Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Morocco, Arrest of Rapper for Critical Song Sparks Freedom of Expression Debate

Photo: AP / M. Elshamy

At the beginning of November 2019, Moroccan rapper Gnawi was arrested near the city of Salé.

The arrest caused a stir in the North African country as it occurred two days after Gnawi released the song ‘Aacha el-Chaab’ (‘long live the people’) with artists Weld l’Griya and LZ3ER. The song, which has been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube, criticizes the police and the king and denounces the social conditions affecting Moroccan youth.

The authorities said the rapper was arrested for insulting the police in a previous video he posted on social media. However, some have questioned the official line.

“Everyone thinks it’s a coincidence that he was arrested two days after [the release of the song],” journalist Samira Jadir told the Dutch news site “He was already on the police’s radar. I think they were already planning to arrest him but were waiting for a good opportunity.”

Jadir also believes that the song’s popularity was a factor. “You can say a lot in Morocco, but as soon as the authorities see that you are attracting a following, you are a danger to society in their eyes,” she said.

Those close to Gnawi, such as rapper Hamza L’BS who used to rap alongside him in the collective Bassline, told news outlet Yabiladi that his friend “has already had problems with the police for 15 days.” He also said Gnawi’s latest track was a “cry for help from a youth left on the sidelines”.

The song has clearly resonated. ‘We are faced with a political song the likes of which Morocco has never known in terms of clarity, directness, strength of message and speed of spread,’ wrote the Al Youm 24 website.

Thousands of people have responded on social media, mostly positively. “That’s it, everything is said in this video,” said one person on Facebook.

The song, among other criticisms, alleges that the government ‘fills people with drugs’ so that they do not revolt. It also warns that Morocco will become an ‘empty country’ in 2020 because everyone is leaving, and that the king ‘fools everyone’.

The song also uses the word n’ayyish, a disapproving response to the traditional call of ‘long live the king’, and mentions ‘the man from the Rif’ and ‘the free man behind bars’, thought to be a reference to protests in the poorer north of the country and Nasser Zefzafi, the leader of the Rif movement who was handed a 20-year jail term in 2018.

Amnesty International called Gnawi’s arrest ‘an outrageous assault on free speech’.

Morocco enjoys relatively liberal freedom of speech laws, compared to many other countries in the world. However, human rights groups have widely criticized the state, which has imprisoned dozens of people for nonviolent speech since 1999 when Mohammed VI became king. This includes journalists charged with denigrating the judiciary, defamation and disseminating fake news as well as rappers for insulting the police.

Reform has taken place, especially of the press code. But the penal code still criminalizes some free speech including speaking against Islam, the monarchy and inciting against territorial integrity, i.e. the Western Sahara issue. In particular, these three issues are considered ‘red lines’ that Moroccans cannot legally cross.

Still, in 2018, the country was ranked 135th in the World Press Freedom Index. In 2019, the Adalah Association for Fair Trial and EuroMed Rights expressed concern about the frequent attacks on and trials against journalists, individuals and associations that exercise their rights of freedom of expression, association and demonstration.

As far as Moroccan hip-hop is concerned, some commentators have argued that space occupied by rap to air grievances and thoughts relating to societal and political concerns has diminished.

According to TelQuel magazine, Gnawi, real name Mohamed Mounir, was born in the poor neighbourhood of Hay Inbiaat in Salé and started his rap career in 2011 with the song ‘Mafioze’ about crime in urban slums and the conflict between police and young people. He gained popularity with the song ‘L3askar’ that he released with Larmy Sla, sampling American rapper Coolio’s hit ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ about subordinates in the army, he himself having served between 2007 and 2013.

Despite making a name for himself, he has preferred to remain underground. After losing both his parents, in 2017 he released his biggest hit ‘Chti Dib’, which has a more contemporary sound while continuing to address big social and political issues.

Conversely, other rappers in Morocco have moved on from remaining underground and strictly political. In a paper about the two sides of the Moroccan rap scene, Cristina Moreno Almeida, a fellow at King’s College London, wrote, ‘Hip-hop culture and rap music are frequently seen as either examples of co-option and commercialization on the one hand, or as part of a rebellious underground on the other hand.’

Yet even those who choose to join the mainstream can encroach on critical subjects. A previous case that has been compared to Gnawi’s concerned the rapper L7a9ed who was arrested on 11 May 2012, accused of using offensive images in the video for his 2010 song ‘Klab Dawla’ (‘dogs of the state’) that denounces police profiling based on a person’s socio-economic background.

Similarly, there was doubt that the arrest was linked to the song, which was released two years earlier and was mild in comparison to other rappers’ condemnation of the police, notably the video for Don Bigg’s ‘Mabghitch’24’, in which the words ‘Fuck the police’ are visible on a wall.

Moreno Almeida said it is more likely the arrest was linked to L7a9ed’s support of the Arab Spring. In a similar vein, she said Gnawi’s arrest sends the message to other young people wanting to address comparable issues through music that they can get into trouble without signalling there is anything wrong with freedom of expression.

While ‘Aacha el-Chaab’ has clearly resonated with the public, the underground rap scene has not always been viewed positively.

“The main criticism you hear from rap fans and the audience in general in Morocco is that these rappers knew exactly what they were getting into, [knew it would] get them into the spotlight because the red lines are very clear,” said Moreno Almeida, adding, “It’s why we are talking about Gnawi today.”

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