Egypt and the Middle East: The musicians are taking incredible risks



The Middle East:

The musicians are taking incredible risks

“As we all enjoy the stories of how music has become a potent weapon in the struggles for freedom across the Arab world, let’s bear in mind that the situation could change for the worse,” writes author Mark LeVine in this personal commentary based on his recent experiences together with musicians in Egypt.

On the Music Freedom Day of 2011, Mark LeVine reminds us that “we all owe it to the artists who are risking so much by taking the lead, to stand behind them and ensure that if they are silenced, we will raise our voices as loudly as did they to win their freedom.”

By Mark LeVine

The Ancient Israelites had their trumpets and harps. The French Revolutionaries had their republican hymns. The American civil rights and anti-war movement had Dylan, Baez and Hendrix.

And now, Egypt has Ramy Essam.

Essam, a 26-year old singer from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura, was not well-known before the Revolution, but he is one of Egypt’s rising stars today.

“I watched the images of what was happening at Tahrir Square, and I knew I had to be there, to help however I could,” Ramy explained to me one day as we made our way through the Square, in the midst of ever larger crowds. Ramy had been living in the Square for almost two weeks, in a tent, when we first met. I had only heard of him a few days earlier, when, preparing to leave for Cairo, I came upon a youtube video of him performing a late night show in the Square.

The video was meaningless; the light was too low to get anything but an overly grainy image of the stage, too obscure to see Ramy. But the music was so powerful I immediately downloaded it and sent it to my producer, Anton Pukshansky. Together we created a hiphop drum and bass track underneath the live song, and I scoured the internet trying to find contact information for Ramy.

After close listening to the intro of the video I picked his name out, and after much searching using multiple English spellings for this name, I found what appeared to be his facebook fan page. A few more clicks and I found the facebook page of his producer, Taher Saleh, which unlike Ramy’s fan page could actually receive messages. I immediately facebooked him and hoped he’d respond before I arrived in Egypt. When I first heard the song it had 314 hits, by the time I met Ramy he told me he’d surpassed half a million.

Music is the weapon
Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat legend, titled his the album before his death ‘Music is the weapon of the future.’ As a slogan it has become a mantra of sorts for me, as I’ve traveled across the Muslim world for much of the last decade, studying its various music scenes and working with some of the best artists I’ve had the good fortune ever to meet. And if music is a weapon, the political struggles in which artists like Kuti have been involved are very much like wars, with artists among some of the most prominent victims.

It is for that reason that Freemuse is, for me, as important as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch in the global struggle for human rights in all its aspects. If we musicians are ‘all one tribe’, we need to be doing a lot more to protect our fellow tribesmen.

Luckily, Ramy didn’t need my help, although if he’d become that overtly political just a few weeks before he might well have wound up in jail or worse. Egypt under Mubarak was an extremely authoritarian society. It was very dangerous openly to take on the regime through art if you lived there. And for this reason most of the younger artists who wanted to be critical of the regime would do so in a coded way, letting the medium itself-like heavy metal or hiphop, styles which have long political traditions within them-shape the message without having overtly to take on the ‘Pharaoh’.

But these genres are also somewhat marginal to mainstream Egyptian culture, and Ramy also clearly wanted to be a rock star, and has the looks and charisma to be one. However, it seemed to me that until the Revolution happened he hadn’t found his voice. At heart, he is a rocker, and even a metal head (or ‘metallien’, as they’re referred to in Egyptian slang). But in order to achieve an audience he felt he had to do much softer and more commercial rock music, closer to the Egyptian mainstream.

The music was fine, but not my cup of tea, and had I heard that first, I might not have looked further into Ramy’s music or expected much in the way of a powerful anthem. ‘Ilhar’, however, was so intense, even with just him on an acoustic guitar it literally rocked the Square. When I asked him about the disparity between ‘Ilhar’ and the music he normally played, and he explained, “In fact I love metal, I love bands like Limp Bizkit or Slipknot. But I do this kind of music to reach a larger audience.”

