How rappers, rockers and poets stoked the fires of revolt in Tunisia and Egypt (First published in The Observer, February 2011)
It was early morning on Friday 11th February and the streets of central Cairo were throbbing with adrenalin and fear. Long-haired American professor Mark Levine and Shung, founder of the Egyptian extreme metal band Beyond East, were caught in the pyroclastic flow of a million Egyptians who seethed towards Tahrir Square, past tanks, burned out buildings and soldiers with taut faces, through the rubble and detritus of two weeks of revolution. Mubarak’s surprise announcement that he was holding on to his rotten throne had sent a collective groan of frustration through the nation. The crowd feared that the time had come for desperate measures. Marvelling at the mood of coiled rage all around, Mark and Shung looked at each other, wavelengths firmly locked, and said “This is really metal!”
Before the revolution, Egypt’s metal heads lived in fear of arrest. Bullet belts, Iron Maiden T-shirts, horn gestures and sweat ejaculating head banging were closet past-times for foolhardy freaks. Bands like Bliss, Wyvern, Hate Suffocation, Scarab, Brutus and Massive Scar Era rocked their fans like the priests of a persecuted sect who lived in constant wariness of the ghastly Mukhabarat, Mubarak’s secret police. Since 1997, when newspapers had ‘exposed’ the metal scene as a sordid sewer of Satanism and western decadence, metal was never a faith for the faint hearted. “Here in Egypt, everything is Satanic if it’s unknown,” muses Slacker, drummer with Beyond East, and veteran of Egypt’s metal wars.
“The consequences of speaking out could be pretty dire,” explains Levine, author of the recently published ‘Heavy Metal Islam’, a startling look at metal heads, hip hop kids and other musical marginals throughout the Arab world. “And for what? What would it get you?” Jail? Sodomy? The lash? Any musician contemplating open revolt against one of the Arab world old-school authoritarian dictators, faced some stark choices. Zip up or die, in career terms at least. “We were like in a cocoon,” explains Skander Besbes, aka Skndr, a luminary of Tunisia’s electro and dance scene, “Closed in on ourselves, ignoring the regime and the authorities. You’re angry, but you move on, because you don’t know what to do. I decided to compromise because I wanted to be involved in the music scene in Tunisia.”
Skndr organised parties and raves with his friends under the moniker Hextradecimal at a bar / restaurant called Boeuf sur le Toit in the town of Soukra. It was a mecca for Tunisia’s rave scene, regularly hosting dub step, electro and rave nights. There Tunisian party people rubbed shoulders with musicians, artists and hacktivists like the newly anointed King of the Tunisian protest bloggers, Slim Amamou, aka Slim404, who has been made minister of Youth and Culture in the new post-revolutionary government. Mutual rants about the regime were fire walled from government eavesdroppers by the venue’s pumping sound system. “They were rare occasions when people could meet without feeling oppressed by the police or without the usual social barriers,” Skndr says.
However, electro music was a relatively safe option because it was instrumental. Metal and rock were partially protected by English lyrics which the local fuzz didn’t understand. But if you sung in Arabic, you either cloistered yourself away in anodyne ‘high art’ music, or embraced the banal glitz of the local pop production line, prostituting yourself to conglomerates like Rotana, the huge Gulf-owned media and entertainment conglomerate that more or less controls the music industry in the Middle East. Alternatively, you could choose to cup your hands around a flickering flame of integrity and fight a lonely battle out in the cold. Some popular Tunisian singers like Baadia had the guts to speak out. She denounced the brutal suppression of Tunisia’s first anti-corruption protests in the town of Redeyef back in 2008, before eventually fleeing Tunisia for the UK, where she was spotted singing alone in front of the Tunisian consulate during the recent revolution. Others like Emel Mathlouthi and Bendir Man also deserve honourable mentions.
