question was celebrated British musical artist and producer Brian Eno, who along with Roger Waters has long been among the most powerful and public supporters of Palestinians in the United Kingdom and larger European music scenes.
It was quite a surprise to see Eno at PMX because only months earlier he did the Walled Off Hotel collaboration remotely from London, as it was felt that Israel, which controls all the entrances into the West Bank, wouldn’t let him into the country if he tried to come because of his well-known advocacy of BDS. As it turned out, Eno came in on his own, with no fanfare and not even a single question at Ben Gurion airport, a pleasant surprise, if not shock, to PMX organizers.
There he was, and with his presence the importance of PMX as both a gateway to the elite of the music industry and a vehicle to share the Palestinian experience of Occupation couldn’t have been clearer. His presence was nearly eclipsed, however, by Lebanese alternative rock and soul diva Yasmine Hamdan. It’s hard to overstate what a thrill it was for Palestinians in the West Bank to see Hamdan in their midst. As a Lebanese artist, it’s more or less impossible for her to travel to the Occupied Territories, but thanks to her French passport she was-like Eno-allowed in…
PMX 2018 was a "happening" not only because of the dozens of foreign delegates and musical dignitaries in attendance, but even more so because so many of the most important contemporary Palestinian musical artists were there. Boikutt from Ramallah Underground, one of the seminal global "sound catching" hip hop artists, did an incredible improvisational DJ set, which highlighted the presence of other amazing DJs, especially women like Sama' Abdulhadi (aka Skywalker) and multi-instrumentalist Rasha Nahas, who's at the helm of an up-and-coming generation of experimental trip hop artists like Moody (who along with Rasha relocated to Berlin in 2019). What is striking about all these artists is not just their talent but their originality; none could easily be placed into an obvious genre or clique, the way one could fairly easily place most artists you might be exposed to in Cairo or Beirut. It was as if, given the small size of the Palestinian scene on both sides of the Green Line, each of these artists constituted an entire subgenre on their own.
Even more powerful than the presence of so many great acts was the absence, at least in person, of two of Gaza's most important groups, MC Gaza and Watar Band. Both bands were prohibited by Israel from leaving the Strip to come to Ramallah for PMX, no doubt in good measure because of the intense protests (and Israeli violence) associated with the Great March of Return then occurring in Gaza. Instead, both groups sent videos to be played for the crowd. MC Gaza's was particularly powerful. Titled "Koshok" (Arabic for the tires that were ubiquitously burned during the protests, as shown in the video), the song is a powerful attack on the violence of Israel's response to the protests; it features a relatively slow groove punctuated by sharp and stabbing synth riffs and the sounds of the protests. Over this purposeful cacophony, MC Gaza delivers a shockingly mellow rap: "Who started first? He occupied me and confronted me. He thinks the blood will go in vain," he begins, rapping from the front lines of the protests and fighting, the video interspersed with images and footage of bloodied protesters and young men hurling sling shots into the clouds of tear gas toward the unseen enemy. Filmed with a drone in the midst of the protests and fighting while MC Gaza rapped for his life next to the field of battle, the images were more important than the words…
The 2019 edition of PMX didn't have quite the star wattage without Brian Eno, Yasmine Hamdan, and the Trio Joubran, but it did have Sepultura drummer Igor Cavalera, who was clearly impressed by the quality and dedication as well as courage of the dozens of artists he saw perform. Most of the Palestinian artists who performed were repeat performers from the first or second edition of the Expo. There was palpable tension in the lead-up to the first day as Israel had once again been attacking Gazan protesters and, more troublingly in the immediate sense, had in the week before PMX kidnapped a group of student activists from Birzeit, shot dead a Palestinian at the Qalandiya crossing outside Ramallah, and staged several raids inside the city. With the history of closing down Palestinian cultural events, there was every reason to suspect a similar fate would await PMX in 2020, especially after foreign delegates were questioned at length on the way to Tel Aviv.
There were numerous standouts at the 2019 edition of PMX. Younger artists like Rasha and Moody showed increasing maturity and stage presence during their sets. Veterans like DAM showcased its newest member, singer Maysa Daw, who stole the show with her powerful voice and command of the stage. […]
But for most delegates there were two standouts among the several dozen artists. The first was Bashar Murad, one of the first, if not the only, (relatively) openly gay musical artists in the Arab/Muslim world, whose highly polished Arab pop sound and out and open queer identity (and fashion sense) blew everyone away. For purely musical edge, however, no one came close to Haifa-based bass player, OG metalhead, and composer Raymond Haddad, who did a half-hour long improvisational EDM set with nothing but a dozen or so modular synths linked together with dozens of patch cables. Standing amid the delegates to the side of the stage, one could see their forty-, fifty-, and sixty-something faces light up at the old school artistry displayed by one of Palestine/Israel's most talented musicians, and so it wasn't surprising when Raymond was mobbed by business cards [when] he walked off the stage.
For audacity and hope the most inspiring and politically important artists were the Gazan trio of bands, Tybo, Sol Band, and Watar Band. None of the bands was complete; the Israelis seemed to choose who wasn't allowed out in order to prevent one full band from getting to Ramallah, but with the members who made it and two days of intense rehearsals, all three bands managed to pull off three exciting shows. Night two featured two of the groups, Tybo and Sol Band, and they were both a treat to watch and listen to, made all the more poignant by the ongoing protests and violence eighty-two kilometers to the southwest in Gaza.
The morning of the third day, a delegation of attendees made the half-hour trip from Ramallah to Nabi Saleh to visit the family of Ahed Tamimi, the young activist who was jailed by Israel for physically attacking soldiers who'd invaded her house. […] Despite having years of experience in Palestine, Martin was particularly "stunned" (as he put it) by what he saw. The constant violence suffered by the family was on that day represented by the presence of Ahed’s brother, Mohammed, who was sporting a cast on his right arm, broken during a recent Israeli invasion of their house. […] Afterward Martin explained that the visit affirmed his belief that "music is the Palestinians' secret weapon" because it could be used to bring people to places like Nabi Saleh, where they experience the Occupation in a way that bulldozes even the most deeply held beliefs about Israel. Ahed and her father, Bassem, agreed on the role of music in their struggle: "It's a weapon," Bassem explained as he talked about the festival that he hoped to organize to highlight the ongoing attacks now that the weekly protests have been stopped. "Music and culture are the most powerful way to resist."