Binaries in music writing: Gender as a way out
Courtesy: Sharjah Biennial 14; Still from Rahhala (2017).

Take a look at this timeless meme.

Upon initial observation, you will probably see either a young woman facing away or an old woman looking over her shoulder. But at first, our minds cannot process these two images at once. We have to oscillate back and forth to get the full picture. But once our brains have registered both perspectives, we cannot look at those images in the same way as before, we will always see both pictures, instead of one. Neither is negated, instead both simultaneously exist. This process is known as the “Gestalt Switch — when a switch in perspective turns paradigmatic.” Translated to life, however, this paradigm shift doesn’t always happen, and more often than not we remain in isolated, polarized camps, quarantined apart, but also at war with one another.

On a microcosmic level, the same feels true when writing about music. In documenting music from the region over the past decade, writing mostly for Mada and the Wire magazine, the polemic of how to discuss the independent music scene in Egypt and the region rages on. Along the way, discursive polarities have not only formed, but drifted further apart when trying to understand what it is we’re talking about, when we talk about music. Are we meant to discuss music solely through aesthetic critique? Art for art’s sake? Or are we meant to contextualize its production, and the people making it through the socio-political environment in which they exist? And where does gender fit into all this?

Many of these topics arose at the symposium I attended last May, which was co-produced by the Sharjah Art Foundation and Maazef music magazine. It was a sort of annexed program in the Foundation’s Art Biennial, the region’s leading contemporary art event taking place once every two years, since 1993. Ma3azef, meanwhile, is one of the only Arabic content publishers dedicated entirely to the coverage and critique of music from the Arab and North African region. In just a handful of years, Ma3azef has cultivated a rich network of Arabic music writers, researchers, and musicians throughout the region, with a Facebook fanbase of over 300,000, in addition to a growing audio catalogue on Soundcloud. With a sound daily output, the website provides a robust critique in Arabic of music produced in the region, a critique able to engage with the aesthetics of music making, an area often masked with writings about the sociopolitics of this music. Alongside publishing daily music news, aesthetically driven critical reviews, Ma3azef publishes pieces on themed topics, from auto-tune to mahraganat, and artist-driven series on musicians ranging from Abyusif to Sabah.

For the inaugural symposium, they cast a tight net of names, including musicians ranging from Kamilya Jubran, Makimakkuk, Muqata, Mazen Sayet (El Rass), to Asem Tag ($$$TAG$$$), Rami Abadir, Mark Girgis (Porest), Mostafa Said, and Ahmed Zaghmouri (Mukta-feen), many of whom participated in panels, while also giving musical performances in the evenings.

Largely driven by the magazine’s managing editor, Ammar Manla Hassan, chief editor, Ma’n Abu Taleb, and moderated by their prolific editorial team, the symposium gave public platform to many of the debates found at the core of Ma3azef’s daily work, where discussions of Arabic language, identity and the development of an Arabic music dictionary are interlaced with cautionary criticism of the culturalism found at the root of much of media coverage of music from the region. A number of topical issues related to contemporary Arabic music were also explored, including the challenges faced by independent and alternative music scenes and the modernization of Arabic music and musical heritage as a catalyst for creating new music, among other critical issues. While the theme of aesthetics vs context in music writing was as ubiquitous as the auto-tune effect heard in most radio pop music, two sessions in particular gave stage to this issue. Moderated by the music academic Fadi El Abdallah who also holds a doctorate in law and is a contributing editor to Ma3azef, the session, titled “A discontinuity in Arabic music”, featured prominent musicians Mustafa Said and Kamilya Jubran, where they discussed the “thorny relationship between the past and present of Arabic music and the crisis of authenticity and continuity with respect to traditional forms” as described in the event’s text.

While both artists create contemporary, self-contained music, their varied sounds continue to acknowledge traditional forms or references (be it lyrically, instrumentally, or through the use of traditional maqam scales).  In the panel, it was suggested that contemporary Arab musicians — even those working in urban genres like hip-hop, left-field electronics, and mahraganat — should not be entirely divorced from their cultural heritage. Even if those aesthetics do not explicitly appear in these new forms of music, panelists shared a concern for the lost potential of music heritage, which they think of as a generative space. The panelists spoke of heritage in its aesthetic function and value and not necessarily from a cultural preservation standpoint.

Conversely, in the panel titled, “establishing new critical discourse”, participants questioned the way in which nascent genres are discussed, both locally, and by the West. The panel’s framing suggested that while the Arab world is home to a constellation of contemporary music genres, these categories have yet to become subject to keen critical discussion, be it Levantine Shaabi, Mahraganat, or Iraqi and Maghreb pop. Thus, in trying to understand how to write about such genres, the polarized discussion resurfaced, where some suggested that in order to combat orientalism, the music criticism of these works should be shaped by a certain set of aesthetics and stylistics systems of production rather than their cultural contextualization.

