polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Hip Hop Revolution

by Natalia Echeverri

I heard em say
The revolution won't be televised
Aljazeera proved em wrong
Twitter has him paralyzed 80 million strong
An ain't no longer gonna be terrorized
Organized - Mobilized - Vocalized
On the TRUTH
Um il-Duya's living proof
That it's a matter of time
before the chicken is home to roost
Bouazizi lit the. . .
and it slowly ignited the fire
whithin Arab people to fight it

These are the lyrics of #Jan25, one of the many hip hop songs that have been inspired by the ongoing situation in North Africa and the Middle East. This single (whose title reference to the first day of the protests in Egypt) was released at the turning point of the Egyptian revolution by several North American artists, including Serbin-American MC Omar Offendum and Iraqi-Canadian MC, The Narcicyst, as a form of solidarity and support to the Egyptian people. MC Omar Offendum describes this song as "a testament to the revolution’s effect on the hearts and minds of today’s youth, and the spirit of resistance it has come to symbolize for oppressed people worldwide."

In Egypt, Lybia, Algeria, Tunisia and across the Middle East, hip hop artists have adopted the rhythms and beats of American hip hop mixing them with their own cultural and political themes. The content of rap variations is more similar to the early stages of the genre in the 70's and 80's (Afrika Bombaataa, Grandmaster Flash, The Furious Five) which emerged in a climate of segregation, disenfranchisement and urban decay in American cities. The lyrics have in common themes of social injustice and economic hardship; they are a critiques of government and a call for freedom.

A few years ago, a group of Libyan exiles created a website called Khalas! (Enough!) as a protest the Gaddafi regime. In the midst of the protests, Khalas compiled 'Not Far', a mixtape composed of North African hip hop protest songs and made it free to download on their website. "'Not Far' refers to the sense of solidarity that these youth feel across borders, the similarities of their causes and the oppressors they face, their physical proximity and the sense that our ultimate goal is within sight" (inside cover of Khalas Mixtape). See interviews on WNYC and Public Radio International. The website is currently unavailable (apparently has been hacked) but you can download the music here.

Included in the mix is Tunisian hip hop artist, El General, who channeled the popular voice of the Tunisian revolt with his rap song 'Head of State'. The song was released around the same time of Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate act of immolation and speaks also of the desperate situation around him.

Mr. President your people is dead
many people eat from garbage
and you see what is happening in the country
misery everywhere and people who have not found a place to sleep
I am speaking in name of the people who are under the feet

The song gained global awareness when El General was arrested by the state police soon after its release. It became the soundtrack of the revolution, inspiring the youth around other North African countries.

Much has been said about the role of Twitter and Facebook in these rapidly spreading protests in the Middle East. But "older" media also played a role, and hip hop has once again become a powerful tool for the youth. The songs are raw and easy to record and disseminate--both at a global scale and through a boom box in a crowd. In countries, like Iran, where it is considered illegal, hip hop easily thrives underground. Most importantly, as songs — and not rants, tweets or lectures — the message is catchy, memorable, and perhaps even immortal.

Credits: Image of We Want Change Now and Khalas mixtape cover from enoughgaddafi in flickr. Video of #Jan25 from YouTube. Video of El General from YouTube.