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Understanding Egypt’s Emerging “Martyr Pop”

May 17, 2011

When Egyptian youth went to Tahrir Square for 18 days beginning January 25, most of their pop stars did not join them. Amr Diab, arguably the most popular Arabic singing star, loaded his family aboard his private jet and bolted for London to ride out the uprisings. Mohamed Fouad, who has released 20 successful albums and starred in six movies, issued a sycophantic statement supporting Hosni Mubarak. Rising star Tamer Hosny went to Tahrir Square and tried to convince protesters to go home  (He later told television interviewers he had tried to go back and admit his mistake and assure them he supported the uprising but was booed off the stage).

Now, these stars are releasing songs within a new genre of “Martyr Pop”–music videos that celebrate the revolution and mourn those who died resisting efforts to put down the uprisings.

Anthropologist Dan Gilman, an expert on Egyptian popular culture, describes this emerging movement in a post on the Norient blog, an on-line magazine in German and English that explores global and local soundscapes. The article embeds six music videos illustrating points Gilman makes in his text.

“Martyr Pop – Made in Egypt” is an initial exploration of this “emergence of a subgenre of popular music videos dedicated the memory of the people killed during the the eighteen days of protesting that brought down Hosni Mubarak’s government.”

What is interesting about Martyr Pop, he notes, is that it is so overtly political in subject matter:

This is a notable change of pace from the mass-media Arabic-language music industry’s usual stock in trade, schmaltzy songs of chaste romance, for several reasons. First, songs that aired as music video clips via satellite channels in Egypt during the Mubarak era were generally devoid of domestic politics, except for nationalist pablum that either avoided politics entirely or portrayed Mubarak as the legitimate leader of his people. Second, the visual imagery was usually carefully storyboarded and filmed: pretty people in pretty places is the norm in the world of Arabic video clips.

Martyr Pop is obviously quite different:

The video clips that memorialize the martyrs differ on both counts, in that simply referring to the revolution in mass media is itself a political act, albeit not necessarily a very clear one. And, in sharp contrast to the elaborate, soap opera-like mise en scène that dominates the field, the ‘martyr pop’ videos tend to eschew studio visuals in favor of news footage. Above all, there is a powerful emphasis on photographs of the martyrs. (For those unfamiliar with the Arabic usage, the term ‘martyr’ (shahid in Arabic) is often used in a secular context to denote people considered to have died in the name of a national cause.)

Gilman overtly ties the production of martyr pop to the political faux pas of the performers, who are obviously eager to restore themselves to sympathy with their audiences. But he points out that the music is political in general but not in specifics:

[d]espite the inherently political nature of singing about the revolution, most of the singers actually appear to seek a middle path in which their political sympathies are not truly disclosed.

It’s difficult to determine how the uprising will affect these individual pop stars over the long run. Some people have reacted furiously to singers they now see as having taken counterrevolutionary stances. “It’s painful for me to listen to Tamer Hosny for more than a few seconds” one of my Egyptian friends told me. “When he is on the radio I turn the sound down.”He told me that he has friends who call the radio to complain every time Hosny or Diab is played.

But other fans have rallied around their favorite singers. The author of the section of the Wikipedia article on Tamer Hosny dealing with the Tahrir Square contremps certainly appears to be written by a fan, since it minimizes what happened and emphasizes his explanations and the video clip of him weeping that was posted to YouTube (but seems to have come down now). [Note: I accessed Wikipedia to get Hosny’s discography May 16. I make no promises some editor hasn’t changed the entry by the time you read it].

But the most important thing this indicates to me  is the emergence of new musical styles that recognize changing political realities.

Of course, this is not the first time Egyptian pop musicians have tried to improve their popular standing by linking themselves to popular political positions without being so specifically political that they get in trouble with the regime. Elliott Colla has an excellent article on Palestinian intifada solidarity music and videons in Egypt, and I have written about the political music of Sha’aban in Chapter Six of Connected in Cairo.

Egypt is the pop cultural hub of the Arab world, producing most of the movies, music, television (including being the center of the Arabic dubbing industry) and other stuff that fills the theaters and airwaves of the Arabic-speaking world. Are the current transformations part of Egypt’s current experimental moment only, after which Egyptian pop will return to its schmaltzy fantasies, or will these new genres evolve and grow in ways that become part of Arabic pop?


Colla, Elliott. Sentimentality and redemption: The rhetoric of Egyptian pop culture Intifada solidarity. In Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture. Rebecca L. Stein and Ted Swedenburg, eds. Pp. 338-363.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 17, 2011 6:45 pm

    Very nice article, and I value your findings, but I have a comment here.
    It appeared to me that you are saying that the Revolution has resulted in the emerging of a new musical style, which you call Martyr Pop. However I do not see it as a new style, on contrary, I believe it’s just an extension to “Football Matches Pop”, “Sectarian Division Pop”, and other event-based nationalist songs we had before. We are used to singers making custom songs for national events all the time, whenever Egypt wins the African Nations Football Competition or when there are clashes between Muslims and Christians they make songs for that. And I believe the revolution to them, is just one of those events. Yes, I agree with you that their stance during the uprising might affect their popularity in the streets, which was not the case with other previous events, but still I am not sure if the Egyptian pop will experience a dramatic change because of the revolution ya3ni, who knows.

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