If 2011 was the year of euphoria, 2012 was the year of accountability. This is the cycle of revolution. As the struggle continues throughout Arab countries in the Middle East, it’s important to remember that democracy is not a quick-fix pill, and a revolution doesn’t fail by process but by abandonment from every citizen. If the following ten music videos, all produced this past year, are any indication, the spirit of the Arab uprisings is loud and clear in its quest to reclaim political and national identity, reframe the Middle East narrative to tell the story of the citizens not the despot, and remind that a revolution is only as good as the people who hold each other accountable to see it through.
“Kelmti Horra” by Emel Mathlouthi
One of the most iconic images to come out of the Tunisian protests was of a young woman, dressed in a red coat, returning from exile in France, singing a cappella in a crowd of chanting protesters. The video went viral, and two years later, Emel Mathlouthi (one of Aslan Media’s five music artists to watch in 2012) celebrates her country’s revolution with her 2007 signature song, which became an unofficial anthem for the uprisings that took place after the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010. Calm, confident, sensual, and determined, her tight and almost operatic vocal harmonies both compliment and contrast the song’s simultaneous mournful nostalgia and firm declaration for dignity, human rights and individual freedom.
“Ana Mawgood” by City Band
One of the most innovative Arabic music videos to come out of 2012, City Band’s “Ana Mawgood,” released on the first anniversary of Egypt’s January25 uprisings, is simultaneously a confrontation of the brutal violence carried out by the military against protesters, a tribute to youth who have been killed, and a declaration of solidarity to make sure the continuing revolution does not lose momentum. Think Kiss-meets German Expressionism-meets Arabic flair.
“El-Soor” by Youssra El Hawary
It doesn’t take much to create political commentary or a music video. Egyptian singer-songwriter Youssra El Hawary succeeds in both, armed with wit, a smile, and an accordion. Her song sounds simple enough: a poor man stands against an SCAF wall and pees on it–and those who built it. Okay, perhaps not as polite as it is whimsical, but that’s the charm of this award-winning track. Recorded at dawn while she perched atop one of the controversial concrete walls built around downtown Cairo by Egyptian security forces, El Hawary’s viral tune is a biting criticism of political life in Egypt post-Jan25, masked in the innocent charm of lilting rhythms and a playful melody.
In Tunisia, it was El Général. In Libya, it was Ibn Thabit. In Syria, hip hop’s voice of peaceful resistance against the Assad regime is spear-headed by none other than wordsmith and rapper Omar Offendum. Released in March, after his relatives gave him their blessing, “#SYRIA” has become one of Offendum’s iconic tracks–his scathing commentary against the Assad regime, his rally call for freedom, and his manifesto of solidarity with the protesters he raps for from afar. The music video, with its old-school 90s feel infused with Arabic poetry, proved to be a YouTube favorite, receiving 45,000 hits within its first couple days. Part of what adds power to the track is the fact that Offedum’s rap is bookended by two different sound recordings of anti-Assad protests: the first features the oft-repeated phrase heard throughout every Arab uprising, “The People Demand the Fall of the Regime”; the second is the popular battle cry “Come On, Bashar, Time to Leave,” lead by singer and poet Ibrahim Qashoush shortly before Syrian security forces killed him and had his vocal cords ripped out.
Offendum, who the Syrian government has officially banned from entering its borders, is very quick to correct people who mistake him as a spokesperson for Syrian protesters by stating that because he himself is not on the ground fighting, “#SYRIA” instead is in solidarity with those in the opposition movement. Yet despite the physical distance, Offendum’s contributions to the resistance cannot be overlooked. His music provides a soundtrack to the awareness he creates around the mixed emotions and pressures of being an American who is still closely tied to democratic conflicts abroad.
“MUSLIM” by DEEN, featuring Sphinx
Islam’s PR image took a trifecta hit in August and September, first with the YouTube release of Islamophobic trailer The Innocence of Muslims, followed by anti-American riots against the film, which all hit a climax when a fringe extremist group killed American ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi on September 11. The cause of his assassination was initially and incorrectly attributed to riots outside the embassy. In an effort to break up the monotonous mediocrity and photo-op witch-hunt that has become mainstream coverage of Muslims in the Middle East, UAE-based rapper DEEN teamed up with Sphinx from the Cairo-based hip hop trio Arabian Knightz (one of Aslan Media’s five music artists to watch in 2012) to release “MUSLIM,” an upbeat track meant to reset media distortions and hate messages exploiting freedom of expression with Islamic enlightenment and positivity. Amongst Muslims, the song is a reminder of the importance of resistance through civility, and a wake-up call for activism through creative expression.
