By Katie Walsh
While once synonymous with youth rebellion and a rock and roll attitude, MTV has lost some of that cred in the past several years as the once-music-based channel has embraced reality programming of the drunken antics variety (though one could argue Jersey Shore is an example of an ethnographic documentary). But with Rebel Music, a new series airing on MTVu and executive produced by acclaimed street artist Shepard Fairey and MTV World general manager Nusrat Durrani, they’re putting the spotlight back on their political, punk rock roots. Focusing on musicians and creative types in war-torn, violent and/or oppressive regions, the series looks to highlight the role these creative endeavors have in youth uprising and political and social change, packaging them all in a kinetic, fast-paced 30-minute episode with a killer soundtrack.
The first two episodes, premiering November 18th, focus on Egypt and Afghanistan, respectively. The title sequence establishes the historical bonafides, cutting together marches, riots, punk concerts and Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. From the beginning, we know that this show is going to demonstrate the role that music plays in contemporary political and social change — protest songs are no longer a thing of the 60s. Each episode opens with a quick and dirty rundown of the need-to-know hard facts on the social and political situations at hand, to bring those American youths up to date. Mubarak, revolution, election, Morsi, impending revolution, got it?
“Egypt: Bittersweet Revolution” begins on the eve of the second revolution this summer, and we’re quickly introduced to our cast of characters: Karim Adel Eissa, a rapper with the group Arabian Knightz; Ramy Essam, a rock singer who became a hero and a voice of the first revolution, arrested and tortured by the army; and Nariman El Bakry, a female music promoter. They represent the flourishing music scene that encompasses a variety of styles and different levels of political involvement, and they all believe deeply in the power of music to inspire and spur political change and emphasize how important creative self-expression is in a country that is wracked by unrest and violence. The three prepare for the second revolution on June 30th by recording songs, playing sit-ins and organizing with the protest campaigns.
We also see interviews with Morsi supporters such as Ali Osama, who expresses the belief that the President should be given a chance to try to affect change. You’re either with the system or against it, and most of Egypt, invigorated by the success of the Arab Spring, is against it. What’s remarkable is just how normal these revolutionaries are; they’re organizing protests with paper fliers and iPhones and grassroots organizing, bringing groceries to protesters and camping in Tahrir Square. They’re all just ordinary people, like any one of us, but their actions are extraordinary. A crowd of 33 million gathered to protest for the second revolution, the largest in human history, and Morsi was quickly deposed.
Of course, if you follow the news, you know that that doesn’t mean everything is suddenly improved. What follows is a largely chaotic and confusing several months of protests, clashes with the Army and Morsi supporters and over 1200 Egyptian deaths. Unflinching images of blood soaked streets, makeshift morgues and gunshot wound victims make this a very real and visceral experience for the audience, and the confusion and chaos is reflected in the episode’s pacing. People are enraged at the inhumanity of it all, but most of the subjects are extremely frank and straightforward when discussing death. It’s a reality for anyone who participates, whichever side you are on. But they love their country and continue to hold onto hope that it can get better, and they refuse to back down or leave or grow apathetic.
The music theme gets lost towards the second half of the episode, but they have a lot of material to pack in with all of the political upheaval and violence. And it becomes clear at the end that these aren’t just musicians but musicians who are the new leaders of Egypt, who make their voices heard through song. Music is their tool to tear the system down, and they remain to build a new and better system. “Egypt: Bittersweet Revolution” is an action-packed, riveting half-hour of television, marred by violence but imbued with hope.
In “Afghanistan: New Dream” the series again focuses on three subjects: female documentary filmmaker Sahar Fetrat; Afghanistan’s first and only female rapper, Soosan Firooz,; and the metal band District Unknown. And again, we are introduced to the political climate and history of the location through a series of quick onscreen title cards. This episode only briefly mentions the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, focusing more on the rule of the Taliban, which has forced this once free country into a state governed by religious extremism. While the subjects of the Egypt episode face all-out violence in the streets, the Afghani artists live with a constant fear and dread of the repercussions the Taliban can inflict on them and their families. It’s a far more insidious and creeping fear than the war in the streets of Cairo, and it is reflected in their constantly edgy and nervous demeanor.
Sahar faces near constant street harassment as a woman walking the streets of Kabul alone. She’s making a film about Afghani women fighting for the most basic of rights, such as riding a bicycle. The footage she captures shows the outright harassment and physical abuse suffered by women who dare to step outside of the strictures of Islamic extremism, but this only serves to drive her work. District Unknown, who describe themselves as a socially concerned rock and roll band, live in fear of threats from the Taliban, who think their style of music is anti-religious. Qasem, their leader, witnessed an Embassy bombing, and the traumatic memory of this attack informs their songs. They continue to play — everything from dark basement shows to festivals — despite the fear and threats.
Soosan grew up on American rap music tapes, having been told that “black Americans achieved their freedom through rap,” which is why she takes up this musical style as way to fight back. She has also received threats from the Taliban and fears for the safety of her family, but she continues to work, arming herself with brass knuckles and daggers, her backup singers wearing masks so they won’t be identified. Even when presented with opportunities to leave, Soosan won’t entertain the idea.
While the Afghanistan episode feels less jam-packed than the Egypt, there is no shortage of inspiration to be found in these artists. What the series does so well is draw out the love and pride that everyone has for their country and why they are fighting for change. They’re just normal people, like anyone else, but they happen to find their countries in extraordinary, life-threatening and terrifying circumstances.
While the show stays very much focused on the work of its subjects, by highlighting their humanity and showing their day to day lives it subtly asks the question “What would you do?” Would you stay silent or would you make your voice heard? And if you are silent, why? Slowly but surely these musicians are taking down the bricks that form the walls of their oppression, one song, one show, one YouTube upload, one film at a time. The series doesn’t offer too much in the way of speculation about the future, however. Things seem uncertain at the end of both episodes, aside from the fact that each artist is intent on remaining in their country and continuing to create.
Ultimately, Rebel Music is a refreshing addition to the MTV series stable, though I wish it would get airtime on the main channel (if only to offset whatever damage might be done on the collective psyches of American teenagers watching The Challenge and Big Tips Texas). But this series isn’t just a clever way to package news and global issues for a younger demographic, as the lens cast on these artists can be rewarding for all audiences. The footage captured and showcased is compelling, at times shocking, and unwavering on the bloody and beautiful realities of these countries.
The one main complaint that can be levied is that the pace becomes rather harried in trying to fit all of this into 30 minutes. Each story could stand more time to breathe and become fully realized, but ultimately the form does not allow it. Rebel Music is but a quick introduction to these artists, and the important role that music plays, and has historically played in social movements. And it won’t be going away anytime soon.
Rebel Music debuts on MTVu tonight with the first two episodes. The next four parts will premiere on Monday nights through December 16, covering Mali, India, Israel/Palestine and finally Mexico. For more information, visit the series’ website.