No one else manages to rile Tunisia's post-revolutionary government quite like rapper Klay BBJ.
- By Fadil AlirizaFadil Aliriza is a Visiting Senior Fellow for the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum. He has been working as a journalist and analyst focusing on Tunisia and Libya after the 2011 uprisings. Follow him on Twitter @FadilAliriza.
One day in November, Fawzia Ben Ahmed sits down in her living room in the hardscrabble Tunis neighborhood of Bab Jdid to watch a video of her son being detained by police. Ben Ahmed, a lady of small frame, is dressed simply and conservatively with two pieces of brown cloth covering her hair and torso, thick glasses covering her expressive eyes. Her 17-year-old daughter Hedia sits next to her on the sofa. Today is her mother’s birthday.
"Look, he’s smiling even as they bring him out," says Fawzia with pride. The television screen shows police pushing Ahmed Ben Ahmed, better known as rapper Klay BBJ, out of his dressing room at the cultural center in the beach town resort of Hammamet.
The trouble at the Hammamet concert late last August, started when Klay and fellow rapper Weld el 15 (real name Alaa al-Yacoubi) performed Weld’s song "Boulicia Kleb" ("The Police Are Dogs"). During an intermission soon after, the police killed the music, cut the spotlights, and stormed the two musicians’ dressing rooms. The police brought the rappers out, put them in a van, and proceeded to beat them on the way to the police station, according to Klay.
"The first person I saw, I also saw a slap coming from him at the same time. It was like he was saying: ‘Hi,’" says the 22-year-old Klay. The singer has an oval face, an underbite, and puffy lips. (In the photo above, Klay (right) poses with Weld el 15 upon arriving at court on Dec. 5.) His smoky and slightly nasal voice has a laid-back quality that almost hints of southern California (despite the fact that his favorite rappers are East-Coast legends Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls). He’s sitting on a couch in the hallway just outside the living room, sporting an Orlando Magic jersey, sweatpants, and granddad slippers. Even when he’s not rapping, he speaks lyrically.
"When they started beating us, Alaa and I were just looking at them and saying: ‘Why?’ And they replied: ‘Yeah, you’re insulting the police, and since 2011, no one has arrested you. Well, now you’re going to pay for everything,’" says Klay as his bleached-blonde girlfriend pets his back softly. "More than 30 police officers came in. The ones who didn’t beat me just threw in a punch."
In the other room, Klay’s mother chain smokes cigarettes and continues to watch a video from the night of her son’s detention. The video (below), made by journalist Emine Mtiraoui of the nongovernmental organization Nawaat, shows Weld el 15 in a nearby hospital at around six in the morning, bloodied, bruised, and beaten.
On the wall opposite Fawzia is a framed headshot of Klay, uncharacteristically dressed in a red polo shirt in front of a white background (a combination that matches Tunisia’s national colors). It was an official photograph taken after his first hearing before a judge. The image prompts the rapper’s mother to cite a few of his lyrics, all of which she knows by heart — including his characteristically filthy words and shocking imagery: "On my wedding night, I’ll fuck a cop instead of the bride." Daughter Hedia shyly declines to translate such words to their guest.
Fawzia’s husband, who died 13 years ago, came from the town of Sidi Bouzid. It was in this town that a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi, after a life of poverty and abuse from police and bureaucrats, set himself on fire in December 2010. His tragic act of defiance led to mass protests in Tunisia that overthrew former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, 2011 before sweeping across the region, inspiring what came to be known as the "Arab Spring."
"May God have mercy on his soul," says Fawzia in the silence that follows the invocation of Bouazizi’s name.
When Fawzia heard Klay had been arrested, she went to Hammamet by shared shuttle bus, arriving at four in the morning after her son had been released. Hedia had wanted to join her as well, but her mother wouldn’t let her. Fawzia came back to the capital later that morning with Klay’s friends, but Klay stayed in the hospital with the severely injured Weld el 15. Five days later, Fawzia learned from a Facebook post that her son had been sentenced to prison for 1 year and 9 months.
"We were shocked," Hedia says. "They shouldn’t punish people for singing, especially rap. It’s about social problems, media, and government."
"We were shocked," Hedia says. "They shouldn’t punish people for singing, especially rap. It’s about social problems, media, and government."
Klay’s rage resonates in a country where the promise of the revolution remains unfulfilled. Tunisians now have a freely elected parliament, but earning a decent livelihood remains a dream for many. The economy has tanked since the dictator’s ouster two years ago. In a poll released earlier this month, 79 percent of Tunisians said that their country is on the wrong track, while 60 percent described the poor state of the economy as their number one concern.
There’s something about rap’s searing disrespect for authority that spooks Tunisia’s government, and especially the police. Since the revolution, many other public figures, including political commentators, academics, and politicians, have openly criticized officialdom without serious blowback. Yet it’s Tunisia’s young rappers, many from poor neighborhoods, who have felt the brunt of the state’s anger.
