The Role of Linguistic and Hip-Hop in the Arab Revolts

Intercultural Seminar 2 – The “Arab Spring”: The Paradoxes of Foreign Intervention
Lecturer: Sidi M. Omar (February 15th, 2012)

Celui qui croit pouvoir mesurer le temps avec les saisons
Est un vieillard déjà qui ne sait regarder qu’en arrière
On se perd à ces changements comme la roue et la poussière
Le feuillage à chaque printemps revient nous cacher l’horizon.

-Louis Aragon, Le Roman inachevé (1956)

On February 15th, 2012 we had the chance to have a lecture with Sidi M. Omar on the so-called “Arab Spring”. Sidi M. Omar is a current teacher at Jaume I University, in Castellón (Spain), but he is also a member of the Interuniversity Institute of Social Development (IUDESP) and the Ambassador of the Sahrawi Republic (SADR) to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative to the African Union, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As a specialist on the Postcolonial Studies and with all the knowledge he has on the Arab world, Sidi M. Omar’s principal objective with this exposition was to wake up our awareness and curiosity on the importance of analyzing speeches in what concerns the “Arab Spring” (See interesting timeline of the revolutions on the Web page of The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline. He wanted us to understand the gap between official discourses of foreign actors and the official reality on the ground. In short, his presentation aim to make us understand that foreign intervention incorporated a lot of ambiguities and a neocolonial connotation. It’s all about how narratives can have an influence on our perception of historical events and how we can have a twisted view of what really happened on the ground. He presented how great powers, like France and United States, played with different discourses, one day supporting dictators and the other day rallying themselves with social society. Moreover, Sidi M. Omar explained us why we should stop using the inappropriate term “Arab Spring” which, for him, is a complete Western construction due to the fact that in the Arab world, those revolutions carry different names (for example, en Tunisia, the revolution is called Sidi Bouzid Revolt or Dignity Revolution). As Rami G. Khouri highlights, those who are currently taking part of these revolution just don’t use the expression “Arab Spring”, they are using “revolution” (thawra) in Arabic.[1] This means that the term “Arab Spring” is ideologically loaded and really reductive, as it can be seen as another form of neo-colonialism by the imposition of certain concepts to that part of the world:

I suspect that the popularity of “Arab Spring” in the West mirrors some subtle Orientalism at work, lumping Arabs into a single mass of people who all think and behave the same way. It might also hide another troubling factor: Many quarters of many Western lands remain hesitant in fully acknowledging the implications of free and self-determinant Arabs who have the power to define their countries and shape their national policies. […]Language may be the easiest place to start reversing this troubling legacy. Dropping the term “Arab Spring” for something more accurate is a starting point.[2]

The lecturer also aimed to makes us see how mass medias are having a great influence on our perceptions and our linguistic and discursive uses. It’s more about trying to understand why a military intervention in Libya, about why at this moment and what are the political and economic goals behind the NATO intervention. Sidi M. Omar tried to give us the beginning of critical reflection by highlighting the fact that, for example, France really has an interest on Libya’s oil as confirmed by the secret letter of September 2011 released by Libération. Effectively, it seems that French oil companies are widely going to take advantage of this military intervention.[3] Here we are not going to discuss every point of his presentation because of the incredible amount of precious information which was approached. The main objective was to makes us understand how important it is to critically analyze what we are exposed all day every day in the mass medias.

We could definitely talk a lot about the polemical status of the term “Arab Spring” but, I precisely want to focus on a more cultural fact of the Arab revolts. I’ve been, recently, really interested by the role of rap music in those revolutions. I think it is a good way to understand the reality of these young people that are behind the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Let’s see for example those lyrics from one of the most famous person of the revolts, El General :

Mr. President, today I am speaking in name of myself and of all the people

who are suffering in 2011,

. . . get off into the street and see, people have become like animals

see the police with batons, takatak they don’t care

since there is no one telling him to stop

even the law of the constitution, put it in water and drink it.

. . .

I see the snake that strikes women in headscarves

you accept it for your daughter?

