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We Need a Revolution in Songs About Egypt

The revolution will always be harmonized. If no song in itself can change the world, revolutionary change usually happens to music, as it is today in the Middle East. News feeds from Tahrir Square and now from Tehran have been capturing streets full of young people singing anthems of uprising, just as eighteenth-century revolutionaries sang in Paris and Philadelphia. In Cairo, the song that emerged quickly as the semi-official anthem of the revolution is “Long Live Egypt,” a buoyant, gently hip-hoppish pop tune by the Egyptian group Scarabeuz and Omima. Like our own National Anthem, a valentine to bloodshed and the ideals that justified it, set to an old English drinking song, “Long Live Egypt” is hardly a sophisticated musical work and has no need to be. It is easy to sing and instantly memorable. In fact, it has a considerable advantage over “The Star-Spangled Banner” for being so singable by non-singers; its tune, a catchy quasi-chant, barely suggests a key, and sounds most right when done slightly out of tune. The lyrics, fittingly for the song’s purpose, are a series of rousing bromides and generalities: “We will not hide what we think ... enough injustice and poverty ... Egypt’s youth are brave, and her people are heroes.” The song does the good work of providing something to sing while fighting, though I doubt that it will end up like “La Marseillaise” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a political-aesthetic object seen itself as something worth fighting for.

Among my lesser hopes for the Egyptian revolution is some improvement in the portrayal of Arab people in American popular music. After all, the pop charts have not grown significantly enlightened in the 25 years since the Bangles had the last top-ten hit with the word “Egyptian” in the title. I post it not to make a joke but to make a call for some young band to do something different now.