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Hip-Hop And The Arab Revolts: From '#JAN25' To '#Syria'

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“The People Want The Downfall Of The Regime. The People Want The Downfall Of The Regime.”

Syrian-American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum’s new song "#Syria" opens with one of the most powerful political slogans of the year. The chant has reverberated from the streets of Tunis to Libya’s Benghazi to Egypt’s Tahrir Square, echoing the demands of millions for their countries’ rulers to step down.

Offendum’s new song -- which has lyrics both in English and Arabic -- is a testament to the deep crisis in the artist’s native Syria.

“Stand in solidarity with all your fellow citizens/ Peacefully protesting for an end to all the militance/ Torture & imprisonment/ Murdering of innocence/ Proving that this lying/ lion leader’s rule is illegitimate.”

The song’s video compiles footage of shattered houses, massive protests and injured civilians in Syria. Over the past year, more than 9,000 Syrians have been killed in a merciless crackdown on protesters by the regime of President Bashar Assad, according to UN estimates.

“I held back for a long time [commenting on Syria],” Offendum explains, “but I felt that after a year, with all the talk on Russia, China, proxy wars, sanctions, people are losing sight of the human suffering.”

Offendum was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Washington, D.C. His mother is originally from the Syrian capital Damascus and his father was born in Hama, the town where troops loyal to then-president Hafez Assad massacred thousands of residents. Offendum works from the U.S. and shares his music through Facebook and Twitter.

“When it gets politically complicated we sometimes forget that there are people there, and we just can’t afford to do that,” Offendum says.

In Syria, songs have played an important role in keeping up the spirit of the protests. An anonymous and undercover journalist for Al Jazeera followed demonstrators throughout the country and found that people have taken old national songs and made their own revolutionary versions. The journalist explains how these songs are passed on from town to town.

“You hear a core of the same songs all over the country, wherever you go,” he says in the Al Jazeera documentary "Songs Of Defiance." “It created this unique subculture, where every night you go out and sing the same songs. They are in your head all the time during the day, little kids know them as well.”

“I very much wanted to honor these traditions with '#Syria,'” Offendum says. The artist draws inspiration from famous chant leaders such as Ibrahim Qashoush, who led thousands of Syrians singing poems and chants demanding that Bashar Assad step down. Qashoush was gruesomely killed in the summer of 2011 -- his assailants left his throat carved out.

Hip-hop’s direct reach in Syria has been minor in comparison to other parts of the Arab world, and the genre seems to have weighed in less on the protests in the country than it did on other revolts in the region.

In the first days of demonstrations in Egypt, for example, Cairo-based hip-hop group Arabian Knightz created "Rebel" (featuring Lauryn Hill). In Libya, Ibn Thabit ferociously called for the end of the Gaddafi regime as early as 2008.

Some have called hip-hop the anthem of the Arab revolts that began more than a year ago. Journalist Robin Wright, for example, dubbed the genre “the rhythm of the resistance.” Others have espoused a more tempered view.

Hishaam Aidi, a fellow at Open Society Foundations in New York, stresses that hip-hop did not cause the revolts. “It was a medium that allowed youth to communicate across borders, to tell their side of the story and perhaps spread the protest contagion,” Aidi says. Aidi emphasizes that the countries with the strongest hip-hop scene in the Arab world -- Morocco, Lebanon and Algeria -- have not seen uprisings. The sources of the uprisings lie a lot deeper, he explains -- economic inequality, weak states and the global economic downturn.

The country where hip-hop may have played a direct political role is Tunisia. In December 2010, Hamada Ben Amor, a young Tunisian hip-hop artist working under the name El Général, released "Rais LeBled" (“President of the Land”) on Facebook -- a simple but ferocious attack on the policies of the Ben Ali regime. El Général was arrested at the end of December 2011, days before the suicide of young fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi sparked countrywide protest that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Ali regime. Thousands gathered across Tunisia in massive demonstrations, many of them chanting "Rais LeBled."

“I don’t think hip-hop has been the soundtrack of the revolution, the people were the soundtrack of the revolution,” Iraqi-Canadian artist Yassin Alsalman, better known as The Narcicyst, says.

“Hip-hop is a medium that speaks to struggle, speaks to youth and can be put out very fast,” Alsalman explains. “The immediacy of hip-hop makes it very useful. You can create music fast, record a song in a couple of hours and put it out right after.”

Yet Alsalman emphasizes that he’s wary of using his songs to make political statements on the events in the Middle East. “It is easy for me as an Arab-American to say a leader should fall, when I don’t know the complexities of the situation and I’m not suffering from that leader’s rule.”

Alsalman describes hip-hop as the documentation, or a mirror, of what protesters have done in the streets. And "#JAN25," a collaboration between Alsalman, Omar Offendum and several other artists, serves as the perfect example. The song's video chronicles the protests in Egypt's Cairo, showing the violence and injuries in and around Tahrir Square. The title refers to the first massive protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Offendum's lyrics explain: "I heard the revolution won’t be televised/ Al Jazeera proved them wrong/ Twitter had them paralyzed/ 80 million strong/ And ain't no longer gonna be terrorized/ Organized -- Mobilized -- Vocalized”

Watch the videos mentioned in this article below. WARNING: Videos contain disturbing content.

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