Dancing Your Way Through A Revolution

Again I'm privileged to host the insights of an 21yr-old - Emily Goldman (Brown '14) gives us life-time learnings on discernment, judgement, critical thinking and getting the facts for yourself.  She has been studying Arabic and the impact of local rap movements on the revolution in Alexandria, Egypt for the past year - just your average American Female Jew in Egypt!  Read and re-read this - it has profound implications on how we view the rest of the world, and our place in it - especially in light of the recent NSA revelations.

I have always been a little weird. When I was younger, I used to obsess over one topic and learn everything about it—anything from Lucille Ball to the Brain Trust— and then get bored and move on. My mom called these cycles “phases.” One of the longest “phases” was my revolution phase at the beginning of high school. I had just learned about Che Guevara and the Latin American revolutions in history class, and was immediately enthralled. I read everything from biographies of Che to theoretical texts about Latin America’s liberation movements. I was captivated by this idea of a “revolution”ion in Development Studies"t STude to dig deeper as i  about revs in a general sense. I expected you to be like " and decided to feed my curiosity as I began my academic career at Brown University. I am a Development Studies concentrator who began with a focus on Latin America, then Social Entrepreneurship, and now Egyptian Hip Hop. Looking back, I think I might have been revolution hopping. During my first three years of college, I reveled in the way that phrases like “postrevolutionary state” and “direct foreign investment” rolled off my tongue. Armed with a hefty political science vocabulary and my slightly obsessive self-study, I felt that I truly understood what it means for a state to have a revolution. Wrong.

Inspirational graffiti in the city of Luxor about resisting tear gas and trying to build the country anewWhen I moved to Egypt in January, there were some things that I noticed: traffic is insane and has no rules, there are no taxes in daily life, the electricity sometimes goes out, there are checkpoints on the roads in Cairo run by civilians, the police often decide to go off duty (especially when they are threatened with actually performing any duties), and Fridays are protest days. After about a week, I got used to all of these things. One thing that I absolutely could not get used to, though, was the media.

I had been living in Alexandria, Egypt for about one month when I was watching TV this one Friday afternoon. When I turned on the TV, the correspondent was announcing widespread violence in Alexandria and a march down the street next to the seaside. My host family was traveling at the time, and my host mom called me: “How is Alexandria?” she asked, panicked. I peered out my window, looking onto the road where all of the violence was supposed to be, and saw absolutely nothing besides some stray cats playing in the garbage can below my window. Convinced I must be wrong, I called a friend in a different part of the city. “Are there violent demonstrations today?” I asked him.

“No,” he told me, “There was a peaceful march near the train station this morning, but that is seriously all that’s happened in Alexandria today.”

That night, my mom called me from the US. “Are you ok?” she asked, “I heard there’s been a lot of brutality towards women in demonstrations and that there were a lot of demonstrations today.”

I reassured her and, upon talking to a friend who works for a women’s rights group in Cairo, found out thatEmily dancing outside a temple the brutality article was published in the New York Times. According to my friend, the real story was not protestors harassing women but instead policemen harassing female protestors. While all of this conflicting information is confusing and annoying, it still leaves one essential question to be answered: who should I believe? Should I believe the news that tells me that people are attacking each other outside my house even when I can look out my window and see a totally different reality? Should I believe the New York Times correspondent when my friend who was actually at the event tells me that the correspondent got the story wrong? I choose to believe what I see with my own eyes and ears. But what about people like my family who can’t get this information first hand? What about the ENTIRE AMERICAN PUBLIC that, thanks to the media, thinks Egypt is a lawless and—to borrow a word from my Development Studies classes—“postrevolutionary state?”

“The media won the revolution” is a refrain echoed throughout Egyptian society these days. As anger at President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood boils, I am discovering that it is an amazing time to be a researcher of Hip Hop, an art form that has given the finger to the media time and time again. My research in Ticket from Emily's first Egyptian rap concertEgypt focuses on Egyptian rap and its role in politics during and after the revolution. Both the rappers that I work with and the music that they make refuse to fall into the media categories of “smart/dumb,” “religious/not religious,” “revolutionary/not revolutionary,” etc. The Egyptian rappers refuse to deal in these binaries. These rappers are incredible, multidimensional people who refuse to let the revolution, society, or anyone else silence them.

This morning I met with one of the earliest Egyptian rappers, a guy in his thirties who I will refer to as S. I hopped on the back of his motorbike and we took off through the Alexandria rush hour traffic as he shouted over his shoulder to me about everything that got worse in Alexandria after the revolution.

“What do you think of the traffic?” he bellowed over wind as we weaved dangerously between stopped cars along the seaside road.

“Um, well….” I stuttered, trying to formulate a response that was not offensive but also truthful.

“HA,” he responded, “Not like America, huh? Honestly, Egypt was not like this even three years ago.”

