In this interview, Mouad Belghouate, who also goes by El-Haqed, discusses his work as both a rapper and activist in the Febraury 20th Movement in Morocco. Samia Errazouki asks Mouad to reflect on his time in prison, his relationship with other prisoners, and the growth of the rap industry in Morocco.
Please find the English transcript of the interview below the player, where you can listen to the interview in Arabic.
The interview includes four parts that you can click on separately.
Mouad Belghouate (El-Haqed) is a Moroccan rapper and activist involved with the February 20th Movement. From Casablanca, Mouad began writing and performing his songs during protests starting in 2011, which grew popular among members of the February 20th Movement. His songs’ critical tone toward the Moroccan government have landed him in prison three separate times within the past three years. Despite the repression he has faced, Mouad has continued his work as a rapper and is currently working on a forthcoming album.
مغني راب وناشط مغربي منخرط في حركة ٢٠ فبراير. في الدار البيضاء بدأ معاد تأليف وأداء أغانيه أثناء الاحتجاجات التي بدأت في ٢٠١١، والتي صارت مشهورة بين أعضاء حركة ٢٠ فبراير. إن النبرة النقدية لأغانيه إزاء الحكومة المغربية قادته إلى السجن ثلاث مرات في الأعوام الثلاثة الماضية. ورغم القمع الذي تعرض له، واصل معاد عمله كمغني راب ويعمل حالياً على إنتاج ألبوم
Transcribed into English by Samia Errazzouki
Samia Errazzouki (SE): Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. To begin, can you introduce yourself and how you began in your struggle and activism, either in 2011 or before?
Mouad Belghouate (MB): Where should I begin? My name is Mouad Belghouate and I chose El-Haqed as my rap name. I began in 2004-2005, and in the beginning, it started off normal, like anyone else. I started writing about the street and the things that were going on there. After some time, I began maturing and thinking more, then I realized that what was happening was something different. We took rap as a weapon to express our issues and our life experiences.
SE: And why did you choose the name El-Haqed [The Indignant]?
MB: I did not choose the name El-Haqed, it came to me as a coincidence and it was a pleasant surprise. It is not that I am haqed [indignant] at people or anything. I am haqed [indignant] at the situation. And there are a lot of people who are haqdeen [indignant] at the situation. The name includes rebellion and revolution; you are rebelling against the situation.
SE: How was your relationship with the 20 February Movement during the beginning of the protests?
MB: Before there was a 20 February Movement, discussions were already happening on Facebook, including a lot of guys and girls. We used to talk a lot and there were pages about oppression in Morocco, and these sorts of things. After what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, there were some discussions about why not us too? Why not go to the streets as well? And that was it. That day, 20 February 2011, was chosen and I was very happy that there was a chance that change could happen in Morocco. But nothing happened. The situation actually got worse. I went out with everyone else to say that the situation should not remain like this and we need something better.
SE: And, of course, we know that you were imprisoned three times in the past three years, the first time in 2011, right?
MB: 2011, yes.
SE: Can you talk a little about the context of this time, and why they were targeting you then, in 2012, and recently, this year?
MB: What can I say? There were a lot of reasons why they decided to imprison me, mainly because they thought they could silence me and everything. But, I was very active with the 20 February Movement. I would listen to people’s accounts, sing songs during protests, and they [the authorities] did not like the songs. The songs talked about things that no rap songs ever discussed, and in a way that people could understand.
SE: Can you tell us a bit about the history of rap in Morocco? Describe to us how the rap movement began, maybe in the 1990s with 3awd Lil and how they also used to sing about politics and the socioeconomic situation.
MB: Yes, rap began in Morocco during the beginning of the 1990s. Some guys started it in Sale. It used to be considered something bizarre at that time, from what people say about it now. I began rapping in 2004 and it used to be just between us friends on the streets. And then after 2000, the state realized that the topics being discussed in rap were threatening to the regime’s hold on power. The state started organizing festivals and then rap was not longer the true rap that it was supposed to be. It should not have constraints or boundaries. Rap began to be used for the state’s benefit. Those people, 3awd Lil, that you mentioned, at one point they went out and people did not know who they were. Their names were not shown. They talked about topics that were taboo and used vulgar language; that was how rap initially was. After awhile, a new kind of rap began appearing that expressed the realities of daily life in Morocco and had no limits. And there still exists this sort of genre.
SE: What are the ways and tools you use to reach people with your music, aside from social media, like Facebook?
