Do You Hear The People Sing?

Tawfiq al-Hakim

Photo Credit: Ryan Gaylord. Street art in Tahrir Square, Cairo, depicting famous Egyptian novelist Tawfiq Al-Hakim and the title of one of his novels.

By Ryan Gaylord.

The spirit of the great Egyptian artists is alive and well in the post-Arab Spring world.

The uprisings of the Arab Spring toppled authoritarian regimes across the Middle East, but these rulers’ loss of political and military power was preceded by their loss of cultural authority in the daily lives of their citizens. Artists took to the streets to reclaim public spaces from state ideological influence, bringing the possibility of rebellion into the public consciousness.

Painters and graffiti artists left their highly visible, constantly evolving mark on formerly imposing symbols of regime control, such as squares, monuments, and government buildings. Since then, they have moved on to memorializing the sacrifices of the revolutions’ martyrs, keeping them in the public eye.

Poets and musicians, on the other hand, struck out against authoritarian rule by providing a marching anthem for the uprisings of the past several years. Their creative energy was put into motion against mechanisms of state control. But where are they marching now? After the collapse of many such regimes, they have struggled to find a unified theme for their cultural production, speaking out on such varied topics as the struggles of daily life, persisting elements of state corruption, and human rights abuses of security forces.

I spent two months this summer travelling across Northern Africa and exploring pre- and post-revolutionary artistic communities in the region. I invited rappers and poets to tell their experiences with music over the last several years, and was amazed by the skill, dedication, and global awareness of these musicians. Current trends have led to a unique intersection of characteristics – community-based motivation and engagement, national rhetoric, and global stylistic and technological exchange. These characteristics are unprecedented, and I expect them to shape the politics of global cultural production going forward.

First, artists are primarily motivated to produce such societally conscious resistance music through a sense of engagement with and obligation to their local communities. One particularly prominent effect of the Arab Spring has been the empowerment, even the duty of the individual to take action on behalf of his home and his people. This dedication is primarily conceptualized on the street level. One musician I spoke to said, “Every neighborhood has its own rapper down on the corner, and the people try to support him.” The precise relationship of the individual to the government is still being defined – especially in non-revolutionary states such as Morocco. However, one thing is clear. The people’s allegiance is primarily to their own rights and well being, not to the interests of major social groups or the government, and this has spurred the mobilization of artists on every street corner.

Second, artists conceptualize their narrative and message in almost exclusively national terms. They are motivated on a local level, independent of possibly restrictive influences on a national scale, but they do not limit their rhetorical scope to their own small communities. For example – I asked every artist the same first question: “Why do you sing?” One response was particularly illustrative of this concept, and representative of nearly everyone I spoke with: “I want to leave a gift to the people of my country.” The message of the music might involve elements dealing with the West or the world as a whole, but is always clearly defined in relationship to issues on a national scale.

Third, artists produce their work as part of a global music community. The rise of digital audio production and Internet music distribution has fostered the development of three key tools in the arsenal of these locally based, nationally focused musicians. They can connect to other artists and easily assemble collaborations across distance barriers. They can produce high-quality audio in an apartment that is comparable to anything produced in a professional studio. And, perhaps most importantly, they can quickly and easily distribute their music around the entire world. The most successful rappers use all three of these tools, building a distinct brand for themselves and assuming a prominent role in an international cultural community.

The aggregate of these trends, in conclusion, is truly remarkable – local engagement, national rhetoric, and international collaboration and promotion. The uniquely powerful intersection of these qualities could set an important precedent for global cultural production. In the work of these rappers, cultural power is being simultaneously pushed down to the smallest competent authority – the individual – and applied to the largest, most influential levels – the state and indeed the entire world. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, then, popular empowerment and globalization are creating a unified but disparate groundswell of these street level authorities. It will be fascinating to see how this powerful cultural force will continue to affect governments and social movements in the post-Arab Spring world.

– Names have been omitted to protect the identities of sources –

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