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Essay: Music in relation to political identity (mobilising a culture of resistance during the Arab Springs)

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  • Music in relation to political identity (mobilising a culture of resistance during the Arab Springs)
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Music is a vessel of communication that allows people to express emotion and meaning, even if the artist’s spoken language is not comprehensible to the listener. (HARGREAVES, MIELL and MACDONALD, 1997). Due to technological development and the increasing commercialisation of music over the last two decades, music has become a greater part of our everyday lives. Music can construct and express an individual’s identity through direct experiences that it offers the body, time and sociability. This can enable us to place ourselves in similar and different cultural narratives than our own. Performers use their music as a platform to express their assessments of the world but also as a vehicle for social change. Our musical taste and preferences can form an important statement of our values, attitudes and identity. Attali suggests that music has a responsibility to society and acts as catalyst for social revolution and political transformation. In this essay, I will explore music in relation to political identity, primarily focusing on music’s role in mobilising a culture of resistance during the Arab Springs and how it was used as political communication and identity.

Music in identity concerns how we use music as a means or resource for developing and or expressing aspects of our individual identities. Essentially, music is a social activity that we do with and for others, either as a listener or as a creator. Research evidence suggests that the social functions of music are manifested in three principal ways for the individual, specifically in managing interpersonal relationships, mood and self-identity (Hargreaves and North, 1999a). People use music as a tool to develop and negotiate interpersonal relationships, as individual’s musical preferences can express the social group they do and don’t belong to. Furthermore, a cumulative quantity of evidence displays the relationship between music and mood. Music is used to regulate moods and that is further facilitated by the immediate social environment in which listening takes place. The third and most important social function of music lies in constructing and developing an individual’s sense of identity.

To understand the relationship between music and political identity is to understand that identity is mobile. As ethnomusicologist, Simon Firth noted identity is not fixed but it is a process with the idea of the self as focus and unchanging core of an individual’s personality, which has allowed for a less fixed and a more dynamic view of the self. Identity is fundamentally self-in-process which is constantly being reconstructed through experiences of music; whether making music or listening to it and interactions with others. Social constructionist theories suggest that identity is created through interactions with other people and that people have multiple identities rather than one core one as Firth suggested. Burner (1990), however, suggests that the concept of narrative identities which are continuous stories that we construct throughout over lives. Therefore, Burner and Firth agree that we have one core identity which is “a relatively unchanging sense of self that has a history”, rather than the shifting and multiple identities of the construction account.

The experience of music is an experience of identity. When we respond to a song we are drawn into an emotional alliance with the performer and the audience. Therefore, due to its abstractness, music by nature is an individualising as well as collective form. Music is all around us when we are submerged in a musical landscape, music helps to shape our desires, preferences and ideas. It shapes the way our self is in process and opens up possibilities of thinking in a certain way. According to Spoonie Gee and Milton Babbitt, musical appreciation is a process of musical identification and the aesthetic response is, an ethical agreement. Paul Gilroy states that identity is neither ‘simply a social and political category’ nor ‘a vague and utterly contingent construction’ but ‘remains the outcome of practical activity: language, gesture, bodily significations, desires’. Music is also a part of identity and is a manifestation of collective identity and part of the community that binds people together. Identities are inevitably shaped by narrative forms and during the Arab springs people used music to express and construct their identities and make sense of their local realities. They used music in particular amongst other art forms, as a language of critique as much as a language of hope.

The Arab Springs, also known as the “Arab Awakening” were a series of pro-democracy protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa commencing on December of 2010. The demonstrations and protests of dissatisfaction with the local government were met with violent tyranny and revolutionaries with superlative creativity. Music was used as a weapon of protest and resistance where artists played a substantial role in the unfolding of the Arab Springs. According to Victor Hugo, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”. Under the reign of the former Tunisian President Zine Al-Bidine Ben Ali, censorship was colossal and music artists and songs had to be approved by the government. Simple love songs or propaganda like songs were the only type of music that was mediatised and artists behind those songs were given the opportunity to make a living from their art such as Sonia M’barek. Music that was considered threatening to Ben Ali’s Regime found its home in the underground scene.

