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Rap Rage Revolt

[Slogans against the interim government and graffiti, Tunisia, May 2011. Photo by Nouri Gana.] [Slogans against the interim government and graffiti, Tunisia, May 2011. Photo by Nouri Gana.]

Two months ago the private radio station Mosaïque FM asked Rachid Ghannouchi whether he preferred rap music or mizwid (Tunisia’s most popular sha‘bi or folk music, whose name derives from the main instrument that accompanies the singing, i.e., the goatskin bagpipe). Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda (Renaissance), the previously banned Islamic party and now one of the major players in Tunisia’s postrevolutionary political scene, did not hesitate to say “rap.” This is, perhaps, an ironic reaction for the Islamic party leader whose detractors have consistently portrayed as regressive, “salafist,” and “integrist” (or, as in the Tunisian dialect, khwanji, a derogative, if not incriminating, reference to the Muslim Brothers). How come Ghannouchi opted for the seemingly more “liberal” and “progressive” choice, rap music, over the more “traditional” and “authentic” one, mizwid?

The choice is a slap in the face of those detractors, who have proven to be more concerned about disparaging Ennahda (which they call “Ennahqa,” i.e., the act of braying) than about completing the revolution (which seems now to have lost most of its steam power). It basically proves that Ennahda not only approves of but also champions the same rap music that other Islamic parties (such as Hamas) consider “immoral.”  Ennahda has time and again renewed its commitment to a pluralist, modernist, and progressivist agenda, promising not to alter Tunisians’ relatively liberal ways of life if elected. Yet it has consistently been accused of “double discourse,” especially since its foundational principle remains the same: the inextricable relation between Islam and politics or governance tout court.  

It is hard to speculate on what Ennahda would do in power, but it is important to stress that speculation itself might be part of the problem. All the more so when the Islamic inspiration and vision of Ennahda is hastily and summarily associated with the Islamist and Jihadist ideologies of the Taliban (as is oftentimes the case in secularist circles in Tunisia). Be that as it may, Tunisia has neither gone through an Islamic nor an Islamist experiment, but has suffered firsthand the consequences of self-professed secular (some might say secularist, i.e. radically secular) governments. The façade of liberal and secular values has facilitated the culture of corruption that thrived under Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s successive regimes. It was the all-out crusade against an alleged but mostly dissimulated Islamist threat (clearly fashioned on Bush’s and Sarkozy’s playbooks) that most defined and justified both regimes.

Part of Ennahda’s appeal today stems from its proven oppositional record to Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s regimes. Its popularity also stems from Tunisians’ understandable association of secularism with authoritarianism, corruption, and repression of civil liberties (note, for instance, that coercive unveiling was a fact under Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s professed secular regimes). Besides, the French version of laïcité which Franco-Tunisian elites and Francophiles endorse has proven inimical to Islam and Muslims, as evidenced by the French veil ban which took effect on April 11, 2011. This is not to say, though, that laïcité is necessarily at loggerheads with Islam (nor that Islam is at odds with pluralist and civic society), but that the postcolonial history of Tunisia has been shot through by a politicized duel between equally alienating versions of laïcité and Islam.   

The other part of Ennahda’s appeal in postrevolutionary Tunisia stems, paradoxically, from the massive fear-mongering campaign that the unbendingly secularist Tunisian media has mounted against it. With the exception of very few leftists (such as Moncef Marzouki and Hamma Hammami), the Tunisian left, along with the remnants of Ben Ali’s RCD (Democratic Constitutional Rally) and the Francophone secularists and elites, committed a strategic mistake. They focused their efforts on discrediting Ennahda rather than putting pressure on the interim government (which has been anything but a revolutionary government, or even remotely worthy of the memory of those who died in the uprising). Because they were focused entirely on contradicting Ennahda, which has continually supported anti-governmental demonstrations and public sit-ins, the self-professed secularists and quasi-leftists found no alternative but to act against the sit-in protests and align themselves therefore with the long hand of the state security apparatus and the riot police. The latter did not hesitate on July 15, 2011 to fire teargas inside the Qasba Mosque, interrupting the ongoing Friday prayers, wreaking havoc in the Hafsid-built mosque, and preempting the much anticipated sit-in protest in the Qasba Government Square that afternoon. 

