Pop culture and its impact in the Middle-East : Alternative to mainstream, influence to activism.

Editor's note : Happy new year from the Compass Music team to our followers and readers! We are thrilled to share the first commissioned article written by a guest writer on The Logbook, Compass Music’s blog on the global music industry. We have a lot more articles currently in the works, which will be published regularly on Wednesdays from now on. From Lebanon to the Balkans, to India, to China, to Scotland, we can't wait for you to get to know our guest writers and the brilliant topics they put forward. Join the conversation in comments, share the article wide and far, and submit your article idea here if you are interested in writing for us.

Sana Romanos is a live sound engineer and project/tour manager based in Beirut, Lebanon. She has a master’s degree in Audio Engineering and 7 years experience working in the live music industry, from touring with local and international artists to working for the largest festivals in the Middle-Eastern region and Europe, including the renowned Roskilde Festival in Denmark.

The below article is also available in French - translated by the author with the help of the Compass Music team. Switch the website language to see the translated text.

" From defining the scope of what is considered “pop” to the argued impact of it on societies and the youth, pop-culture remains a widely debated topic. Subsequently, adding to the equation a region bearing the weight of its social and political uncertainties results in a concept of pop-culture that has adapted to the particular challenges of the Middle-Eastern region and the Arab world: wars, uprisings, religious predicaments, post-colonial crisis of identity and language and all aspects in between.

The major observation when investigating pop culture in the Middle-East is that it seems to go hand in hand with censorship, repression and oppression whether state imposed or community enforced, where public opinion in "traditional" or "conservative" environments can in fact be more influential than that of the law itself at times.

Starting with social media, and taking a closer look at the infamous TikTok app that gained huge popularity globally amongst younger generations, especially due to global confinement and lockdown measures. It consists mainly of making and sharing short videos, many of which are choreographed dance moves and lip-sync to popular songs, often performed by young women in fashionable looks.

Similarly, in the Arab world and according to stats shared by arabnews.com (1), the TikTok app ranked in the top 10 downloaded apps in the six major Arabian Gulf countries by mid 2020. So a trendy app with easy and fun content seems pretty standard but then in the summer of 2020 headlines of the Egyptian “TikTok Girls” arrest emerged. Five young women were sentenced to two years in prison, plus a fine, due to “indecent” content shared on the app. It is important to note that young girls globally share very similar content to the one criminalized by this scandal. However, it seems that for regimes still holding extremely oppressive and restrictive traditional customs on women, TikTok - alongside other social media platforms- constitutes a threat to these societal norms.

The case of the Egyptian “TikTok girls” raises multiple questions, one of which was brought-up by one of the girls’ sisters in an interview with bbc.com (2): "Why her? Some actresses dress in a very explicit way. Nobody touches them.". Indeed, if we consider not only actresses but also the most famed female pop singers in the region, the most common and obvious trait is that most of them portray very sensual verging on erotic personas in their video clips, TV appearances and live performances. From Haifa Wehbe(3) in Lebanon to Ruby(4) in Egypt, these singers/actresses seem to not only be allowed these apparent “indecencies” to the norms but moreover they are highly acclaimed by women and men of the region.

Hence raising the bigger question: why are these allowed and the “TikTok girls” not, and most importantly is censorship arbitrary or has these oppressive governments kept up with the games of pop-culture and are curating it to their advantage?

When talking about censorship and music in the Middle East, one name emerges in particular: Mashrou’ Leila, an all-male members band from Lebanon that rose to fame in the indie-rock alternative music scene in the early 2010s. Their explicit and satirical lyrical content in Lebanese addresses issues embedded in Arab societies from politics to religion, but most importantly homosexuality with the front-man of the band himself being an outspoken member and supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and rights.

The series of controversies and bans began in 2016 with the Jordanian authorities cancelling the band’s upcoming concert under unclear and confusing circumstances (See BBC article). This was followed by the highly controversial concert that took place in Egypt in 2017 during which members of the audience were arrested after being spotted raising the rainbow flag in support of gay pride. Sarah Hegazi, a prominent socialist and gay rights activist was one of the arrested; she was incarcerated and tortured before fleeing to Canada where she eventually took her own life. Hegazi succumbed under the weight of the trauma she suffered due to the torture (See articles by CNN and NY Times), and due to the homophobic reality of the society she lived in, amongst other systematic pressures. Even after her death, homophobic reactions persisted in Egypt and the region but it was also faced with gestures and messages of solidarity, like the street murals and graffiti commemorating Hegazi emerging in Amman, Jordan but which were hastily covered by the authorities. The band paid tribute to Hegazi on their social media pages (5) and with performances online.

The series of prohibitions on Mashrou’ Leila’s music culminated in August 2019, in their native Lebanon where they were set to perform during the Byblos International Festival. The cancellation was due to a homophobic online campaign led by right-wing Christian activists claiming that the band’s songs spread blasphemy and encourage homosexuality. This ignited a counter-reaction from social activists and human rights organizations turning the concert cancellation into a broader debate regarding social liberties versus conservative traditional thinking and an extensive call to end the religious institutions’ interference with the state laws. The band has yet to perform again in their home country Lebanon.