The most notable artist of the Tunisian and subsequent Arab uprisings was the underground Rapper El Général (born Hamada ben Amour) whose song “Rais Lebled” meaning Leader/President of the country spoke to the frustrations of an otherwise voiceless majority. He released a raw and simple video on his Facebook page on November 7 on the anniversary date of Ben Ali’s succession to power, which went viral and was on the lips of many as people went on to the streets to protest (Asen, 2011). In the video he is smoking a cigarette and his face is hiding in the shadows, however his identity is not completely concealed. This is despite warnings he received with which he responded, that he was “ready for the consequences”. This signifies his willingness to fight for what he believed in, which was the freedom of the Tunisian people.
Rap is best seen as a medium to articulate experiences, concerns and politics. Rap music established itself during the mid-1990s in the Arab world as a major force for expression and innovation among the Arab youth. With a brooding tempo, hip-hop beat and minor piano melody following a ‘gangster’ style Arabic rap, “Rais Lebled” pleads with the President Ben Ali with its poignant, powerful democratizing lyrics. It begins by informing the president that “your people are dying”, “eating from garbage”, “We are living like dogs”, then El Général continues to describe the myriad indignities and violence, corruption and oppression suffered by ordinary Tunisians. The heightened speech of the narration comes across as rebellious and bold as he then goes on to explain: “Mr. President, you told me to speak without fear, I spoke here, but I knew that my end would be palms (i.e., slaps and beatings), I see so much injustice. That’s why I chose to speak out, even though many people told me that my end will be execution. But how long (must) the Tunisian live in illusions?”. El General adopted an activist agenda and spoke loudly in the name of the poor and underprivileged, despite the repercussions. He clearly knew of the repercussions behind his confrontation yet decided to communicate the narrative of subjugation and suppression which his audience could understand and relate to. He layed Tunisia’s claim to the right to revolution by showing Ben Ali’s failure to look after the citizens of his country.

He then later released his song “Tounes Bledna” (“Tunisia is our country”) on YouTube and in the chorus he furiously rhymes: “Tunisia is our country, with politics or with blood!” “Tunisia is our country and her men will never surrender!” “Tunisia is our country, the whole people hand-in-hand!” and “Tunisia is our country and today we must find the solution!”. He uses music as a call for economic opportunities, a clean government and the rule of law for the citizens of Tunisia. El General pro-democracy political values and identity filtered into his music as his lyrics reflect the social and political grievances the citizens of Tunisia faced and became the personification of protest. His songs resonated with every Tunisian person that was exposed to the widespread government corruption and ineptitude, which were all of Ben Ali’s neoliberal restructuring of the country. In this instance, the repetition of “Tunisia is our country” instantly fixes all of the people with that nationality, instantly creating a collective binding reinforces feelings of national kinship.

Fela Kuta, Africa’s greatest political artist understood that music is a ‘weapon of the future’ in the struggle against violent, corrupt and repressive regimes. Music serves as a vehicle and creates space for subcultures to become countercultures; marginalised groups tend to be drawn together by common cultural tastes in arts such as music and performances that gradually articulate a powerful oppositional political vision and identity that challenges authoritarian state power. The music of El General powered by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a vegetable vendor, the lone breadwinner of his family of seven, ignited nationwide protests where people took their political views and identities out onto the streets to fight for what they believed in, which was the removal of Ben Ali and his regime.

The mobilising capacity and political weight of music can be determined by the reactions of authority figures. In Tunisia they considered music that wasn’t rallying for the president as a threat to their stability and to the established order in which the voice of the people is not heard or listened to. The regime contested by ‘deviants’ and protesters took musical criticism and anti-conformist artists very seriously. It isn’t hard to overstate the power of “Raid Lebled,” as his powerful lyrics got him imprisoned and targeted as a threat. El General captured the essence of the Arab Uprisings as he admonished about the loss of fear of the people, who would “rather die” on their “feet than live” on their knees. His song was easy to learn and chant as he rhymed slowly and in an easy to understand manner, becoming the anthem of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’, (Wright, 2011). His arrest brought Tunisia far more international attention then it had witnessed since the start of the uprising and essentially caused the revolution to become a world-wide phenomenon. Time Magazine tell us how Rais Leblad was taken up in Bahrain, as a female shouted the first line of ‘Rais Labled’ and then others joined knowing lyrics/