Over the course of the next three hours, our conversation meandered seamlessly from the politics of Egyptian rap to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on artistic expression to the intricacies of the Egyptian stock market interest rate fluctuations. S, like many other rappers and Hip Hop artists I have gotten to know here in Egypt, is brilliant. He speaks four languages fluently, is getting his Master’s degree in Development Economics, writes and produces his own music, and cannot find a job. He does not rap because he has nothing better to do or because he thinks it makes him look cool, but rather because he has something to say.

“The Egyptian people have a problem with being afraid of expressing themselves, “ he told me as we strolled along the sea, “Maybe it is left over from Mubarak or something, but we rappers, we don’t think about these things. We just say what we think.”

That is exactly why I choose to work in Hip Hop both here in Egypt and in the United States. In the US, I work with Hip Hop 4, an organization that I co-founded in my sophomore year with another Brown student named Pierre Arreola. Hip Hop 4 uses Hip Hop as a tool to provide character building in after school activities for underprivileged youth. The idea came from our observation that kids in underprivileged neighborhoods have infinitely fewer opportunities to express themselves artistically or otherwise. I would say that the same goes for Egyptian youth who suffer because of high levels of education, low levels of employment, an increasingly oppressive Muslim Brotherhood influence, and a crashing economy. So, in a way, Egyptian rappers are doing the same work as Hip Hop 4. They are modeling frank and public self-expression by refusing to let the political, societal, and media obstacles get in the way.

On our way back home from our seaside conversation, the police stopped S and me. The policeman was tryingView from a friend of Emily's countryside home to give a taxi driver in front of us a ticket for blocking the road. The policeman took down the taxi driver’s license plate number at which point the minibus driver next to us hopped out of his van and told the policeman, “You can write whatever you want, but he is a taxi driver. This car does not belong to him. If you want him to move, you have to MAKE him move.” He then leaned down into the cab and screamed in the taxi driver’s face until he moved his cab out of the way.

That is Egypt right now. If you want to get something done, do it yourself, make it happen. As harsh as that might sound, it actually makes me feel safe in my daily life because there is an incredible sense of unity, of Egyptians helping Egyptians to make it through this hard and confusing time. I have met unparalleled kindness and selflessness here every day. I have been embraced as an American, a Jew, a female, and every other part of my identity that I was afraid of revealing based on stereotypes I had heard about Egyptians before I came. When I walk outside every day, I don’t see a country plagued by senseless violence like the media wants me to, but rather a country still yearning for change. I am not afraid to be here and I refuse to let the news sources bully me into fearing a country and culture I have come to know and love. However, I would like to ask one thing of my fellow Americans: Do not assume that what you hear about Egypt from the media is true. Please use your judgment and think critically about what you hear about this country and the Middle East in the upcoming years. Most importantly, let’s take a cue from the Egyptian rap community and remember that people are not one-dimensional characters, but instead complicated beings with the natural urge for self-expression. Egyptians may be demonstrating against President Morsi each week, but they are also finding ways to prop each other up and protect each other from the difficulties in this postrevolutionary period.

Yes, Compare Apples & Oranges!!!

One of my favorite authors is the Albanian,  Ismail Kadare, and there's been a lot of discussion of the Mideast in my home. Trust me, these are related.

The media keeps comparing Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia’s futures to either Iran or what? Pakistan? Indonesia? Turkey? Always to other Mid-East, Asia, or Asia Minor countries (yes, Turkey straddles both continents, in so many ways).

No one compared these countries futures to any European country. I kept thinking about Albania. Now see the link?

Having read Kadare’s books and learning a bit of Albanian history and ‘freedom’ post-1989, it seemed Albania could be just as likely a model for Egypt as any of the others. Kind of wondered if I wasn’t a bit nuts with this analogy until Monday 2/14’s WSJ article by Matthew Kaminski.

So what in the world does this have to do with strategy and innovation? Everything! When we start creating our organization’s strategic direction (which should be a living, ongoing, adapting process) and look at how and where we can innovate, we tend to look at others ‘like us’.

This is natural, but not helpful.  Blockbuster did this, was offered the opportunity to buy another ‘near’ it, but not ‘like it’ and got Netflixed*.  What if Blockbuster had looked at those not “like us” or even combined what it did with what others did…the power of “AND”?  Apple and Best Buy have built success on not looking at those ‘like us’ AND combining what’s out there (e.g., iTunes, iPod). Who else can you think of?

So, try these two things to grow your business:

  1. Stop looking at those ‘like us’… look at those very “not like us”;
  2. Start combining…instead of asking do you want this or that, put them together!

Sometimes it’s worth comparing apples and oranges! As Capt. Renault said in Casablanca, [don’t] “Round up the usual suspects.” Go look for unusual suspects.  My friend, Saul Kaplan, puts it so eloquently: innovation is found in “random collisions of unusual suspects” – in RCUS (ruckus!) – go make a RCUS! You’ll be amazed at what you discover and learn to grow your business, your people and yourself.