Middle East: Hip-hop is a soundtrack to the North African revolt


20 April 2011

The Middle East:
Hip-hop is a soundtrack to the North African revolt

Hip-hop plays a central role in the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and Libya. Rap songs create an important platform for communication creating moral support and encouraging a spirit of resistance and revolt against the regime.

A new music anthology, ‘Khala’s Mixtape
Volume 1’, offers an opportunity to listen
to the sound of Arabic rap song resistance

    “Music plays a big role in influencing people, and
    I almost think for our generation… music speaks
    to us louder than politics does.”
    The Narcicyst, Montreal-based rapper with Iraqi background

“The Arabic revolutions have largely been a revolt by the young, who have made clear they are no longer willing to live in a climate of corruption, repression and hopelessness. And, like every youth revolution, this one has its own sound,” wrote Anne-Beatrice Clasmann of the US news site M&C: “Since the weight of the protests have been carried by the young, the protest songs are not the classic marches or ballads that were used when Arabic countries rose up against colonizers. Instead, today’s protest songs are all hip-hop and Oriental pop. Many of the songs aren’t available in stores. To find them, one has to go to YouTube or other websites.”

“The fact that many musicians place themselves in the front line has inspired a lot of people in the Middle East to question the rules that the system has pulled down over their heads,” told Freemuse Programme Officer Martin Buch Larsen who recently travelled in the region:

“The rappers are in their 20s, often reasonably well educated, and they see music as a way they can express themselves on the issues they are confronted with in their daily lives. They rap about unemployment, poor housing, mismanagement, corruption. And that is what makes the political leaders so furious. But the leaders’ rage has had the opposite effect: Rappers have suddenly acquired a kind of revolutionary celebrity,” he said.

Rappers mobilize
“The combination of hip-hop and the Internet, and the ability to record it and put it up online immediately and bypass all these typical media outlets and typical industry outlets is what makes it so powerful,” explained Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum over the phone from Los Angeles in an interview with New America Media.

Most of all it is the sound of hip-hop beats and rap texts that characterize ‘the Arab Spring’, and also in countries like Angola, Sudan and Senegal it is rappers who lead the way when demonstrations are to organized. In Sudan in February the hip-hop artist Ahmad spent 12 days in jail, where he was tortured. In Angola in March rapper Brigadeiro Mata Frakuzx was taken into custody along with 16 other hip-hoppers who had read poems and distributed flyers where Frakuzx talked about fighting the ‘culture of fear’ that he believes the authorities are creating. In Senegal in March, the rap group Keur Gui was arrested for organizing a ‘protest roadshow’.

Below we have compiled information about hip-hop artists in the Middle East as well as the Arab hip-hop in the Western world: 

In Tunisia, a 21-year-old rapper by the name of El Général was among the first in the Arab hip-hop scene to gain international attention for his raps related to the waves of political unrest and revolution in North Africa. He released two songs, ‘Rais Le Bled’ in November 2010 and ‘Tounes Bladna’ in December 2010, which led to his arrest in the beginning of January 2011, and an outpouring of public protest in his favor. He was released after three days of interrogation, and his rap songs reached audiences around the world through new media platforms such as YouTube.

The Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled office later in January 2011 under popular pressure, and dozens of revolutionary rap songs have been composed and published in the months since

‘Rais Le Bled’ and ‘Tounes Bladna’ were both included on the ‘Mish B3eed’ mixtape published by Khala – Arabic for ‘enough’ – a Libyan organisation which was formed in 2009 in response to Gaddafi’s first speech at the UN. The goal was to raise awareness of the dictatorship in Libya

In January and February 2011, young hip-hoppers were helping to ignite the fire in Egypt’s revolt against Hosni Mubarak. One of them is 29-year-old Omar Boflot (real name: Omar Al-Missiry) and his group, Y Crew. Like most Middle Eastern rappers Y Crew record their songs on the computer and then put them on the web.

On 4 February 2011, just weeks after the 25 January demonstrations and uprisings in Egypt, one of the leading Egyptian rap groups, Arabian Knightz, posted their song ‘Not Your Prisoner’ featuring the UK-based Palestian rapper Shadia Mansour, also known as ‘The First Lady of Arabic Hip-Hop’, and the Palestinian-American producer Fredwreck on YouTube where it quickly received thousands of views.

