Hip-Hop of the Revolution (The Sharif Don't Like It)

by Ted Swedenburg | published January 11, 2012 - 11:11am

In Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World, journalist Robin Wright describes and analyzes what she considers an important new trend in the Muslim world: the rejection of “Muslim extremists.” She views the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread elsewhere as a dramatic confirmation of the significance of this new political and cultural tendency.

Wright’s chapter, “Hip-Hop Islam,” presents rap music in the “Islamic world” as a key element of what she calls the “counter-jihad” movement. Her presentation is very much of a piece with the remarkable interest that the Western media has paid to Arab rap ever since the Arab uprisings. The vast majority of this media coverage greatly overestimates the importance of rap music’s role in the Arab revolts, asserting variously that rap played a key role in sparking the insurgencies or that it was “the music” of the oppositional movements. For her part, Wright claims: “Hip-hop was the first voice of political opposition, even before the street protests that erupted in 2011.”

Wright’s claim is mistaken on a number of accounts. For one, it completely ignores the anti-authoritarian and pro-democracy struggles that preceded the outbursts in Tunisia and Egypt prior to 2010-2011, and upon which they were built. In Egypt, the decade prior to January 2011 was marked by numerous civil society struggles around democratization, human rights and labor rights. (Please see Middle East Report’s systematic coverage of Egypt, and the forthcoming book The Journey to Tahrir, which incorporates much of that reporting.) I don’t recall anyone claiming, prior to 2011, that Egyptian rappers were leading or even significant oppositional voices in the democracy movements. In fact, Egypt is not known as having a vibrant hip-hop scene, in contrast to Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco or Palestine. But even in these countries, no credible observer would claim that rappers were the “first,” or “primary” voices of regime resistance. Moreover, these Arab countries with the most lively scenes and well-known artists, it turns out, were not where uprisings have erupted. There are, of course, Syrian, Yemeni, Libyan and Bahraini rappers, but there is not much evidence of these artists playing a significant role in the uprisings or even in producing many songs of resistance that have had wide appeal.

The one country where there is a significant connection, and it is one highlighted by Wright, as well as by most other Western journalists and commentators who have written about rap and the so-called “Arab spring” is Tunisia, which like Morocco and Algeria has developed a very vibrant rap scene. In November 2010 the rapper El Général released a song called “Rais Lebled,” which famously took aim at the problems inflicted on Tunisia’s autocratic president (rais) Ben Ali. “Rais Lebled,” with its combustible sentiments and its banging beats and delivery, came out on YouTube prior to the demonstrations that erupted in the wake of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, and resulted, after the onset of the revolt, in El Général’s imprisonment. Tunisian demonstrators reportedly chanted the words to “Rais Lebled” as they called for both the artist’s release and the fall of Ben Ali. (See the blog Arab Revolutionary Rap for an excellent account of El Général).

Wright, like so many other Western journalists, as well as many other enthusiastic Western supporters of the Arab revolts, including progressives, seems to have generalized, in a fit of wishful thinking, the importance of rap in Tunisia to the rest of the Arab world. Like many others, she also claims that El Général’s song “became the anthem of revolutions across the region.” Although activists elsewhere were certainly aware of and inspired by El Général, I have encountered no concrete evidence (but many claims) that demonstrators, in Tahrir Square or Pearl Square or Benghazi or Sanaa or Damascus, were chanting the lines of “Rais Lebled.” Instead, these activists were, for the most part, inventing their own slogans or putting pan-Arab slogans to their own uses. And for the most part, it was not in the form of hip-hop.

But it’s not just that observers like Wright have imposed the example of El Général on other Arab uprisings. Many Westerners, from all parts of the political spectrum, also seem to be cheered whenever Arabs adopt “our” cultural forms and become more familiar, whenever they seem more like “us.” The cheerleading that has erupted over Arab/Muslim rap in the wake of the Arab Spring also has important valences with the US government’s cultural diplomacy efforts that developed post-9/11, which have involved campaigns, aimed at Arab/Muslim youth, to export US culture as a counterweight to extremist trends. As Hishaam Aidi has documented in a recent article, State Department-sponsored good will tours of US hip-hop artists to the region have been a key element of these efforts to improve the US image and to win over Arab and Muslim youths.

