“Mubarak spirit on its way to its Creator met with two other spirits: Nasser’s and Sadat’s. They asked: Poison or bullet? He answered: Facebook.” – Maria Fahmy
“The Rapper is the journalist of the street” – Mr. Hatim, Moroccan Ragaman
As groundbreaking events across the Arab world unfold, political analysts and journalists have begun to grapple with images of Arab youth as “peaceful” protestors. Recurrent references to the non-violent demonstrations marking these uprisings have certainly marked a shift from the post 9-11 discourse of pacification and securitization that have characterized Washington’s top-down approach to handling youth in the Middle East.
These revolts have undermined established paradigms about the impossibility of democratization in a region caught between authoritarian regimes and “radicalized” youth. These uprisings called attention not only to the shifting nexus of power from the elites to the masses, but also to the virtual spaces in which these revolutions have been underway long before surfacing onto the streets. While the region’s revolutions are now on their own distinctive paths, they have all nevertheless emerged from the margins, inspiring and animating thousands of Hip Hop fans and artists in the Middle East. However, even before the upsurge of Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, rappers in the region were already speaking truth to power. During the recent uprisings, a new generation has used homemade studios and shared YouTube clips to spread Hip Hop music and its long-held desires for change through the streets. This music, in turn, has inspired its listeners to reclaim their neighborhoods, vocalize their frustrations, and demand their rights. After nearly two decades of underground activism in alternative spaces, the region’s revolutionary music has finally come to the surface.
In Morocco, the Hip Hop scene is certainly one of the most vibrant in the Arab world, with its own organized structures, international icons, and festivals. Emerging after the urban uprisings of 1991, Morocco’s Hip Hop movement long existed as an underground phenomenon adopted by an ever-growing number of frustrated, marginalized youth. Most Moroccan Hip Hop artists trace the genealogy of their movement to Nas El Ghiwane, a music troupe that has influenced pop music in Morocco and the Maghreb for the last three decades. El Ghiwane emerged from within Hey Mohamadi, a shantytown of Casablanca, in the beginning of the 1970s. The music created by this group documented and portrayed the multiple faces of oppression under the rule of Moroccan King Hassan. To communicate these messages, the group used proverbs, metaphors, and the ordinary language of ordinary people, while also drawing on traditional Sufi music. Because of this fusion of old and new, Nas El Giwane appealed to a variety of age groups. The group’s approach to Hip Hop has heavily influenced today’s rappers in Morocco, who continue to use the language of the street to speak truth to power.
Culture, Aesthetics, and Politics
Never have culture, aesthetics, and politics become more intertwined than during the current uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The regions Hip Hop musicians have not only joined in the protests, but also have planted the seeds of revolt. Twenty-one year old Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor, or El General, released his incendiary rap song Rais Lbled, or “the Ruler of the Country,” a few days before the Tunisian revolt, around the time when Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire. The song directly addressed then-Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, inspiring thousands of young Tunisians to take to the streets and launching an unprecedented wave of protests in the Arab world
Rais lbled, I am talking to you,
I am talking in name of the people,
Those who spoke up, and those who were stepped on
I am talking to you with no fear, and I will take the consequences.
The song mapped out the various facets of oppression, marginalization and lawlessness in Tunisia under Ben Ali, setting off the revolution’s first sparks and leaving the beleaguered regime with no choice but to arrest El General on January 6th. In Egypt, Ramy Donjewan’s “Against the Government” was adopted as the protest’s “official” rap song. Rap artists in the Middle Eastern Diaspora, where Hip Hop had long played a role in shaping identities, also contributed to the revolution’s growing soundtrack. A few days before Mubarak’s resignation Myriam Bouchentouf, alias Master Mimz, released her clip “Back Down Mubarak.” Master Mimz, a Moroccan born Master’s candidate at the London School of Economics, rapped about the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions as soon as events started to unfold. On her Facebook page, Master Mimz explained: “I can relate to the region in general and to the Egyptian people in particular. As a Moroccan I grew up watching Egyptian movies, listening to their music and their TV shows.”
Yet, before these revolts, the region’s Hip Hop movement, which had been gaining momentum since the 1990s, went almost unnoticed. The few studies that celebrated the phenomena, rushed to define it as a symbol of a post-Islamist and even post-political era in the region. To the contrary, Hip Hop had been at the center of sustained protest movements in the Middle East and North Africa, and, in the case of Morocco, had inspired a spectacular mobilization of urban youth.
In Morocco, Hip Hop has continued to play a central role in activism around the Arab uprising. Although most commentators have expressed doubt that the revolutions will spread to Morocco, a group known as the “February 20th” movement has recently begun holding ongoing weekly protests in the country. While it is unclear to what extent Hip Hop has influenced this movement, it is clear that Morocco’s Hip Hop legacy has set the cultural frames and political claims that this movement is now using.
