Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

songs of revolution

January 29, 2011

Following the events that have been unfolding in Tunisia and across the Arab world, I can’t help but comment on something that at least in most major media, has gone unnoticed. That is, to draw attention to a new phenomenon – a force at play in the popular uprisings in Northern Africa – Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and elsewhere as well – to say nothing of Jordan and perhaps Lebanon as well.

But there was a crucial event at the start of it all – when popular unrest began on a massive scale in Tunisia – that was smoothly if quickly glossed over by most U.S. media. I’m referring to the hip-hop video above, of course.

After what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, it’s become impossible to deny that Hip-hop is truly a global phenomenon now, with potentially significant political implications.

And some of the most exciting events are centering on the Arab world, where a diverse mix of insurrectionists are swiftly disproving the oft-repeated lies and stereotypes about Islamic politics and divisive sectarianism in the Arab world.

While Internet-based strategies of resistance and activism seem to bear frequent mention in the media, hip-hop activism receives only passing mention (as for example when the song “Mr. President Your People Are Dead” landed a 22-year old Tunisian rapper in jail and stoked the fires of popular rage against Ben-Ali’s government).

To my mind, the omission masks a fear of hip-hop and the political possibilities it offers for transforming and redefining public space.

I’ll offer my argument for this claim after posting some more hip-hop videos:

Check out, for example, this video of the Narcicyst featuring Shadia Mansour:  Narcicyst is originally from Basra, Iraq, is super-original, and you can buy his album on iTunes. I’d recommend it.

And here is a track from Behrang Miri called Ramallah (I have Sameh Zakout a.k.a. Saz to thank for this link). This track – and video – are awesome. (In the case of this track I suppose it’s the eponymous subject rather than the MC that’s Arabic per se. I hope I wasn’t using the word “eponymously” incorrectly – I think I wasn’t, but let me know via the comment box if you think I was): 

You should also check out Saz, a rapper and beatboxer (and producer I believe) from Ramle. There is actually a documentary film about him directed by Gil Karni. You can check out some clips here, on Gil Karni’s site.

Now for good measure here is a video from DAM, a Palestinian hip-hop group from Lyd / Lod:

WHY IS HIP-HOP POLITICALLY SIGNIFICANT?

Hip-hop is more than its core “elements” (b-boy/girl, graff, DJ, MC); it’s a way of life. And as such, hip-hop is about a lot more than the vagaries of materiality and insignificance. It’s not just “ho’s, bankrolls, and clothes,” as Nas once eloquently put it – what hip-hop really is about (to my mind) is the intersection between life and culture, between environment and individual identity. It’s about rebellion and reconstruction.

Hip-hop was created by young people growing up in the shattered ruins of an urban war that humanity lost. If hip-hop politics is a politics of urban renewal, of individual expression triumphing over bland conformity and mindless consumerism, then its absolute antithesis would be the politics of “benign neglect.” Hip-hop’s not just another dance style or musical genre. Notwithstanding its own emphasis on originality, style, method, and individuality, I’d argue that hip-hop is fundamentally more intrinsically social (and more political) than any of these, because it was about people (mostly young people) deciding they were fed up with the violence, abandonment, and neglect in their community and creating a style of communally-based expression to counter these phenomena. A distinctly urban style of expression born out of realism – the realism of universalized oppression and shattered communities.

Hip-hop can be recognized as both familiar, recognizable, and yet at the same time a culturally distinct style of expression. Whether you witness it in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Bogota, Ramallah, or Cairo, you’ll still know it as hip-hop…but I’ll bet you’ll discover hip-hop to be local in character, diverse in its forms of expression, and often idiosyncratic in the way it relates to the distinctive character of the cities or territories out of which it operates. This is because, I would argue, hip-hop poses a distinct challenge to the conventional categories of group-forming and the attendant processes of identity formation. That’s because hip-hop is a way of life.

It’s time to acknowledge the truth: “Hip-hop” doesn’t just mean rap –  and perhaps it also doesn’t just mean the “four elements” of breakin’, DJin’, MCin’, and graffiti. In other words, maybe hip-hop is not just another form of “cultural expression,” a “subculture.” In fact, I would argue that history is now demonstrating more clearly than ever that if anything, hip-hop is perhaps something akin to what we might call a “trans-cultural” mode of expression. Or, if you will, a new way of addressing the difference between “culture” and “subculture” – maybe even a process of making the “sub-culture” transcultural.

A new political opposition has taken shape: hip-hop versus benign neglect.

Will governments continue to get away with not-so-benign neglect, as Ben-Ali, Mubarak, and many other dictatorial regimes have for so long? Or will hip-hop intervene, in forcing a confrontation with the world as it is, which really means a struggle to change it: to live in the world as it really is so that we can live the lives we want to live, rather than to ignore the implications of responsibility and try to hoard or plunder as many of its spoils as possible.

It shouldn’t be hard to see which of these political approaches is winning the day in many parts of the world today, particularly in the Arab world – or why.

What hip-hop might be saying to us – at its most radical – is to destroy or subvert the shattered remnants of an obsolete order, and to recreate a new and idiosyncratic style that’s grounded in the particularities of one’s daily existence.

I think it’s hard for Americans to think about hip-hop culture in a way that decentralizes it from its contiguity with American popular culture – given the subversiveness with which hip-hop has come to define many of the values and experiences associated with pop culture in the public sphere. But I’m beginning to see some of the exciting things happening with hip-hop right now in the Arab world and elsewhere, and to realize that hip-hop will never, ever be the same.

Hip-hop is more than (musical or visual) style; Hip-hop is a way of being. It’s a kind of lifestyle choice, which involves social and thus also political being. This is why real hip-hop is really more about communities and individuals, really. It’s not really about bling but about winning.

And this is why I’m not surprised that its role in popular uprisings in Tunisia and elsewhere is not being widely acknowledged. As El General’s video attests, it’s difficult to argue that hip-hop is giving rise to the voicing of discontent and affirmation of popular resistance in a more direct, unequivocal, and emphatic way.

So that’s why I wanted to write this post.

Now go check out some hip-hop you never heard before – and leave me some recommendations in the comment box, because I’ve barely just begun to stumble upon amazing Arabic hip-hop and I just know there is so much more dope shit out there.

And cheers to the Tunisian people for putting hip-hop on the map along the road to revolution, now to all my people it’s time to take action for change and start wrecking shit!