Academic Papers


The world around us is as complicated as it was never before: it consists of multiple layers and multiple actors; but most importantly, it is always changing. This paper will be discussing a specific part of a broader change of a vast region during 21st century – the Arab Spring. In this paper, I will try to analyse how has music been changed during the chain of events that happened in the Middle East and North African region on 2011-2013th. To do so, I will use and analyse data from the questionnaire I have developed, as well as the direct comparison of same artists’ lyrics before and after the Arab Spring. Thus, I will use both qualitative and quantitative methods to check the hypothesis that music of the region has changed significantly under the pressure of circumstances. To shed some light on the nature of the hypothesis it is necessary to explain in brief what the Arab Spring actually was. The chain of events has started from Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in Tunisia on December 2010 as a protest against corruption and the current government. This case is considered to be the catalyst of events that would go on for the next two years simultaneously across different countries in the MENA region. Following the self-burning, public outrage resulted in a series of massive street protests in Tunisia, and
eventually led to exile of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who held his position for 23 years. Egyptian society got inspired by what was happening in Tunisia, and the outbreak has happened in January 2011, leading eventually to the resignation of the president of the country. Protests in Syria also started in January 2011, leading to an ongoing civil war. Libya and Yemen were the other two countries affected the most. The common reasons behind all the protests were failing governments – food prices grew along with corruption levels, high unemployment, and inflation (Bsheer et al., 2012).

I have posted a questionnaire online and asked my friends from the MENA region to conduct it and share it with their social circles. I have got 21 responses, from 8 countries; I have chosen 3 of those to explore in more details. These are Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. They are picked not only because I had more respondents from these countries, but also because they fall under the three following criteria. These countries had, probably, the most significant social changes; they are also well presented on the web, which provides more opportunities for the research; finally, I have got the most respondents from these countries. However, I will still use the data from respondents from other countries – Algeria, Sudan, Kuwait, and the United Kingdom.

As it has been mentioned before, 21 respondents conducted the questionnaire, and all of them were recruited through Facebook. This means that the sampling is not ideal, not just because of its size, but also because of the way of distribution the invitation to participate.

Such an approach automatically excluded people from less-developed or less privileged areas, families without access to the internet in general and Facebook specifically, and without the knowledge of English. As a result of the supposition of requirements to have a Facebook account and to know English, my respondents happened to be predominately young: twelve of them were in the age bracket of 21-25, seven – 18-20, one each for 26-30 and 31-40. This is a sufficient factor influencing the results, as these age data mean that most of the respondents were kids when the Arab Spring happened and could have simply grown up and reflected on what was happening then and before it. However, that does not
revoke the importance of the study, considering that actual musical compositions are still available for comparison.

My respondents were asked to answer three blocks of questions: namely, ones about their musical taste, music in general, and about themselves. I will follow the same structure during my analysis.

Most of the respondents were listening either Pop, Rock or, surprisingly enough, Traditional Music before 2011. For the vast majority of them, their taste did not change; however, one person has changed his mind after answering one out of two questions regarding this. Those who said that their tastes have changed provided different answers explaining it, which could be roughly categorised into two groups. The first group were leaning towards including more
Arabic music and culture into their life and playlists. The second group has generally changed their tastes without any logical patterns.

The next question in the questionnaire was about their favourite artist before the Arab Spring. Most of the names in the list were not recurring, except for two: Amr Diab and Tamer Hosny. Both of them are Egyptian artists, but they were mentioned not only by people who are initially from Egypt. This is a significant finding. Despite having the same written
language, populations of different Arab-speaking countries have different spoken dialects, which includes slang and other every day, ‘informal’, words (Zaidan and Callison-Burch,2014). This, respectively, puts a different question on how importance of music or careful production help to avoid this being an issue.