To defeat Ennahda (if that were indeed to become a legitimate pursuit), it is absolutely necessary to complete the revolution. That is to say, among other things, to uproot once and for all Ben Ali’s security system and its clienteles and to bring to justice all those involved in the murder of more than 300 protestors before and after January 14. It is a must, in other words, to target not so much Ennahda itself as the root causes that would make the call of and for Ennahda appealing to most Tunisians. For it is those very same root causes (all of which are the products and driving forces of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, state oppression, and repression) that called rap music into existence in the first place. It is indeed those same root causes that perhaps informed Ghannouchi’s choice of rap over mizwid, the latter being perhaps the least politically conscious, let alone committed, form of musical expression.

Mizwid came to Tunisia from Sudan and Libya in the late nineteenth century and then became the favorite means of entertainment for colonized Tunisians in their farms. This is why the gestures of dance that accompany the music and singing tend to emulate and reenact the gestures of menial labor. In other words, mizwid has been a very convenient, not to say pacifying, genre of music for French colonialism, insofar as it channeled whatever pent-up anger Tunisians had against the colonial system. Ben Ali must have recognized the “virtues” of mizwid in depoliticizing Tunisians, and this is partly why it became, from the time of his ascendance to power, the hegemonic form of popular music par excellence. Note, for instance, that the first time that mizwid was broadcast on national TV occurred in 1988, just a few months after Ben Ali’s assumption of power on November 7, 1987. While the broadcast was immediately met with public outcries against indecency and cultural decadence, mizwid was gradually and programmatically hammered home in the end, especially after the wide success of the 1991 nuba show, a hybrid spectacle that stealthily grafted mizwid performances onto spiritual and religious dances and songs. Here is a sample:

By the end of the millennium, it had become all too obvious that the hegemony of the mizwid industry was matched only by the culture of corruption that Ben Ali’s regime fostered. It is not that mizwid stars such as Hedi Donia, Hedi Habbouba, Samir Loucif, Fawzi Ben Gamra, Lotfi Jermana, Noureddin el-Kahlaoui, Fatma Bousaha, and Zina el-Gasriniya somehow conspired to encourage corruption. However, they, like other popular icons, artists, and beneficiaries of the entertainment industry writ large, did very little, if anything, to raise awareness on the political and ideological origins of most of the sociocultural issues they had been wont to address in their popular songs. Given mizwid’s predilection for dance rhythms over lyrics, which mostly revolved around social, family, and emotional matters or pretty much empty verbiage, it has hardly ventured into subjects even remotely political.

The same can be said about the pioneering work of such rappers as Balti, B4 Clan, and others. The venture of rap music in Tunisia, however, took a completely political turn by the year 2010, the very same year that the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed, following Ben Ali’s initiative, the International Youth Year. Little did Ben Ali know then that those very youth he championed would initiate his eventual deposition from power after twenty-three years of authoritarian rule.

At the very same time that an orchestrated campaign calling on Ben Ali to run for the 2014 presidential elections was well underway, rappers, along with a wide range of youth spokespersons, cyberactivists, dissident politicians, and journalists, initiated a counter-campaign calling for democratization. Rap music became more and more vocal and controversial in its critique of social and public issues ranging from drugs, prostitution, and corruption to “sound pollution.” The latter refers to the proposal that called for the reduction of the volume of adhan, or call for prayers, which launched a public uproar. Under the banner of combating sound pollution, the marginalization of Islam proceeded unabashedly in the late years of Ben Ali when his wife, Leila, was branded by many as “The Regent of Carthage.” B4 Clan decried the proposal in their song, “Contre-Attaque” (“Counter-Attack”), and several other rappers and rap crews did the same, all the while calling for a revalorization of Islam and Islamic values.

As Ben Ali’s regime denigrated religiosity through the intimidation and harassment of veiled women and bearded men and mosque-goers, Tunisian rap increasingly took an Islamic bent. It denounced moral bankruptcy, the loosening of traditional values, and the rampancy of corruption. Two songs in particular gave rise to public controversies and brought rap to musical prominence in 2010, and surely to Ghannouchi’s attention. The power of the two songs does not proceed necessarily from their variably accented political overtones, but from their controversial content, which has been crucial to the revival of the public sphere as a whole, whether through informed and constructive debate or dismissive diatribes and rage.

