Egyptian hip hop artist on the rhymes of revolution
The Egyptian revolution has mobilised millions of people. It brought down the United States-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak. The struggle for democracy and equality continues.
Countless songs dedicated to the uprising rocketed around the internet. Two of these songs, "Rebel" and "Not Your Prisoner" from hip-hop trio Arabian Knightz, quickly became anthems of the revolution. Arabian Knightz released their new album Uknighted States of Arabia on January 25 ― the one-year anniversary of the protests that sparked the revolution.
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Hip hop in the Arab world has a history that people in the West don't know about. Could you tell me what you know about the scene?
I've heard that people were rapping back in the early late '80s and '90s. When we came in, we wanted to take it to the next level.
We did the first actual Arabic hip-hop show in Egypt. We rocked the house and people started feeling it, and people started actually believing that rap could happen in Egypt.
Was there a conscious decision for you guys to write political lyrics or did that come more organically?
Whenever I was writing, there would always be some political element to it. And whenever I'm talking with somebody, politics always comes up.
It's something that's always been really dear to us, because seeing everything that's been going on in the Middle East for so long, you want to speak some truth on it.
Do you notice a difference now in the way hip-hop is received in Egypt since the revolution?
Oh yeah! Everybody's rapping now! People used to tell us, you'll never be able to do anything with rap in Egypt, nobody understands hip-hop.
Now, just about every university or high school kid, even primary school kid, is spitting verses in Egypt!
You can go on YouTube or on their Facebook accounts and see that they're spitting their rap, they're doing something. It's amazing because I saw it happen while I was there.
It's pretty fair to say that Mubarak's regime was pretty repressive toward the hip-hop scene.
Not just hip-hop man, all art. He came out and said, "Let the artists be artists. You talk about art. Leave the politics to the politicians and just go paint." So it was any kind of art.
There are a lot of poets in Egypt that really dig against the government. There are some of them that are still in jail until recently because of their poetry.
So it was all forms of art ― artists who would paint pictures about Egyptian politics, cartoonists who would go to jail, bloggers that would go to jail, everything. It was open season on anyone who went into the realm of politics.
Is that why you think "Not Your Prisoner" took on a whole new life after the revolution?
Yeah, because it was always banned! But after the revolution took off, we just chose to put it on the internet. It was released maybe February 1 or 2, maybe a week before Mubarak stepped down.
Everyone knew he was good as gone, though, so we just said, okay, now is our chance, and just took it.
The lyrics to "Rebel" pull heavily on the themes of protest, Arab unity, the corruption in Mubarak's regime and really everything that you said could get you arrested. Did have any idea how much attention the song was going to get?
I had it ready and wasn't sure if it would just be a throwaway, but I didn't mix it or anything. Two minutes after it uploaded to YouTube, the internet was shut off in Egypt for a week [by the Mubarak regime to attack the uprising].
We just wanted to get our voice out there. We didn't expect everyone to be screaming it in Tahrir Square. It was amazing to see that.
Mubarak's gone, but the protests haven't stopped. What do you think needs to happen for the people's side to win?
I already know that there's no such thing as a perfect government ― absolute power corrupts absolutely. But we've got to be organised. We've got to start somewhere.
There are still people in Egypt who are going hungry, and we need a way to get those people food. We need to fix everything that needs fixing in Egypt ― period.
Are you encouraged by the strikes that are continuing since Mubarak left power?
Oh yeah. Because so many people are saying, well, Mubarak's out so let's just get back to normal life. No. Normal life has to start once the things we've requested have been implemented.
You know, people died in this revolution, we can't just forget about that.
I hear a lot of different themes that keep coming back in your music ― Arab unity, radical and responsive democracy, redistribution of wealth, an end to US meddling in Egypt. Do you think these can ultimately be won? And what do you think the role of music is in fighting for these things?
Well, everyone listens to music first of all. It's a voice for us. It's a way to reflect what's happening in the streets back to the masses.
You know, for Arabian Knightz, we have a lot to say, and we want to put it out there. And luckily, a lot of people are agreeing with us nowadays.
I think our music has helped encourage people to keep going ― I mean, people were out in Tahrir Square singing our songs.
We used to get made fun of because our songs are so political. People used to say to us, you guys really think a revolution is going to happen in the Middle East? You guys are crazy. But we believed in it, we kept talking about it.
And now, well, it's funny how it turned out.