Panel 6b. Perspectives on Music and Liberation in the Middle East and North Africa

Chair: Laudan Nooshin

‘Happiness is our People’s Right’: Happy in Tehran and Symbolic Spaces of Liberation
Laudan Nooshin, City University London

In November 2013, Pharrell Williams’ song ‘Happy’, originally written for the film ‘Despicable Me 2’, was re-released together with a music video billed as ‘the world’s first 24-hour music video’. Comprising images of people in Los Angeles dancing and miming along to the song, the video was posted on the website Soon after, tribute videos started appearing online and ‘Happy’ soon went ‘viral’ with videos of happy, dancing people from all over the world. To date an estimated 2,000 videos from 153 countries have appeared. Wanting to be part of this contagious global phenomenon, a group of young Iranians made their own music video in May 2014 and posted it on youtube. Many aspects of ‘Happy in Tehran’ – including the public expression of joy, dancing in public, and women appearing without head covering – challenged local cultural and legal boundaries on behaviour in public. The young people were arrested, prompting an outcry, both within Iran and internationally; Iranian President Rouhani even spoke up on their behalf, tweeting ‘Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy’. They eventually received suspended sentences in September 2014. This paper explores some of the issues raised by ‘Happy in Tehran’, focusing on music as a symbolic space of liberation from governmental control of the public sphere. In particular, I examine how the video engages with, challenges and seeks liberation from established boundaries between public and private, legal and illegal, Islamic and ‘un-Islamic’ and local and global.

Echoing the Moroccan ‘(R)Evolution’: Rap and the 2011 MENA Popular Uprisings
Cristina Moreno Almeida, School of Oriental and African Studies

In Morocco, various groups have proclaimed themselves as champions of the country’s ‘liberation’ including the Moroccan State, or Makhzen, as well as oppositional groups such as seculars, feminists, Islamists and in particular, during the outburst of the 2011 uprisings in the MENA region, the February 20 Movement (F20M). The birth of this movement was the result of popular demonstrations demanding ‘liberation’ materialized as political and socio-economic changes including the consolidation of a democratic state, dignity, justice, and the end of exclusion and poverty among others. In order to thwart these social demands, the Moroccan State initiated a smear campaign against the F20M to highlight the official narrative by which Morocco’s change to democracy had already begun in 1999 with the current King Mohammed VI. This mainstream narrative presents Morocco as an exceptional country in the region because of its political stability and road to democracy. The idea of ‘exceptionalism’ was recycled as a way to curb popular upheavals, however, reshaping it as “evolution”, not revolution. This paper looks at the role of some Moroccan rappers in promoting this idea by composing rap lyrics that highlight the need for Moroccan youth to unite, help the country to develop and stop the criticisms. It also exposes the role of young rap fans and other rappers in Morocco in unmasking the State promises of ‘liberation’, as well as the country’s strategies to restrain their discontent. Ultimately, it stages the significant role of rap music as a negotiating tool between youth and the State.

Libération? Music, Independence and Postcolonialism in Algeria
Stephen Wilford, City University London

The declaration of Algerian independence in 1962 promised the country and its people libération after 130 years of French colonial rule. The hopes and desires of Algerians for a modern, democratic and peaceful nation initially appeared to have been fulfilled, and Algeria remained relatively stable and prosperous for nearly two decades. However, the 1980s and 1990s saw the return of violence and civil unrest, set within debates around what (and who) constitutes modern Algeria? Music has played an important role in these debates and musicians have faced a changing, and often dangerous, cultural and political landscape in Algeria, helping to shape the transition from French colony to modern independent nation. Music in Algeria has taken many forms and fulfilled numerous functions, from manifesting protest and agitating for national independence, to acting as a statement of modern youth identity that challenges officially sanctioned representations of the country. In this paper, I trace the development of Algerian music throughout the twentieth century, examining the ways in which music has been central to discourses of national liberation and independence. I consider the changing place of music within Algerian society and political discourse, and ask how the conditions of music and musicians can help us to understand the realities of both national liberation and contemporary Algerian culture.

Freedom and Exile: North African Musical Migration in Marseille
Sam Mackay, City University London

As the movement for Algerian independence from France gathered pace in the 1950s, the city of Marseille saw the arrival of thousands of Algerian Muslims seeking work under French reconstruction schemes. While they arrived in a city steeped in centuries of North African migration, they were to share this urban space with a growing influx of Sephardic Jews and French colonists fearing persecution under a liberated Algeria. Dell’Umbria suggests that “the gigantic mess of Algerian decolonisation would be settled in particular in Marseille”, and with most North Africans occupying only a marginal space in French civil society, music represented a key space of postcolonial identity formation. In the first half of the paper I consider how notions of freedom and exile were made sense of musically by Algerians in diaspora during decolonisation and its aftermath. I focus particularly on Marseille, where a series of record labels and recording studios helped foster the production and circulation of music that reflected on new experiences of liberation and loss. Following this I address recent and emerging perspectives on this marginal heritage, from the challenges posed by the rise of Salafism in Marseille to strategic efforts at reinserting migrant musical histories into local cultural policy. Drawing on Cohen (2013), I suggest that such strategies risk reducing musical discourses of migration to a highly regulated “performance of cosmopolitanism”.

Musical Practices of Liberty in the Libyan Revolution
Leila Tayeb, Northwestern University

Foucault distinguishes between particular, historically contingent instances of liberation, as for example when a colonized people attempts to rid itself of the colonial power, and practices of liberty, which entail deliberate care for self as a mode of ethical enactment. Practices of liberty thus, for Foucault, become a method to control the new relationships of power that an instance of liberation opens up. This essay approaches the 2011 Libyan revolution and its aftermath with this set of insights in mind, concerned particularly with theorizing music performance practices as practices of liberty in this context. I argue that music performance practices reflected and reified the individual and collective experiences of capacitation which both made and made up – both produced and constituted – the revolution. Musical practice was a mode through which participants in the Libyan revolution came to know their capabilities differently, by way of, and as part of, a widespread shift in affective orientation. Yet the circumstances of the post-revolution period have differed dramatically from those of 2011 and it is not evident that any clear continuity can be claimed between revolutionary and post-revolutionary (musical) practices of liberty. How did musical performance practices operate as practices of liberty and as part of a project of liberation in 2011 Libya? How have similar practices functioned differently in the years since?

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