MB: Mostly just the internet. For me, I only use the internet, like Youtube and Facebook. That is pretty much it. Radio is not option. The state cannot broadcast our music on the radio or television but that is good because you can retain your independence. If you want to go on the radio or television in Morocco, you have to get rid of a lot of things. Most of the artists that go on the radio or television, they do this song or that song according to demand. They are approached to put together a song like this or that, and promised that it will go on the radio.
SE: Before you were arrested this year, you tried to perform songs from your new album in Casablanca and authorities blocked it from happening. Right? This is what happened?
MB: Yes, there was going to be a concert there and in another city, but the police blocked it and a lot of police showed up. You cannot, you cannot do anything in this country.
SE: And how did they intervene? We know there was this date, and reports on Twitter and Facebook were mentioning how the police were there and they chased people out.
MB: There was going to be a concert at this library in Derb Soultan, and we set up a time to meet there. There was a man signing books about political prisoners in Morocco and the library was given to us to hold this conference. Right before we were going to have this conference, by about thirty minutes, we found that police surrounded the place. The police were chasing people and there were a lot of police. They forced the library owner to close the place and after that, the prohibition continued. I was prohibited from singing in Fez. I was prohibited from singing in Sefrou. They wait until after the organizers get permission and get in touch with me to come perform, and then they prohibit it from taking place.
SE: You said you started in 2004, and we know that after you were first arrested in 2011, more people started hearing about you and your music. How was your connection with your listeners changed? Have you gained more listeners or less?
MB: Wherever I go, especially recently, wherever I go in any place or city, I meet people who said they have listened to my music. Each person has their own way of expressing themselves. Some people tell me what I am doing is good and “you are speaking for us,” like that. The door got wider after I was arrested. Now a lot of people in Morocco are following my music. More people are listening now.
SE: If we can talk about the topic of prison and how you ended up getting arrested, how was the situation? I cannot imagine how daily life was like, could you describe what happens from when you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night?
MB: Prison in Morocco is as if they take you like an animal, they put you in a room, you have nothing to do aside from eating and sleeping. You have a television that has their programs.
SE: State media programs?
MB: Yes state programs. The television has state media channels, either you bring it into your cell or you buy it—a small television. The situation in Morocco is fucked up. But I try to push through, there is nothing else to do. There is nothing good there [the prisons]. It is crammed, there are so many people. You have to bring in food from the outside and they do not always let you bring in food from the outside. The prison’s food is dirty. You see how you live with that stuff. But despite all of that, it is fine. I try to work out, read the books there, that sort of thing.
SE: They let you read books inside there?
MB: They let you read books, it is your right to read them.
SE: But do they decide what books you are or are not allowed to read? Or can you read any book?
MB: You can bring in any book.
SE: And how was your relationship with the prison authorities?
MB: What can I say? Sometimes I meet prison workers who have my songs memorized.
SE: [laughs] And how do you react to that?
MB: I do not know, I see them also as victims in this country. You find some of them cannot stand the situation, they tell you “We cannot stand this. It is just a piece of bread that keeps us going.” And there was the director [of the prison], whom I had a bad relationship with because he did not give all the prisoners their rights. I saw some workers who seemed decent, they did not accept bribes, for example, and I had a good relationship with them. We could talk and debate with one another.
SE: And what about your relationship with the other prisoners?
MB: It was as if they placed a singer in the middle of his fans. Everyone there listened to El-Haqed and everyone treated me well. Everyone there respects me to the point that I get shy—it is weird.
SE: Do you stay in touch with them after you get out?
MB: Yeah I still have ties with a lot of guys who are good and who should not be in prison. Our thinking and laws are a bit bad, if someone makes just a small mistake, they put him in prison with criminals. And I still have ties with a lot of guys there. There are some guys who we still send books to in prison for this small library there. During the second time I went to prison I [unclear 3:53]. I still have ties with some guys; I send them books, they read them, and then send them back to me and then I send them other books, they read them, then send them back as well. There are some I still talk to, there are some who got out of prison or others who are still there.
SE: I wanted to ask you—you know, of course, you are not the only one involved with the 20 February Movement who has been arrested. Recently, the rapper Mr. Crazy was arrested. Can you talk a little bit about what happened to him and his story?
MB: First of all, there are a lot of political prisoners in Morocco and there are a lot of journalist follow-ups on this. Recently, in rap, they imprisoned a boy named Mr. Crazy. Mr. Crazy is a boy who is still young, he is seventeen years old and he just started rapping about a year ago. He sang songs that described the situation in his own style, even though we may or may not agree with him. With the stupidity of the Moroccan state and authorities and the ways in which they treat the youth, they arrested him and accused him of plagiarizing the national anthem, insulting the police, and using vulgar language when all of this happens on the television. He did not plagiarize the national anthem, he criticized the national anthem. That is what happened and he was imprisoned after. There are others who also use vulgar language and did much less than what Mr. Crazy did, but they did not get arrested because they have a good relationship with the state. And then he was sentenced to three months in prison and will be released on 14 November.