"They’re afraid of what we’re saying," says Klay. His lyrics certainly aren’t for the faint of heart. He’s described government officials as "whores." He talks of his desire to take sexual revenge on the police. He’s vicious about the rumored homosexual orientation of the current prime minister. In what he says is his favorite song, "Hchinahoulna" ("We Fucked Ourselves"), Klay raps:
We kicked out a dictator
We elected a faggot
No one fucked us, brother —
We’ve fucked ourselves
He says these lyrics tell the "story of a hypocritical society that needs to be spoken to in that way." Klay says that he always loved hip-hop culture as a child, but he only started to make music in 2011, after the revolution. Asked why he raps, he says: "Because I’m a guy from the hood. I’ve been through a lot and rap is the only outlet for me to express the things that I’ve been through." He says that the police target rappers "so they don’t talk, so they don’t unveil what is happening, so that the people don’t revolt. Because we’re unveiling their scandals."
Tunisians are listening. Rappers distribute their music freely on YouTube, and some popular songs have racked up millions of views in a country of only ten million. In Tunisia, you can’t make a contract with YouTube to get paid, and the only way rappers can earn enough to get by is by performing at concerts. When money comes in, Klay usually spends it on the chance to record in a professional studio.
Few rappers are better suited to carry the messages of the neglected Tunisian poor and working class than Klay BBJ. He lost his fat
her at the age of nine and has always lived in the poor neighborhood of Bab Jdid. He grew up boxing, and his boxing tutor gave him the moniker Klay, after his hero Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali). Klay later added BBJ, which stands for Bab Jdid. When Klay isn’t cursing the establishment in his songs, he’s usually riffing on the pain of poverty: "The law is a tyrant. If you’re poor, you’re insulted" ("Letter of Apology"). "Bastards are loved, and real men are humiliated and insulted" ("Dog").
"Klay really is representative of the poor neighborhoods, the forgotten neighborhoods," says Thameur el-Mekki, a freelance journalist, free speech advocate, and well-known public figure who organized campaigns to get Klay BBJ and Weld el 15 out of prison on two separate occasions. "He’s coming from a family raised by his mother, a really exceptional woman. Everything that he’s saying isn’t just true, it really is coming from the bottom. And he’s doing what he’s doing because he’s facing police pressure. He’s faced that since he was born in his neighborhood."
Unlike Weld el 15, Klay was well-known before he got into trouble with the police. Even his lawyer, Ghazi Mrabet, drily notes that Klay is "artistically stronger" than his other client, Weld el 15.
"He has such a flow, such a lyricist talent, such a voice, and such energy when he performs. He’s a really talented rapper. Even his flow, it’s a crazy flow," says Mekki. "The way he cuts the words and just puts them on the punch line — it’s incredible work."
When Klay walks around his neighborhood, locals call out to him. He greets them all with smiles; some he embraces. He’s a bit of a local hero, "famous but poor," as Mekki says, and he’s inspired others in the neighborhood to start rapping.
"He’s not a guy stealing or doing any crime. He’s just a guy expressing himself with music, and what he’s doing is inspiring many youth to do the same thing and to not fall in criminality," says Mekki, adding that the very origins of rap were about offering a creative, positive outlet for the downtrodden. "He’s a very gentle guy. He’s really polite, except in his tracks because in his tracks he makes all the rage come out."
But these days, Klay’s mother and girlfriend often accompany him when he walks around the neighborhood — there’s no telling what the cops might do. After he was sentenced to prison and the police were looking for him, his mother says he was afraid to walk around alone. At the end of September, one month after he was sentenced to prison, he decided to face his fears, and, against the advice of his lawyer, he turned himself in and filed an appeal. "I have no reason to run away," says Klay. "I wanted to face this."
Klay: "I saw people going to prison who have done bad things, or sometimes for things they didn’t do. But me — I’ll go to prison for something that I’ve done, and I’m proud."
Mekki remembers visiting Klay two days before he was sentenced. "I told him: ‘Listen, it’s possible that you’re going to prison,’" says Mekki. "He told me: ‘I’ll go to prison. It doesn’t upset me. I saw people going to prison who have done bad things, or sometimes for things they didn’t do. But me — I’ll go to prison for something that I’ve done, and I’m proud. I accept the consequences of what I’ve done.’"
But Mrabet, Klay’s lawyer, who regularly defends rappers and journalists, was worried because of a conversation he had with the judge. Mrabet believed that the man had political motives for upholding the official charge of insulting government officials.
"When I saw [the judge] he said: ‘You’re a lawyer, I’m a magistrate — how can we allow artists to insult the police?’" recalls Mrabet. The judge continued: "’If we let them be, this country will head towards disaster. You know that ours is a conservative society. We’re an Arab Islamic state.’"
