Political songs are useful for gauging political and social changes in collective consciousness. They become points of polarization in times of change or social crisis, and leanings vary between right and left. There’s always the patriotic song — glorifying states and armies, or declaring pride in national identity and its traits, usually full of lies — and the song that represents the downtrodden, who partake in national pride but suffer injustice, marginalization and misery. Usually the latter is more sincere and lasts longer in the collective consciousness.
Political songs are usually connected to major historical events, and in Egypt singer and composer Sayed Darwish’s output was linked to the first national liberation revolution in our modern history, in 1919. But best known to large sections of the middle and lower classes in Egypt and the region is singer and composer Sheikh Imam’s oeuvre, which was linked to the 1977 bread riots. The approach, vocabulary and musical formats of both were inspired by particular local traditions, and clashed with mainstream music. Darwish’s musical phrases were inspired by the noise, singing and humming of the impoverished — from construction workers and hawkers to sex workers. Imam’s lyrics, written by poets (such as Ahmed Fouad Negm) suffering bans, imprisonment and prosecution at the hands of the state, were marked by clear, sometimes outrageous sarcasm. He mocked the symbols of authority and their grandeur with very simple musical formats that contrasted with the complex compositions of the mainstream in a rich period for Egyptian music.
Darwish and Imam are the godfathers of the political songs that came out of the January 25 revolution. These songs had a powerful momentum in 2011 and 2012, revolutionizing, inciting and mocking official institutions and society’s traditional thinking. They suffered a sharp downturn after June 30, 2013 and its bloody polarization, but then made a comeback in 2016. It seems that the fifth anniversary of the revolution was the catalyst for the creation of songs showing maturity and accumulated experience. The connection between the four songs I discuss here is that there’s a new element to all of them, a realization of the reality of defeat. All in all, the political songs of 2016 came full of questions and exhaustion. Some were violent but empty, confused in format, or lost and alienated.
The Choir Project: Struggle
The Choir Project is a prominent work of collective artistic creation in Egypt. It began shortly before January 25 and evolved after Hosni Mubarak stepped down to become a solid, evolving endeavor, particularly during 2011 and 2012, when the voice of Tahrir Square was still ecstatic and persistent. Its songs reflected this, as dozens of participants lined up in theaters or before the camera for listeners numbering in the dozens, hundreds or thousands. The Choir Project’s members were as diverse as Tahrir Square and its podiums during the 18 days. It evolved according to political developments and young revolutionaries’ interactions with political events, clashes with the police during protests, and the decisions of the ruling authority, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The Choir Project has no hierarchy of authority; everyone participates in lyric writing, composition, singing and instrumentation. This gave it a unique voice in political music and allowed it to speak for the marginalized and alternative. The project was unchanged until the events of June 30, which caused a general regression in artistic expression, as the intense polarization, in my opinion, was too confusing for any collective creative process that requires democracy, tolerance and difference. So the project’s groups in Cairo and Alexandria settled for singing old songs, plus a big, two-hour show presenting all their work.
The Choir Project’s most recent song, Muaafra (Struggle), was released in May 2016 as a YouTube video, and its style is simple theater yet very effective — and fitting for a project that doesn’t lean on professional artists nor a strict creative vision. What’s different about Muaafra is how humane and universal it is compared to the rest of their work, while also being very Egyptian. With a collective voice and theatrical performance, it materializes an imaginary protest of daily suffocation and the regression of our hopes for mobilization, change, achievement and happiness, the emotional death of our dreams. Muaafra reflects the frustration and confusion of many young Egyptians. Even though it is a collective expression, it works as an individual representation of that state.
Shot closely from above, the first scene of the video shows a large group of young people crowded together as though stuck in a narrow space. In the lyrics the young people fall apart in a kind of limbo, before turning to a desperate protest expressing frustration and helplessness to the signature sound of drums in rising crescendo: ”I laughed from all the suffocation… It doesn’t matter how I die.”
Miniawy: To Students of the Third World
Abdullah Miniawy’s political songs are built differently from those of Darwish and Imam, because the language and style are different. Miniawy is a chanter, writer and, as of late, a trumpet player. He writes prose and poetry in learned classical Arabic, then chants like a traditional Sufi singer with western musical styles in the background, from alternative rock through “electro sufi” to experimental. He embraces Sufism in his singing, creating something new, symbolic and inwardly revolutionary. Miniawy is not the only voice of this genre — many have come before him, including Aly Talibab, and this type of music has been present since the early days of the revolution thanks to YouTube and Soundcloud.
Miniawy’s recent song Ya Tolab al-Alam al-Thaleth (To Students of the Third World), also from May 2016, was a departure because Miniawy has evolved from being purely a singer and chanter, as in 2011, to being a singer, lyricist, composer, musician and producer. He also sharpened his artistic instincts in an attempt to make something different, not only from others but from himself, revolting against “Miniawy the Preacher” who used to ignite the crowd with agitation poetry, weaving the name of Gika, the murdered 17-year-old activist, into lyrics about revolution and justice.
