The story of the Arab Spring is the story of a modern revolution. Starting in late 2010, the world watched as protesters used social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to help bring down autocratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. But there was another driving force that hasn’t gotten as much attention: hip hop. It began with a protest song, “Rais Lebled,” by the Tunisian rapper, El General. It was a stinging indictment of his country’s repressive government, and it landed him in jail.
But it also signaled a movement. As the Arab Spring echoed throughout the Near East and North Africa, rappers led the way in Egypt, Tunisia, and even in Mali, where the northern part of the country fell under Islamist rule last year. Two of the leading musicians, Deeb, from Egypt, and Amkoullel, from Mali, join us in the studio for a discussion about the importance of their music to their respective countries — and to perform a few songs, including a special collaboration on a freestyle just for Soundcheck.
Deeb, on the seeing crowds chanting along to his music in Tahrir Square:
“A lot of [Egyptians] haven’t heard about hip hop before. So it was very interesting to see the crowd react with you and sing with you. Even in the square, when we meet up with people from an older generation — for example, like my father’s generation or my grandfather’s generation — they’d tell us, ‘Listen, you’ve done something that we’ve never though of doing.’ Because they were living under fear.”
Amkoullel, on his blend of Malian music and American hip hop:
“We are of this generation, the first generation of rappers in our countries. But we have to create our own identity, is the reason why we talk about our reality, our truth. And we also try to [include] our traditional instruments. It’s what I do… I create a kind of afro-pop, but hip hop inspiration.”
Deeb, on his biggest influence, Nas:
“I think Nas was a big brother to me, to a lot of hip hop artists. He was like the guy who was telling you, ‘Beware of this, beware of that,’ because he’s ahead of you. He’s very poetic and… he has a lot of imagery. And that’s what drew me, because I’m an Arab. Arabs love poetry. We love the choice of words and the metaphors, and Nas was very good at that.”
Deeb, on how his songs have changed since Mubarak resigned:
“I’ve become more outspoken in what I say. Before, I used to try to sugarcoat what I say; I can’t say the word ‘Mubarak,’ for example. Now I can say the word ‘Morsi,’ who is our president. Basically, I can criticize him freely. That’s something that we never had before the revolution. We had fear of being persecuted and caught by the cops.”