The new music anthology from Khala, ‘Khala’s Mixtape Volume 1’, offers an opportunity to listen to the sound of Arabic rap song resistance.

A Libyan rapper, Ibn Thabit, is represented with three tracks on Khala’s mixtape. He posted the song ‘Al-Soo’al’ on YouTube on 27 January 2011, weeks before the riots began in Libya.
The lyrics go:

    ‘Al-Soo’al’ (The Issue)

    “Muammar: You have never served the people
    Muammar: You’d better give up
    Confess. You cannot escape
    Our revenge will catch you
    As a train roars through a wall
    We will drown you”

“I was affected more by conversations with my fellow countrymen than by anything else,” Ibn Thabit told a journalist from the Danish newspaper Information. Ibn Thabit has been critizising the regime in Libya in his rap since 2008.

Under Colonel Gaddafi, local rap music was never aired on state-controlled radio stations. “Musicians knew certain subjects – such as directly criticising the government – were taboo. Artists had to circulate their tracks on the internet or mobile phones,” wrote Matthew Green and Andrew England in Financial Times.

“Last April, members of Col Gaddafi’s revolutionary committees – a quasi-paramilitary force used to control cities, towns and villages across the north African nation – confiscated instruments in a crackdown on student performers in Benghazi.”

The Libyan artists veiled their criticism of the country’s autocracy by using metaphors. For example, Guys Underground, a Benghazi rock band, composed a song entitled “Like My Father Always Says” to mock a stern patriarch, a veiled reference to Col Gaddafi. After much deliberation, the band released the track before the uprising.

According to the article in Financial Times, another positive development for musicians in the opposition-controlled east is that they are able to air their work on the rebel-controlled Free Libya, composing anthems aimed at inspiring fighters – and persuading government forces it is time to rise up against the regime.

“You can burn all the bodies, you can bury them in the ground, they will rise up from their ashes, just to bring you down,” runs the refrain of a revolutionary song sung by Ahmed “Sasi”, 29, another artist tapping into the revolutionary zeal.

In April 2011, the 25-year-old Danish pop singer and rapper Mazen Ismail was in Damascus studying Arabic as an exchange student. One day he was picked up at the university by the Syrian intelligence service for a three-hour long interrogation in which he sat on a small chair in a cold interrogation room in front of an intelligence officer, being questioned about the music which he has published in Denmark with a group Lagix.

The officer asked to a specific hit song of his and whether the (Danish) lyrics contained criticism of Syria.Finally Mazen Ismail was allowed to go — with an instruction that he could not say anything bad about the Syrian society, and that he should use his music to “say something good about the regime.”

“In Denmark we often perceive music as a kind of hobby, but in Syria, the authorities are aware of the forces that lie in the music when used as a mouthpiece — it is something that can change people’s mindsets,” said Mazen Ismail who made ​​sure to finish his study quickly and now is back in Denmark.

“Rap, by definition, is revolutionary” told Fadi Bakheet, member of the hip-hop group DARG (Da Arabian Revolutionary Guys) in Gaza, to the newspaper MetroXpress: “Our music has a double meaning, but people understand what we mean. Two years ago, we were prohibited from making music in Gaza, but we kept doing it anyway. The music here is underground, so we’re pretty hard to track.”

Solidarity world-wide
The January uprisings in Egypt sparked a wave of protest music from the global Arab hip-hop scene, fueling an outpour from hip-hop artists based in the US and Canada such as The Narcicyst (real name: Yassin Alsalman), an Iraqi journalist and hip-hop MC who was born and raised in Dubai and today lives in Montreal in Canada, and from UK-based hip-hop artists such as Lowkey, who is referred to as “one of world’s most recognised Arab rap artists”.

In the US, many hip-hop artists inspired by uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have released music in solidarity with protesters in the region. American hip-hop pioneer Davey D released a ‘Beats for Revolution Mixtape’ that features ‘Not Your Prisoner’ and ‘#Jan25’ alongside the sounds of Dead Prez, Public Enemy and Immortal Technique.