When respondents were asked about their favourite artists after the Arab Spring, the situation was slightly different. Amr Diab was still on the list, but he was joined by Cairokee and Hamza Namira, both Egyptians. One of the respondents has given a very detailed response to this question: ‘In addition to the artists before, I am enjoying more diverse Arabic music, even the songs that are not necessarily within my aesthetical taste, because they have a special social value, certain memories etc. I listen way less to Western music – 80% Arabic now, while it was probably only 25% before.’ This feedback is the perfect summary of the section. It shows that in some cases people tend to ‘bond’ and listen to music they would not necessarily do under different circumstances, but this is happening during a significant social shock and crash of previously well-established norms and traditions.

The next section of the questionnaire was about music in general. Answers from this part will work as a basis for analysis of lyrics in the next part. The first question was addressing the change overall: only 57% of respondents agreed that there was a change in the lyrics of their favourite authors. Next, they have been asked about the exact changes in lyrics (respondents were allowed to give more than one response). Options having gained the most votes were [lyrics became]: more politicised (9 votes), did not change (8), more about everyday life (7), and more about war (5). Interestingly enough, while all the option choices except the last one were distributed circa equally, the ‘war choice’ was predominately found in responses from Egypt, and not Syria.

I have also specifically asked about the potential change in women’s lyrics: I was interested to find a connection with women empowerment, or, vice versa, further sexualising of female authors. Results were quite controversial. While most of the people said that everything stayed the same, two of the respondents provided opposite insights. One of them has
mentioned that the lyrics of songs performed by female artists have changed following the “me too” movement. #MeToo is the movement that had arisen in 2017th when people began tweeting to attract attention to cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour (Smartt, 2017). Thus, it is possible to say with a certain degree of certainty that the respondent actually meant that female artists either became more empowered or started talking about the harassment they had to deal with. On the other hand, another respondent has highlighted a reverse situation. He has written: ‘Most of the lyrics became sexual or meaningless’, which is in the direct contradiction with the previous answer. However, that could be explained by the gender difference or geographical difference. If was a female respondent who mentioned #MeToo movement, and a male who stated that the opposite change has happened after the Arab Spring. Both of them are originally from Syria, but the female respondent had changed her country of residency and is now living in Germany. Thereby, the difference can be explained by cultural differences, but also by the way how people are coping with the consequences of war in different regions.

Artists and Lyrics
Despite that, the main idea of this paper is to test to which extension lyrics of authors presented in the region before the Arab Spring changed after that, those who came to view as a result of political instability should be named as well.

One of them is El General (Hamada Ben Amor). El General is the offspring of the revolution – he started his career in 2009 (prior to the escalation of the situation in Tunisia), but hasn’t been able to publish his music due to the strict censorship, and then became extremely popular during the Arab Spring (Walt, 2011). One of the most important songs he wrote at the time, “Rais Lebled”, includes the following words: "Mr. President, your people are dying

People are eating rubbish
Look at what is happening
Miseries everywhere Mr. President
I talk with no fear
Although I know I will only get troubles
I see injustice everywhere." (translation by TIME, 2011)

No explanation is needed here to see how deeply political these lyrics are; the artist is calling for the president to do something, seeing what is happening in Tunisia. This song, later on, became an anthem of the streets during Jasmine revolution and could be seen as both the product of the revolution and one of its catalyst.

Another artist who kick-started his career because of the Arab Spring is Omar Offendum, Syrian-American rapper (Currier, 2011). His song “#Jan25” inspired by the uprising in Egypt in 2011 quickly became popular, and was being sung on Tahrir Square – as yet another anthem of liberation and changes.

“And it slowly ignited the fire within Arab people to fight it
From Tunis to Khan Younis, the new moon shines bright
As The Man's spoon was, as masses demand rights
And dispel rumors of disunity, communally removing the tumours
Of rotten 7ukoomas
We're making headway, chanting down the dictators
Getting rid of deadweight” (“#Jan25” lyrics from (Genius, 2018)).

Even from the small fragment of the song, it is easy to see why it was used for inspiring people. Not only was it acknowledging the existence of the dictatorship, but was also actively calling for changing the situation!

