Grassroots musicians provide soundtracks for the revolution

Talented protesters have inspired their fellows from Tahrir Square to Wall Street, providing digitally distributed soundtracks for their movements that have stolen the spotlight from "politically conscious" pop stars.

A musician strums his guitar as rebels fire at the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi's troops in the town of Sirte in October 2011. Aris Messinis / AFP
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In a warm cafe in wintry Stockholm last month, I was lucky enough to speak at a conference alongside Ramy Essam, the bard of Tahrir Square, as he received the 2011 Freemuse Award, given to musicians who display incredible bravery in singing about injustice. It was especially poignant hearing him sing songs of freedom in cosy Sweden, while that same day in Cairo the Egyptian military were brutally attacking those protesters who believe, like Essam, that "the revolution is not over yet".

Essam typifies the spirit of this extraordinary year: at the start of the Egyptian uprising he wasn't a star, just a 24-year-old engineer with a guitar and a band who hadn't really got anywhere. He couldn't be further from the stereotype of the "politically conscious" western pop icon, the carefully managed superstar airlifted into a danger zone for a publicity stunt and a photo-opportunity. On the contrary, Essam is grassroots. He was a protester first - he only brought his guitar along to Tahrir Square because his brother suggested it might help keep spirits up. In what quickly became his - and Egypt's - most notorious song, Irhal (Leave), he set the protest chants to a few simple guitar chords - slogans like "Down, down Hosni Mubarak!", "The people demand: bring down the regime!", "He is going away! We are not going anywhere!".

It's entirely appropriate that Essam was singing not his own lyrics, but the words of the crowd - and then in turn, they sang them back to him. When Mubarak's supporters violently attacked the protesters in the square in February, Essam was one of them; when the military forcibly cleared it in March, Essam was among those arrested and then tortured. Through all this, he never stopped singing. After two weeks in bed recovering from his ordeal, "the first thing I did was to go back to Tahrir Square and sing songs against them, describing what had happened to us". The key word in that sentence is "us". Protest music and protest politics are still performative, and still display the old flashes of showmanship - but never before have they been so egalitarian.

In this newspaper in August, Faisal Al Yafai pointed to the populist significance of protest singers across the Arab Spring singing in "dialect Arabic rather than the refined language of literature ... the protest songs are speaking for the people, and they are speaking like the people". The musical vernacular of this year's protest songs has been as varied as the geography of dissent, but stylistically much of it comes from the grassroots: a blend of local folk music tropes and one crucial kind of "global folk": hip-hop. Traditional Yemeni wind instruments have been used on songs about Saleh, while the call-and-response of Syrian dabke music is transformed into the perfect vehicle for chants against Bashar Al Assad. Call-and-response is also a key hip-hop trope, which is perhaps why, from El General in Tunisia to Lupe Fiasco at Occupy Wall Street, protest rap is everywhere this year: a genre that requires so much audience interaction that it collapses the divide between the singer and the crowd, sweeping the performer's pedestal from beneath their feet.

Essam wasn't the only singer who spoke for the grassroots, and was punished for it: El General was arrested and tortured for daring to sing anti-Ben Ali hip-hop anthems. Rap began in New York as a voice for the voiceless, and so it remains. In August, when riots, arson and looting tore through the poorest parts of English cities, it was rappers from those areas - people like Professor Green, Lethal Bizzle and Wiley - who spoke most fluently about the poverty, frustration and boredom that bred the unrest, at a point when no one in a position of power seemed able to do so. They were also the first to record music about it, using technology to do so faster than ever before; within three days of the riots starting, with London still burning, there were already five or 10 home-made rap tracks about the riots recorded on home computers and uploaded to YouTube.

This year's uprisings bore the indelible mark of internet-powered globalisation; the same forces that have spread pop music from the West to the rest of the world, and to a lesser extent let the music of the rest of the world seep into the West. From Tahrir Square to Wall Street, the networked world of web 2.0 finally caught up on the authorities and worked for the people, not against them: from Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Wisconsin, New York, Athens, London and Madrid, the revolution was televised, streaming live to laptops across the world.

Protest music in 2011 has operated largely on these lines, too: peer-to-peer, not handed down by megastars. There's been plenty of protest music, but high-profile musicians have been notable by their absence. Radiohead and Massive Attack played a gig at Occupy London, but it was a secretive, low-key affair, not pre-announced, on a weekday evening - Thom Yorke and 3D seemed almost embarrassed about their star status, as if aware that this wasn't their revolution. One surprising exception emerged in November: on YouTube, American teenage pop superstar Miley Cyrus rededicated her song It's a Liberty Walk to Occupy Wall Street, and "the thousands of people who are standing up for what they believe in" - the music is accompanied by an agitprop montage of footage of police brutality, tear gas, beatings and defiant protesters from Europe and the US. Tellingly, at no point does Cyrus herself appear in the video: even while it was probably good publicity for her, she knew that she should not be the focus.

Perhaps this rare outbreak of humility among the world's pop stars is a recognition of our changing times: this isn't their moment any more than it's the moment for rebel leaders. In the last couple of years, political music has changed as fast as politics has. The moribund neoliberal model of political pop music is best summed up by an apocryphal story about a U2 gig in Scotland in 2006. Bono stands in a single spotlight at the front of the stage and demands the 30,000 crowd curb their adoration for a moment - filling the eerie silence, he begins to clap, slowly but regularly. 30,000 fans gaze up at Bono, unapologetic in his righteousness and hubris. "Every time I clap my hands," he explains, "a child dies in Africa". For a second the crowd is stoic, humbled, told to shoulder the burden of western guilt by one of the least humble men on the planet - until one audience member breaks the imposed silence and shouts up at Bono: "Well, stop clapping then!" By the time U2 headlined Glastonbury this year, it was not the band who were leading the protest politics, but the people in the crowd - the activist group UK Uncut unfurling a banner reading "Bono Pay Up!" during their set, a reference to U2's tax avoidance in their native Ireland.

The struggle for political agency in music is always lined up against the danger of co-option. One speaker at the Swedish conference on protest music, Ahmad Zatari from Jordan, explained how quickly the Jordanian authorities will seek to counteract protest music with "regime music": "Every time something happens now, there are immediately two hip-hop songs released - one for, and one against." Hardline conservative clerics have come out in support of some local rappers, or at least have found those that support their views, and pushed them to the front, to negate rap music's innately rebellious qualities. When musicians seek to skewer the hypocrisy, corruption and brutality of those in power, quick-thinking elites will try to suck out the poison. Vladimir Putin recently appeared on a live Russian TV programme about hip-hop culture to address an audience of young people and commend its "promotion of a healthy lifestyle" and youthful creativity: "street rap may be a little bit rough, but it contains a social meaning." Indeed, even Robert Mugabe released a protest song this year, a track called What Shall We Do? lamenting British colonial oppression.

Time magazine's person of the year for 2011 is "the protester" - not a specific revolutionary leader, a rebel virtuoso, or any other exceptional individual, but an ordinary protester. In politics, as in music: this year was characterised by the chorus from below, not the megaphone from above. It's a sound that rings loud and true throughout this extraordinary year, and as the crises, upheavals, and struggles for freedom continue, will resonate far into next year.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.