The Jasmine revolution in Tunisia is evidence of the important and unique role music has in forming political action, as people united through the shared experience of music. Due its massive impact, El General’s song had become politicised and not just seen as a safety valve for him to vent his emotions but became a form of resistance both large and small. While one small act of resistance isn’t enough to collapse a dictatorship, the repeated acts of resistance through music began to build up until the ‘eruption’ happened and there was a revolution. Music played a crucial role in getting people passionate about resistance because of deep semiotic effects it has on the listeners. Therefore, music and politics play a reciprocal role where music affects politics and politics effects music. Political and moral authorities with a sense of how powerful music can be, may use it for their benefit, such as for propaganda. You can alter soldier’s psychological and moral states by listening to aggressive music during military operations.

Identities are at once both social and individual and they are the effective connection of life experiences variably prominent in any given instance. Our identities are comprised of what we know best of our relations to self, others and the world. The conclusive link between identity formation and music lies in the precise semiotic character of these activities. Thomas Turino’s theory of semiotics is a useful lens for looking at the unconscious political effects that music often has. American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce created a theory of signs known as semiotics. A sign is anything that indicates something else. Every sign has three features: the sign or sign vehicle, the objector idea indicated by the sign, and the effect or meaning of the sign- object relation to the perceiver. The effect signs have can range from physical reactions to different thoughts, ideas or memories coming back to the mind of the perceiver. Turino identifies three different kinds of semiotic relationships in music: Icon, index and symbol. These three kinds of semiotic relationships create distinct and powerful responses to the listener.

An icon relationship is where people make connections based on resemblance. For example, resemblance in music can be recognising it belonging to a genre as it sounds like other songs that you’ve heard before; you can identify rap music through stylised rhythmic tunes. As Turino puts it, “icons can spur imaginative connections of resemblance between the signs perceived and the objects stood for in light of the internal context of the perceiver”. Whether intended by the artist or not; sounds or lyrics in music may resemble other ideas outside of music to the listener.

The second type of semiotic relationship is an index. Indexes are signs that point to objects or ideas they represent, this applies to music associated with a concept or occasion. For example, a national anthem at a sporting event becomes an index of patriotism. Indexical responses often happen when listening to music such as when advertisements play a jingle connected to a product, that jingle becomes an index to the product. Semantic snowballing happens when new indices are added to old ones, creating a variety of different meanings. One example is how the Civil Rights Movement used pre-existing tunes that indexed the church and progressive labour movements and set new lyrics about civil rights to these tunes. This combined old associations of religious righteousness with progressive politics, adding historical depth and power. Because indexes link a song with a personal event, indexes tend to be the most personal type of semiotic relationship and often evoke the most emotional and powerful responses.

The third sign is the symbol: language is a system of symbols, wherein each word or phrase has a definite and consistent meaning, albeit often contextually defined. Words are usually shortcuts for something else; the word “sad” represents an emotional state. Language is essential for describing and analysing music, but as ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino explains, such symbols “fall short in the realm of feeling and experience”. Therefore, symbols are secondary or after-the-fact, and may distract from the intimacy and immediacy of the musical experience. It is important to distinguish symbols from symbolism, which is often more metaphorical and more related to icons or indexical responses.

Icons, indexes and symbols help us to understand how music effects people and groups in meaningful ways. Throughout history politicians have understood and have effectively used the iconic and indexical power of music to further their own pragmatic needs. For example, the Nazis used music for their own malicious purposes and political movements. The Nazis used a series of rituals and non – verbal signs like the swastika and the Hitler salute to bind the population into following orders. Furthermore, Nazi leaders repeatedly connected ’German greatness’, ‘Jewish degeneracy’, ‘work’, ‘freedom’, ‘unity’, and ‘military’ together in Nazi speeches, films, and songs. They used music as a form of propaganda, using singing at mass rallies and required membership in choirs to create a sense of collective unity for the German people and they highlighted the greatness of German music while not tolerating music written by Jewish or black people. The Nazis constructed the ‘elite’ German political identity through these rituals and propaganda music and influenced others to also take on this identity.

