The Art of Popular Protest: Hip Hop in the Middle East

I tried something new in class last week. I let my students listen to an Egyptian Hip Hop artist, Ahmed Mekki, and study his lyrics. Not only did they learn a thing or two about Arabic, but they were immediately and inexorably saturated with the struggles of the repressed youth of the Middle East.

Palestinian Hip Hop
DAM – A Palestinian Hip Hop band based in Israel

There are no limits to the artistic impulses and cultural expressions that go hand in hand with protest. In the Middle East essays, poems, caricaturing, street art (which has made a strong imprint in the wake of the Arab Spring), songs and other innovative forms of protest remind us that human remain resilient in the face of repression.

Across the region, indeed the world, young artists have been inspired by the ‘art of protest’ that lay at the heart of American Hip Hop culture which originated in the 1970’s. One of these artists is Big Hass who aims to bring “True Hip Hop to Saudi Arabia.” The Arab Spring has catapulted more than one Hip Hop artists to stardom. The Syrian-American artist known as Omar Offendum, who raps mainly in English, has put his talents towards the uprising against the Assad regime, as well as empowering the youth to see in themselves as ‘heroes.’

In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, the Middle East was already home to a vibrant underground Hip Hop scene. This Hip Hop subculture produced Ahmed Mekki, a gifted Egyptian artist who manages to communicate the people’s outrage at widespread corruption in Egyptian society and its dog-eat-dog culture.

The Hip Hop scene in the Middle East extends beyond the Arab World. The back breaking poverty and devaluation of humanity are latent throughout the work of the Iranian artist known as Hichkas (lit. “no one”). In a broader sense, his work addresses both society as well as God. This is most evident in one of his tracks featured in the award winning film, “No One Knows About Persian Cats” (کسی از گربه های ایرانی خبر نداره‎).

Even the Muslim Brotherhood have tried their luck–not so successfully–at communicating their message through Hip Hop. Hip Hop has also been used–or abused some would say–by countless amateur artists to support the Assad regime, Hezbollah and other political actors. However, it is the Hip Hop ‘of the people’ that thrives. As long the poor and disenfranchised youth of the Middle East weather the storm of revolution–in all its manifestations–Hip Hop will likely continue to flourish underground.

The art of protest is no stranger to the cities of Europe and elsewhere in the world. The Turkish Hip Hop scene dates back to the latter half of the past century. Its roots lay in the struggles of Turkish immigrant workers amid racist experiences in German society. In this vein, the award winning artist Ceza has been one of the most famous Turkish artists. Furthermore, the slums of France, especially since the financial collapse in 2008, have become the epicenter of what Keny Arkana calls “La Rage du Peuple!”

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