Is hip hop driving the Arab Spring?

Egyptian hip hop artist Deeb. Photo by Asmaa Ezzat Deeb is a banker by day and a rapper by night

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Music and revolutions have a long history. Hip hop in the Arab world does not. But as the Arab Spring turns to summer, is hip hop emerging as one of the drivers of the revolution?

"Mr President... people have become like animals... We are living like dogs."

The words of young Tunisian rapper El General, real name Hamada Ben Amor, in his track Rais Le Bled.

It was the end of 2010 when El General - then a relatively unknown rapper - quietly posted the track, along with a simple video, on his Facebook site.

It was raw and angry - about corruption, unemployment and poverty - and it singled out then-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali directly.

No bling

Within days it had gone viral, and the words of the song were on the lips of many as they demonstrated out on the streets across Tunisia.

"It certainly wasn't El General who unleashed the Tunisian revolution, but El General and Rais le Bled was a significant factor amongst many others," says music journalist Andy Morgan.

Start Quote

Omar Offendum. Photo by Ridwan Adhami

These revolutions have broken the fear barrier and the silence”

End Quote Omar Offendum Syrian-American hip hop artist

"Rais le Bled just strips away all the bling and the glitz of the genre and brings it right back to basics - it's just a man on a mic telling it as it is," he told BBC World Service.

It was a bold move on El General's part, and one that led to him being detained and questioned for three days in January by the Tunisian authorities.

"His art and music became such a strong symbol of this revolutionary trend, that of course he became a target," says Martin Buch Larsen with Freemuse, a group which works to protect the rights of musicians around the world.

Express yourself

"Hip hop is always something where plain speaking, blunt-speaking, is hard-wired into the genre from the off," says Andy Morgan.

But that also made it particularly difficult for musicians in many tightly-controlled Arab states to express themselves.

Indeed, until now, hip hop and rap have had only a limited reach within the Middle East and North Africa - principally among Palestinians and in Morocco.

But in recent months, hip hop appears to be gaining momentum rapidly in many Arab Spring countries, including Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

"Arabic hip hop is very young right now. It is a music of struggle," says 27 year-old Mohamed El Deeb, an Egyptian hip hop artist based in Cairo, better known simply as Deeb.

Before the revolution, he says he struggled to find a foothold among the sea of love songs which dominated the airwaves in Egypt.

And, although his music had a political edge, he had to take great care with his words.

"I would actually use other names. I would say 'them' or 'the big guys' I would never say 'government', I would never say 'Mubarak'," he explains.

Tunisian rap singer Hamada Ben Amor, better known as El General. Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP El General has become something of a star over the past months

That all changed during the weeks of protests at Tahrir Square, when it was rappers like Deeb who were among the first to get up on stage to perform.

"These revolutions have broken the fear barrier and the silence," says Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American hip hop artist, and one of the musicians behind the track #Jan25 - a reference to the day that mass protests began across Egypt.

Next front

Libya is another country which has seen a very fast rise in its hip hop scene - much of which is centred around Benghazi.

"In Libya there's a whole load of musicians who have come out of nowhere," says Martin Buch Larsen with Freemuse.

"They are basically just enjoying the sudden freedom to actually be able to produce their homemade productions, and their homemade music, and put it into the international media."

For the most part there are no managers, no record labels, and there is no copyright on the music.

Instead it is mostly disseminated direct via the internet, principally YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Start Quote

Hip hop is close to Arabic culture in a way - it's based on poetry and Arabs are very fond of poetry”

End Quote Deeb Egyptian hip hop artist

It is not easy though for many artists in the region.

"The situation in Syria is deteriorating every day; with the turmoil there, no one has a clue the number of attacks on human rights activists, artists and musicians," says Martin Buch Larsen.

"We get reports but we may only be scratching the surface," he says, adding that Freemuse believe that a Syrian singer may have been killed for speaking out against President Bashar al-Assad.

Omar Offendum has not been back home to Syria since the start of the protests there, but he says he is determined to do so - even though he is well aware of the risks.

"They are naming the president and his close allies in very vocal ways - thousands of people are chanting.

"To see that happening is itself a triumph, because this is a country that has had some of the worst forms of censorship," he told the BBC.

Interestingly, he notes that music is being used by both sides to get their message out.

"Millions of people do support this regime, and you have hip hop songs being created to support the regime, just as much as you've had music created to criticise it."

Whose culture?
Syrian-American hip hop artist Omar Offendum. Photo by Laith Majali Omar Offendum says the track #Jan25 was a show of solidarity

But is it surprising that hip hop is having such an impact in the Middle East?

Not according to Deeb, who raps mostly in Arabic: "I think the whole 'hip hop is American' argument is not valid anymore.

"The world is becoming one because of globalisation, there are no boundaries.

"I mean right now I'm wearing jeans - does that mean I can't wear jeans just because it's American?

"We have to take the good things from other societies and leave the bad things.

"Hip hop is close to Arabic culture in a way - it's based on poetry and Arabs are very fond of poetry," he adds.

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