Despite his appeal, Klay was ultimately sentenced to six months. He was taken to prison straight from the courtroom. After a few days in relatively bearable confinement, Klay was suddenly transferred to Mornaguia Prison, a notoriously harsh detention site. There he found himself in a room with 150 other prisoners, where, according to Mrabet, "the conditions were filth; they were sleeping on the ground." When Mrabet threatened to leak information about Klay’s transfer to the media, the prison director allowed Klay to be moved to a smaller room.
"Everyday the prisoners would sing my songs. We freestyled there from day to night," says Klay. "And the rhythm? We used the chairs. The beats were really old school." During his imprisonment, Fawzia took a bus to the prison three days a week to try to see her son and give him food and clothes. She was only allowed to see him once.
But pressure was building. In early September, Human Rights Watch issued a press release condemning the crackdown on Weld el 15 and Klay BBJ.
"Sending artists, journalists, and bloggers to prison for critical words and images is hardly worthy of the new Tunisia," said Joe Stork, the group’s acting Middle East and North Africa director. "Authorities should be getting rid of these laws from the old, repressive era instead of using them to silence critics."
Meanwhile, Mekki and his Committee to Protect Rappers, which had rallied to free Weld el 15 the first time he was sentenced to prison, started working again to free Klay by organizing public demonstrations, handing out "Free Klay BBJ" stickers, and working to raise the media profile of the case. But Mekki noticed that he was having a harder time putting pressure on the authorities in fall 2013 than earlier in the summer, when the group had mobilized to free Weld el 15 from an earlier sentence. One factor in the hardening of the political climate was the assassination of opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi in July, apparently by Islamist militants. It was the second killing of a major opposition figure in six months.
Klay was finally released on Oct. 17. "As I was leaving prison, I understood that the people there actually like me, these men who are called criminals and bums," says Klay. "When I was leaving they had tears in their eyes."
Meanwhile, the political mood in the country continues to darken. The resurgence of old-regime figures within the bureaucracy means that grassroots activists are finding it tougher to fight for reform. Deadlock among Tunisia’s political leaders has created a deep pessimism, while terrorist attacks against security forces have rallied support behind Tunisia’s strongest institutions, the Interior Ministry and the police.
"The police force is repressive, and has no respect for human rights. On the other hand, the police are the target of terrorist attacks by jihadists," says Mekki. "As a consequence, the police actually benefit from popular support. Even political parties that are sitting at the negotiating table — participating in the national dialogue, sharing a cake — none of them wants to create problems with the police because each political party wants to be influential in the new government configuration."
This fear of falling on the wrong side of the Interior Ministry is palpable. When Weld el 15 was first sentenced to two years in prison, the Ministry of Culture issued a press release on its Facebook page that criticized the sentence and proclaimed its support for artists’ rights. A few months later i
n August, when the police detained Klay BBJ at a Ministry of Culture venue, the ministry stayed silent.
Mekki, like many Tunisians, blames the government for failing to reform a police force that displays "the old reflexes of the dictatorship." "There is nothing they wouldn’t do," Hamzaoui Med Amine, another rapper who has collaborated extensively with Klay BBJ, says of the police. "Tunisia is a big prison, the biggest in Africa."
"Tunisia is a big prison, the biggest in Africa."
Klay says the police continue to watch him closely, and he says he’s worried about performing concerts. He and his lawyer believe the police will arrest him again if he performs in public. While he’s recorded one song since his release from prison, he has had some trouble finding inspiration. "I have an issue with writing after everything that I’ve seen. I sometimes think, how can I do it?" he says.
For now, Klay is keeping a low profile. For his mother’s birthday, Klay says the family will celebrate with rap. He moves to his bedroom and, between answering questions about himself, freestyles, gyrates, and gestures to his girlfriend, who dances in front of him and sings chorus. The internet is slow, and Klay’s songs on YouTube can’t keep up. He watches videos of his neighborhood friends. One clip (which Klay describes as showing Tunisian Salafis as they "really are") features a drunken body-builder grabbing a local Salafi and draping an arm around his neck.
"We fucked ourselves, didn’t we," the bodybuilder asks the Salafi, a reference to Klay’s anthem. The Salafi nods quietly, nervously.
"Fuck your police; fuck your government; we’re only afraid of God," the bodybuilder tells the camera. They’re phrases commonly heard in the run-up to Tunisia’s revolution.
Klay hopes that one day he might be able to find lighter subjects to rap about. He doesn’t want to be this angry forever. "If we get a decent government one day, we won’t have any reason to attack it or clash with it anymore," Klay says. "That’s when we’ll start singing about other things. We’ll start talking about how the weather is nice and we’ve got lots of girls and we’ve got so much money that we don’t know where to put it." As Klay well knows, however, in today’s Tunisia, that dream is still a long way off.