Nahrain Al-Mousawi

Syria’s “Statement No.1” – Arab rap, a networked protest

(View at MidEast Tunes)

Syrian rap song “Biyan Raqam Wahid”, translated as “Communiqué No. 1” or “Statement No. 1”, was released online amid demonstrations and violent government crackdowns in southern Syrian cities like Deraa and Douma.

The spirit of protest grew from these marginal areas to more central cities, like Aleppo and the capital of Damacus. That the release was anonymous is hardly surprising, considering that the song’s call for revolt against sectarian scaremongering, violent repression, and corruption would have ushered the artists straight to prison. Before Tunisia’s uprising triggered demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa, rapper El Général’s online release “Rais Le Bled” (“President, Your Country”) landed him in jail for criticizing president Ben Ali’s repressive and profiteering regime at the height of the Tunisian protests. Since then, the so-called Arab Spring has inspired various MENA artists, like Arab Knightz and El Deeb, to produce protest rap songs.

Arab Spring raps strike the same tone as rap’s emergent themes when it was evolving as an American rebellious protest form in the 1970s, with strong roots in “street culture” of urban neighborhoods that spoke to global social and political conflicts. Like American rap’s originary investment in formulating lyrics to convey a strong mobilization message, “Statement No. 1” also aims at mobilizing dissent with its opening chorus:

Statement No. 1/ The Syrian people won’t be degraded/ Statement No. 1/ We won’t remain like this / Statement No. 1/ From Houran came the good news / Statement No. 1/ The Syrian people are revolting …

With a lyrical salute to Darraa, where the recent calls for freedom in Houran began and encountered a violent government crackdown, the song also evokes a longer history of dissent and repression:

“You exterminated Hama as if it were nothing / Today our rights are in our hands and we will not forgive”

Even though it is aimed at a younger generation, the song suggests a sustained history of repression does not make the memory of Hama, where revolt was crushed with a government massacre in 1982, easily “exterminated”. Initiating the song is the refusal of state “silence”—censorship, surveillance, the anonymity that the performers ironically cannot shake—for which Syria is acutely notorious nationalizes the protests, spread from the marginalized south to the capital of Damascus: “We live in silence/ It’s been years / how long do we have to stay like this—dead.” Underlying the communiqué-style set of demands sung in Syrian Arabic to the government is a mobilizing message of Syria’s own global resonance to listeners:

You sold the Golan for cheap / You sabotaged the cause and defiled it / History shows that no oppressor ever lasted/ We will realize our dream of freedom even if it costs blood / The government is destined to fall / The king either flees or is buried

While listeners are reminded of the global reverberations that Golan Heights had on other Mid East nations since the 1967 War, the song draws attention to its current global reach: even though the song is directed toward a younger generation of Web-enabled dissidents who already listen to rap, the song relies on the Web’s networked chain of transmission to draw attention to protests from journalists, bloggers, expats, activists, nationally and worldwide. In essence, even though the song might be judged by limited Internet use in Syria, it would be difficult to determine how the chain of transmission dips into the online and offline worlds, or rather how online “communiqués” become intertwined with offline (word-of-mouth, face-to-face) contacts.

While the online lyrical communiqué cannot be withdrawn from the global information networks, only Syria’s future will determine if it will have resonance as a traveling, cross-border protest rap, offline. For example, after Tunisian dictator Ben Ali fled, protestors gathered in Bahrain were heard chanting Tunisian rapper El Général’s protest rap “Rais Le Bled”. In this case, protest rap had not only crossed national boundaries but breached threatening material boundaries between the online and offline world of dangerous protest on the street, its aesthetic eagerly adapted to sites of protest against violently repressive regimes. This might have been the first instance of recent protest rap songs being incorporated into protests, momentously breaching the convention of traditional chants and the borders between online protest music and live protest.

The American urban “street culture” has crossed time and place to allow “Arab street protest culture” to develop and build upon its own traveling, cross-border rap aesthetic. The amateurish, rough production of “Statement No. 1” only seems to reinforce the organic, authentic, popular quality of its urgent message. While the fleeting, faceless rap is pragmatic in its anonymity, it does play on the characteristics of the globalized world’s information networks—anonymous, ubiquitous, and independent from conventional mediators, institutions, and authorities to convey its message.

But the statement that “The revolution is faceless” [1] evoked by the masked figure in the beginning of the video returns us to Syria’s state of surveillance and censorship that has expelled free speech itself underground, to the faceless, invisible realm. It returns us to the verses of Syria’s preeminent poet Qabbani spliced in the end: “How do we write with locks on our mouths/ Marking each second for the butchers to arrive/ I carried my poetry on my back and it has exhausted me/ What will happen to the poetry when it collapses.” It returns us to the context of underground music in Syria, not an obscure aesthetic preference, but where verse, poetry, speech seek relief and release when all other routes have been “exhausted”.

[1] A statement from the Italian writing group “Wu Ming”.


This entry was posted on December 28, 2011 by in .