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There are not many Tunisian music videos that have millions of YouTube views, but those who do have one thing in common: they are almost all rap music videos.
If nothing else, this says that the genre is hugely popular among Tunisian youth. Rap has been the voice of the youth, reflecting their relationship with the authorities before, during and after the revolution.
Going back to late 2010, during the last days of the Ben Ali regime, rap was de facto divided. On the one hand was the mainstream rap that covered love, family and friendships. These rappers were allowed to perform at festivals and even took part in Ben Ali’s presidential campaign celebrations.
On the other hand was the underground rap, which defied and criticized the system. Among the underground rappers was El General, real name Hamada Ben Amor, who released a song called ‘Rais el Bled’ (‘president of the republic’) in November 2011. The song discussed corruption and the lack of freedoms in the country. Moreover, it directly addressed the president, an act that was both courageous and unprecedented. The success of the song brought El General fame as well as trouble.
On 6 January 2011, less than ten days before the fall of the regime, El General was among a number of artists, activists and politicians who were arrested. Whether the song contributed in any way to igniting the events the previous month that led to the end of the regime is highly debatable. Nevertheless, it did earn El General a spot in Time magazine’s 2011 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Around the same time, another underground rapper rose to fame: Mohamed Jandoubi, aka Psyco M. His hit ‘Manipulation’ was a 15-minute diatribe about a global conspiracy against the Muslim world. He also used his platform to attack prominent Tunisian actors, directors and journalists, accusing them of being a part of this conspiracy, of fighting Islam and of drifting away from conservative Muslim values. Like many other rappers at the time, he was using rap to spread an Islamic ideology as an alternative to a regime he considered secular and anti-Islam. To some extent, this was a reflection of the early post-revolution confusion where words like democracy, secularity and sharia were used by everyone, everywhere.
Following the fall of the regime, rap exploded. It went from a movement that was rarely shown on mainstream television to one that was omnipresent. Rap was featured in patriotic songs, political shows and even a yoghurt commercial. The country was experiencing a wave of freedom of expression, and rappers, like many other artists, used it to express themselves without any noticeable objection from the authorities.
This freedom was short-lived, however. Rappers were arrested again as early as February 2012, mainly for cannabis use. But it was not until Weld el XV released a song called ‘El Boulicia Kleb’ (‘cops are dogs’) that direct confrontation began. As the title suggests, the song is a direct attack on the police, accusing them of corruption and using cannabis-related arrests as a pretext to silence rappers. The lyrics even take a violent turn when one of the verses states: ‘Next Eid [Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday during which an animal is sacrificed], I will sacrifice a policeman instead of a lamb.’
The song went viral and was viewed more than 3 million times before being taken off YouTube. Its popularity is highly linked to the accumulating frustration and rage against the police, mainly because of Law 52 on narcotics. This law, under which more than 120,000 people have been imprisoned since its adoption in 1992, imposes a minimum mandatory prison sentence on any person found guilty of the use and possession of an illegal drug, including cannabis. The police have often been accused of using this law as a way to suppress the youth.
Needless to say, the song was not without consequences, and the rapper, along with almost everyone who contributed to the song and the music video was arrested and jailed.
After serving his time, Weld el XV eventually moved to France. Marwen Douiri, aka Emino, took a different path. The young rapper, who was also tried for being mentioned in the same controversial song, was sentenced to two years in prison. Even though he only served two months, his time in jail changed him forever. Once famous for his song ‘Burn’, in which he celebrated alcohol, women and money, the rapper renounced his past, went to Syria and joined the Islamic State group (IS). He was killed in a bombing in Mosul, Iraq on 12 November 2016, according to a Facebook post by a fellow IS fighter.
This path was far from uncommon among young Tunisians at the time. In most cases, this was due to a toxic combination of marginalization, poverty, loss of trust in the government and hope for a better future. Extremist Islamist organizations exploited this sense of despair to recruit young Tunisians. In a 2016 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Tunisia had both the highest number of IS fighters and the highest per capita recruitment rate in the world, with an estimated 6,000 fighters.
The clashes between rappers and the authorities did not end there. Songs were released denouncing politicians, the police and the media. They were all considered part of a system with which the youth is clearly frustrated. In his song ‘Al Ghadhab’ (’anger’), released in February 2017, Klay BBJ, one of the most prominent Tunisian rappers, does not hold back. In lyrics that critics consider violent and profane, he accuses the media of vilifying rap and politicians and the police of an ongoing campaign to silence rappers in order not to challenge a corrupt status quo. The song has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube.
This time around, the answer did not come through the courthouses. Instead, the police refused to ensure the safety of any show in which Klay BBJ performed. This led to the cancellation of 18 of his shows around the country, including at the Carthage Festival, the biggest festival in Tunisia. The organizers said the decision was taken out of security concerns, but Klay BBJ himself insists that the police and Ministry of Culture pressured the festivals to cancel his shows. This led to a wave of support from other rappers including Balti, who cancelled some of his own shows in solidarity.
The relationship between rap and the authorities has had its ups and downs from 2011 to 2017. In recent months, the relationship has worsened again.
Do the latest clashes between rappers and the police reflect an accumulated frustration felt by a portion of Tunisian youth against a system that has failed to deliver on the revolutionary expectations of seven years ago? In the words of Klay BBJ in his latest song ‘Al Nawawi’ (‘the nuclear’): ‘Our neighbourhoods ask you with a heavy heart, Oh Tunisia what is it gonna be?’