Wright seems unable to see the ironies in her embrace of Arab/Islamic hip-hop and her claims that “in the Islamic world, hip-hop serves the same function that rap did when it emerged in the 1970s among young American blacks in the South Bronx. The original hip-hop street parties were a reaction to years of black violence.” While it is true that, in its origins, hip-hop was an alternative to gangbanging, hip-hop was also an affirmative assertion of the vitality of black life and culture, in response to years of systematic economic and security policies that had devastated urban minority communities. Some of the strongest critiques of US racism and what have become known as neoliberal economic policies have emerged out of the US hip-hop scene. To read hip-hop as being, essentially, an alternative to gangs, is as simplistic as imagining that hip-hop in the Arab/Islamic world emerged out of jihadist “hoods.”

The social origins of Arab rap have not been well studied, but they are not simply “ghetto.” In Palestine, for instance, the origins are various. The rap group from Lod, DAM, does in many ways have a “ghetto” origin, but its early raps in fact were aimed at drug dealers and users, not at jihadists. Ramallah Underground, another important Palestinian rap outfit (now split up), is of more middle-class provenance. G-town are from the Jerusalem refugee camp of Shu‘fat, and, like DAM, among the main issues it has confronted are local drugs and crime. Although Wright may be correct to see involvement in rap as an alternative to “suicide bombs” and Molotov cocktails in Palestine, there is no evidence from the corpus of Palestinian rap that rappers have made a point of critiquing such forms of violence (they criticize Israeli violence, for the most part) nor are there strong reasons to think that the relative demise of “suicide bombing” have been enabled by youths’ embrace of rap.

DAM’s Tamer Nafar and a Moroccan rapper named Soultana appear to be the only two Arab rappers that Wright has interviewed for this chapter. (In general, the range and depth of her written sources is not impressive either.) Nafar is a predictable choice, as he has been interviewed by many journalists, ever since the emergence of DAM as a phenomenon, with the release of its 2001 song, “Who’s a Terrorist?” (Western media interest in Palestinian rap precedes attention to “Arab spring” rap, in part because it seemed so “novel.”) While Wright views DAM through the lens of her “counter-jihad” model, I do appreciate the fact that she calls attention to DAM’s continued (at least as of 2007) engagement with Israeli Jewish audiences. It is useful to recall this facet of DAM, given that so many accounts of DAM, particularly coming from Western progressive and Palestine solidarity circles, depict DAM so one-dimensionally, as a “resistance” band.

How does Wright make sense of the economic and political issues that Arab/Muslim hip-hoppers motivate, besides “jihadism.” By and large, she presents the myriad problems facing the Arab/Islamic world as internally driven and mostly ignores any role that Western strategic interest in oil or neoliberal economic policies might play in their emergence and persistence. She also makes much of what observers have called the “youth bulge” -- a high percentage of youth in the population, high youth unemployment and so on. (See my analysis in Middle East Report.) This very conventional and much repeated trope adds to the importance, for Wright, of hip-hop as a youth alternative. As she claims in the case of Palestine, hip-hop fills a “social and communications void” for young Palestinians. Again, her analysis is entirely conventional, replete with truisms, as one might expect for mainstream US media coverage. One might also wonder about the wisdom of pinning so many hopes on hip-hop as a kind of solution to the region’s endemic structural problems.

Wright’s overestimation of the importance and the significance of hip-hop in the Arab uprisings, as noted above, is a sentiment that is not held merely by mainstream US journalists, but also one that has been expressed by a number of progressive allies of the Arab democracy movement. Just because the view is “conventional” doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, but it would behoove progressives to take another look at that assessment, and consider the many other musical trends that have mobilized the Arab movements and expressed their grievances. These, for instance the revival of the music of Egypt’s legendary leftist singer Sheikh Imam, have been largely ignored. Let’s give them the attention they deserve.