“Juliano’s Way” by DAM
Perhaps one of the sorest spots in Middle East cultural events last year took place in November, when Israeli Defense Forces assassinated Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari in a surgical airstrike, leading the two factions to trade rockets (Israel launching significantly more than Hamas) in the days leading up to Palestine’s upgrade to non-member state status within the United Nations. Israel-Palestine relations is always a sore spot, mostly because it’s a complex situation that people very easily form one-sided opinions about. This is where the importance of artists such as Palestinian/Israeli director Juliano Mer Khamis comes in, because rather than default to surrounding violence, the self-described “100% Palestinian and 100% Jew” instead moved from Israel into Jenin, where he established the Freedom Theatre and taught Palestinian youth from the nearby refugee camp the power of creative expression in both civil resistance and fostering peace.
This past April–one year after Mer Khamis’ assassination by a masked (and still at-large) gunman just outside his theatre–Palestinian rap trio DAM (one of Aslan Media’s music artists to watch in 2012) released a music video tribute that both honored the fallen director’s memory and called for justice in finding his killer. Most of the video is made up of actual video footage of Mer Khamis with his students and in the community, as well as clips of his memorial in Jenin; interspersed between verses are soundbites of students recounting memories with him. Though DAM released the video over six months before the November airstrikes, their message of honoring a man who practiced activism through art is still just as relevant in reminding others the greater impact that a person leaves by resisting through creative expression rather than violence.
“Makshoufeen” by Rush, featuring MC Amin
The revolution continues in Egypt. With the success of ousting longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak came a vacancy for power central to the political factions rivaling for his position. In response to the lies and broken promises made, under the guise of a manipulated Islam, Egyptian rappers Rush and MC Amin released “Makshoufeen,” a hip hop manifesto to reclaim Muslim identity and Egyptian loyalty, which doesn’t have room for political exploitation.
“Mourning in America” by Brother Ali
It’s been estimated that over the course of the 20th century, approximately 160 million people have died as a result of war, not including the countless violent deaths as a result of “lesser conflicts”–criminal activity, domestic disputes, and even school shootings. As if foreshadowing, Brother Ali rips, with his ferocious and controversial track “Mourning in America,” a damnation and critique of American violence both domestically and abroad, told through interwoven narratives about war, police brutality, shooting sprees, and bullying towards youth, veterans, and the poor. “This song is an observation and a critique of our culture of death and murder. From actual war zones around the world to our own inner cities where this summer’s death rates rival war zones,” Ali explains. “I also address our national hypocrisy regarding violence. We have a zero tolerance policy of violence committed against us, but we’re a lot more lenient and patient when it comes to the violence we commit.” Perhaps more buzzed about than the track itself is its accompanying music video, which features strong imagery evoking violence and shootings, as well as words from the chorus as it’s sung: “Murder murder / kill kill kill / Death and destruction and a cap get peeled / Arm or heal, destroy or build / Shots still ring out and blood still spills.”
“The Guardians” by DJ Lethal Skillz and WMD
Amidst the violence that continues to fracture the Middle East, Lebanese DJ and turntablist DJ Lethal Skillz (recently named one of Aslan Media’s five music artists to watch in 2013) released his sophomore album Karmageddon, one of the first albums produced in the Middle East and featuring artists from the region that has sold at a major music store (Virgin Megastores, Lebanon). Featuring 29 of the most active and socially-conscious rappers from 20 countries, Karmageddon is Lethal Skillz’s all-star wake-up call to “bridge cultures through Soulfil, Funky, Raw beats, a microphone and two turntables.”
Lethal Skillz sees his music as an expression of Arab youth and life experiences, social consciousness, and activism in the form of creative expression; it’s “how we feel and what we go through in our social, political and personal lives,” he remarks. “Most of my music addresses and promotes peace, unity, love and respect.” His goal as a DJ and producer is “to create a platform where Arab youths can express themselves peacefully and away from politics and war… to show the world a different image about the Middle East so they view us from a different perspective and see who we truly are.”
“Hobba Egyptian Style” by Disalata