Drumming and poetry
The revolution, however, had allowed Ramy to come out of his shell, which was probably as good for his soul as it was for the ears of the people of the Square, for whom he’d performed several times a day, almost every day, since his arrival in the Square. With just an acoustic guitar and his increasingly hoarse voice, he might have started out hoping to be John Cougar, but he’d become Bob Dylan. And like Dylan just before his ‘electric’ period, Ramy told me that if the revolution succeeded he hoped that metal would become accepted enough so he could take his music in a much harder direction.

It’s hard to explain how powerful Ramy’s performances were, especially the ones late at night, when only a few dozen or 100 people were still at the Square, desperately in need of a shot of adrenalin and of hope as the uncertainty of the future and the possibility of immanent attack by government goons or even tanks, loomed in the darkness. I know that Egypt’s has been dubbed the ‘Facebook revolution’, and social media like Twitter are being described as having played crucial roles in the successful toppling of Mubarak.

But I can tell you that from Tahrir Square, the most important means of communication was the drum — or rather, the daf and the darbuka — and poetry, whether of the innumerable chants of protesters or the lyrics of the songs many artists came to perform at the Square. Indeed, what made ‘Ilhar’ so brilliant was precisely that Ramy took the best chants and made them into the lyrics for the song.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Facebook, Twitter, myspace and other social media websites and platforms are ultimately “mostly useful for publicity,” Hossam el-Hamalawy, one of Egypt’s most prominent bloggers and a major organizing force at the Square during the protests explained to me.

His body language in saying this suggested he was a bit annoyed already with so many people assuming that the revolution wouldn’t have happened save for Facebook. Rather, it was, he explained, surveying the sea of peple around him as we stood in the Square, precisely the coming together of hundreds of thousands of people, day after day, for weeks, all chanting the same demands, in harmony, with the drums beneath their voices setting the tempo and rhythm, that brought down the Pharaoh.

Music was quite literally the rhythm, the heartbeat of the revolution in Tahrir. As you walked around the Square, every 20 meters or so you’d run into another group of people chanting and banging drums, or pass by another stage with someone leading prayers or offering poetry, or just giving a captivating speech (it seemed that everyone had suddenly been given oratorial skills comparable to Martin Luther King, Jr. or perhaps more relevant, to Nasser). The music was what kept you moving, hour after hour, what provided the rhythm ith which you read the thousands of posters, cartoons, treates and other artistic and political documents that covered most every square inch of the Square.

As Andy Morgan wonderfully shows in his piece ‘From Fear to Fury’ in the Observer, music has been an essential part of the revolutions sweeping all the countries of the Arab world, from Tunisia to Bahrain. In Libya, people are returning to the old national anthem, which Qaddafi retired in favor of an Egyptian marching song. In Palestine, where young activists are planning their own revolution to begin March 15, it’s hiphop rather than rock that’s become the voice of youth, much like in Tunisia, as rappers have spent the last decade writing trenchant critiques of their society in the form of rhymes, adding some of the most innovative beats and productions techniques around to provide the aesthetic-political ambience for their powerful words.

Taking incredible risks
What is crucial as people increasingly take notice of and celebrate the powerful role of music in the Arab revolutions, is that the musicians behind the music are taking incredible risks by becoming the voices of their revolutions. Even in Egypt or Tunisia, where leaders have been toppled, authoritarian systems remain more or less in place and could strike out at prominent voices of critique and dissent at any moment. Even if democracy does flower, majoritarian rule could easily bring more censorship of voices deemed as irreligious or against conservative morality. And if the revolutions fail, the artists will likely be among the first victims of whatever new dictatorship emerges.

So as we all enjoy the stories of how music has become a potent weapon in the struggles for freedom across the Arab world, let’s bear in mind that the situation could change for the worse at a moment’s notice, and that we all owe it to the artists who are risking so much by taking the lead, to stand behind them and ensure that if they are silenced, we will raise our voices as loudly as did they to win their freedom, and those of the peoples for whom they’ve risked so much.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California, USA, and a rock guitarist. He is the author of the book ‘Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam’, and of the 9th Freemuse report, entitled ‘Headbanging against repressive regimes — Censorship of heavy metal in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia and China’

Photos: Ramy Essam performing at Tahrir Square, photographed by the author.

