In June 2013, a Tunisian court sentenced rapper Weld el 15 (15-year-old boy, pronounced weld el quinze) to two years in prison for his song Boulicia Kleb (Cops are Dogs). The conviction provoked harsh condemnation in Tunisia and abroad.
Critics claimed the sentences represented a government attempt to silence Tunisian artists who have been vocally opposed to the regime. These criticisms framed the issue as a schism between the government and artists, and reflected the simplistic discourse pitting Islamists against secularists, which has been increasingly used to describe the complex situation in post Arab spring countries.
This framework is reductionist while also ignoring a different, but vitally important, faction that does not belong to either group, namely the Tunisian youth.
Boulicia Klebwas first disseminated through YouTube on March 3, 2013 and later through social media. In that same month, two of Weld el 15’s colleagues were arrested for contributing to the music video.
The two men issued an apology to the court for their involvement and walked away with six months of conditional imprisonment.**
Also pursued by the authorities, Weld el 15 tried to evade arrest, but was apprehended in April.
During his hearing, the court found that, because of his song, Weld el 15 was guilty of violating public morals and encouraging violence against the police.
He was sentenced to two years in prison. Thanks to an appeal, his sentence was reduced to six months and was released after having served six weeks.
During a concert in the city of Hammamet on August 22, 2013, Weld el 15 was again arrested, this time with rapper Klay BBJ. While they did not perform Boulicia Kleb, according to officers, they insulted the police during their performance.
In response, the police came on stage and arrested the two rappers during the show. This caused havoc among the audience, and led to the arrest of eight other people.
The two men were brought to the police station. Before ultimately being released, their identity cards were confiscated.
Two weeks later the rappers were sentenced in absentia for assaulting an officer on duty, slander, and violating public morals. Klay BBJ subsequently turned himself in. On October 17, 2013, a court of appeal in Tunisia found him not guilty and released him from police custody. On November 22, Weld el 15’s lawyer announced that the artist would appear in court to contest the sentence.
In response to the ruling, international institutions, such as Human Rights Watch, the French Union of Artists, and a group of rappers from the United States, began calling upon Tunisian authorities to reverse the decision.
Rappers as Artists
In discussing Boulicia Kleb, Tunisian and foreign media have focused entirely on the penal case. They have presented the issue, as such, as a matter of freedom of expression and neglected the song’s message and its author’s background.
The focus on freedom of expression is also connected to an obsession with an Islamic v. secularist divide where artists and rappers are reflexively identified as members of the secular opposition regardless of whether this is actually the case.
As an article in The Independent newspaper notes, “Secular groups say freedom of creativity and expression are threatened under a coalition led by Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party…In particular, they accuse authorities of failing to prevent attacks by militant Islamist Salafis on cultural institutions and individuals. Salafis disrupted several concerts and plays last year, saying they violated Islamic principles. They also ransacked the US embassy in September during worldwide Muslim protests over an Internet video.”
An examination of the song’s text and social and artistic context demonstrates this narrative is misplaced. It also ignores the song’s message against the marginalization of Tunisian youth and abuse of power by Tunisian authorities.
Boulicia Kleb became famous because of the outrage that followed media reports about the case against the rappers. Nevertheless, the title of the song, its message, and the real-life images of police violence in the video are also inherently appealing to Tunisian youth.
The music video for Boulicia Kleb begins with Weld el 15 rapping against the background of a lackluster hip hop beat that alternates with the sound of a computerized voice singing part of the chorus.
The song addresses a number of crucial issues for young people in the country: drug consumption among Tunisian youth (“We are a generation who stops their education but who does not stop smoking”), inequality before the law (“A year of prison I wouldn’t be doing if my dad was Bousbia” – referring to a Tunisian businessman), and the security situation in the ghettos (“My neighborhood is Kandahar”).
In its message, the song is mainly contemptuous of political authority, as reflected in verses like “Tunisia I offer a flower but the government I offer my dick” and “Hearts of stone we’re not afraid, fuck the police, arrest me or not, I don’t care.”
The chorus makes this contempt particularly clear: “Policemen are dogs, I’m telling you where the barking comes from, policemen are dogs, bark dog.”
Fuck the Police
Rather than decrying limits on artistic expression, or condemning the ruling Islamist dominated coalition, Tunisian youth complain about daily life, general injustices, and abuses of power.
In this regard, urban youth frequently invoke Boulicia Kleb in conversations about the current situation in Tunisia. By citing this song, young people are able to put their discontent into words.
This discontent is partly focused on the police. In an interview, Weld el 15 spoke of an endemic element in Tunisia that persists after the revolution largely through the hands of the police: state control of public space.
As Weld el 15 described, “When a policeman stops someone in the street, he’ll tell him ‘come, fuck your mum, show me your ID-card.’ If you’re in Hayy Ettadhamen [one of the largest and most violent townships of Tunis] he’ll ask you what you’re doing there. As if we don’t have the right to go wherever we want in our own country.”
Young Tunisian men in the capital frequently raise complaints about the policing of public space and restrictions on movement, imposed on those who belong to a certain generation and social strata.
But Boulicia Kleb is not only about the police. It is also a song of frustration, an expression of dissatisfaction. In Tunisian rap, this is a common theme.
For instance, in the song Chaqchaq, also released in 2013, the rapper Kafon sings about how his mates (zawali) suffer from unemployment and general malaise.
Even since the revolution, Tunisian youth have maintained this strong sense of lived injustice and feeling that upward mobility is impossible, sentiments that helped spark the revolution in December 2010.
Conclusion: Reduction and Instrumentalization
Neglecting the song’s message and consistently framing the Boulicia Kleb case in terms of a secularist opposition versus Islamist government reduces the matter to an ideological power struggle between the government and opposition, artists and Islamists.
In perceiving this controversy as reflecting an Islamist/secularist divide, this narrative helps to reproduce the social schism it describes. It also makes it much more difficult to understand Tunisian society in a more nuanced fashion, with room for a middle ground and dialogue.
Framing the case in these terms neglects the importance of the Tunisian youth, whose battle is not ideological, but social, and whose revolution is continuing in many forms, including through rap.
**Conditional Imprisonment refers to a range of sentences including house arrest and probation. In the case of the two men involved, it means that they will not serve these sentences unless they violate the same law during the duration of the sentence.