Balti’s “Passe Partout (a damning portrait of Tunisian girls as prostitutes and one-night-standers) provoked public responses from parents and families as well as rappers, such as DJ Costa, Emino, and Lotfi Abdelli, who collaborated on “Chawahtou som3et lebled,” or “You Stained the Country’s Reputation,” a response song and corrective to Balti’s invective. The pictures that were profiled in the video clip, however, were picked up from Facebook pages and mounted by Balti’s fans to the original clip of the song, which did not contain any such pictures. At any rate, the song provoked so much rage and fury that it officially gave rise to the phenomenon of “rap clashes,” long associated with the US based West Coast/East Coast rivalries and diatribes between Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. and later between Nas and Jay-Z. 

Psyco M’s fifteen-minute long Manipulation mounted an attack on Arab nationalists and secularists alike and accused them of involvement in a Euro-Zionist plot against Islam. The song included toward the end an explicit attack on such public figures as Sawsen Mâalej, an actress who routinely appears on Nessma TV, and Olfa Youssef, the author of the highly contentious book, Hayrat Muslima (The Bewilderment of a Muslim Woman). Mâalej and Youssef created a public uproar, the former for making an explicit reference to the male sexual organ of her colleague and the latter for pointing out that the Qur’an is inconclusive about female inheritance, homosexuality, and masturbation, among other hot-button issues. Both ended up filing a defamation suit against Psyco M following the serious toll the song took on their reputations and the death threats they received because of its high-speed cyber-reach.

More recently, filmmaker Nouri Bouzid filed a complaint against Ennahda and Psyco M, whom he accuses of issuing a death threat against him in a public rally organized by Ennahda on April 17, 2011. The lyrics of the song at stake, “La Guerre Psychologique” (“Psychological War”), express Psyco M’s passing wish to use a “kalashnikov” against all those behind the global media campaign against Islam, including Nouri Bouzid, whose films allegedly disparage Islam and equate it with terrorism. The song, however, dates back to 2009, a time-period when Ennahda was not in business. In his defense, Psyco M claimed that he used the word “kalashnikov” to metaphorically refer to the powers and devastating effects of his rhymes. As for Bouzid, he pointed out time and again that he was not troubled by Psyco M himself, but by the regressivist-salafist ideologies that inform his songs and by the forces (i.e., Ennahda) that stand behind him.      

Many have associated Psyco M, who was banned from performing under Ben Ali, with extremism, fanaticism, and fundamentalist trends spearheaded by the unlicensed Hizb al-Tahrir, or Liberation Party. Others, however, support him for his brave defense of Islam and Islamic values, especially on Facebook, where he enjoys a great reputation, and was selected as the best rapper for 2010. Regardless of what ideologies inform his songs, and of whether one agrees or not with him, Psyco M has clearly emerged as one of the almost effortless masters of the flow, oftentimes associated with the Algerian rapper Lotfi Double Kanon, who also enjoys a good reputation in Tunisia. The sheer length and scope, not to mention the amount of information and provocation, contained in his lyrics combine to make of Psyco M easily one of the most important, albeit controversial, rappers in the entire Arab world.

Psyco M has repeatedly pointed out that he was not a card-carrying member of Ennahda, that he is against Islamic as well as secular extremisms, and that rap and salafism are incompatible. The nostalgia expressed in his songs for the Islamic caliphate, however, clearly contradicts these claims. At any rate, it might be a contradiction in terms for rappers to preach traditional and Islamic values or for Ghannouchi to choose rap over mizwid, but this is for sure the logical outcome of Ben Ali’s corrupt and corrupted secularist regime. Despite his notoriety and the controversial nature of his songs, the importance of Psyco M lies (at least from a postrevolutionary perspective) in the fact that he clearly upped the ante of critique and paved the way for the emergence of raw criticisms of Ben Ali’s regime. Other rappers soon followed suit, including Guito'N, Wajdi Mascott, BlacK EyE, SinCerO, Kenzi, T-Men, Weld 15, and, above all, El Général. 

El Général took on the risky task of sending direct messages to Ben Ali twice. The first was titled “Sidi El-Rayyes” (“Mr. President”) and was not substantially different from his second and now greatest claim to national and international fame, “Rayyes Lebled” (“Mr. President”). Like Psyco M and several other rappers and rap crews, El Général called for the revalorization of Islam and Islamic values, but he went much further than most and addressed not only the sensitive question of state oppression and repression, but, above all, the question of corruption. In a leaked cable, the US ambassador to Tunis, Robert F. Godec, called corruption the “elephant in the room”: every Tunisian knows about it but no one dares to address it.  