SE: Yeah this is…
MB: But I think there is some good. They are wrong when they think that if they put him in prison, he will be silenced but I think he will get more famous and make more contributions to rap. Because when you go to prison, you sit by yourself and you start thinking more, come up with new songs while you are in that place that gathers all of society. You find those marginalized in society next to you. They [the state] does not even realize that what they are doing is wrong.
SE: Yeah it seems that this happens not just with rappers, but also activists who get arrested. But do you feel that your position has changed, not just in Morocco, but in North Africa and the Middle East? More people know you now, is there some sort of solidarity among Arab rappers outside of Morocco?
MB: Solidarity came mostly from Europe and this rapper in the United States. There were a lot of guys in France who got together and produced a song calling for my release. There were other singers in Europe, whose origins are mostly Maghrebi, who expressed their solidarity with me. When it came to the Arabs, like in North Africa, I am not sure, nothing reached me. There were a few rappers who posted things on Facebook, for example. But in terms of music or anything, I am not aware of anything.
SE: Do you think that, in general, there is some misunderstanding between activists in the Middle East and the Maghreb, like those in Egypt or the Gulf, especially when it comes to rap?
MB: The problem is division. We have not done anything that would bring us all together in one setting, we have not had the opportunity to have conversations with one another, even though rap began in North Africa and the Middle East in the 1990s. Those who came before us in rap had, for example, in Europe, artistic residencies that would gather artists in a lot of places. That is when people first started thinking about something like this, to gather rappers from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and to participate in something that is shared. And to be with one another, especially for those that share the same ideas because the only weapon we have is art. If there is some sort of relationship between us, if something happens to one of us, then the others can speak out and inform others and the rest of the world.
SE: Do you have hope that this sort of solidarity between rappers in the region could happen?
MB: I think that the solidarity is there, it just has yet to materialize. Any rapper who believes in rap, when he sees that someone got arrested because of a song, they are going to react to say that this is not right. But because folks do not know each other or have real relationships, like we have not met one another. There are some things, like we have yet to meet as youth of the Maghreb or the Levant, for example, in order to get to know one another and talk.
SE: And now that you have gotten out of prison, your case has finished, right?
MB: No it has not been concluded yet, I have to appear in court on 3 November.
SE: Why is that?
MB: The public prosecution can still [unclear] and I see it as something like they can still arrest you if you do not tone it down.
SE: And what are the projects that you are currently working on?
MB: The projects that I am working on? There is an album that I am working on and still needs work. I am trying to work on something now so I can come up with something awesome. And I am working on music, writing a bit, I am relaxing. And I am…
SE: Good, you deserve it.
MB: [laughs] And I am thinking about going finishing school. That is it.
SE: A nice visit to the hammam, maybe Moulay Ya’acoub.
MB: A massage, a massage.
SE: And maybe, last question, if you can say there is one rapper who influenced you, who is it? Or who is your favorite rapper or rap group?
MB: I do not know, I do not have someone who influenced me or something. I did not listen to rap a lot, it was not my world. At one point in my house, music was not allowed. After some time, I started listening to some music. And when I started listening to rap in Morocco, I did not like it. I felt that we needed another rap, this was not the rap of Morocco. And so I started writing. I was against the idea that I should imitate. Like now, in Morocco, there are a lot of rap genres, but all of that rap is coming from the United States, underground, hardcore. We tried to establish our own scene here in Morocco. We called it prison rap because we consider ourselves living in a big prison. And that is pretty much it.
SE: Ok, last last question. How do you respond to the claims people make that rap is not something Moroccan and that those who sing rap are trying to imitate. We hear a lot of people in Morocco who say this sort of thing. How do you respond to this?
MB: Humanity can get into anything. I could be in Japan and if I want to sing sha’abi I will sing it if I like it. Cultures change, we exchange. A lot of people listen to rap in Morocco. A lot of the youth in Morocco will likely have some rap in their phone or mp3 players. Rap, raï, sha’abi; it [rap] became something that competes with raï and sha’abi in Morocco. Because it also uses our darija [Moroccan colloquial dialect] and it is not something in a foreign language.
SE: Thank you very much Mouad.
MB: No worries.
SE: Take care, stay in touch!