But it took a rapper to light a firecracker and lob it at Tunisia’s youth, whose frustration had been distilled into liquid hydrogen by years of government corruption, nepotism, ineptitude and general state imposed joylessness. Until a few months ago, Hamada Ben Amor, aka El Général du Bled was just a 21-year-old wannabe MC in a Stussy hoodie, leather jacket and baseball cap. He lived with parents and elder brother in a modest flat a drab workaday seaside town south of Tunis called Sfax where his mother runs a bookshop and his father works in the local hospital. El Général didn’t even register on the radar of Tunisian rap’s premier league which was dominated by rappers like Balti, Lak3y, Armada Bizera or Psyco-M. It was a community riven by the usual jealous spats and dwarfed by the more prolific rap scenes of Morocco and France.
El Général had been quietly honing his very own brand of politically combustible rhyming since 2008 with tracks like ‘Malesh’ (‘Why?’) or ‘Sidi Rais’ (‘Mr President’). Maybe it was the influence of the books his mother brought home from the shop. Maybe it was his beloved Tupac Shakur. Whatever the reason, El Général was game for confronting le pouvoir, aka the corrupt regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “Before the revolution it was forbidden to do gigs,” he tells me over the phone from Sfax. “We just played our music over the internet, on Facebook, because there was no other way. The media never talked to me and I didn’t have a label.”
On November 7th, El Général uploaded a piece of raw fury called ‘Rais Le Bled’ (President, Your Country) onto Facebook. “My President, your country is dead / People eat garbage / Look at what is happening / Misery Everywhere / Nowhere to sleep / I’m speaking for the people who suffer / Ground under feet.” Within hours the song had lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb. Before being banned, It was picked up by a local TV station, Tunivision, and Al Jazeera. El Général’s Myspace was closed down, his mobile cut off. But it was too late. The shockwaves were felt across the country, and then throughout the Arab world. That was the power of protesting in Arabic, albeit a locally spiced dialect of Arabic. El Général’s bold invective broke frontiers and went viral from Casablanca to Cairo and beyond.
A few weeks later, El Général recorded another stick of political dynamite called ‘Tounes Bladna’ (‘Tunisia Our Country’), just as the revolution was gathering momentum. The authorities had had enough. On January 6th, at 5am, thirty local cops and state security goons turned up at El General’s family flat in Sfax to arrest him, “on the orders of President Ben Ali himself.” When his brother asked why, they answered “he knows.” He was taken to the dreaded Ministry of Interior building in Tunis where he was handcuffed to a chair and interrogated for three days. “They kept asking me which political party I worked for,” he remembers. “”Don’t you know it’s forbidden to sing songs like that,” they said. But I just answered “Why? I’m only telling the truth.” I was in there for three days, but it felt like three years.” Eventually, thanks to a storm of public protest, El Général was released and returned to Sfax in triumph. Even the cops were now treating him as a celebrity. “People were proud of me,” he says cheerfully. “I took a risk, with life, with my family. But I was never scared, because I was talking about reality.”
El Général’s rap broke the spell of fear and showed his peers that it was possible to rebel and survive. Rap’s power is its simplicity. “People can just record songs in their living room,” says Narcycist, an Iraqi born rapper living in Toronto, Canada, who got together with other MCs from the Arabic rap diaspora, like Omar Offendum, and released a tribute track called ‘#Jan25’ which has become a huge viral hit. “It’s something that can be easily done in the middle of a revolution.”
Karim Adel, aka ‘Rush’ from Cairo rappers Arabian Knightz stayed up late into the night of Thursday January 27th recording a new rhyme for the tune ‘Rebel’, which he was determined to release on Facebook and Mediafire. “Egypt is rising up against the birds of darkness,” spat the rhyme. “It was a direct call for revolution,” Karim says. “Before we’d only used metaphors to talk about corrupt system. But once people were out on the streets, we were just like “Screw it, you know.” If we’re going down, we’re going down.” He and his crew just about managed to upload the new version of the song before Karim was called away to help with the vigilante security detail who were down in the streets keeping his neighbourhood free from looters and government thugs.
After the uprising of January 25th, Cairo’s Tahrir Square resounded to the traditional Egyptian frame drum or daff, which pounded out trancelike beats over which the crowd laid slogans full of poetic power and joyful hilarity. As the Egyptian people rediscovered what it felt like to be a Nation, united and indivisible, they reverted to the raw power of their most basic musical instincts to celebrate their mass release from fear – traditional drumming and chanting and patriotic songs from the glory days of yore when Egypt trounced the forces of Imperialism in ’56 or the Israelis in ’73.
