The Middle East Channel

Rapping the revolution

Late last month, I was traveling through the south of Tunisia reporting a story for Foreign Policy about the travails of the people who made the revolution. I met with activists, workers, members of the Islamist al-Nahda Party and of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), and dozens of ordinary Tunisians idling away the hours on ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Late last month, I was traveling through the south of Tunisia reporting a story for Foreign Policy about the travails of the people who made the revolution. I met with activists, workers, members of the Islamist al-Nahda Party and of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), and dozens of ordinary Tunisians idling away the hours on the backstreets of ghost towns. But it was only after midnight in a drowsy cafe that I found myself face-to-face with the young man whose fiery rap is credited as the soundtrack of the revolution. 

"I’m a general, I start war," the soft-spoken 21-year-old Tunisian rap star Hamada Ben Amor, better known as El General, tells me. He explains how he was handcuffed to a chair for three days of intense interrogation at the personal behest of Ben Ali.

"Yo, is that your mom calling?" nudged his friend and fellow rapper Guito’N. El General’s tough cover is quickly blown. "I’m a good boy," he says softly. "But I’m still a general. And an even better rapper."

El General has become something like the hoodied bard of the Arab Spring. His invective "Rais Lebled," released on November 7 to "celebrate" the anniversary of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s succession to power, is credited with galvanizing Tunisia’s youth to put an end to 23 years of tight-fisted rule (his battle cry was later adopted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in Bahrain). And as Tunisia’s uprisings gathered momentum in December, El General recorded another stick of dynamite called "Tounes Bladna" (Tunisia, Our Country) that brought 30 plain-clothes officers to his home at 5 a.m. on January 6, dragging him off to the Ministry of Interior in Tunis.

As hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets across the region to fight against decades of despotic rule under sclerotic regimes, El General is just one in an emerging cadre of wordsmiths who’ve produced impassioned revolution soundtracks. Just months before dropping the incendiary beats that landed him a spot on TIME magazine’s 2011 Most Influential People list, the soft-spoken rapper from the sleepy port city of Sfax, south of Tunis, was almost completely off the rap radar, far from inexhaustible rap hubs in France and Morocco.

There is nothing new about Arab hip-hop. Scholars point to its nexus in Moroccan youth political dissent manifested in the vibrant cultural movement known as Nayda, which means "get up on your feet," or "wake up" in Darija, the Arab dialect spoken in the Maghreb. Dissident rappers like H-Kayne and Donn Bigg, who called on Moroccans back in 2007 to "quit fear," captured youth while rhyming about ubiquitous corruption and misery in Moroccan suburbs. Next-door in Algeria, famous (and banned) rapper Rabah started rapping during the civil war in 1994 with his group Le Micro Brise le Silence (LBS), "The Microphone Breaks the Silence." Palestine’s Da Arab MCs (DAM) has produced a stream of powerfully political rap since their 1998 debut.

Nor was rap the only musical expression of the revolution. The revolution’s greater soundtrack would certainly include Egyptian poetry in song: "Egyptian Intifada," the lyrics written by the poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheik Imam; "Sout Al Horeya" (The Voice of Freedom); the rock anthem to the revolution by Amir Eid, Hany Adel and Sherif Mostafa; and Egyptian folk act El Tanboura filmed in Tahrir.

But there is no denying the outpour of creative, intensely politicized hip-hop that has accompanied the Arab uprisings. In Egypt, Adel Eissa, known as "A-Rush" from Cairo’s group "Arabian Knightz," recorded a song on the night of January 27 called "Rebel," which he quickly released on Facebook and MediaFire. Mohamed El-Deeb, known as MC Deeb, dropped a track ‘Masrah Deeb’ on February 3 in the heat of the Tahrir uprisings. #Jan25, a song spearheaded by titans of the genre Syrian-American Omar Offendum (Omar Chakaki) and Iraqi-Canadian The Narcicyst (Yassin Alsalman) generated hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube. Over in Libya, Milad Faraway, a 20-year-old Libyan who created the rap group Music Masters with another young friend in 2010 tells Qaddafi to leave in "Youth of the Revolution;" in a track titled "17 February" by the group "Revolution Beat" (formerly called "Street Beat," though their songs — due to fear of punishment — never did hit the streets) tells Qaddafi the fear barrier is broken.

