Tunisian Rap Slowly Makes a Comeback

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A Tunisian Muslim carries mats as worshipers commemorate the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammed in a "Mouled" procession in Zitouna mosque in Tunis, on January 13, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Fethi Belaid)

By: Noureddine Baltayeb

Published Saturday, February 1, 2014

After two years of police crackdowns, Tunisian rappers are making a strong comeback against the oppressive practices of the Ennahda troika, flooding YouTube with dozens of angry songs.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime three years ago, rappers spearheaded a cultural phenomenon in the country. One young man in particular, Hamada Ben Amor, born in 1988 and known as “El Général,” rose to stardom. His hit song “President, your people are dying,” which gained wide popularity among angry youth, led to his arrest a few days before the fall of Ben Ali.

In 2011, Time magazine selected Amor among the 100 most influential people in the world, putting him under an international spotlight, mainly in circles concerned with the Tunisian revolution.

Rappers have indeed contributed in the revolution, encouraging young people to overcome their fears and to express their opinions about issues once considered dangerous taboos.

After maintaining a low profile between 2011 and 2013, rappers are back in the spotlight. El Général released a new song, “President 2,” via social networks, but it has failed so far to match the success of “Houmani," a song by Mohamed Amine Hamzaoui and Kafon. Their song depicts poverty in Tunisian neighborhoods. A music video with just a 120-euro budget has so far received over 5 million views.

Houmani derives from the word “homa," meaning neighborhood in Tunisian dialect. The duo used reggae music in their song to depict the modest life standards in poor neighborhoods, which lack proper infrastructure. They shed the light on violence, delinquency, and unemployment. The song almost accurately describes poor neighborhoods near the capital, which are transforming into havens for criminal gangs and religious extremist after years of negligence.

Rappers are back on the frontlines in the battle against repression. Ennahda had attempted to alienate activists, including rappers, by snubbing them from summer festivals and excluding them from government subsidies. Despite these practices, rappers were able to reach the public, their lyrics reflecting the suffering of unemployed youth who believed that the revolution was going to change their lives. However, three years after the fall of the old regime, they were still earning almost nothing.

Interestingly, Ennahda tried to foster so-called “Islamic Rappers," including Psycho M, who was renowned for a song inciting to kill anti-Islamic cinematographer. However, despite its many efforts, Ennahda failed to establish a parallel rap to suppress the voices of young artists.

Mohamed Salah Balti, born 1980, voiced this growing anger in his new song Pampam that received over 100,000 views on YouTube in just a couple of days. It reflected the feelings of Tunisians in general, particularly marginalized groups, depicting their bitterness. Balti resorted to sexual slang that Tunisians usually use in their everyday lives, especially when angry.

Pampam was Balti’s comeback song after a three-year hiatus from the music scene. He is one of few lucky pre-revolution rappers enjoying media spotlight and participating in festivals. Some of his fellow rappers accused him of having the blessing of the old regime.

Even before the release of “Houmani,” rappers had made a comeback on the Tunisian political scene. Rapper Weld El 15’s song “Policemen are dogs” brought the genre attention a few months prior. Weld El 15 was soon arrested for insulting police. Local right groups launched campaigns supporting Weld El 15, who was later given a retrial and jailed with fellow rapper Klay BBJ. In December 2013, Weld El 15 was acquitted.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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