The world has read the stories, seen the pictures and watched the videos. And this week in Brooklyn, New Yorkers will get the chance to attend live performances of musicians who play a significant role in the ongoing political revolutions in the Middle East and in North Africa.
In 2011, when a young Tunisian man’s suicide sparked a movement now known as the Arab Spring, thousands took to the streets to protest repressive governments. A song by one young Tunisian rap musician became a kind of soundtrack to the revolution, chanted by thousands of protesters, from Tunis to Cairo, demanding the ousting of their political leaders.
“Mr. President, your people are dying
People are eating rubbish
Look at what is happening
Miseries everywhere, Mr. President
I talk with no fear
Although I know I will get only trouble
I see injustice everywhere.“
(Rais Lebled – El Général, English translation)
Hamada Ben Amor, known as El Général, was 22 in early 2011 when his song “Rais Lebled” (Head of State, in English) went viral on YouTube and Facebook. He composed and recorded his music from his hometown Sfax, in eastern Tunisia. Shortly after Ben Amor published his political music on the Internet, he was arrested by police officers and jailed for publicly criticizing former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “Rais Lebled” became the anthem of many young protesters.
“In this regime there was no humanity,” Ben Amor said in an email interview last month. “ I ventured my life for my country and deliver the voice of the people. I am the Tunisian people and I always defend and fight all those who want to overthrow my country.“
Ben Amor will be one of five political rap artists from the Middle East and North Africa scheduled to perform in Brooklyn this week for an event series called “Mic Check: Hip-Hop from North Africa and the Middle East.” The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is organizing three events, two concerts and an artist talk, all between March 7 and March 9. Other artists to perform include Amkoullel from Mali, Deeb from Egypt, Shadia Mansour a female Palestinian rapper, Yacouba and Brahim Fribgane, a traditional Moroccan musician who is based in New York City.
Through their New York concert, the artists get a platform to share their music and political causes with an international community. “New York is the place where you can find a little portion of everything you can find in the world,“ the rapper Amkoullel, who is 33, said in an email interview last week. ”We, young Malians, young African artists, are a part of the today Africa, of the today world, so we need an embassy in the capital of the world. I will do my best to make you love Malian hip-hop music.”
Both concerts will be held in the Peter Jay Sharp Building at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Fort Greene this Friday and Saturday, the artists will also participate in a talk at BAM’s Fishman Space in Boerum Hill.
“In the Middle East and North Africa it is a very popular means for MC’s to be social commentators who give voice to burning social and political issues and, as such, hip-hop culture and rap music has wide appeal across the region,” said Zeyba Rahman curator of the Brooklyn show. “Over the last couple of years, with so many Arab countries in the grip of a social-political tsunami, hip hop has emerged as a prominent form of cultural resistance, an alternative to armed movement, and a strong voice for change.”
Rahman thinks that BAM is a great place to host African and Arab artists because it is located in a multi-cultural neighborhood.. “The institution is situated close to the long established Arab section along Atlantic Avenue, the Nigerian mosque and community center on Myrtle Avenue as well as other, diverse, Muslim populations within the BAM radius in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Cultural District. ”
This event series is not the first through which BAM brings Arab and African artists to New York City. In the past, programs such as Muslim Voice hosted concerts featuring musicians from Senegal, Ghana, Syria and Iran.
“BAM is great at educating people from Brooklyn and the rest of New York about world music and bringing great musicians from all over the world here,” said Brahim Fribgane, a Moroccan musician who lives in Brooklyn and will also perform at this week’s concert.
With this lineup, BAM brings a spark of the political revolutions to Brooklyn. Over the past years, rap music became a vivid form of political expression in countries suffering from social injustices and repressive regimes. During the outbreak of political movements like the Arab Spring, many dissidents have raised their voices through music to encourage social changes.
Amkoullel received death threats after the Malian government banned his music. In his famous song “SOS,” published in October 2011, the musician, who lives in Mali’s capital Bamako, raps about radical Islamists who control the northern part of the country and he urges the government to react to the threats.
The song, he says, “is a message to everybody, to the Malian, people and politics, to the president, to the international community, to anybody that want change or have any proposition for social ameliorations.“
Amkoullel thinks that rap music emphasizes political change because it focuses on the power of speech. “It’s a music of love, loving each other and a good way to change things in the society by the power of words and poesy,” he said. “Hip hop, rap music, is the soul of the street, of everyday people.”
Brahim, originally from Casablanca, Morocco will add his traditional North African sound.
“I am the bridge between what happens over there and over here and I am the bridge between hip hop and traditional music,” he said during an interview in Midtown Manhattan last week. “What brings us together is poetry, the words and us being suppressed artists from all over the world.”