"Arab rap is finally on the map," says Amor. "And we’re blowing up the world."

That’s how I ended up taking a break from the Islamists, labor activists and Facebook page administrators to hang out with El General for a midnight chat in a Sfax café, where he and his baby-faced posse chugged back espressos and called for a second revolution, as Celine Dion’s Greatest Hits bellowed on the patio.

Lauren E. Bohn: Why did you start rapping?

Hamada Ben Amor: I began rapping when I was 18. I feel like I’m gifted at this. It’s the only thing in life I can do perfectly. Obviously, my first song was about Ben Ali. I wanted to tell Ben Ali that he needed to fight corruption — to fight all the thieves here in Tunisia. But then I realized he was the biggest thief of them all.

Corruption was everywhere here. And it still is everywhere. You could see it everyday. If you had money, you could do anything. Pay for whatever you want. The mafia family controlled everything. It was pure dictatorship. We were guests in our own country. We weren’t landlords. The suffering of the people made me speak. And I chose rap to do this.

Clearly, it wasn’t easy for me. When I wanted to have concerts, or if I wanted to sing somewhere and I’d be on the list to perform, the government would be like, "No, he has a bad name." I was prohibited from doing anything. No CDs, no anything. So I just put everything on Facebook. Friends edited my videos. It was very simple.

Things got really tense in November. To "celebrate" the 23rd anniversary of Ben Ali’s presidency, I recorded "Rais Lebled" [a twist on Rais el-Bled — "President of the Republic"]. I put it on Facebook that day and my fan page was blocked. My mobile phone was bugged. I’d be in a café with friends and see political agents following me.

After Bouazizi burned himself, I was raged. I wrote a new song, "Tounes Bladna" (Tunisia Our Country) on December 22. I had to speak directly and clearly about everything.

Soon after, security came to my home. They were all around the house. My father opened the door and they just entered and respected nothing in my home. I was just wearing my boxers (laughs). This was a turning point in my life and in my career. In one day, I became so famous.

But fame didn’t change me. I’m ready to sacrifice my life for what I’m thinking, for the ideas I’m transmitting. I see one thing. Only the truth.

LB: Who inspires you musically?

HBA: I’m mainly inspired by two revolutionary rappers: Lotfi Double Kanon in Algeria, and in the west, Tupac Shukar. Tupac raged against the police. That’s what I did. But I’m not following blindly the models of these rappers. For example, I don’t use bad words in my songs. I’m just serving my art.

LB: How do you deal with the fame?

HBA: Sometimes it’s annoying. I mean, I started the music before Bouazizi blew himself up. I started my first atomic bomb about a month before. I just say thank you to the people for listening to the truth. I’m not in this for the money. I’m making money, Alhamdulillah, but that’s not the main reason.

And when it all gets too busy, I escape to the mountains or desert with my girlfriend.

LB: Why "El General"?

HBA: (Friends laugh and he looks down shyly.) A general’s a leader. You know, like the head of the army. When you hear it…it’s strong, a little scary. It reminds you of war, confrontation, suffering. It’s generally linked to politics and I wanted to speak about political issues. It’s strong, right?

LB: What do you make of the current situation in Tunisia?

HBA: The Tunisian revolution can be explained in one sentence: Ben Ali left. But did anyone else? There’s a shadow government. We don’t know who these people are running the country now.

I recently made a song, which I explain, the reality of all the leaders and the people who stole the revolution from the young people. Caid-Essebsi, the prime minister — I’m against him. He has a long history and friendship with Ben Ali. He shared with Bourguiba the same way of thinking. And he’s so old. How can an 85-year-old make policy change during a revolution that young people made?

