Pop Music and Protests in the Islamic World

Music is playing a key role in the political upheaval in the Arab world because angry Arab youths are using it to spread their political message. In his book Rock The Kasbah, journalist Arian Fariborz has written about numerous young Arab musicians whom he visited in their native countries

By Eren Güvercin

Young people's music played a major role in the run-up to the most recent uprisings against dictatorships in the Arab world. In Tunisia, for example, it was the young rapper Hamada Ben-Amor, who is better known as El Général, who openly criticised the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali in his lyrics. He and many other young musicians became a mouthpiece for young people.

More than any other genre, it was hip hop that mobilised young people; the lyrics of these politically aware rappers denounced social deficiencies, political injustice, and corruption, thereby acting as a catalyst for the discontented young generation.

The song "Rais Lebled" by Rapper El Général, alias Hamada Ben-Amor, became not only the protest hymn of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, but also went on to be a hit with young people across the entire Arab world

​​But even before the recent unrest in the Arab world, journalist, political scientist and graduate of Islamic Studies Arian Fariborz published an interesting book entitled Rock The Kasbah – Popmusik und Moderne im Orient (Pop music and modernism in the Orient) in late 2010 in which he highlights the fast pace of change in the music of the Arab/Islamic world and Iran.

The political dimension of music

Fariborz stresses that music in the Arab world is also a matter of entertainment. However, as illustrated by El Général, there is also a very strong political dimension to music in the authoritarian states of the Arab world. E

ven during Algeria's bread riots in 1988, a musical protest movement emerged. This movement made no bones about denouncing the social imbalance in the North African state as well as corruption and the abuse of power.

"That was 1988, and history repeats itself. We are now seeing the same thing all over again. While it used to be raï music that fascinated young people and constituted a kind of protest culture; today it is above all hip hop that is the mouthpiece for frustrated young Arabs," writes Fariborz.

A kaleidoscope of different modern, musical trends in the Near and Middle East: Arian Fariborz's book "Rock the Kasbah"

​​Hip hop groups like MBS (Le Micro Brise Le Silence, the microphone breaks the silence) attack not only the ruling powers in their songs, but also the Islamist movements. After all, in Algeria in particular, the people were for years caught up on the front line of the war between the military and armed Islamist forces.

In the Arab/Islamic world and above all in Iran, there are numerous other groups playing other musical genres such as rock, pop, blues or heavy metal. On the one hand, these young artists use traditional musical instruments, integrating them into modern musical genres and, in doing so, creating something completely new.

"There are a lot of bands that very skilfully practice and remain true to their cultural roots while simultaneously integrating a moderate amount of western elements of style into their music," observes Fariborz, who travelled to various countries of the Arab/Islamic world and met numerous young musicians.

The stranglehold of censorship and bureaucracy

The colourful music scene is often a thorn in the side of both the authoritarian rulers and religious fanatics. The young people who give vent to their creativity in music are, therefore, under pressure from two sides. In Iran, censorship is such that bands have to register their concerts and productions with a state-run authority.

The so-called "moral guardians of Islam" make sure that the musicians adhere to a certain set of rules at their concerts. Women, for example, are never allowed to sing solo, only as part of a chorus. The very fact that artists have adopted western music styles such as hip hop, punk or heavy metal makes them suspicious in the eyes of many religious fanatics.

Struggling against commercial uniformity

Singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo, who is incredibly popular with young people in Iran and is known as the "Bob Dylan of the lute", turned his back on the Islamic Republic because of the continuing cultural restrictions there

​​Towards the end of his book, however, Fariborz also emphasises the huge pressure on musicians to conform to the commercial norm, against which the colourful music scene is struggling. The original character of the artists, he writes, is threatened by the global music industry's commercial "logic of exploitation", a logic that heeds only the laws of the market and measures the value of artistic work primarily on the basis of sales figures, advertising and marketing strategies.

Since the end of the 1990s, numerous private music channels such as Rotana TV have emerged. These channels, according to Fariborz, are spreading nothing but "bland standard pap". Many of the musicians he spoke to complained about the dominance of this Rotana TV monoculture.

Even though the political upheaval has resulted in less censorship, the increased dominance of the exploitation machinery means that music is being treated like a mass cultural commodity. It remains to be seen whether these dedicated young musicians will be able to hold their own against this threat.

Eren Güvercin

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de