Music for Social Change, MTV’s Rebel Music Amplifies Youth Voices In Areas of Conflict

MTV showcases artists working for change around the world.

The first female rapper in Afghanistan who won’t be silenced, even if her songs incite death threats from the Taliban. A group of artists in Tijuana who are trying to reclaim their city from drug lords and violent crime. A young woman in India who confronts men on the street, forcing them to see the consequence of sex crimes. A generation of musicians in Mali who rally to restore democracy. All their stories will be packed into Rebel Music MTV’s newest series which begins on November 18 on mtvU.


The documentary that tracks how young people in areas of conflict like Egypt and India are using art and music to spark change around the world. You could say it was inevitable.

That’s because Nusrat Durrani, an executive producer and creator of the show and senior vice president and general manager of MTV World, has dedicated his career to bring global music to American audiences. But this effort was different.

“Our focus is to track what’s happening in the world and bring those ideas to the U.S.,” Durrani tells us. For the past two years, as he and his staff at MTV World have been following cultural developments across the globe, they noticed an emerging trend in areas of conflict. Youth movements centered around music were sprouting up amid political and humanitarian crises, Durrani explains, “They aren’t being reported, but they are significant.”

To bring these stories to light, Durrani says his team “went pretty deep in pre-production” to identify the artists who were making a difference. One of which was Ramy Essam, a student who composed a song on the fly during Arab Spring two years ago and quickly became the voice of the revolution.

This June, when the MTV crew showed up in Tahrir Square they found things as turbulent as ever. “The security operative was temporarily suspended, there was no policing and no army presence on the street,” Durrani recalls. “The two campaigns were gathering forces to create their separate protests and there were some times we felt like we were in the middle of a civil war,” he says. But for Ramy Essan and thousands of other Egyptians, risk and suffering were part of the soundtrack, while street art remains a visual reminder of the uprising. “A lot of the people protesting are just civilians, just singing in the face of significant danger,” says Durrani.

Durrani argues that despite referencing political events, Rebel Music is not intended to tell a political story. Though challenging, he insisted that the series present multiple perspectives, which for one episode had them recruiting someone to take MTV’s crew inside the headquarters of the Muslim brotherhood. That production crew was up for the task. Comprised of local video professionals and an A-list team that included Academy Award winner Ross Kauffman, who was one of the directors of Born Into Brothels and graphic artist Shepard Fairey whose 2008 Hope portrait of Barack Obama is echoed in the poster for Rebel Music.


As compelling as these stories are, it’s unclear whether mtvU’s audience of 9 million U.S. college students will be ready to receive them. After all, about a third of Americans fail a basic citizenship test. Right now, Rebel Music’s closest counterpart is HBO’s Vice, a half-hour newsmagazine that debuted in April and also made a point to uncover stories in areas of conflict like Kabul and North Korea.

For Durrani, a big reason for American youth to tune in to the series is not only to be inspired by these acts of artistic bravery, but to experience the reach of our own culture. “The best story is of this girl in Afghanistan whose family has been threatened numerous times by the Taliban,” he recalls, “She mentioned that she was influenced by American hip hop when she was living in Iran and that was going to be her calling.” Talking about her musical inspirations, Duranni says, is like listening to a catalog of artists dedicated to social change who use the web and social media as their megaphone.

In this cross-pollination of cultures says Durrani, “There are no boundaries. There is a thread running through these countries that is driven by youth.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.