Two years on, the revolution still sells…

Author ········· Ali Charrier
Published ······ Online, Mar 2013
Section ·······  Culture

Egypt’s revolution on 25 January, 2011 has stirred much curiosity around the “new” forms of popular protest and expression in the country. This sudden interest and focus on the arts, whether in cultural diplomacy or in the media might lead the unacquainted or the foreign journalist to picture a sudden burst of creativity and artistic expression emanating from the revolution, as if the event had finally liberated music and the arts from its previous shackles marking the dawn of a new era of artistic production. The truth is more complex.

As the revolution became a new current to be exploited, many early attempts were made by various artists to use it in their works, often appearing to jump on the bandwagon. One of such attempts was a song entitled “sawt al hurreya” (the sound of freedom) composed by two well known figures of Egypt’s independent music scene, Hany Adel from the band Wust al Balad and Amir Eid from Cairokee. The video is set in Tahrir Square and shows protesters holding banners to the song’s lyrics while singing along “in all of my country’s streets, the voice of freedom is calling.”

When “sawt al hurreya” went viral on YouTube with more than 2 million views, It did not take long for Pepsi and Coca-Cola to poach Cairokee and Wust al Balad out of the independent scene and erecting them as their new brand ambassadors. Traditionally it was commonplace to see pop stars such as Tamer Hosny, Amr Diab, and Haifa Wahbe representing these brands, but since the revolution, many upcoming musicians have been propelled to stardom through their appearance in commercials.

The giant mobile service provider Mobinil’s latest advert is another case in point; the video is a mash-up of most genres making up Egyptian music today, from Nubian folk, to Simsimiyya (lyre like instrument) of Port Said. More remarkably, the video also includes two stars of the new Mirhagan scene, Okka and Ortega. It is interesting to note that only last year, their rivals Amr HaHa and DJ Figo released a song entitled “the people want a 5 EGP top-up card,” drawing attention to the rising costs of living affecting the largest section of the population. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast.

The trend described here is not limited to Egypt – Hamed Sinno from Mashrou’ Leila has also been called to sing for the Lebanese mobile provider Zain. As Zeid Hamdan comments, appearing in a commercial is the fast track to the mainstream and since “it’s cool now to be revolutionary,” all remotely revolutionary aesthetics and discourses become attractive to the marketing industry. “What mainstream does is corrupt the artists. We would like to become mainstream but by making our own music. When marketing executives compose a melody and get a star of the independent scene to sing it, the result is always disappointing, that’s when you become corrupt, it’s not like when they take your music as it is. It all depends on how they let you work,” warns Hamdan. The artists reputation and fan base is also at stake here: “when you listen to their first album and then listen to the advert, it’s like Mashrou’ Leila, but worse, more boring.”

If such colossal companies decided to replace their previous pop star ambassadors with independent bands, what conclusions are there to draw? The lesson of Visconti’s “The Leopard” (1963) set during the turmoil of the Italian unification, comes to mind here. “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a Republic on us, if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” It is through these words that Prince Salina’s nephew advises his uncle to ally himself with the new power of Garibaldi. Adapting to the new revolutionary context and adopting its new rhetoric is often a matter of survival for cronies of the former regime. This strategy adopted by the fulul (remnants of the previous regime) is also valid for private corporations who have adjusted their slogans, marketing campaigns and representative figures in accordance with the new revolutionary discourse. As Frishkopf explains, “in a capitalist system, corporations often deploy nationalistic discourse as a means of acquiring wealth, exchanging cultural capital for economic capital.” [1]

In some cases however, the hypocrisy goes too far. Vodafone’s new slogan “the power is in your hands,” sounds cynical considering the company was responsible for the communication blackout during the 18 days of violent clashes that preceded the fall of Mubarak’s regime. When Vodafone released an advert suggesting its role in inspiring the revolution, the resentment it stirred was so strong that Vodafone immediately denied any connection to its production and removed it from YouTube. It is still available on

It is unclear whether the sole purpose of this shift in public relations and marketing is solely aimed at wining hearts and minds. Essentially, it is also a reflection of basic economics. The amounts big business brands were spending on Amr Diab or Haifa Wahbe was at least four or five times more than what Cairokee received for their commercial deal. It’s a win win situation: not only do these companies adopt the revolutionary rhetoric but they also adapt to a context of cost cutting in a worldwide economic crisis.      

With the revolution entering its second anniversary, it is still too early to assess its impact on artistic production. The main conclusion one can draw from all these examples is that the pop star model is walking on its last leg and that the independent scene is in a good position to replace it in the limelight. Interestingly, this transition is happening first and foremost with “independent” bands using a musical formula easily digestible by brands, namely soft pop, the main deviation being in the lyrical content

For a long time, the manufactured Rotana pop star model has been overcrowding the airwaves, but audiences have grown tired of its prefabricated singers, from the computed music to the auto tuned voices, and from their inane compositions to their counterfeit appearances. It is no secret that production companies often included plastic surgery in their budget...

Surely some will still listen to Amr Diab in the years to come, after releasing 12 albums in the course of almost two decades, he is unlikely to disappear from Egyptian music in the near future. Nonetheless, the shift is undeniable: when Tamer Hosny tried to enter Tahrir Square during the revolution, he was chased out by protesters with slaps and insults, before taking refuge in a bathroom where protesters caught him crying on video. The counter revolutionary and irrelevant nature of his music became obvious after he released a love song in the midst of civil war. The founders of the recently launched Arabic music critique website Ma3azef commented on the issue: “We do not want or expect everybody to sing about the revolution or to be political, what we are looking for is good songs, that’s what we expect. But if you are well known and there is a revolution in your country, by virtue of not addressing the issue or by addressing something totally irrelevant, you are taking sides.

Many things have changed in Egypt since the revolution and actors from all sectors are finding ways to reinvent themselves, but many things have also remained the same. What is clear now is that audiences are less complacent than ever before. While some musicians are riding the bandwagon and turning the new situation to their advantage, others are joining forces to fulfill their higher expectations and challenge the antiquated models that have become obsolete.

                                                                                                            To be continued…

[1] Frishkopf, M.(2008).Nationalism, Nationalization, and the Egyptian Music Industry. Asian Music, 39(2), 28-58.

Ali Charrier is a researcher in music anthropology of the Arab world. He studied the oud at SOAS in London and moved to Alexandria to pursue studies in Arabic music. Ali works on the latest development of the contemporary Arab music scene at the French Graduate School of Social Sciences and is a freelance journalist covering areas where Music meets Politics, Sociology and Economics.

Ali Charrier is a researcher in music anthropology of the Arab world. He studied the oud at SOAS in London and moved to Alexandria to pursue studies in Arabic music. Ali works on the latest development of the contemporary Arab music scene at the French Graduate School of Social Sciences and is a freelance journalist covering areas where Music meets Politics, Sociology and Economics.