During the revolutions of 1919 and 1952, or the mass student protests of 1968, poets used to monopolise the power that rappers now share. The chain-smoking, cussing, national poet hero Ahmed Fouad Negm, ‘Uncle Ahmed’, was reinstated by the Tahrir protestors as Egypt’s bard of protest par excellence. A man of unbelievable courage, Negm has spent 18 of his 81 years in Egyptian prisons. The word ‘Fearless’ doesn’t begin to do him justice. In 2006 he was being interviewed by the New York Times when a donkey brayed loudly outside Negm’s ramshackle flat in one of Cairo’s poorer neighbourhoods. “Ah, Mubarak speaks,” he quipped to the astonished journalist.
‘The Donkey and the Foal’, Negm’s poisoned paean to Mubarak and his son Gamal, was set to music by Ramy Essam, a young engineering student who became the Billy Bragg of Tahrir Square. He sang the song to ecstatic crowds with the ancient Negm beside him, still standing tall. Essam went to Tahrir early in the uprising with his guitar and cobbled together a song called ‘Leave’ from all the inventive slogans that were flying around the intoxicated air of the square. It became the hit of the uprising, going viral on YouTube and Huffington Post before being picked up by CNN and then TV Networks around the globe. Essam lived in Tahrir’s tent village for the entire revolution, composing songs, and playing almost every hour on one of the many stages that had sprouted across the square.
In that microcosmic temporary utopia, Egypt rediscovered its love of freedom, honesty, joy and simplicity. The Revolution flensed away layers of glamorous sheeny blubber from the fatuous irrelevant body of Egyptian pop to expose a new punk-like directness and integrity in artists like Ramy Essam, Mohammed Mounir or Amir Eid Hawary from the rock band Cairokee, who gathered together other luminaries from the Cairo rock scene to record the rousing hymn-like anthem to the revolution ‘Sout El Houreya’ (‘The Voice of Freedom). The people were tired of bullshit, whether it was political, social, religious or cultural. When the slippery pop star Tamer Hosni was sent into the Square to try and persuade the protestors to go home, he was almost lynched, later issuing a blubbing apology on National TV. Million selling pop idol Amr Diab fled the country with his family in a private jet bound for the UK at the start of the uprising. He’ll find hard to look his country in the face again.
Zakaria Ibrahim, founder of the traditional street music ensemble El Tanbura, from Port Said, remembers the student protests of the late sixties and early seventies. “I was very happy to see a second revolution in my life,” he tells me in his gentle wistful voice. Despite the head wounds received by his son Hassan when government good squads invaded Tahrir Square on horses and camels half way through the revolution, Zakaria went down to Tahrir with El Tanbura, and several other bands affiliated to the folk centre that Zakaria has founded in Cairo, to play regularly. “People were completely excited to hear something new that they were never used to hearing before on state media,” he says proudly. “Under Mubarak, Egyptians had become selfish and aggressive,” he continues. “But In Tahrir, you suddenly saw the other side of people, the kindness, the forgiveness and many things like that.”
All in all, as Noor Ayman, son of a famous dissident Egyptian politician, and founder of the legendary Egyptian metal band Bliss told me, “this was a very artistic revolution.” Political freedom and cultural freedom danced hand in hand. To be young, to be alive was bliss, but to rediscover the thrill of banging your head to the sound of a raw pummelling guitar, or spitting a rhyme to the mic, or strumming out the truth in simple chords, without fear or compromise…that was very heaven!
This article is dedicated to the memory of artist and musician Ahmed Bassiouni, who died in Cairo on January 28th 2011, from injuries sustained fighting the police and government militias.
A collection of clips relevant to the article can be found here
POSTSCRIPT: On March 10th Ramy Essam took part in a demonstration in Tahrir Square. He was arrested and severely beaten, even tortured, by the security forces. The fight for freedom of expression in Egypt is far from over.