Music and Movements: Global Racket looks at Arab Spring

DJ Brian’s “Global Racket” is a show that looks at music and its influence around the globe.  Here he reflects on his “Arab Spring Show,” which aired June 13, from 7-10pm. You can find the full playlist here.

At the close of 2010, citizens of Tunisia began a clamor that grew to an uproar. Their collective uprising in the streets and online closed the dictatorship of Ben Ali, led to free elections and a new political era for Tunisia, and catalyzed a wave of similar protests from Morocco to Bahrain. But it was often music, especially the underground anti-government scene that worked at peril of imprisonment, that sparked the emotions of millions and got the crowds out on the street in the first place.

In fact, many credit a single rap for releasing the pent-up frustration of Tunisia: Rais Lebled, a tirade against corruption and poverty by rapper El General. He rants in the chorus: “Mr. President, your people are dead; so many people are eating from the garbage.” Not only did the song ring true in a music industry full of government-sponsored American rap knockoffs, but its anger permeated with a population that had had enough with the unjust in power. Eventually, Rais Lebled went from banned to most-played on radio stations and in shopping malls, and a newly-elected government official even professed a preference for the honesty of rap over traditional Tunisian music.

Soon after, the Libyan people followed Tunisia’s example. A (now-defunct) website, EnoughGhaddafi.com, sprung up to publish protest news and spread information around the world. One of its products was a mixtape, Mish B3eed, which combined the works of El General with the Libyan Ibn Thabit and others from around the Arab world. The website suffered multiple outages after regime attacks and the artists often got locked away, but their messages inspired others to speak out and furthered the spread of revolutions from country to country.

And it wasn’t just new artists that sang out for the uprisings. Protesters found common ground in the songs of old activists, like Sheikh Imam in Egypt. Blind since infancy, Imam made a living by memorizing the Quran and reciting it at ceremonies, eventually accompanying himself on the lute-like oud. His musical career changed directions when he teamed with poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, and the duo began singing songs about poverty and the struggle of the common Egyptian. Their lyrics became uncomfortably rebellious and the two ended up in jail–it wasn’t until 16 years after Imam’s death that Egyptian protesters found his music again and turned songs like “Pretty Egypt” into anthems.

Protestors in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Image

The momentum of the uprising fought against the stiffness of both an undemocratic system and the emotionless music that it supports. The Saudi sultanate lets songs like Blak Royalty’s “Love Letter to Prince Sultan” pass as legitimate entertainment, despite its tired hooks and overwhelming sap. On the other side, Bahrain’s music industry stood together to speak about the democratic uprisings in their country, but only succeeded in publishing “Bahrain Unite.” Their message of reconciliation trumps any indictment of an unjust government, since all the musicians involved knew well the punishments for speaking out sincerely. Maybe it’s due to the lack of centralized media opposition that the Saudis helped Bahrain to brutally crush the rebellion only days after “Bahrain Unite” came out.

So, the many musicians that spoke out against oppression had to speak when most media towed the government line. But from Emel Mathlouthi singing at Tunisian protests and later at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, to Omar Offendum rapping out the feelings of millions in Egypt, the musical world largely gave structure to the rumblings of upheaval in the public mind. Ex-pats like Lowkey and Khaled M. spread the word internationally, and signaled to the protesters that the world was listening. On streetsides and websites, songs about the revolutions took hold to get everyone involved.

I’m working to get history like this out on the air because most American radio doesn’t. If you’re lucky enough to live in central New Jersey, you have access to one of the most unique voices in the media today. If not, I’m glad you have the webstream. Tune in to WPRB any day, any night to hear me and others share stories on the air. For more of my show, Global Racket, tune in to WPRB any Monday this summer from 7 to 10 pm.