Music, poetry and politics have always mixed in the Middle East—and never more so than during the Arab Spring.
Musicians have provided more than just soundtracks to “festivals of the oppressed”, as the Russian revolutionary Lenin once described revolutions.
Many have shown great courage by placing themselves at the heart of the struggle. In Tunisia 21 year old Tupac Shakur fan El General penned the hip-hop tune “Rais Lebled” (Mr President).
The track became a YouTube hit in November 2010—a month before the country exploded in protest.
In January 2011 Tunisia’s dictator Ben Ali had El General arrested. But Ben Ali’s days were numbered and El General was soon released.
The Tunisian revolution spread quickly to Egypt, as did the songs and chants of the movement. An underground artistic scene had been growing in Egypt for some months.
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square a 23 year old student and part-time singer songwriter set some of the most popular revolutionary chants to acoustic guitar.
His name is Ramy Essam and his song “Irhal” (Leave) was sung by tens of thousands during the 18 days leading up to the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak did leave, but the military council did not. In March 2011 Essam was arrested, badly beaten and tortured. He was later released and refuses to be intimidated. He’s still singing “Irhal” and now directs the demand at the military council.
The Arab Spring has also reclaimed and reasserted older traditions of political music. In the lead up to the fall of Mubarak and in the months since, songs composed nearly a hundred years ago have been hugely popular.
The Egyptian composer Sayeed Darwish’s music always championed the concerns of working people and the struggle against imperialism.
Perhaps the most exciting political song produced during the Arab Spring comes from Syria. It was written by the firefighter and part-time poet Ibrahim Qashoush, or so it’s thought—information coming out of the country is sketchy at best.
What is certain is that its performance at a protest in Hama’s central Assi Square last July, captured on a shaky phone camera, is electrifying.
In the traditional call and response folk form of the region, Qashoush hollers lyrics damning of the Assad regime to a jubilant crowd—“You’re an ass and all who support you/ To hell with you and your Ba’ath party/ Come on Bashar, time to leave”
A few days after the protest, Qashoush’s body was found in the Orontes river. His throat had been slit and his vocal chords ripped out.
Dictators try to silence the music of revolution. We should all champion and celebrate it. And we should learn lessons about how music can best be used in the struggles against our own rulers.
Dave Randall is a musician and activist. Go to www.randallmusic.net