Additionally, an example for a social movement is the Civil Rights Movement which used music as a tool for positive change. During the Civil Rights Movement, mass singing was one of the primary forces that united people and created a sense of unity. Songs like “We shall Overcome” became iconic of the movement and people developed indexical responses to those songs and the movement as a whole. Through the semiotic power of music like in the rise of the Nazi party and the civil rights movement we can see how much has been used a political tool throughout history.

Tunisian music created powerful semiotic responses that helped strengthen the movement that sparked the Arab Spring. Turino’s theory can explain the importance of hip-hop as a genre for the Tunisian social movements. In the United States, hip-hop is the ‘iconic’ genre for African Americans, a marginalised group. American hip-hop deals with issues of oppression, poverty, and rebellion. For much of the world, hip-hop and ideas of fighting oppression have an indexical link. Tunisian hip-hop have been especially important in calling out oppression in Tunisia because of the indexical clusters that are associated with hop-hop and fighting subjugation. Certain hip-hop artists like El General have become iconic of the Arab spring, as he played a huge role in the movement and so he became one of the symbols of the Middle East rebellions.

Throughout the Middle East music was used a defence to fight against the government as activist groups sang political chants over familiar popular tunes to create a semantic snowballing effect that gave the original song meaning. Continuous repetition of determined revolutionary activities in a mundane life, results in the internalisation of revolutionary ideas within the general population, without the governments attention. Building musical communities involves the role of semiotic effects as shared sense of community is built through the repetition of certain musical practices and people begin to associate music with the community that they are a part of which becomes part of their identity. However, communities can also surpass boundaries of identity and what holds these communities together is their shared experience of music, which often leads to the acknowledgement of shared experience or political alienation. This creates the emergence of new group political identities.

El General’s rap broke the spell of fear and showed other artists that it was possible to rebel and survive as he was released three days after his arrest due to public uproar. On January 25, 2011 the protests spread to Egypt and music played its part in the firing line. In Egypt, on Tahir Square in Cairo, loudspeakers carried the voice of 26-year-old singer Ramy Essam to the thousands of protesters who gathered there. Before 2011, Ramy Essam was not a household name in Egypt, he was a simple student and an impressive writer with a guitar and an impactful message. He began singing in Tahir square in early days of the revolution with his songs ordering Mubarak to ‘Irahal’ ‘Irhal’ (‘Leave, leave’) which had become the sound of the Egyptian revolt. His songs were taken up with glee by the protestors and were incredibly important to the protesters. According to professor and musician Mark Levine who was on Tahir square during the upheaval, it gave the public adrenaline and new hope when Ramy took the best of chants and slogans and incorporated them in his music. His song became representation and a commodity, going viral on YouTube and Huffington post before being picked up by CNN and the TV networks around the globe.

Ramy Essam documented a piece on Aljazeera claiming that his “music and politics were fused together” similar to all the other artists of the revolution. In Egypt music and action were braided into new forms of revolutionary practice, repeated call for dignity and to awaken people’s sense of radical possibility. This is very apparent if you watch the interactions between musicians and crowds at street protests. In this perspective, people have basic human needs for identity, security and recognition. When the state lacks institutions to provide for these needs and protect human rights, people become angry.

“Irhal” and “Rais Lebled” reflect two entirely different ways in which music impacts revolutionary events. El Général never performed his song live during the Revolution. Indeed, it was Essam’s physical presence in Tahrir during the key fighting, his literal embodiment of the struggle that helped make “Irhal” the anthem of the revolution. “If I were just a singer coming to the square and then leaving, it wouldn’t have had the same impact,” Essam believes. It was his physical presence, his performance of what I have elsewhere described (with Bryan Reynolds) as “theater of immediacy,” that overcame any possibility of government control or repression of the music, the message or the messengers. Essam explained to me that “my job is to listen to all the things Egyptians are saying, distill them into their essence, and share it as widely as possible.”

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