Tunisian singer and activist Emel Mathlouthi headlines at the Bing on October 5.


By Ramzi Salti


Music directly fueled the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests, which began in late 2010 in the streets of Tunisia and then spilled over into Egypt and spread across the Middle East and North Africa. As these protests and demonstrations of dissatisfaction with local governments were met with violent repression, revolutionaries responded with unparalleled forms of creativity. Though the region still simmers with political instability, this flowering of artistic expression has led to a decrease in censorship and brought international recognition to the abundant diversity of contemporary Muslim music.

To celebrate this vital artistry, Stanford Live is partnering with the university’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts to present artists and thinkers who challenge stereotypes of a one-dimensional Muslim culture. This event series, called Islamic Voices, examines not only the variety with which contemporary artists express their Muslim identities but also the contexts in which the performing arts are giving Muslim artists platforms to promote intercultural understanding and to envision social change.  

The soundtrack of the Arab Spring can be traced back to one specific artist—El Général—whose hip-hop song “Rais Lebled” (which translates to “President of the Country”) spoke to the frustrations of an otherwise voiceless majority. Its poignant, powerful lyrics pleaded with President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to pay attention to a generation of Tunisian youth who were educated and highly intelligent but unable to find jobs.

El Général—who was featured on the cover of Time magazine—went from being a persecuted musician to a key figure of the movement as he continued to unleash a string of songs, inspiring protesters from Egypt’s Tahrir Square to the Libyan capital of Tripoli to express their fervent desire for change and liberation through music. Though the singer was subsequently arrested and tortured, the song lived on in the streets and on the Internet, ultimately becoming an anthem for the Tunisian people as the governing system began to collapse. 

Over the past five years, the Arab world has seen a whole new generation of artists—men and women alike—blossom throughout the region. Foremost among these young voices is Emel Mathlouthi, who takes the Bing Concert Hall stage on October 5. The Tunisian singer-songwriter is best known for her protest songs “Ya Tounes Ya Meskina” (“Poor Tunisia”) and “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word Is Free”), both of which also became anthems for the Tunisian Revolution. Despite initially fleeing to France because of censorship and government harassment, Mathlouthi released her iconic studio album, also titled Kelmti Horra, worldwide, and bootlegs of her live performances circulated on the Internet, galvanizing revolt and challenging tradition.

As a testament to her music’s power to nurture the spirit of democratic change, she was invited to perform the first-ever Arabic-language concert at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, honoring the Tunisian  National Dialogue Quartet’s work to build and sustain a new pluralistic democracy. Refusing to rest on her laurels, Mathlouthi immediately began to write and her produce her second album, which she plans to release in 2017. Meanwhile, her songs continue to resurface wherever people are singing against oppression and whenever women are crying out for their independence and human rights.

By the time revolution reached Egypt, there were many artists singing in the same vein as El Général and Emel Mathlouthi. There, the undisputed name must be Ramy Essam, a young singer in his 20s who went down to Tahrir Square to create music during the early days of unrest. Even as people were being consistently persecuted, he continued to perform until he was arrested himself—a horrific event illustrated in The Square, an Egyptian documentary nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. Maryam Saleh, another Egyptian singer with a voice all her own, borrowed from folk tunes and remixed them in ways relevant to a new generation, voicing deep discontent with the established social order.

Music not only accompanied the revolution, it was a revolution in and of itself—becoming the means of self-expression and empowerment for young Muslims responding to a globalized digital age. This Muslim Internet generation has taken to Twitter and Facebook with savvy, utilizing anonymous space online to express their views freely and create a ripe environment for sharing music across borders. Over and over, we have witnessed artists and musicians upload a music video clip on YouTube, only to become a viral sensation overnight before governments had the chance to ban or censor it. 

As global Muslim artists today continue to display responsiveness and versatility in the face of social transformations and new technologies, they engage the West through some of its own contemporary musical genres, blending rock and hip-hop with Arabic lyrics to convey their messages and distinctive experiences. In Syria, the rapper Omar Offendum, who released his landmark album SyrianamericanA, has become a voice for a new generation of Syrians and Syrian Americans, as he continues to challenge Western apathy towards Syria’s conflict and support humanitarian relief efforts through his music. Similarly, Palestinian hip-hop artists such as the members of the group DAM became re-energized under the banner of the Arab Spring and began singing about their own feelings of oppression within a larger context.

But many Muslim artists do not situate themselves geographically within the Arab world. Rather, they have deep roots in the West, where they have a special affinity for the hip-hop and indie music scenes flourishing in North America. Yassin Alsalman, better known by his stage name the Narcicyst (or Narcy), an Iraqi-Canadian journalist and hip-hop M.C.—who headlines a panel conversation and performance showcase at Oshman Hall in the McMurtry Building here at Stanford on October 14—currently resides in Montreal. His multimedia performances and music videos address Islamophobia and an ever-growing sense of alienation felt by many Arabs and Muslims in both the United States and Canada.

Scholar and performer Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, who joins Narcy on the Islamic Voices series, uses a concept she calls “Muslim Cool” to explain the way hip-hop has become a source of common expression for Muslim identity and black experience that challenges racist attitudes in America. And, equally impressive is the ever-increasing number of Muslim men and women using contemporary styles to sing not only about racial inequality but also about feminism and marginalized sexualities, such as the Lebanese rock group Mashrou’ Leila, whose songs boldly focus on homophobia, gender, and identity. Though this music began as a youth movement, it has now begun to cross over into wider segments of Muslim society—even among so-called purists who used to consider hip-hop, jazz, and indie rock to be alien to the canon of Arabic music but are gradually coming to accept these genres and the perspectives they promote as part of new, emerging Arab and Muslim musical cultures. 

Artists such as these are expanding the definitions of Muslim music and culture into new and innovative territory. In doing so, they present a striking contrast with scenes of conflict, oppression, and religious fundamentalism in the Middle East and North Africa, and, at the same time, they counter the ignorance and negative perceptions of Islam prevalent in American society that make it easy to overlook the wealth of Muslim talent.

The Islamic Voices series at Stanford seeks to offer a glimpse of the range and originality of contemporary Muslim creative culture. It also affirms the power of artistic exchange to foster mutual understanding and challenge simplistic preconceptions about modern Muslim life and politics. Through encounters with these brilliant young musicians, who have managed to turn their music into a global phenomenon, we hope to empower other voices and inspire us all with optimism for a better tomorrow.

Dr. Ramzi Salti is a lecturer in Stanford University’s Arabic Program and the host of Arabology, which airs weekly on KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM.