Students channeled the spirit of the Arab Spring Friday by rapping music from recent democratic uprisings in the Arab world.
The Islamic Studies Center hosted “Rapping the Revolution: A Student Jam” Friday night at the East Campus Coffeehouse. Students and faculty alike gathered at the venue and listened to students singing and rapping music challenging dictatorship and corruption in the Arab World.
The event was held in conjunction with a conference last week titled “Islamic Media: Sense and Sensation”—initiated through a Humanities Writ Large grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which makes grants in higher education and the arts.
“The conference was about how media awakens the senses,” said Ellen McLarney, assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture and a driving force behind the event. “I taught a class last semester on revolutions and ended up getting really into the music.”
McLarney taught juniors Mayyadda Major and Ryan Gaylord in the class AMES 225: Egypt, Mother of the World. At Friday’s event, Major and Gaylord performed together, with various accompanists and separately throughout the evening.
Last year, Major and Gaylord worked with two other students—junior Lawrence Neme and senior Desmond Lee—to produce a video covering “No to Dictatorship,” a song written by four Sudanese artists.
“Since making the video, [Gaylord] and I have kind of become the poster children for the Middle East Studies department,” Major said. “Tonight we’re performing a stripped down version of the song because it’s just the two of us.”
Both Major and Gaylord were in a class on Arab music in addition to the course on Egypt, McLarney said. It was the combination of these two classes that sparked their interest.
This past summer, the two traveled to Morocco for the Duke in the Arab World program.
“[Gaylord] was researching Moroccan rappers and we sort of pow-wowed about it and decided that we had to make [this event] happen,” McLarney said.
Fortunately, McLarney had recently received a grant titled "Art of Democratic Revolution" from the Mellon Foundation.
“This year, we’re doing all sorts of things—graffiti, poetry from the revolutions and we’re even having someone come and paint a wall,” McLarney said.
In addition to “No to Dictatorship,” the evening's set—performed by Major, Gaylord and accompanists—included a mash-up that Major performed as a solo and an Arabic rendition of K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag.”
“This is a politically significant song in Morocco,” Gaylord said about his solo performance of "Dogs of the State," originally by rapper El Haqed, who is from Casablanca and was arrested for producing the song.
The event attracted a diverse crowd of students and faculty who lounged in the Coffeehouse to enjoy the music.
“I think this music is really great,” said senior Jack Tarpey, manager of the East Campus Coffeehouse, adding that he feels tied to the Arab world because he lived in Morocco during his childhood. “It’s cool to see non-native speakers singing in Arabic.”
McLarney said she was grateful for the opportunity to coordinate the event.
“Duke really invests in the humanities and that’s why I love being here," she said. It’s a rich cultural institution, in addition to having top-notch professional schools.”