The Narcicyst

El Général


Youth movement in the line of fire

From Morocco to Bahrain, everyday people have taken on the cast iron hold of dictatorships and absolute monarchies resulting in an extraordinary collective awakening that has paved the way for epochal change in the region. The youth movement, which lies at the core of the uprisings, continues to play a prominent role in the pro-democracy and pro-reform demonstrations, which have swept through the region, unabated by government clampdowns or concessions.

To date, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a civil war in Libya, major protests in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Oman, Iran and Yemen and minor protests in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara. The protests have also triggered similar unrest outside the region, including in Azerbaijan. Fuelled by unemployment, restrictions on freedom of expression and government corruption, the protests proved to be the ultimate litmus test for government’s tolerance of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, across the Middle East and North Africa.

Excerpt from newsletter from the independent human rights organisation Article 19

Documentary film about the rise of Arab hip-hop

Premiere of ‘Broken Records’

Broken Records is a documentary on the rise of Arab hip-hop — about Arab artists and their cultivation of Western art into modern Arab culture.

“This documentary shows that rapping and beat-boxing are not just pleasure activities, but is a medium that the younger generation has opted to get their voices heard,” said the directors of the film — Rana Khaled, Shannon Farhoud and Ashlene Ramadan, three journalism students at Northwestern University in Qatar, all under the age of 22.

The film features six rappers, and shows live performances by the youth motivational speaker and beat-boxer Yahya Zakaria Bakkar and the singer/MC Cyrus “the Raskol Khan” McGoldrick

See the film and read more about ‘Broken Records’ on National Geographic

Trailer for the film:

Watch on YouTube

Additional information

24 July 2011:

Is hip hop driving the Arab Spring?

Music and revolutions have a long history. Hip hop in the Arab world does not. But as the Arab Spring turns to summer, is hip hop emerging as one of the drivers of the revolution?

Read the article by Cordelia Hebblethwaite in which she interviews music journalist Andy Morgan, and Freemuse’s Officer Martin Buch Larsen, among others, and listen to the 5-minutes radio report ‘A music of struggle’ which contains an interview with Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American hip hop artist:

BBC News article – 24 July 2011:
‘Is hip hop driving the Arab Spring?’

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.


Iraqi-Canadian The Narcicyst’ song ‘#Jan25’ about the Egyptian Revolution. The song features the Arab artists Omar Offendum, Freeway, Ayah, and Amir Sulaiman.

‘Libyan Youth Rap for Freedom’ — video about Mercy Corps’ work with rap music in Benghazi, Libya. Produced, written and filmed by Cassandra Nelson.

Articles about the same topic

Babelmed – 31 December 2011:

‘Quand le rap devient une arme (When rap becomes a weapon)’

IPS – 7 December 2011:

‘Arab Spring Set to Music’

Monsters and Critics – 18 April 2011:

‘Arabic revolution fueled by a new kind of music’

New America Media – 16 April 2011:

‘Arab Rappers in Solidarity With Uprisings in Middle East & North Africa’

Financial Times – 8 April 2011:

‘Benghazi shoots from the hip-hop’

Mark LeVine – 3 March 2011:
The Middle East: The musicians are taking incredible risks

Democracy Now – 2 March 2011:

‘Arab Hip-Hop and Revolution: The Narcicyst on Music, Politics, and the Art of Resistance’

Andy Morgan – 27 February 2011:

Egypt and Tunisia: The artistic revolution in the Middle East

Search for more articles

Google News – continuously updated:

Search: ‘hip-hop’ + ‘Arab’ + ‘revolution’

Sources in French language

Jeune Afrique – 1 August 2011:

‘Printemps arabe : rap against the regime’
(Google Translation to English language)

Sources in Danish language

Click to see the article

Ritzau TV – 26 April 2011:

‘Oprørsrap går som varmt brød i Benghazi’

Musikeren – 1 April 2011:

‘Musikere i skudlinjen i det arabiske forår’

MetroXpress – 31 March 2011:

‘Rage Against the Regime: arabiske rappere fører an i revolutionen’

Information – 22 March 2011:

‘Disse mikrofoner vælter diktatorer’

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