There is something universal about protest music. Something that speaks to the masses and is not lost in translation. You only protest if you feel passionately about something, and it is only natural for revolt to manifest as songs, poetry, and art. The Arab Spring – a revolutionary wave of protests, demonstrations and wars that started in December 2010 and swept through the Arab world – has toppled dictators, questioned the status quo, martyred many, and is praised for injecting democratic values in countries previously under despotic rule. While we can question the political and social outcomes of the Arab Spring, it has undoubtedly produced some amazing music. This is a compilation of some of my favorites, my soundtrack to the Arab Spring.
I should start by stating that I am no expert in music from the Middle East. I don’t even speak Arabic. However, I have been following the Arab Spring as insistently as possible and have struggled to keep up with the plethora of music that have resulted from it. Social Media, independent blogs and SoundCloud have been my friends in compiling the
Youssra El Hawary – El Soor يسرا الهواري – السور
This playful yet biting political commentary about life in Egypt comes from Youssra El Hawary. She was virtually unknown till only a couple of months ago when she posted her music on SoundCloud, and recorded this video. It’s called “Al Soor” – “The Wall” in English. The lyrics go roughly like this: “In front of the wall/In front of those who built it/In front of those who made it high/Stood a poor man/Who peed/On the wall, and on those who built it and those who made it high.” What makes the song come alive is Youssra’s voice and charmful accordion playing. It’s not just the lyrics imbued with political commentary, but the fact that a young woman is singing about a man peeing on the wall, and all that it signifies, that makes this song one of my favorites.
Emel Mathlouthi – Kelmti Horra أمال مثلوثي – كلمتي حرة (My Word is Free)
Emel Mathlouthi is sometimes referred to the Voice of the Tunisian Revolution. She has been in the music scene for a while, but was exiled after she wrote some songs against the then-President Ben Ali Mathlouthi. Emel led protests in France, and used social media to reach the youth on the streets of Tunis. Four years later, Emel returned to her homeland and sang the following song in front of millions of people, just hours before Ben Ali fled the country ending a 24 year rule. The lyrics of Kelmti Horra are sublime. Here’s an abridged version:
I am those who are free and never fear
I am the secrets that will never die
I am the voice of those who would not give in
I am the meaning amid the chaos
I am a star shining in the darkness
I am a thorn in the throat of the oppressor
I am a wind touched by fire
I am the soul of those who are not forgotten
I am the voice of those who have not died
I am free and my word is free
I am free and my word is free
El Général- Rais Le Bled الجنرال (Leave)
The Arab Spring saw an explosion of rap music from the Middle East, and no one embodies protest rap that emerged than Tunisian rapper El General (real name Hamada Ben Amor). El General’s song Rais Le Bled is angry and raw, and was the first that singled out Ben Ali directly. The video was uploaded on YouTube and got thousands of hits. He was subsequently arrested by police, which only increased his popularity, and his song was dubbed the Anthem of the Jasmine Revolution. Honestly, I am not a fan of rap music (unless it’s French rap). However, no list of songs from the Arab Spring, no matter how short, is complete without mention of this one. Rais Le Bled is a song of historical significance and will be remembered as the crude voice of the brave Tunisian youth, who used social media as a weapon of protest.
Ramy Essam – Irhal رامى عصام – ارحل (Leave)
When I think about the Arab Spring, the first thing that comes to mind is the Tahrir Square in Egypt. Ramy Essam’s Irhal is THE song of Tahrir Square. The coolest thing about this song is that it combines all the popular slogans of the protest in Egypt. If you followed #Tahrir on Twitter during the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, you would have noticed mention of this song over and over again. Ramy was arrested and tortured by the Egyptian army, but returned to Tahrir as soon as he was released. The following video was shot at Tahrir Square during as mass protest.
Here’s a playlist with all my favorites!