Music For Social Change

Looking at my own newsfeed, it’s clearer than ever that activism takes many different forms. But if you’re looking for ways to change the world, the music industry may not be top of mind, right?


Enter Esra’a Al Shafei, Bahraini civil rights activist and the founder of Mideast Tunes, a music sharing platform with operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Arguing that “musicians are some of the most underrepresented activists”, Esra’a created her website as a way to empower independent artists in musically underrepresented regions. But that’s not all. Esra’a’s real goal is to give a voice to artists whose music pushes political and social barriers. And by uniting humans who might not meet otherwise, she’s looking to cause a stir, one user at a time.


In a 2011 TED Talk, Esra’a refused to show her face as she discussed social disruption, censorship, and freedom of speech. She courageously took on these controversial issues, but also carefully protected her own image to avoid any scrutiny she might face otherwise. With Mideast Tunes, Esra’a truly believes that music can be the starting place and solution for social disruption. Especially for millennials who as she describes, “express their identities, opinions and thoughts but also their cultures” through music--it can be the cornerstone for uniting folks who might not otherwise meet. Mideast Tunes--a music sharing and streaming platform, is providing the meeting place so artistics can do just that.


But it’s also more than that. Esra’a’s platform provides artists throughout the Middle East and North Africa a means of engaging in a global conversations about human rights, religious freedom, and the policies of their homelands. Oftentimes, the artists using Mideast Tunes lack the opportunity to perform, often facing “logistical issues” including poverty, statelessness, and tightened border policies which limit movement.


Other times, as Esra’a describes, “entire genres are frowned upon, such as heavy metal in places like Saudi Arabia and Yemen; and lyrics that are anti-regime, in places like Syria, Morocco, and Iran, can even land artists behind bars.” With facts like these, it’s no wonder women like Esra’a choose to disguise their public self. It’s one thing to speak out against a repressive regime--and another to disclose personal information--such as your facial identity before a sea of detractors.


It’s clear that Esra’a’s company couldn’t be any timelier. But what’s even clearer is that  this untraditional activist is providing a service that’s a real scarcity in many countries across the region.


But aside from the greater social and political upheaval it may be creating, Esra’a has an eye on the business side as well. She’s committed for example, to keeping Mideast Tunes free for subscribers:  “We didn’t want to monetize something that is given away for free”, she explains. “At the end of the day, we can’t say ‘music for social change, [if the service isn’t freely available]”, is her rationale.


Surprisingly, Mideast Tunes remains mostly self-funded, and most of the work is done by volunteers being that there are no paid full-time employees. Word of mouth is Esra’a’s biggest marketing source, combined with donations (donations that can be made here for those interested). With increased engagement with the website, Esra’a hopes to expand to offline listening which is extremely useful in areas with poor wi-fi and 3G connection.


Today the Mideast Tunes site puts the artists themselves as the centerpoint, visually speaking. The straightforward design puts the focus “on the artists and nothing else”, intentionally. Artists may submit themselves directly through the site and upload their content, of which the site then verifies. Assuming all of the information checks out, the content then goes live.


Alongside Esra’a devotion to social change, her advice to aspiring founders mirrors the mission of Mideast Tunes. “Don’t wait for validation. Any idea that can inspire needed change is worth pursuing, and it’s crucial to commit to it regardless of lack of resources or support. It’s amazing what persistence can achieve after years of nonstop work and dedication.”



Alana Brown