Mark LeVine

Ramy Essam

Click to read more about music in Egypt

Additional information and comments

7 August 2011:
Radio interview with singer Ramy Essam

Listen to BBC’s interview with Ramy Essam, the Egyptian singer-songwriter who became famous for turning protesters chants into catchy songs

The 24-year-old singer Ramy Essam was one of the first to stand up on stage on Tahrir Square in January 2011 and directly attack Mr Mubarak, calling the president by name and telling him to leave. In this interview with Matthew Bannister in the BBC World Service’s Outlook programme, Ramy Essam told his story about how he shot to the forefront of the revolution with a collection of songs that captured the fear, optimism and defiant demand for change that was sweeping across Egypt in January 2011.

BBC News article – 7 August 2011:
‘Ramy Essam: Singer catapulted to fame on Tahrir Square’


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25 May 2011:
Music paved the way for the Arab Spring

“The most powerful thing I have seen [at the huge Mawazine music festival in Rabat, Morocco] is a young rock band from Casablanca called Hoba Hoba Spirit (check ‘em out on YouTube). They had a crowd in the tens of thousands, almost all under 25 years old, shouting and moshing to hard-edged rock with Moroccan rhythms and very clever, edgy political lyrics. This is the face of North African youth—engaged, passionate, aggrieved, but more joyous and hopeful than angry. This band has made its reputation on the internet and using social media—not via CDs, radio play, or television. Seeing this, I understood how music—especially local rock and hip hop—genuinely has paved the way for the Arab Spring. This is not the music of a movement. In a very real sense, the music IS the movement. And, ultimately, the story Afropop will be investigating and revealing in Egypt is all about that: how music makes history, in the past, but, especially, in the extraordinary present we are now witnessing.
I am more convinced than ever that Afropop is working on one of the most important stories going on in the world today.”
Banning Eyre, producer of Afropop Worldwide, in his blog

5 June 2011:
New release: ‘Our Dreams Are Our Weapons – Soundtracks of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt’

Tunisian rapper El General’s ‘Rais Le Bled’ appears on the new Network compilation ‘Our Dreams Are Our Weapons – Soundtracks of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt’.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were uprisings by real people against the clans of governing despotic autocrats who were finally driven from power. In the organization of this opposition the internet played a major role as an alternative news agency. Gradually new music by various groups turned up on YouTube in particular, along which film footage of the protests, attracting millions of visitors. In close collaboration with the musicians Network has now issued a first CD of the most important soundtracks of these revolts.

• From Tunisia, Zorah Lejnef, among others, with her revolutionary hit ‘Free Tunis’

Skander Guetari with an oriental ballad encouraging the demoralized young people to engage in honourable protest; the rapper “El General” with a candidly presented list of the many abuses being suffered

• The famous composer Rabii Zamouri with a striking ‘Hymn of the Revolution’

Alia Salimi, one of her country’s best vocalists, with a subtle song about the new light at the end of the tunnel of silence

• In Egypt the song ‘The Sound of Freedom’ by Hani Adel became a hymn of the revolution and together with Ezzay by pop-star Mohammed Mounir had more than three million visitors on YouTube.

• Also from Egypt the Sufi singer Aida, who together with a children’s choir champions the peaceful coexistence of the different religions.

• The Coptic Tawadros brothers, famous for virtuoso playing on the Arab lute or oud, and delicate percussion, went to the studio directly from a demonstration.

Music that accuses, that unites in protest, that expresses hopes and longings, that invites us to reflect, and that encourages a new self-determined beginning. A unique CD documentation with 14 first issues.

28 May 2011:
Article about music revolution in Libya

The profusion, diversity, and anonymity of Libya’s revolutionary music are a complete turnaround from the stifled state of Libya’s music in the Gaddafi era. Now, Libya’s independence-era anthem came back roaring after being banned for four decades. Read the article:

Libya’s Explosive Music Revolution

Ramy Essam

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