You know these are words that make your eyes weep

as a father who does not want to hurt his children

But until when the Tunisian will leave [sic] in dreams, where is the right of expression?

They are just words . . .

I know that there are many words in the heart of the people but don’t come out

if there was not this injustice I would not be here to say these things (Ben Amr, 2011)[4]

We have been discussing a lot, during seminaries and classes about the role of Hip-Hop in configuring a starting point for peace. Obviously, it is not our point to say that Hip-Hop can resolve all the conflicts that are surrendering this part of the world. But as Karin Heim is arguing:

Although its history is brief, hip-hop in Israel is often political, including music by both Jewish and Arab artists. These artists use their music to express their opinion about the conflict, to define group identity, and to help the opposing side understand their point of view. Because hip-hop has always been linked to the conflict, it is reasonable to ask if hip-hop could thus also be part of a solution to the conflict. Is it possible for Jewish and Arab artists to come together through hip-hop to find common ground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?[5]

In this sense, we want to expose few of the important rappers, usually backed by the diasporas, that supported and still support the Arab uprisings. In fact, these movements have been accompanied by a really important musical connotation. As mentioned by Lara Dotson-Renta, the political use of Hip-Hop has two interesting effects. On one hand, it helped in mobilizing people of those countries in the formation of “pro-democracy movements”, which also means that people got unified around one common political goal. On the other hand, it also helped “solidifying links between Arab diasporic communities in the West with those still residing in the ‘homeland’”[6]. The best example of this connection is a song written by Syrian-American Omar Offendum and Iraqi-Canadian The Narcicyst and produced by Palestinian-American Sami Matar.[7] The song is dedicated to the protests that took place in Egypt on 25th of January. You can listen it here:

We should not forget that all of this has also been possible because of the social networks like Facebook and Twitter. But then, we should not overestimate the importance of Hip-Hop. It is a really effective “hearts and minds” captor, but in the end, a lot of countries are still facing rough repression as it is the case with Syria. As you can see on this video, singing controversial political Hip-Hop can be really dangerous. This rapper has been murdered, his vocal chords removed during the repression of the protests since its song has become the hymn of the demonstrations:

Finally, I wanted to highlight that as we tend to give Western names to these revolution in Africa and in the Middle East, resistance begins to organize itself in more countries than we think, in more countries than the mass medias allow us to know. While I was investigating on the subject, I found that Senegal and Somalia are also having new Hip-Hop groups that are challenging governments or armed groups and that are calling for social changes. This video is an example of a collective of Somali and Kenyans that are saying “No to Al-Shabaab”, an Islamist rebel group that is terrorizing Somali people:

Finally, we are not pretending, giving the space here, to make an exhaustive portrait of the role of Hip-Hop in the Arabs revolts. There is a huge quantity of information you can find in this Web page that gives you links to various articles: http://majjal.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/resources-on-hip-hop-in-the-arab-world/. You can also watch this video that shows an interview with the author of the book “Rock the Casbah”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKNXSrsKZZw


[1] Khouri, Rami (2001): “Arab Spring or Revolution?” The Globe and Mail, Beirut, available online: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/arab-spring-or-revolution/article626345/, (Consulted: April 25th, 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] De Filippis, Vittorio (2011): « Pétrole : l’accord secret entre le CNT et la France », Libération, available online : http://www.liberation.fr/monde/01012357324-petrole-l-accord-secret-entre-le-cnt-et-la-france, (Consulted : April 25th, 2012).

[4]Agathangelou, Anna M. (2011): “Making Anew an Arab Regional Order? On Poetry, Sex, and

Revolution”, Globalizations, 8(5), p. 586.

[5] Heim, Karin (2011): “Beats Not Bombs: Hip-Hop To Create Peace In the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Nota Bene: Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Musicology, 4(2), Article 5, p. 19.

[6] Dotson-Renta, Lara (2011): “Hip-Hop & Diaspora: Connecting the Arab Spring,” Arab Media & Society, Issue 14, available online: http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=777, (Consulted: April 25th, 2012).

[7] Ibid.

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