El Général dared the president to step down from his ivory tower in Palace Carthage and do a real field trip to the grey zones of Tunisia (and not the kind of “surprise” but elaborately planned and premeditated trips he was known for since the early years of his presidency). He addressed Ben Ali in the persona of a schoolboy, as evidenced by the opening footage from one of Ben Ali’s 1990s surprise trips to two underdeveloped areas in the interior of the country. El Général’s lyrics are raw and frank, but his style diplomatic on the whole, which is why the song worked quite well and was seductive and persuasive, even when it comes to Ben Ali’s supporters.

The audacity and courage of El Général’s song is unmistakable, all the more so that it was uploaded to Facebook at a time when Ben Ali was celebrating the twenty-third anniversary of his ascension to power on November 7, 1987 (also known as al-Tahawal al-Mubarak, or The Blessed Change). The song was obviously censored and El Général arrested in a dramatic manner following presidential orders on January 6, 2011. By then, the song had become the anthem of the uprising throughout the country, and El Général was released three days afterwards. Unlike many rap songs produced about the Arab revolutions after they unfolded, El Général’s “Rayyes Lebled” was a leap in the dark, a sort of cri-de-coeur or scream, uttered long before the revolution started or took shape, at a time when very few would dare address Ben Ali publically. No wonder El Général was celebrated by Time magazine as the seventy-fourth most influential person in the world. (Let’s hope this was a genuine acknowledgement of El Général’s courage and creativity, and not just of the partly American provenance of the tools involved, i.e., rap music).     

Rayyes Lebled” has now become a classic in Tunisian and Arab rap. It has variably been emulated by numerous wannabe MCs, and El Général’s international recognition has resulted in what many commentators describe as an “overdose” of revolutionary and patriotic rap songs. There is, however, a striking continuum between the Islamic bent and the revolutionary and patriotic trends of most of Tunisian rap music. Not that there is a contradiction between the two, but that rap’s attention to the marginalization of Islam under Ben Ali has been and continues to be crucial to the revolutionary endeavor. This continuum is definitely worth examining at some length, especially at a time when claims about the secular character of the Tunisian revolution have gained momentum

El Général’s “Rayyes Lebled is a compelling mixture of rage against the police’s clampdown on religiosity (for example, the beating of hijab-wearing women) and the impatience with Ben Ali’s entire mafia-like regime. In what follows, I transcribe in full and in the original Tunisian the explosive lyrics of “Rayyes Lebled.” My transcription relies entirely on the literal rendition of how the words are pronounced in the song and not on the correct way they should be written in Modern Standard Arabic, or even in the Tunisian dialect for that matter. Note that I also transliterate such French words as pourtant, alors, and souffrance directly into Arabic. I also include an English translation of the song, as well as the original video clip.  

رئيس البلاد، هاني اليوم نحكي معاك

بإسمي و باسم الشعب الكلّ اللّي عايش فِلعذاب

2011، مازال فمّ شكون يموت بالجوع

حَبّ يخدم باش يعيش لكن صوتو موش مسموع

أهبط للشّارع وشوف لعباد ولاّت وحوش

شوف الحاكم بالماتراك "تاك أتاك" ما على بالوش

مادام ما فمّا حدّ باش يقلّو كلمة لا

حتّى القانون الّي في الدستور نفّخو واُشرب ماه

كل نهار نسمع قضيّة ركّبوهالو بالسّيف

بورتان الحاكم يعرف اللّي هو عبد نظيف

نشوف في اللّحناش تضرب في النساء المتحجّبين

زعمة ترضاها لبنتك؟ عارف كلام يبكّي العين

عارف مادامك بو ما ترضاش الشرّ لصغارك

ألور هذا ميساج عبارة واحد من صغارك يحكي معاك،

مالسوفرنس رانا عايشين كالكلاب

شطر الشعب عايشين الذلّ وذاقوا من كآس لعذاب

 

رئيس البلاد، شعبك مات

برشة عباد اليوم مالزبلة كلات

هاك تشوف آش قاعد صاير فللبلاد

مآسي بارتو وناس ما لقاتش وين تبات

هاني نحكي باسم الشعب اللّي تظلمو و اللّي نداسو بالصبّاط

(2×)

 