Nothing has changed. All young people are jobless. The only changes now? OK, they opened YouTube and some pornographic sites (laughs).

I’m very concerned about the Tunisian destiny. I want it to change as soon as possible. I was concerned by Tunisia before, now, and in the future.

LB: So, what now? What happens next?

HBA: The next revolution. We need a new revolution. We will protest again, we will take to the streets if we do not see change. There’s no magic button to press and start a new revolution, but it’s a national issue.

I know my role is limited singing rap. But I’m ready to go to the streets and organize protests. And make people understand how dangerous the Tunisian situation is right now. I need support from scientists, politicians, educators. Everyone. We need massive participation.

I was invited to the American embassy in Tunis to arrange a meeting with the Essebsi and I will tell him the things that are wrong.

I’ll continue to speak my mind. And continue to watch everything around the region. Me, Tunisia, we inspired other nations. It’s not a competition. But it’s revolution time.

LB: Have you been rapping around the country? Specifically in the places that you mention in your songs, where conditions have historically been the worst?

HBA: These places belong to Tunisia, the center of the revolution, and I’m ready to make concerts for the victims of families. I want to make them happy. I haven’t been there, but I mean — like you in America, maybe you’ve never been to some places like Florida or places in the south. But I’m going to these places in the summer, insha’allah. There are so many martyrs there. These people are still sad.

Ben Ali tried to separate us by regions, by sports, by anything. But now we’re unifying. It’s going to take some time, though.

LB: Do you see yourself mobilizing through a specific political party?

HBA: Absolutely not. I say to these parties: where were you before the 14 of January? What were you doing? They just came up after the revolution. They’re stealing it for their political interests.

And I’m Muslim, but El-Nahda doesn’t represent me. I’m against people who use religion to realize their political goals. Politics has a lot of dirty games. Religion needs to be away from these games. I’m very scared that Islam will be manipulated by El-Nahda.

So, I’m not participating in elections in November. No one is convincing me. And I will not participate because I want to criticize all the mistakes of the people in power. If I vote, then I will not be able to criticize them.

Right now my main political activity is working on a song about the Palestinian peace process. Many young men in Sfax want to rap now. So I’m working with my friends.

LB: What is the future of rap in the Arab world?

HBA: Rap is just starting. I think before me, before the Tunisian revolution, rap was ignored here. People are paying attention now. It’s really popular, it’s the new thing. But it’s always been there in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria. I see it getting started in Egypt. There are even some women here who are starting to rap too. But they’re not famous.

A lot of the music that comes from here, from the region, is pop. It’s all the same and it isn’t art. They’re making harmful actions to arts, actually. There’s no engagement. And music without engagement isn’t art.

LB: What’s a typical day like for you in Tunisia?

HBA: Well, tomorrow is Friday. I’ll wake up at 11. I’ll prepare myself and go to the mosque. Then I’ll come back from prayers. I’ll hang out with my friends and I’ll see my girlfriend. I’m trying to stop smoking. I’m making a lot of interesting efforts to stop (laughs).

LB: How do you see yourself?

HBA: I’m just a Tunisian citizen. I’m Muslim. I’m an African from a poor country. I’m proud of my heritage. I’m 21. I travel but I mostly stay in Sfax. My family is here. My parents have regular jobs; my mom owns a book store and my dad works at the local hospital. My girlfriend — I call her my wife — she’s here. We’ll probably get married soon. I made her a revolutionary; she’s a revolutionary in love.

I have a gift given by God. I believe in God strongly, and that human beings can make the impossible possible. For one song, I was in prison and tortured. This song made me famous and successful. I was selected as TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2011. If this would have happened to someone else, they’d have limos and bodyguards. But look at me. Look where I stay. I’m with friends at a café right now drinking coffee.

So I’m normal Tunisian youth. But, you can tell the American people, I’m dangerous to governments. So if they need my service, I’m ready.

Lauren E. Bohn is a Fulbright fellow and multimedia journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurenBohn.

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