To Students of the Third World is a sober testimony to the state of the revolutionary movement, a heartfelt international appeal. Miniawy seems to be truly looking for companions in the students of both the third and first worlds. Rather than give up the symbolism of the messianic hero, he calls on the image of murdered Italian student Giulio Regeni to represent the plight of the student and youth movements. His enticing words, funereal rhythm, calm performance that lacks the exuberance and lyricism of chanting, the electronic music mixed with the cry of the trumpet, played at a slow and annoying pace, takes us to acoustic spaces that recall the cosmic void. Our imagination jumps from Giulio’s funeral to swimming around colorful stars and asteroids. Smiling, I mutter with him: “So define us in your history / we’re the people in the front when everyone escapes back.”
Ramy Essam: Prison in Color
Ramy Essam, one of many labeled “the singer of the revolution,” emerged during the 18 days in Tahrir Square, and continues the Imam/Negm tradition in a way that is simpler and without ideology. His good looks, long hair and hoarse voice helped him find a wide, young audience. He was honest and direct in way that was sometimes eloquent and other times naive and problematic. His artistic persona was also shaped by his hours-long arrest and torture in 2011 by the military after Mubarak stepped down. Essam represented many young people, including libertarians opposed to any authority, conservative Islamists revolting against political authority but compliant to conservative Wahhabi values, and those permanently disgruntled at the situation in Egypt. His audience was varied and thought-provoking, which helped shape his musical project.
Segn Bel Alwan (Prison In Color), from March 2016, crystallizes Essam’s endeavor to become Egypt’s rock star, with his appearance and his violent, reductionist music, which harshly criticizes society. The music video is an important element in contemporary revolutionary music and all the songs mentioned here, except Miniawy’s, came with visualizations that cannot be separated from the song’s ideas. Essam’s video uses the illusion that it was filmed in one shot, and centers on an dancer (who looks like activist Sanaa Seif), ending with her doing a contemporary dance number. The production is professional, and its western style reflects Ramy’s exile in Sweden. Although it uses repetitive and stereotypical visuals, this no doubt helped spread the video.
As well as Essam’s usual criticism of the state and the post-June 30 regime (having been a advocate for the protests of June 30), this song criticizes society as a whole. Written by Galal al-Beheiry and featuring Lebanese rapper Malikah, it sparked controversy upon its release for the line “All the men have given up while Sanaa stands up alone / Revealing your lies and fighting the pharaoh.” Some saw this as unfair to male activists, and others felt that rather than celebrating women as partners in activism, it reflected a sexist discourse of “she’s equal to men, despite being a woman” or, as the Egyptian proverb goes, “a woman is equal to a hundred men.” Essam’s attempt to celebrate the role of women in the revolutionary struggle utilizes the names of Egyptian activists Sanaa Seif, Mahienour al-Masry and Zeinobia. In the video, Malikah is surrounded by armed men attempting to detain her while she resists and sings about Mahienour and Zeinobia. Prison In Color is full of revolutionary violence and the harshness of imprisonment, and its confused message occupied Essam’s revolutionary audience on social media with important questions about the mythologization of the revolutionary hero and the current revolutionary position on women.
Youssra El Hawary: The Flag
Five years after the revolution, in her May 2016 song The Flag, Youssra El Hawary asked us the question: “What is it that can still make me happy to see a flag flapping in the sky?” Hawary emerged after January 2011, and her music evolved in partnership with The Choir Project, which was managed by Salam Yousry (who wrote and composed The Flag). Hawary never presented herself using her vocal capabilities, as solo vocalists tend to in Egypt, but came out holding an accordion across her body, shielding herself from the usual presumptions about female singers. Her music is marked by her personality, the western notes of the accordion and ironic lyrics, which usually tell a story. We can easily perceive her personality through her songs, and project their events on our own realities. Her project has become a solid, slowly evolving brand.
The Flag, too is based on Hawary’s personality, abilities and ideas. Centered around a simple, personal question, it addresses the reality that remains after the popular mood retreated from everything the revolution represented, the political and social stagnation that has dominated since June 30. Hawary tells the story through her accordion, which has become part of her voice, with Abdullah Abu Zekra on the saz, an instrument that belongs to the folk family of the oud, though it is used in The Flag without reference to its significant heritage. The song deconstructs nationalism and addresses the Egyptian state’s chauvinism after June 30 as a cultural and ideological discourse opposed to political Islam. Yet despite the implications of its lyrics, the sadness of its music and its opposition to traditional national symbols, the song is attached to nostalgic feelings of traditional Egyptian patriotism: “A lasting wind of patriotism cools my heart a bit.”
Released on YouTube, the video is simple and set between home, studio and the streets, specifically those of downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square, which Hawary drives through in her car. We see people in the distance going on with their ordinary lives. Between the scenes of Youssra and Abu Zekra playing, we see children drawing flags.
All four songs belong to the indie scene and have similar production values, all speak to young and educated listeners from Egypt and the Arab world, and all come from the same moment and question: What do we say half a decade after January 25? It’s as if 2016 gave birth to a feeling of responsibility to comment artistically on those inspiring events. With restrictions on live concerts due to lack of funds, venue closures and repressive laws, it’s normal for the internet to become the open space for such projects to be released and discussed.
Translated by Ahmed Bakr