The Middle East Channel

Khaled and the myth of rai

Cheb Khaled, the Algerian rai singer who is probably the best-known Arabic singer on the planet, was selected this summer as one of NPR’s 50 Great Voices. Banning Eyre, a regular commentator on World Music on NPR and producer for Afropop Worldwide who has worked tirelessly to promote music from Africa, including the Maghreb, introduced ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Cheb Khaled, the Algerian rai singer who is probably the best-known Arabic singer on the planet, was selected this summer as one of NPR’s 50 Great Voices. Banning Eyre, a regular commentator on World Music on NPR and producer for Afropop Worldwide who has worked tirelessly to promote music from Africa, including the Maghreb, introduced Khaled to the NPR audience. Unfortunately, his introduction of Khaled repeated several unfortunate and misleading myths about rai music. Eyre presents a picture of an exceptional artist who favors tolerance and peace, and whose courageous positions have angered many Muslims and forced him to take refuge in the West. Eyre depicts Khaled as well as a kind of “bad boy,” in the image of a U.S. rock’n’roller. Khaled, from “a land [Algeria] torn apart by intolerance and violence,” says Eyre, “stood out as an artist who embraced openness and peace.” The real story of Khaled is more interesting, one rooted in Algerian politics and in its large and vibrant musical scene.  

Khaled emerged from a large and vibrant music scene in Oran (in Arabic, Wahran). The lyrics of his songs came from a collective pool, and were no different in content than those sung by other rai artists. The Oran scene, moreover, produced many talented singers, such as Chaba Fadela, Cheb Sahraoui, Chaba Zahouania, Cheikha Rimitti, Cheb Mami, Houari Benchenet, Cheb Hamid, and Messaoud Bellemou, to name only a few. In fact, “La Camel”, the very song aired to demonstrate Khaled’s exceptionalism (from Khaled’s 1987 album Kutché), was originally recorded and made famous by Cheikha Rimitti.

Eyre reports that “Khaled’s directness [about women and drinking alcohol] and his force-of-nature voice…didn’t sit so well with the growing number of Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria…and his songs were consequently banned from state radio.” But it was not the opposition of “fundamentalists” that kept rai music (not just Khaled’s) off of Algerian state radio. It was rather the Algerian (secular) regime’s cultural policies. The state promoted classical Arabic culture and language and denied Algeria’s multi-cultural nature. Expressive culture in Arabic dialect or Berber was therefore mostly excluded from the state-controlled media. Rai is sung in the distinctive colloquial Arabic of Wahran, which is not only very different from “classical” or literary Arabic but is also full of borrowings from Spanish, French and Berber.

This official national-cultural politics, which was particularly severe during the regime of Houari Boumediene (1965-1978), began to loosen during Chadly Benjadid’s regime (1979-1992). In his 1998 autobiography, “Derrière la sourire,” Khaled recounts how he managed to break the official embargo in the early 1980s. He was invited to appear on a television show in Algiers, which he knew couldn’t be censored because it was to be broadcast live. Khaled was warned ahead of time: no vulgarities, no sex. So he sang three songs: the first, about the Prophet Muhammad; the second, a “poetic” song, one that was artistically acceptable; and the third, about alcohol and women. (Such a mixture was typical of the repertoire Khaled performed at concerts, weddings, and in cabarets.)

Cheb Khaled emerged as a national, as opposed to a regional, star in the mid-1980s. His famous performance at the state-sponsored Festival de la Jeunesse pour la Fête Nationale, held in Algiers in July 1985, was a key moment in his rise to national fame. Khaled, and other rai stars, came to play at this festival due to the efforts of the “liberal” wing of the Algerian regime — and particularly to Lieutenant-Colonel Hosni Snoussi, director of the state-supported arts and culture organization, Office Riadh el Feth in Algiers, who had taken Cheb Khaled under his wing. The regime’s liberal wing became interested in promoting rai in the wake of a spate of unrest that erupted during the early 1980s. Most notably, the 1980 riots in Tizi Ouzou, Kabylia (the “Berber Spring”); the 1985 riots in Algiers, which broke out following rumors that housing being built for the poor would be allocated to state bureaucrats; and the 1986 student riots in Constantine that resulted in the deaths of four protesters and spread to other cities. Young Algerians played a leading role in all these protests. The liberal wing of the regime determined that, to deter further unrest, the state should focus on promoting the interests of youth and on developing the market economy. Rai was very popular with Algerian youth, and so the “liberals” determined that promoting it was to be an important element of these reform efforts. It was changes in state policy toward rai, pushed by Snoussi, that got Khaled and other rai stars onto the stage in Algiers in 1985.

It is also not quite right that “In 1989, it became dangerous for Khaled to stay in Algeria, where artists and intellectuals were being killed by fundamentalists. He fled to safety in France.” In fact, no Algerian rai stars or intellectuals took refuge in France before 1992. They only did so after civil war broke out in Algeria and Islamist militants of the GIA (the Armed Islamic Groups) began to target artists in the mid-1990s. But more importantly, Khaled did not “flee” to France. He went to France with the aim of expanding his audience outside of Algeria. He went, moreover, with the backing of liberal elements of the Algerian regime as well as cultural brokers in the French government of Socialist President François Miterrand. The move was an entrepreneurial venture, not an act of seeking refuge. (Perhaps it was the example of Cheb Mami, the first rai star to make the move to France, in 1985, that inspired Khaled.)

