“People started paying more attention to the role of music in opposition and social justice movements, especially with the arrest of rappers during the uprisings,” says Esra'a Al Shafei, founder of Mideast Tunes, an online platform for underground and up and coming musicians in the Middle East and North Africa.
A young Bahraini activist, she launched the service in 2010 because it was difficult for her to discover underground musicians throughout the region.
“Once I discovered the bands, I wanted the ability to easily share them. These bands are important to discover because they're not just here to entertain the crowds, they come bearing an important message about social justice and freedom.”
Mideast Tunes is one part of a larger multimedia web platform founded by Al Shafei called Mideast Youth, which also includes Crowd Voice, a user-powered service that tracks voices of protest from around the world, and LGBTQ youth site Ahwaa.org. The overall aim is to promote access to information, free speech and minority rights, “making sure that the message of social change isn't just told, but also heard,” according to the Mideast Youth website.
Initially, Mideast Tunes was built on a simple technical solution, but the wide interest from bands and listeners soon created a need to upgrade the platform. After several new versions to mixed reviews, Esra'a Al Shafei and her team decided that they needed to completely re-define the user experience on the site, building it to function as one large playlist.
“After a few months of constant development we officially launched on the last day of 2011 to amazing reviews on both our web and iPhone applications. We've been pleased with the results and many other services have approached us for partnerships. So we’re looking forward to exploring the opportunities ahead.”
“The site is still in its infancy and we have a much larger vision for it. We're very eager to launch our Android application soon and a desktop application is definitely on the list as well.”
Mideast Tunes has seen a growing interest in Arab underground music after the regional uprisings escalated. The Egyptian, Tunisian, Syrian and Yemeni hip-hop artists on the site were a key factor in this development. They became the most listened to artists on the platform in a matter of weeks.
“We also have a lot of interest in Kurdish music, considering the oppression the Kurdish people face in places like Iran, Turkey and Syria. We saw a lot of submissions from Kurdish artists in the first few months of 2011,” says Esra'a Al Shafei, who started campaigning for Kurdish rights at the age of 18. She doesn’t think you can overestimate the importance of music for social change.
“For many decades here, music has been a major source for inspiration and mobilization and underground music of this kind is only continuing that tradition through newer and more creative ways for self-expression.“