As far back as 2007, Don Bigg, one of the most vocal rappers in Morocco, called on Moroccans to “quit fear” in his song, Al Kouf. He began his song by inviting Moroccans to:
Raise your heads all free Moroccans and overcome fear.
Raise your hands with me
All those whose heart is not paralyzed by fear, raise your hands
You seem to be scared of everyone, everything
You only need to fear God
In his December 2009 interview with al-Jazeera, Don Bigg explained some of the lyrics of his album, Mghraba hta Lmout or “Moroccans to Death,” in a way that placed Rap at the center of political struggles for citizenship rights. “We are not leaving this country. We will not leave it to you,” he said. The idea of “not leaving” counters the widespread belief about youth disengagement and alienation, and stands in sharp contrast to the belief that thousands of Moroccan youth dream of leaving the country to look for better opportunities in Europe. Instead, the song invites Moroccans to stay and seek change at home. In his song Tamarrud or “Rebellion”, Muslim, a Hip Hop artist from the north of Morocco, speaks of the country’s “stolen resources” using powerful lyrics and music. In this song, Muslim demands his share in the phosphates, the seas, the fish, the fruits and the vegetables of the country and confronts the fact that Moroccans own these resources but cannot use them. The song goes on to name all the country’s natural resources, which ordinary Moroccans have very little access to in a globalized, dependent economy.
Breaking the Chains of Fear
Long before the outbreak of the current revolutions, the region’s Hip Hop music, the solidarities it engendered and the alternative spaces it created, triggered discussions amongst young people in the Middle East about the meaning of the public good.
In Morocco, this movement has been labeled “Nayda.” In Moroccan dialect, the term Nayda means waking up, standing up, moving, and was appropriated by urban youth to denote an alternative culture anchored in neighborhood identity and narrated by what rappers refer to as street language.
Nayda came to the fore in 2003, when 14 heavy metal musicians known as Reborn, were arrested and accused of membership in a satanic cult. Their arrest and trial, which resulted from Islamist debates in the Parliament and the press, launched an impressive movement of solidarity across the country. A network of 45 NGOs was formed to mobilize public opinion against the trial, and to assert the right to self-expression through music and fashion. The heated debate fueled by the independent press, including Telquel and le Journal Hebdo, and the various forms of protests organized by a network of artists, fans and family members pushed the court to set the musicians free. As these events unfolded, Morocco’s political elites, forever out of touch, spoke of national identity along meta-narratives of modernity, on the one hand and authenticity on the other, neglecting the pluralistic claims made by the country’s rap music as well as the slang used by thousand of Hip Hop fans and artists.
But regardless of how this controversy was framed, it released the energies of thousands of underground artists who began directing their creativity in support of Morocco’s annual Hop Hop festival, l’Boulevard des Jeunes Musicians. The festival began in 1999 as a local competition for Moroccan artists, attracting an audience of only a few hundred to the performances. In the past few years, however, the festival has drawn an audience of hundreds of thousands to Casablanca for three days of performances. Though the country’s Hip Hop music scene largely remains the playground of young men from poor and lower middle class backgrounds, it has been consumed and disseminated by fans regardless of class and gender.
Though this burgeoning scene went unnoticed before the 2003 arrest of the members of Reborn, Nayda is now widely celebrated as an urban youth protest movement. It has manifested itself in terms of various cultural and artistic forms, including Heavy metal, Rap (the most popular), Ragga, Fusion and Break dance, as well as through fashion, blogs, language, visual arts, films and neighborhood associations. Just as in Tahrir Square, the movement lacks a center or rather, has multiple centers. Amongst Moroccan youth, Nayda is certainly becoming a driving force for the re-appropriation of national identity in pluralistic, multiracial, and multiethnic terms.
Academic research about Hip Hop in the Middle East is still limited in scope but growing in interest. The few studies available about the Hip Hop movement in Morocco look at the current burgeoning artistic scene through the prism of the public sphere, culture, and identity politics. To some, the rise of Hip Hop symbolizes a secularization of the public sphere in the Middle East and demonstrates the triumph of modernization and westernization in a post-Islamist era. But despite the importance of the cultural claims made through Hip Hop, it is far from being simply about culture. Rather, it is grounded in the materiality of life in poor neighborhoods and its accompanying marginality, oppression, uneasiness and loss of rights. The movement also has its own pedagogy, with rappers setting the framework for action along lines of non-violence, self-determination, courage, and ethical conduct. The movement has been carried by a dynamic of solidarity that enabled the creation of alternative spaces for action. While the Arab uprisings cannot be reduced to any one cause, inspiration, or engine, it is important to explore the culture of Hip Hop and its role in setting some of the frames for the current revolts.