Music is the Weapon… of the Present!
Middle East’s Revolutionary Artists meet Fela Anikulapo Kuti
One was beaten, one was imprisoned, all have been questioned by the police and most are facing censorship. But their music cannot be stopped. Freemuse is proud to present a unique track with a group of today’s most powerful Arab and Iranian revolutionary artists joining together to cover Fela Kuti’s most powerful political songs.
L7a9ed (El Haqed, “The Enraged One,” Morocco), Ramy Essam (Egypt), Arabian Knightz (Egypt), Refugees of Rap (Palestine/Syria), Salomé MC (Iran), Palestinian Rapperz (Gaza), Armada Bizerta (Tunisia), and Moe Hamzeh (The Kordz, Lebanon) are just some of the artists who’ve joined forces with the goal of recording some of the most controversial political songs ever to come out of Africa – the songs of Fela Kuti.
“Everyone agreed that if you’re going to do a project on Fela in the Middle East, you have to start with ‘Zombie’,” Mark LeVine explained. He is a guitar player, scholar, commentator and author of the Freemuse report “Headbanging against repressive regimes”.
“The song not only captures the most basic problem facing people today — the need to become more aware and stop being sheep, but helps us show how similar the problems facing Africa forty years ago are to those facing the Arab/Muslim world today,” said Mark LeVine.
The groove for ‘Zombie’ was laid down by Voodoo Sound Club in their studio in Bologna. The first few bars made Seun Kuti, Fela’s youngest son and leader of his father’s iconic Egypt 80 band, to jump at the chance to join the song. Its his voice we hear at the start of the song remind us that “music is the weapon. Music is the weapon of the future!” just before the full band kicks in. Seun was recorded by LeVine in Kuti’s home in Lagos just after he’d gotten off his most successful world tour yet.
Ramy Essam is featured next, singing the introductory lyrics as well as the opening refrain, which highlights the mindlessness of Egyptian security forces, who “Go Steal, Go Beat, Go Torture, and Go Kill” whenever they’re ordered to without hesitation. Extending the international coordinates behind the recording, Essam was recorded in Malmo, Sweden. At the same time, Grammy-winner producer Anton Pukshansky was working on the music in his studio in Los Angeles.
With Kuti and Essam in place and the groove as tight as a kpanlogo drum head, ‘Zombie’ goes on to feature four verses, starting off with L7a9ed, who literally left jail the end of his latest imprisonment and went directly into the studio. The anger and defiance drips from his voice as his raps, “Wake up and revolt, my brothers! The government must go! / We wanna live in freedom, but they wash our brains, and we became mind-slaves / We live but we’re like living dead.”
Next Egyptian revolutionary rapper Karim Rush from Arabian Knightz and Africa Express drops a verse that focuses on “The revolution is still bleeding. How much more of a beating, you son-of-a-bitch? In the heart of the dead zones people living in cemetaries, with no purpose, in anarchy. And for these few lines, they can disappear me too.”
With both rappers you can here the off-balance nature of blending the 6/8 time of the Afrobeat rhythms with the 4/4 time of both traditional Arab music and American hiphop.
Rush is followed by Iran’s first female rapper, Salomé MC, who literally destroys the groove — her delivery is so powerful it sends the song to an even higher level of intensity than it had already reached. Salomé MC tears into the apathy and fake-activism of so many of her generation:
“Our range of empathy is between 20 comments to 20,000 likes / And our attention is scattered all over the place like the military bases of you-know-who.”
There’s never been as succinct a description of the links between authoritarinism at home and the games of great powers abroad.
The song closes with a tragic duet from the Palestinian refugee brothers, Yasser and Muhammad Jamous, who grew up in Damascus’ Yarmouk Refugee Camp, and who rapped about its slow death even as the Assad regime was bombing it further into oblivion in early 2015. As they shout, “Wake up! Get up from this dream you’re living in! Violating the houses and raping the minds and you’re like a zombie hidden by a virus. You gotta be free and break the chains of slavery.”
The New Weapon of Mass Destruction Insurrection
It was Fela who first declared: “Music is the weapon of the future!” What he really meant, according to his sons Femi and Seun, was that the future had arrived with Fela’s music, and he’d use it to attack the criminals and murderers running his beloved Nigeria with every chance he had. ‘Zombie’. ‘Coffin for Head of State’. ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’. ‘Water be no Enemy’. The list goes on and on, for countless songs and hundreds of hours.
