For Weeks, the Top Artist on SoundCloud Was an Icon of the Arab Spring

Hamza Namira. Photo: YouTube/Hamza Namira

If SoundCloud, as a platform, has become synonymous with any genre of music, it’s undoubtedly rap. In any given week, a peek at the site’s top 50 songs shows at least 90 percent to be hip-hop. From the howlingly cartoonish to the despondently evil, from rote invocations of promethazine to rote invocations of Xanax, from major artists to artists still rising, from fake artist accounts to real ones, rap runs SoundCloud. It’s no accident that “SoundCloud rap” has become a phrase and “SoundCloud country” or “SoundCloud techno” hasn’t; only in rap has the site’s community of artists and listeners grown large enough to create a distinctive subgenre of its own.

Yet for most of the past month, the most-streamed song on SoundCloud wasn’t by a rapper. Though dethroned last night by an XXXTentacion squib attached to the Parkland shooting (don’t ask), Hamza Namira’s “Dari Ya Alby” found itself in the coveted first position on the SoundCloud home page, leading runner-up tracks by the likes of Drake, Migos, and 6ix9ine by a margin of millions. Namira is 37 years old, over twice the age of many a bubbling SoundCloud rapper. Unlike SoundCloud R&B, none of his singing bears the slightest influence of hip-hop. A native Egyptian, Namira sings entirely in colloquial Arabic; within the ranks of English-speaking SoundCloud, his song doesn’t even crack the top 100, let alone hold first place. SoundCloud only displays national charts for a handful of Western countries, and the highest Namira places is 41st in Germany, with a mere 9,000 streams — less than 1/500th of the total streams the artist is pulling in. His fans are clearly from somewhere else.

A closer look at Namira’s career shows his current success to be anything but surprising. Born to a middle-class family, Namira immersed himself in a variety of Egyptian and foreign genres while studying to be an accountant at the University of Alexandria. His 2008 debut album, Ehlam Ma’aya (Dream With Me in English), struck a chord with college students, many of whom attended the Arab Spring protests early in 2011 that brought down the nation’s long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak. Namira’s music was, quite literally, the soundtrack to a revolution. Lyrics from Ehlam Ma’aya were sung loudly and often among the crowds in Tahrir Square, like the ones from the song “Ehlam Ma’aya”:

Dream with me

Tomorrow’s coming

And if it doesn’t come

We will bring it ourselves

Namira, who attended the protests and performed at them, found himself catapulted into the role of national spokesman. When Britain’s then–prime minister David Cameron met with a select delegation of Egyptians in the days following Mubarak’s fall, Namira was among them. His second album, Insan (Human in English), released in July 2011, shot to the top of the Arab pop charts. Combining consummate musicianship with lyrics focused squarely on social issues, Namira had become the ideal artist for an era where political possibility had been renewed. The largest country in the Arab world, Egypt had ceased to be an independent power since making its peace with American and Israeli power in 1979; Namira’s songs, gently charged with nationalism, held out the hope that Egypt, once freed, could speak and act for itself.

Events would prove the hope to be mistaken. The liberal, secular, middle-class nationalism espoused by Namira and his core fans lacked a popular base and party organization strong enough to win the post-revolution elections, and the presidency went to Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful, transnational party of pious conservatives. Morsi’s brief, awkward, and misguided reign would open the door for a military coup against him that returned the networks of the Mubarak era to power, albeit minus Mubarak himself. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, head of the army, was declared the new president in June 2014, and a violent crackdown against all opposition commenced that extended to Namira: Though too popular to be arrested himself, Namira’s music was banned from national radio in November 2014 for criticizing the authorities.

It was around this time that Namira’s music began appearing on SoundCloud, which, as it turns out, has come to host a vibrant scene in Arab music, housed under the rubric of world music, which brings in tens of millions of streams each week; 49 of the top 50 songs on the #World charts have Arabic titles. (The 50th is an XXXTentacion song posted by a fake account under the hashtag; 80 percent of its streams come from the States.) Though completely different in sound, SoundCloud rap and SoundCloud Arab music seem to share a similar social position: In both cases, the platform offers a large, hungry audience access to artists barred from official channels. If Namira is catching a particularly huge wave on SoundCloud with “Dari Ya Alby,” much of the reason is political.

Even filtered through sometimes clunky YouTube subtitles, it’s clear that “Dari” is an exceedingly melancholy tune, and that its mournfulness is rooted in a defeat at once individually experienced and generally held: “From how they’ve humiliated you, you tire / But where do you find solace?” In the song’s video, when Namira is seen walking alone through empty public spaces, the contrast with the days of protest is implicit and poignant. The seaside setting of the video and boy protagonist harkens back to the “Ehlam Ma’aya” video. But where the boy in the former video built paper boats to send out on the waves, the boy in the “Dari” video sits on the shoreside rocks and does nothing. It’s a beautiful song, but Namira leaves no doubt in the listener’s mind that he’d trade it for a better world in an instant.

The Top Artist on SoundCloud Was an Icon of the Arab Spring