13Dec

Rage Against The Regime: How Young People Are Using Music To Create Social Change In The Middle East

Originally published in Forbes.

“Before the revolution we were like zombies, we were like dead people,” says Egyptian musician Ramy Assam. “But now we have dreams.”

Rebels in Egypt. Photo courtesy of MTV World

Rebels in Egypt. Photo courtesy of MTV World

Assam, who was arrested and tortured in March 2011 for his role as stirrer of the pot during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, is one of the musicians followed in a new MTV series, “Rebel Music,” on mtvU, MTV’s 24-hour college channel and on www.RebelMusic.com. Each episode of “Rebel Music” focuses on a different country grappling with inner turmoil. The series was created and executive produced by Nusrat Durrani, Senior Vice President and General Manager of MTV World.

“Our work is focused upon tracking and excavating and discovering what’s happening with youth around the world,” Durrani told me. He became interested in showcasing the musical activism of young people in countries that are often in the news, such as Israel, Egypt, Mexico, India, Mali and Afghanistan. “We’re not hearing from the youth in those countries. We’re only hearing from politicians and vested interests and older people basically. The youthful voice is missing.” The omission is particularly striking given that young people constitute the majority of the population in many of these countries. In Egypt, for example, 57.2% of the population are under 25 years old (compared with only 34% of Americans). MTV wants us to hear what the young people have to say because they are the ones who will decide their countries’ futures.

The series shows how music both creates conflict and helps resolve it. The Egypt episode, for example, follows a group of musicians leading up to the demonstrations against Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood on June 30th, 2013. Musicians worked alongside activists to get momentum for what was ultimately one of the largest protests in history. “Art is expression and expression is what we need right now,” says an excited Egyptian music promoter named Mariman. The demonstrations were successful in ousting Morsi from power.

According to Durrani, many of the protest musicians documented in the series were inspired by how music was used in American history to facilitate social change. “If you look at the history of America I think we are leaders, we are such an inspiration to the world,” he said. “Whether it be someone like Billie Holiday or Woody Guthrie or James Brown, in each decade there are great musicians who have used their art to create social change.”

“Rebel Music” shows how music creates conflict by expressing discontent with the established regime, often at the risk of physical harm to the musicians and their families. But it also shows how music can create healing connections between people who have historically been at conflict. The Israel/Palestine episode, for example, shows several artist collaborations that transcend differences of nationality or religion.

Kobi Farhi of the Jewish-Israeli heavy metal band Orphaned Land notes that as a source of musical inspiration, Israel is a land of riches. “We’re living in the most inspiring place on Earth,” he says in the episode. “Why shouldn’t we take motifs from this place and put it into our heavy metal music?” Farhi began a musical collaboration with Abed Hathoud, the lead guitarist of the Arab-Israeli rock band Khalas (which means “enough” in Arabic) that ultimately resulted in a joint tour for the two bands, the first of its kind. Khalas’s bass player, Rooster Tuning, is Jewish, though according to him his nationality isn’t relevant to his music. “I belong to the Jewish people,” he says, “but my real religion is music.”

The episode also tracks the activities of the popular Israeli musician David Broza as he collaborates with Mohamed Mughrabi, a rapper from a refugee camp in East Jerusalem. “If you can bring in that creativity into a room amongst people who are uncomfortable with each other—subjected to politics, subjected to war—then you recondition the situation and maybe you’re moving one notch forward toward the change,” says Broza.

Some people are skeptical about the real agenda at play when Israeli and Palestinian musicians join forces. Omar Barghouti is an academic who argues in the episode that these collaborations merely normalize a deviant situation of one people oppressing another. For others, like Khalas’s Abed Hathoud, musical collaborations mean that there is hope for peace someday “If we all do the right thing.”

“Rebel Music” is inspiring because it showcases young people who are passionate about music and are bold enough to use it to fight against forces much greater than themselves. According to Durrani, the series will remind young viewers of the power of music. “Music does provoke, music does inspire, music does sting sometimes. But music does heal and music connects and music transcends. So it does all of the things that any good art does.” In an era where radio is often dominated by bland party songs, this is an important message indeed.

But what will perhaps surprise viewers the most about “Rebel Music” is just how fresh and relevant the music sounds. Everywhere in the world, talented musicians are making exciting music, whether hip-hop, metal, folk, or regular rock n’ roll. And more than ever, we can connect to each other by sharing it.

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