Tragically, they don’t make artists with Fela’s fearlessness and outsized musical talent anymore.
Or at least they didn’t.
And then a young Tunisian fruit seller named Muhammad Bouazizi set himself alight on a dusty street of a provincial town. Suddenly, the Middle East and North Africa exploded—not just with protests but with music. In Tunisia an unknown rapper who called himself El Général wrote a lamentation to the complete breakdown of government responsibility to the average citizen. When he was arrested, the song, ‘Rais Lebled’, and his popularity took off. Large protests ensured his release, and ‘Rais Lebled’ became the rap song that helped launch a revolution that shook, and changed, the world.
Across North Africa, an unknown heavy metal singer named Ramy Essam showed up to Tahrir Square at the start of the Egyptian revolution with nothing but a sleeping bag and a beat-up acoustic guitar. Within 24 hours he’d written the anthem of the Arab Spring, ‘Irhal!’ (Leave!). Within days tens of thousands of Egyptians were singing along with him in Tahrir. By the time Mubarak was forced from power, millions knew his song. Essam would go on to be the “voice of the Egyptian revolution” and the Arab Spring more broadly, writing the soundtrack for the ongoing protests in the next two years, and finally being forced to leave Egypt to escape the constant persecution and threats from the government.
As Essam’s music excoriated the failures of the Egyptian government to live up to its democratic potential, in Morocco a young rapper, L7a9ed was taking on the most dangerous force in any Middle Eastern state: the police. His ‘Dogs of the State’ (‘Klab ad-dawla’) was one of a group of songs that tore into the Makzhen, or political establishment, leaving nothing to the imagination. For his trouble he shot to the forefront of the February 20th movement, and has spent two years in three different stints in jail.
The list goes on. Across the Arab world and into Iran young artists have not just reflected the changes in their countries; they’ve helped lead them. For two decades they’ve served as the canaries in the coal mine of Middle Eastern politics — the “al-Jazeera” of the Arab and Iranian street, shouting out to the world in the years leading up to the Arab Spring that their generation was ready to explode. For their trouble they were arrested, beaten, tortured, jailed, exiled and even killed.
Everything changed with the uprisings, at least for a short while. But then the power of corrupt and brutal regimes reasserted itself and musicians are once again under threat from Morocco to Afghanistan.
The artists represent precisely the “weaponization” of music that Fela heralded—no longer in the future, today in the present as a tool for pushing for greater freedom, dignity and social justice. If Fela wrote Africa’s political soundtrack in the 1960s through 1980s, they are writing the soundtrack of political change today—its successes and even more so—tragically—its failures. In the process they are engaged in what is at once a powerfully cultural and political project: bringing together voices, rhythms, styles and music from the north and south of the Sahara — from the Mediterranean through the Sahara and Sahel, and into the heart of West Africa. They were connected once, for millennia in fact. But with colonialism and the nation-state, the cultures were divided and isolated.
For those who understand the Arabic and Persian, the groove is matched by the political fury, showing us precisely how natural the greatest political artist of the 20th century melds together with the visceral and gutteral Arabic and Farsi rapping and singing. Fela never sounded so relevant, and so powerful.
The production team
Born out of a desire to bring together some of the most powerful music on the planet today with the most powerful—and funky—music of the last half century, Moroccan band leader and documentarian Reda Zine (Voodoo Sound Club, Fawda Trio, The Long Road to the Hall of Fame) and Grammy-winning American guitarist and professor Mark LeVine (Ozomatli, Ramy Essam, Lazywall, Public Enemy, Heavy Metal Islam) brought on board multiple Grammy winning Anton Pukshansky (over 100 million albums sold), and platinum-selling, award winning Italian producer Andrea Deda to give a new, “Afropolitan” voice to the most dangerous—and in many ways, endangered young revolutionary artists in the Middle East and North Africa today. Together they plan to record at least half a dozen of Fela’s most memorable songs in the coming year.
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» Afropop Worldwide – 21 May 2015:
Zombie Worldwide: Freemuse Releases Fela Cover by Young Arab Musicians