Apart from creating new stars, the Arab Spring has boosted careers of already ‘mature’ artists. It is rather curious to compare what were they singing before and after this period, and how exactly it has changed this style. I have chosen three artists which names were repetitive in the questionnaire, to see how they have evolved. These are Cairokee, Hamza
Namira and Amr Diab.

Cairokee is an Egyptian rock band that was founded in 2003 but got highly noticed in 2011. Before that time they were playing covers in both English and Arabic, gradually evolving their style throughout years. Their first massive hit was “Sout El Horeya” – yet another song about the revolution, which quickly got over a million views on YouTube.

“I went out and said
I am not come back
“And wrote with my blood on each street
We made our voices heard to those who weren’t listening
And all the barriers/obstacles were broken
Our weapon was our dreams
And tomorrow was clear before us
We’ve been waiting for a long time
Seeking but not finding our place
In every street of my country
the sound of freedom is calling” (Yallaarabic.blogspot.co.uk, 2011 translation of “Sout Al

Considering that the group’s songs before that one were predominately covers of other artists, there is no need to compare them with “Sout Al Horeya”. However, it can be compared with other songs that have been mentioned earlier – “Rais Lebled” and “#Jan25”. As we can see, there are recurring patterns of hope for a brighter future, and artists speaking not about themselves, but on behalf of the large community of people. This seems an obvious thought; however, it is important to acknowledge the difference between El- General’s song, and Cairokee’s and Offendum’s. The key here is not only timing but also the geography: as it was mentioned before, Tunisia was the country that started the Arab Spring. Hence, El-General was the one to set the trend, while other artists followed it; in fact, he was rapping without a certainty either that the situation would be changed somehow or that he was making an impact. Other artists following him were sure that it would happen – they knew that they have to inspire and help people to fight. Thus, their hits were about the
future, and not the present.

The most notable change can be found in the work of Hamza Namira, yet another Egyptian songwriter and artist. He started his career way before 2011, with a first single album released in 2008. The change was so dramatic that it could be spotted even in names of songs if albums of 2008 and 2011 were compared. While in his first album, “Dream With Me”, we can find such songs as “O' Bird” or “Dream With Me”, his second album, “A Human”, displayed a completely different spirit. It consisted of songs like “My Name's Egypt” or “O' Son Of This Country!”. The difference can be traced further, through the actual comparison of the songs mentioned above. I have found the translation of both, and quote them below.

“Dream with me, “O son of the homeland and the Nile
Of a tomorrow that’s coming, All of you are sorry and wounded
And if it doesn’t come, Bisil bell tears
We’ll bring it ourselves. The voice of condemnation is wounded
We’ll stride upon this path, All of us are different
Our many footsteps will lead us to our dream. Ghayeb Damayna
Dream with me, And Min in the heart of the night
Of a tomorrow that’s coming, Teams match
And if it doesn’t come, The fate of one
We’ll bring it ourselves. Body and spirit
We’ll stride upon this path, You can do it
Our many footsteps will lead us to our dream.” Defy your sorrows
(Translation from Hamza Namira, 2018) I am the one who cares about you
And Home your address
One hearts dream
The embrace of the homeland is open
O son of the homeland …”
(Translation from Musixmatch.com, 2018)

Even by word by word comparison of the song snippets, the difference could be clearly seen. While “Dream” is more of the generic inspiring song which nonetheless ‘became a rallying call for young people hoping for a better future’ (Fanack, 2018), “O’ Son” is not only calling for action but also trying to awake patriotism.


People tend to react to cultural shocks differently, and one of the ways is to process it by music. It is safe to say that the same instability that led to the Arab Spring and thousands of deaths has resulted in more reflection and inspiration from artists. Indeed, some of them has not changed their styles or their lyrics, but quite the number have built their presence on
supporting revolutions across the region. At the same time, the audience of these artists has made a choice to reflect on what is happening by listening more native music and to concentrate on processing and supporting local artists. There is also a possibility that the
Arab Spring was the necessary catalyst for the development of music, but we don't have
enough data to confirm this hypothesis, and it remains for further research.


Alexandra Sternik

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