Khaled’s first performance in France was at the rai festival at Bobigny in January, 1986. The event was organized, according to Khaled, by Colonel Snoussi and Martin Meissonnier, an influential French music producer and former journalist for the liberal-left daily “Liberation.” Snoussi and Meissonnier met at the Festival de la Jeunesse in Algiers in 1985. Together, they convinced France’s Minister of Culture Jack Lang that it was in the French government’s interest to assist in the export of rai from Algeria to France. Khaled opened his set at Bobigny with a religious song, “Sallou ‘ala al-Nabi” (Blessings on the Prophet). This is also how he typically opened concerts in Algeria. This is important to underscore because standard accounts of rai music (like Eyre’s) typically give the impression that there is a kind of inherent antagonism between rai artists and Islam.

Khaled doing Sallou ‘ala al-Nabi live in Algiers in 1987.

The French government had a stake in trying to control and channel the energies of the rai scene. The mid-1980s was a time of exceptional grassroots political mobilization on the part of young Beurs, French citizens and residents of Arab background, and expressive culture was an essential component of this movement. Rai music was very popular among young Beurs and was performed and broadcast at the rallies and multi-cultural concerts organized by SOS Racisme, France’s leading anti-racist group of the time. Because rai was a badge of cultural pride for young Beurs, the French state determined that its interests lay in promoting North African Arab culture in France, rather than being an antagonist. Not just Khaled, but an array of top Algerian rai artists performed at Bobigny in 1986. Clearly the tab for transporting and putting up these stars was an expensive proposition for the French government. Moreover, because Khaled had been avoiding his military service, Col. Snoussi had to intervene with the
Algerian military authorities in order to secure him a passport to travel to France.

Khaled states that when he returned to Algeria from France, Snoussi informed him that he had arranged for him to record an album in France. He told Khaled that he was going to France just to sing and that he should remain silent about the situation in Algeria, about the role of the military and censorship, and so on. So Khaled’s 1988 album Kutché was made at Snoussi’s initiative, and (apparently) with financial support from the Algerian government. The album was a collaboration between Khaled and Algerian jazz musician Safy Boutella (it is credited to both), produced by Meissonnier, and released on Pomme Music-Sony, a major French label. While Kutché was not a big seller, it established Khaled’s characteristic “fusion” sound, and it was an important step for Khaled in establishing his reputation in France. Shortly thereafter Khaled settled in France, in the city of Marseille.

That liberal elements of the Algerian state played a major role in initiating and underwriting the process whereby rai music became known around the world, and whereby Khaled became the world’s best-known Arab singer, deserves to be much more widely known. (Government sponsorship and subsidies for rai came to an end, after the bloody riots of October 1988 and the state’s launching of a movement toward reform and democratization.) It is remarkable success story, with significant political and cultural implications, in both France and Algeria. Col. Snoussi and his liberal associates deserve credit, as do key French actors like Martin Meissonier and Jack Lang.

Khaled’s politics are also more complicated than they appear in the NPR report, which makes it appear as if his entire message is in opposition to “Islamic fundamentalism.” Khaled usually avoids making overt political statements, but he has, on occasion, spoken out about Palestine. In an interview in January 2002 with Sean Barlow of Afrop Worldwide, Khaled stated that “to end [terrorism], we need to fix the problems, the source of the big problem. For me, what is at the base of this whole thing is the history of the Palestinians. George Bush has said we’re going to stop terrorism. This is the end. The end? Not yet. There are still people killing children in Algeria, in Asia, in Africa. There are still people killing Palestinian children. Palestinians have lived in war for 40 years. That means there are people who were born and died in war. They have the right to profit from life like me, like you, like everyone.”

Khaled met some criticism after recording the John Lennon song “Imagine” with Israeli artist Noa (for the European release of his 1999 album Kenza) and after performing the song with Noa at a “peace” concert called “Time for Life” in Rome in May, 2002. Khaled subsequently toured the Middle East with Palestinian-American ‘ud and violin maestro Simon Shaheen and Egyptian shaabi singer Hakim. In Lebanon and Jordan he encountered campaigns to boycott his concert, on the grounds that he had engaged in “normalization” with Israel by performing with an Israeli artist and in the presence of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Khaled responded that Palestinian singer Nabil Khouri had also performed at the concert and that Yasir Arafat’s adviser Mohammed Rashid was in attendance. The Lebanon and Jordan concerts were well-attended, despite the protests. Khaled also recorded with the Algerian Jewish pianist Maurice El Medioni on his 2004 album Ya-Rayi, but I’m not aware that any criticism was leveled against him for working with Medioni or with U.S. musicians.

Khaled has also expressed objections to French racism. But even more than his words are his tireless efforts to bring Arab Maghrebi culture into the mainstream of French culture. This has done a great deal to counter anti-Arab racist sentiment in France and to create a legitimate cultural space for Arabs in France. It makes more sense to speak of Khaled as a European artist who has done much to promote Arab culture in the West, rather than to frame him as an Algerian artist, the thrust of whose work is against Islamic intolerance.

NPR’s series did a real service by drawing American attention to Algeria’s rai music and to the career of Cheb Khaled. The real origins of his career, and his place within a wider political and cultural context, would make for an even more gripping story — and would help further an understanding of the deep complexities of today’s Arab musical scene.  

Ted Swedenburg is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas and a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report.

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