رئيس لبلاد، قتلي اِحكي من غير خوفْ

هاني حكيت لكن عارف اِلّي نهايتي كان لكفوفْ

نشوف في برشة ظلم هاذاكا علاش اِخترتك

لا، بورتان وصّاوني برشة عباد اِلّي نهايتي كان الإعدامْ

لكن، إلى متى التوّنسي عايش فِاْلأوهامْ

وينها حريّة التعبير؟ ريت منها كان لكلامْ

سمّيتوا تونس بالخضراء، رئيس لبلاد، هاك تشوفْ

اليوم لبلاد ولاّت صحراء مقسومة على زوز طروف

سرقات بالمكشوف، بالغورة مِلكوا البلاد

من غير ما نسمّي اِنتِ تعرف شكونهم هالعباد

برشة فلوس كانت ماشية مشاريع و اِنجازات

مدارس ومصحّات، بناءات و تعديلات

لكن أولاد الكلاب بفلوس الشعب عبّاوا الكروش

سرقوا ونهبوا وفكّوا وخطفوا وفي الكراسي ما سيّبوش

نعرف الّي برشا كلام في قلب الشعب ما يوصلش

كان جا الوضع من غير ظلم راني ليوم ما نتكلّمش

 

رئيس البلاد، شعبك مات

برشة عباد اليوم مالزبلة كلات

هاك تشوف آش قاعد صاير فللبلاد

مآسي بارتو و ناس ما لقاتش وين تبات

هاني نحكي باسم الشعب اللّي تظلمو و اللّي نداسو بالصبّاط

(2×)

 

أوكي...صوت لبلاد...جنرال...2011

نفس الحال...نفس المشاكل والسوفرنس

رئيس البلاد... رئيس البلاد... رئيس البلاد...

 

رئيس البلاد، شعبك مات

برشة عباد اليوم مالزبلة كلات

هاك تشوف آش قاعد صاير فللبلاد

مآسي بارتو و ناس ما لقاتش وين تبات

هاني نحكي باسم الشعب اللّي تظلمو و اللّي نداسو بالصبّاط

(2×)

El Général’s Rayyes Lebled

Mr. President,
I speak to you today in my name
And in the name of all the people who live in oppression and pain 
It’s 2011 and there are still people who die of hunger
They want to work to make a living but their voices are not heard
Go down into the streets and see people turn into beasts
See the cops clobbering people, tak-a-tak, not caring in the least
As long as no one can make them stop their assault, 
Constitutional laws remain ink on paper, not worth a thought
Every day I hear of someone prosecuted for a fake offense
Even while officials actually know his innocence 
I see police goons beat up hijab-wearing women,
Would you accept if your daughter were in their place?
I know these words make one cry, I know
As a father, you won’t let your children in harm’s way  
So, consider this message to be from one of your children talking
We are suffering through our lives like dogs
Half the people live in humiliation and drink of misery’s cup

CHORUS (x2)

Mr. President, your people are dead
Many, today, on garbage fed
As you can obviously see what’s going on nationwide,
Miseries everywhere and people find nowhere to sleep
I speak on behalf of those who were wronged and ground under feet 

Mr. President, you told me to speak without fear,
I did, but I expect slaps in the face, let’s be clear
I see so many injustices, which is why I chose to address you
Even while many people warned me I’d face the death penalty
But, for how long must Tunisians live in illusions?
Where is freedom of expression? I saw nothing but repression
You called “Tunisia, the Green,” Mr. President, but as you can see
Today, it’s become just a desert terrain split in twain
They steal in broad daylight, confiscate property, and own the land
No need for me to name them, you know who they can be
A lot of money was pledged for projects and constructions
Schools, hospitals, buildings, and modifications
But, the sons of bitches stuffed it into their potbellies 
They pillaged and plundered and clung to their positions of power
I know people have in their hearts much to say but no way to convey 
If there were no injustices today, I would have had nothing to say

CHORUS (x2)

Okay…People’s voice…Général…2011
Same sate…same problems and suffering
Rayyes Lebled…Rayyes Lebled…Rayyes Lebled…

(x2)

CHORUS (x2)

1 comment for "Rap Rage Revolt"

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The secularists' hawkish onslaught on Ennahda is no surprise.They want to wallow in corruption and immorality in the name of liberalism and civilization.

hafedh wrote on August 18, 2011 at 10:05 AM

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