A more recent incident involving religion and music took place a few weeks ago, in December 2020. This time the event was set in Palestine, with the arrest of Sama Abdulhadi, “the first Palestinian DJ and electronic music producer” and “an emblematic artist of the Palestinian underground scene”, according to her website. The arrest came in light of an event Sama had held and performed in at Nebi Mussa, a holy site in the Palestinian city of Jericho. As stated by the artist’s family, the event was granted prior authorization from the local Ministry Of Tourism leaving the reasons behind her arrest unclear and questionable.

A petition and a hashtag #FREESAMA were launched online, calling for her freeing. She has since been released under bail (See Trax Magazine, in French, ed.) but is banned from travelling and awaits trial. Hence Sama’s fate is still unclear to date, making her, alongside Mashrou’ Leila and other oppressed artists, a symbol for activism and resistance in the face of fanatic and conservative religious confines.

At the center of music and activism in the Arab world emerges the rap/hip-hop scene which has gained a great deal of popularity, mainly through social media, in light of the Arab Spring becoming its own form of opposition and resistance. Going beyond being a mere tool for expression for the youth in the face of social injustice and political turmoil, it soon turned into a linking bridge of collaborations across borders of the Levant countries.

One collaboration in particular is worth stopping at, “Thawrat(7) by the prominent Lebanese rapper El Rass and Syrian rapper Al Sayyed Darwish dating back to 2012, in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis caused by the on-going Syrian war. The collaboration is a powerful ode to women refugees who suffer their own share of injustice and abuse during the displacement of the Syrian population. The two rappers take turns speaking in the first person address, in the name of a hypothetical female refugee describing her horrific journey from enduring the atrocities of war and death to then fleeing her home to unsafe refuge. Quote translated from Arabic: “My femininity is loathing me every time I hear that war is only for men”. The ode ends with the following statement by the rappers: “ We are relaying the voice of a woman whose justice got buried in her secrets/ we are linking the mind and the dignity to her navel cord/ Honor is achieved when the revolution’s weakest can hold their heads high”.

Many collaborations like this one took place between rappers from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan, contesting the lack of solidarity exhibited by the governments of these countries especially during the Arab uprisings, and consolidating a much needed bond between the Arab people themselves.

Alongside music, another popular form of expression and influence during the Arab uprising came in the form of satirical TV shows - also often supporters of otherwise under-promoted local musicians and artists -, the most known of which is the Egyptian “B+ show” or later on turned “Al Bernameg''(8), a satire TV show motivated by the Egyptian 2011 revolution, created and hosted by Bassem Youssef.

The show debuted in its first season in March 2011 on Youssef’s YouTube channel, reaching 5 million views in the first three months alone which allowed it to move from an online format to on-air, on renowned local TV stations. The show often aimed satire and criticism towards then Egyptian President Morsi and the extremist Muslim Brotherhood which was slowly taking over power post-revolution in Egypt. This daring content led to a series of law-suits and arrest against Youssef and the production crew, terminating the show in 2014 due to overwhelming pressure, and culminating in Youssef fleeing Egypt due to security threats and intimidations on him and his family. It is worthy to note that in the show’s second season in 2012, Al Bernameg hosted the band Mashrou’ Leila, offering them exposure to the Egyptian audience. This showed support and solidarity between these progressive pop culture elements that constitute an exception in the traditional societies of the region.

Another powerful agent to emerge from the Arab Spring, a main source of support for under-represented communities and repressed artists and one of the uprising movements’ most significant pillars, is the independent digital media platforms like Nawaat in Tunisia, Mada Masr in Egypt and more recently Megaphone News in Lebanon (9).

These platforms offer an alternative narrative, in Arabic, free of political influence, funding and censorship as opposed to conventional state-controlled media outlets in the region. It soon became a weapon for easily and rapidly spreading ideologies and updates of the protest movements all while exposing the wrongdoings of the police states and its accustomed brutality. Using the momentum of the uprisings, these platforms succeeded in turning alternative media into mainstream.

Jean Kassir, co-founder and managing editor of Megaphone addresses this transition from what he calls a “niche” audience consisting mainly of the urban middle-class youth into a broader scale coverage following the revolution that started on October 17th 2019 in Lebanon. He shares the metrics of Megaphone’s Facebook page, their main publishing outlet alongside Instagram and Twitter, counting 0.5 to 2.5 million average monthly reach and 1 million average monthly views on their videos by October 2020. “These numbers confirm we expanded from the limited urban circles into more diverse and decentralised Lebanese communities” states Kassir.

These independent platforms are a long way from fully substituting conventional media outlets with funding and subsequently exposure being major challenges. Nonetheless, they are certainly steering in the mainstream direction towards more honest and free media, one that is essential in pushing advancement but also in supporting oppressed artists that often do not get fair coverage and justice from conventional media outlets.