Uprising: Music and revolutions

During the last few weeks, Britain has been devastated by the heavy flooding which has affected, in one way or another, the whole country. Yet whilst the country has been in uproar about how this problem has not been fixed, it is easy to forget the problems other people have elsewhere around the world.

The crisis in the Middle East seems to have slipped people’s minds a bit, and the ongoing  uprisings, wars and revolutions which are continuously going on make it a no go area.

Yet, for a few band mates and thrill seekers from London, they thought it was worth the visit.


The Intergalactic Republic of Kongo (I.R.O.K.) decided they wanted to have a look themselves. The “violent psychotropic afro-punk” group, as they described themselves, decided to see what it would be like to perform on the front line of a revolution. I.R.O.K.  teamed up with the documenters of Vice and headed off to Egypt. The band is known for playing outside traditional places, and they wanted to see how music was affecting this critical part of Egypt’s history.

Speaking to Vice, Mike Title, a member of the band, gave them the low down:

We went out to Egypt for two reasons, I guess. We thought that our screaming over rowdy percussion and distorted keyboards would go down well, as we  had already gone down a storm in Morocco, and I didn’t fancy Luton again. But mostly it was an exciting time in Egyptian history.”

When they got to Egypt, the people they found were at the forefront of the revolutions. Everything was changing and nowhere was safe. At the front of this change were young people – people who wanted the best for their country and were willing to do anything for it – they needed a voice and they found that through music.

“Electro Chaabi” music is a big thing in Egypt. It’s a cross-over type of music, with the mix of the traditional Chaabi music and the electro music which had become a hit with the youth of the 21st century, and it is this music that is fuelling the fire for the revolution. Musicians now have an outlet to speak what people dare not say, to observe and comment on the change which is happening all around them. MC Sadat and DJ Figo, unknown to the UK, but big names in Egypt, are producing and writing songs like ‘People and the Government’, which don’t criticise the government directly but merely talk about observations they make. All of this is underground, however, just ripples under the surface, passed around by word of mouth. Gigs are done frequently in neighbourhoods which the police dare to patrol, in the middle of the streets, done to spread joy in a place where there is seemingly very little.

Mike explains:

“In Egypt we explored a place where the police were afraid to go for fear of death. But we were protected by people that loved what we were trying to do, and respected our connections to North African Chaabi music. We basically all wanted to party and we found a crowd that cut so loose that it redefined the concept of gigs for me forever.”

Music being a major part of a revolution isn’t new though. In fact, in recent weeks, it’s been at the forefront of our minds, with the release of the controversial band Pussy Riot from prison and the death of the political activist and American folk singer Pete Seeger. Yet even with these two high profile cases, people have to question if music has the same significance as it did a few years ago.

In the case of Pete Seeger , who represents 20th century America, where racial segregation was still an issue, times seem to have changed. He was a man who was able to catch the attention of a whole nation, not only through his simple yet catchy folk songs, but also by the fact that he was a big household name; getting number one hits, appearing on T.V , and later on in his life getting numerous Grammy awards. It was his anthem ‘We shall overcome’ that gave people the belief in racial equality. He stood up for causes that he believed were worth fighting for, and he stood up for what he believed in. Often referred to as the ‘conscious of America’, Pete Seeger worked all his life to bring equality and free will the citizens of his country.  He tragically died on the 27th of January this year, and seemed to represent a time long ago. He was a big star in America  and across the world, and it was a lot easier for him to get his message across. Music was a big part of the change in America half a century ago, but this was mainly due to one man not the majority.

Yet Seeger may have inspired these Egyptians to do the same thing. Young men and women with a message they want to get across – and in a strange way, they’re doing it in the same way.  By using traditional songs of their area, they’re trying to get the messages across in a way that everyone can relate too, whilst using the new age electro style to bring it up to date – it’s protest music for the modern era. Even though Seeger’s folk and the Electro Chaabi music of inner Cairo sound worlds apart, they may be closer then they seem.

These underground music makers in Egypt aren’t the only ones fighting for change though. Groups like Pussy Riot are also fighting for equality in a corrupt and harsh political environment. Unlike the people in the Middle East, though, they have been able to get the worldwide publicity that every political activist is looking for. Their spontaneous and guerrilla style performances in unusual locations capture the attention of the Russia’s media, and in fact the world’s media. They have done anything they can to get out there. The band members argue only vivid and illegal actions can get you noticed. This is not the way forward though for the people of Egypt. Pussy Riot are the result of a constrictive regime which has already been established. The Egyptians have a chance to shape what regime they will be part of, so though bold acts help, getting across the idea of the majority in a constructive way is the most important thing.

Revolutions in these countries are coming, and music is fast-forwarding it. The activism and courage of people like Pete Seeger showed in the mid 20th century can still be seen today, inspiring the youth of today and showing that the people really can make a change. Seeger though, as previously mentioned, had the advantage – he was a big star, had number one records, and performed in world famous venues such like Carnegie Hall – he had a stage on which he could show the world what needed to change. He had a spine, to stand up for what he thought was right, and so do these Egyptians. All they need is a stage. Sites like YouTube give them a chance, but it’s not enough.

With a few tweaks the folk music is brought into the 21st century, capturing the imagination of the young people in the midst of countries in transition.  Music has always been a way to make yourself heard and to make people listen, and in these revolutions it’s playing an important part. Even though the sounds are different, the ideology is the same, all with political change in mind.

Maybe we’ll hear some songs about floods, who knows?

This article was written by Henry Weekes