In a nutshell, much of the grief was related to the, at times, reductive context journalists put into their pieces when writing about Arab musicians, rather than emphasizing the aesthetics of the work. This has resulted in a frequent sensationalizing or fetishizing of this context, which nearly always comes at the expense of the music and the discourse around it. They have a valid point. All too often we read hyperbolic expressions in western media, such as those who continue to pen Ramy Essam as the “the voice of the revolution”.

Trapped in this box, Essam continues to exploit our failed revolution, while shaping his musical identity with the clay of stock, western-sourced rock and music videos that look like a parody one might see on Saturday Night Live. In his rise during the early days of the Egyptian revolution, he became known for his musical soapboxing in Tahrir Square by means of flipping protest chants into shaky three chord songs that everyone in Egypt already knew the words to. Nowadays, Essam continues to make politically charged music in Europe, where he has lived under cultural asylum, since 2014. A couple of years later, in 2016, his hero status expanded in Europe with his monologue theater show titled, “RAMY: In the front line” — where certain media continues to herald him as an ardent savior of modern Egyptian culture, simply because his riffs remind them of Rage Against the Machine, and their own constructs of rebellion. In Egypt, however, Essam has become nothing more than a meme of himself.  This is a vicious cycle that traps him and potentially other artists within a time-loop programmed by western click-baiting headlines, despite the reality that the ones on the actual front lines, like his songwriter, Galal Behary, along with completely innocent bystanders like Ramy Sedky — faced the consequence of prison as a result of this circuitous, hyperbolic hero-making machine that is under-nuanced media and meme-like political art.

Conversely, to discuss Maurice Louca’s music as simply “psychedelic”, “free-jazz”, or “electro-acoustic” without linking it to the various complex, repetitive and hypnotic African rhythmic structures and textures that permeate his work, is to accept the west’s positioning that all music, in some way, is birthed from their dominant culture, which hides under the guise of “globalization.”  This is arguably where some context matters — not a context of aesthetic origins alone, but more broadly, contemporary historical, social and political experiences that contribute to one’s creative process.

“Culture is not your friend”

We all have that friend who gets off on playing devil’s advocate. In my case, it’s a guy who lives in the west named Adam. Whenever I post something on social media about “culture”, be it a conference, a meet up, or an article, without fail, Adam deploys the same video meme of Terence McKenna’s “culture is not your friend”.  Known as one of those cult-iconoclasts, fringe thinkers, McKenna is a philosopher and psychonaut famous for exploring human consciousness through the ingestion of psychedelic hallucinogens, and his views often have a polarizing effect.

Here is the gist.

“Culture is not your friend. Culture is for other peoples’ convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well-treated by culture.”

A less gimmicky version of McKenna’s critique can be found in the resistance to culturalism, coined by Jordan Bates as a condition where ‘“cultures inevitably dramatically restrict our perspective. Your culture feeds you many stories about how the world works, and if you never learn to pull back the veil and see beyond your culturally specific stories, you’re going to miss out on a lot.” Another pointed rendering of culturalism can be found in the article by Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt, titled “Culturalism: culture as political ideology,” where the writers define the term as “the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realise him or herself within it.” In the article, the  authors extend the argument to nationalism as a “sub-variant of culturalism”, with states basing their entire political projects on one culture.

In producing cultural discourse, there is a good reason then to steer away from overt site-specific sociopolitical contexts as a means of decoding works of art. This is not a submission to a conflation of cultural nuances into mono-layered globalized readings, which can be the trap in solely writing aesthetics.

But is there a way to deploy historical, political and social context in cultural critique without being culturalist? Is there a way to write aesthetics without being redundant?

“Gender is not a culture”

In the panel session framed around “alternative music spaces”, a member of the audience asked a promoter working in Morocco’s burgeoning genre of trap rap about “the invisibility of women in the hip-hop scene”. He clumsily argued that the few women involved within the country’s hip-hop scene are more often associated with scandal instead of artistic integrity, citing famous hip hoppers Ily and Psycho Queen as examples.

In response, the rising hip-hop producer, MC and DJ Makimakkuk from Ramallah  eventually took the mic, and silenced a roaring room. Perhaps it is not an unusual reaction for an MC, one who handles the microphone as naturally as a bird fluttering its wings when flying. But there was no music cutting through her words this time around, only the sound of the AC humming to fill a conference room of heated intellectuals and artists.

She wanted to know why in hip-hop, “All men are kings, and only one woman can be queen?”

Think Nicki Minaj vs Cardi B. The comment resulted in splintering debates that continued beyond the panel, not only about the invisibility of women in hip hop, but more so regarding the media discourse that perpetuates these violent, gendered feuds and binaries.

