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Singing for Change: How Music was an Important Revolutionary Tool

posted on: Jun 11, 2021

Ramy Essam performing during the Arab Spring in Egypt. Courtesy of Ramy Essam

By: Emily Devereaux/Arab America Contributing Writer

Historically, most revolutions used significant cultural symbols to help push ideas through the entire population. For example, many people dressed in certain fashions and adorned in various symbols in the French Revolution to signify a tangible representation for their cause. Similarly, Arab revolutionaries recognized the cultural significance of music and used it as a vehicle for revolutionary ideas. Therefore, songs became symbols for revolution and bonded together with many other citizens.

Although many revolutionaries prior to our brave Arab brothers and sisters in the early 2010s used music as a tool to spread their message, the Arab Spring is unique because of the role on the internet, which in turn, allowed for music to be spread easily. By utilizing music for messages and the internet for mobilization, the following Arab revolutions helped change the scope of activism forever.

Voices of the Tunisian Revolution 

Emel Mathlouthi, NPR

Tunisia is one of the first countries in the Arab world in which its people sang for change. Beginning in 2010, there was a great deal of unrest in Tunisia over corruption, poverty, and political suppression. Many artists, specifically rap artists, utilized their talent as a means to respond to the situation, especially as it grew increasingly direr.

The Tunisian Revolution, which originated in the city of Sidi Bouzid, was the first domino to fall in the Arab Spring and set an example for other countries that followed suit. The Tunisian Revolution is historically different from other revolutions because of the role of the internet, which was a powerful tool in mobilizing the Tunisian people.

My Word is Free- Emel Mathlouthi

The important role of the internet in the revolution allowed for music to be shared and played easily. One of the most popular artists at this time was Emel Mathlouthi, who has even been nicknamed the Voice of the Tunisian Revolution! Her song entitled كلمتي حرة, which means “My Word is Free” went viral in 2010 and quickly became an anthem for all protestors in Tunisia taking part in the many social and political demonstrations.

Mathlouthi never imagined that her music would be heard by the entire country. Although she started performing at the age of fifteen and even joined a band in college, Mathlouthi says there was no way for a young independent artist, especially one who was a woman, to be heard, as she was not allowed on television or the radio, and she, therefore, could not reach a larger audience. However, she continued to write political songs.

The artist says her main sources of inspiration come from the poem In this Land, There’s What’s Worth Living by Palestinian Writer Mahmoud Darwish and her ability to create an eternal symbol for what was happening in Tunisia.

#Jan25 in Egypt

Jan. 25 Uprising, Egypt Streets

The Egyptian revolution in 2011 was marked by the pursuit of the people of Egypt to remove President Hosni Mubarak from power. Similar to the Tunisian Revolution, these artists were not allowed to broadcast their messages to wider audiences via television networks or concerts. Therefore, these artists had to utilize the internet and various underground networks to share their songs.

Some of the most popular songs from the Egyptian revolution are:

Ezzai- Mohamed Mounir 

Ezzai, which means How Come?, was written by Mounir as he compared Egypt to a lover. In his song, he tells Egypt that because he loves it so much, he must change it. This video was posted online, where it rapidly spread and resonated with many Egyptian people. After accumulating hundreds of thousands of views, the song still reminds the Egyptian people how much they love their home- and that love oftentimes requires courage.

#Jan25 by Freeway, Omar Offendum, Ayah, The Narcicyst & Amir Sulaiman

#Jan25 was a hashtag initially tweeted out by a twenty-one-year-old Egyptian woman named Alyouka, in which she discussed the importance of platforms like Twitter and Facebook for organizing, mobilizing, and creating change! Quickly following Alyouka’s tweets, the hashtags #Jan25 and #Egypt began to trend worldwide, which is the inspiration for this song, which marked the Egyptian peoples’ demands in Tahrir Square for Mubarak to step down.

Syrians Fighting for Resistance with Rhythm 

One of the most notably grim revolutions took place in Syria, as demonstrations to oust President Bashar al-Assad were met with violence. Some musicians, such as Omar Offendum, exercised their talents from around the world to raise awareness for change in Syria, and for its people. His flagship album is entitled SyrianamericanA, and he uses it as a vehicle to call out the West on their apathy toward places in the East, like Syria. His greatest influence in music was his coursework that bridged both Arab and U.S. education and culture for Offendum. Arabic poetry inspired his writing, and it is still evident in his music, as the verses are poetry!

Check out Arab America’s blog here!