Is talking about gender in music or in art in general a way of subscribing to the context side of the above-mentioned polarity? Does activating a gender discussion contribute to masking the art behind a performing identity? It’s possible. In Sharjah, there was no programming about women in music. This is not a bad thing, as the “women in music” framing is usually nothing more than a shallow trope existing within a gendered echo chamber. But instead of relegating gender to a genre, can we think of it as a means to unsettle the comfortable existing poles in writing about culture? If an overflow of sociopolitical context is charged by some critics with masking the value of the art work, what about the predominance of rendering art invisible, a byproduct of gendered power relations? Is that not a good reason to consider gender beyond its simplistic assignment as politics marring artistic discourse? Can gender be a contextual flashlight that illuminates the despised masking of art through its cheap politicization?

In the regional coverage of music, from underground to pop, we continue to see reductive, under-nuanced media rhetoric that places more emphasis on an artist’s gender, appearance, morality, or her personal life, than on her music. In English-language news, we read hyped-headlines announcing,  “the hardest-working female Egyptian DJ”, which automatically relegates her to a segregated subgroup, away from her male counterparts. Meanwhile, in Arabic interviews, pop stars like Yasmine Hamdan are more often asked questions about her love life and beauty tips rather than her music. Or, in the case of Ily and Psycho Queen, we are introduced to the echoes of their alleged scandal ahead of their sound, despite Ily garnering close to 8 million views on her earworm track “Loca”, released earlier this year.

Unscientifically speaking, often more women than men in pop arts are associated with scandal. Like Morocco’s music promoter from the panel’s argument, in Egypt, over the last years, many women performers have been arrested on allegations of archaic, morality-based crimes in response to their “racy” music videos.  In 2017, singer and dancer Fatima popularly known as Eghraa, was arrested on charges of “inciting debauchery” and “violating public decency” for her music video, “I Want a Man.” Later, in November 2018, 25-year old Egyptian singer Shaimaa Ahmed (Shyma) was sentenced to two years in prison and fined LE10,000 after she had been charged for such violations in reaction to her music video “Andy Zorouf” (I have issues/I have my period). The next month, a lesser-known artist named Laila Amer was arrested after a lawyer filed a complaint against her music video clip “Bos Omak” (Look at your mother), where she allegedly made suggestive gestures, while “inciting sexual acts between youth.” The point is not to mention the quantity of women in jail versus men, but rather to illustrate how frequently and easily women are reduced to scandal if they step out side the bounds of a morality as prescribed upon them by the patriarchy.

In the article, “Sexism and the music doc: Grace Jones has had her 15 minutes”, writer Carmen Gray argues that “Documentaries about female stars tend to tread similar narratives, involving a reductive look at personal histories, where the filmmaker is less interested in the idea of accomplished musicians than of girls who supposedly dreamed too big and self destructed through addiction and failed relationships. With this mythologizing, you might say that Amy Winehouse (Amy), Whitney Houston, Nina Simone (What happened Miss Simone?), and Janis Joplin (Little Girl Blue) have been made more alike in death than in life.”

“While not without their virtue, their narratives are one-dimensional compared to films about their male counterparts. These include Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Grant Gee’s Joy Division, Jay Bulger’s Beware of Mr Baker, in which troubled men of rock are permitted more cinematic space to be many things.”

This becomes emphasized in the case of Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse — two of the most reverberative songwriters and vocalists of their respective generations. Nina on the one hand, was trained to be a classical pianist, and yet we have yet to see a documentary on how exactly she translated these virutisitic techniques of classical music into her songwriting in the same way we understand Kurt Cobain’s melodic and artistic prowess. With Winehouse on the other hand, our filmmakers care more about having us consume her addiction, than the deep, full-bodied quality of her sublime vocal capabilities and songwriting. Instead of learning about their music, both artists are reduced to the same mythical tale of Icarus who flew too high and close to the sun, in nearly every representation of them until today.

And yet, we still cannot get ourselves to call Michael Jackson a pedophile.

Perhaps there is no singular answer to the question of “what it is we are talking about, when we talk about music?” But by freeing up gender from the confines of culture or context or category, it can instead become a vantage point, a lighthouse, irradiating a multiplicity of perspectives and potential solutions to discursive conundrums  that we just can’t possibly see when we look at things wholly from the perspective of binaries, be it aesthetics vs context or similarly, culturalism vs non-culturalism. Not unlike the meme of the young and the old lady, where there is no correct interpretation of the image. Instead of subscribing entirely to either image, by exploring both realities simultaneously, we can see the journey of old woman who was once young, and the young woman who will one day be old — presenting a new level of understanding, a classic Gesalt Switch, and a paradigmatic shift.

Maha ElNabawi 

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