This article was originally published on Medium on April 2, 2013. It can be found here.
After being arrested twice and serving a one year jail term for his critical lyrics “Dogs of the State,” Mouad Belghouat, whose alias is El Haqed, is finally free.
His outspoken lyrics are known for critiquing corruption, clientelism, the monarchy’s excessive wealth, and oligarchy. El Haqed’s trial attracted huge crowds and brought international and national scrutiny on the supposed new reforms and freedom of expression in Morocco. Under the new constitution, article 25 states: “Freedom of thought, opinion and expression in all its forms are guaranteed. Freedom to create, publish, and display literary and artistic materials and scientific and technical research are guaranteed.” On the surface, this appears to be a major reform but it is automatically nullified under article 263 that states: “Showing contempt to and undermining the honor of public servants or toward state institutions could be punishable with up to two years in jail.” El Haqed’s case brings to light the repressive laws that can land one in prison for producing a rap song or any other expression of art that is critical of the state. He has now become the main symbol of the February 20 movement and continues producing more protest songs.
The role of social media in the “Arab Spring” is discussed extensively but how about the role of music. Why is hip-hop and rap so menacing to the state? Does it really have the power to empower and motivate the masses for collective action? According to Palestinian and Iraqi hip-hop artists, Shadia Mansour and LowKey, the answer is a clear yes. They state:
“I consider Arabic hip-hop as an uprising in music . . . It is a form of standing up and saying I am here and I demand to be recognized, you can use your voice as a form of resistance.”
Positioning music as a form of communication is helpful in evaluating contested moments of rupture, historical narratives, and response to the dominant culture. It is not a surprise that music has often been fundamental to an emancipatory process and empowers people to transform existing oppressive systems (Pratt, 14). In general, music holds the potential to serve significant critical, and at times, radical transformative functions (Pratt, 5).
The hip-hop movement long existed as underground music but came to the surface during the uprisings that swept the region. For example, a young Tunisian rapper known as El General posted a song in 2010 in his Facebook and YouTube sites that addressed the president of the republic. The song known as “Rais Lebled,” raged against corruption, poverty, injustice, and hunger. Most importantly, it blamed President Ben Ali. The song was an instant sensation and its outrage resonated with the young—especially in its ability to openly critique the government (Wright, 118). It set the stage for the uprisings and was used as the main revolutionary song. It was sung in street demonstrations from Morocco all the way to Bahrain. The song directly addressed the Tunisian President Ben Ali and inspired youth to go to the street and end the era of fear. He raps:
Rais lbled, I am talking in the 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
With the majority of MENA population under the age of thirty-five, the influence of music over youth for empowerment, self-expression, and mobilization is of utmost importance. During the “Arab Spring,” music was visibly and audibly deployed as a strategic tool for action and reaction, question and answer, and expression of struggle. The lyrics produce a discourse of liberation and empowerment shaped by the cultural structure within which grievances are framed.
In particular, the February 20 movement continuously frames itself from a cultural perspective and in doing so has embedded itself in pop culture. The use of pop culture becomes critical for the February 20 movement for four main reasons: (a) mobilization and participation, (b) diffusion and circulation, (c) converting potential constituents to their way of seeing the world, (d) and lastly, for political statements and challenging the state.
For example, in the one of the mass protests, El Haqed raps about the so-called new constitution and highlights that the king was mentioned sixty-six times while the people only once in the new constitution. He keeps playing with the word “the people” to deconstruct “Moroccanness” and reconstruct and shape a new collective identity that tries to make a radical break with the hegemonic discourse. He concludes with long live the people, power to the people, the decision to the people, and may God bless the people. The distinction between the artist and activist is blurred and with his use of the Moroccan dialect (darija). His message becomes accessible to everyone and acts as a modality in crafting local publics.
Music and politics have become so intertwined where these musicians not only have joined the protests but also, as Salime argues, have planted the seeds of revolt and mark identity and group boundaries (Pratt, 5). For example, El General had several requests to join the protestors at Tahrir Square but since he had no passport and visa he opted to work on another Arab revolutionary song: “Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, all must be liberated too.” These kind of songs opened sites of protests and called for a collective action.
According to Freire, cultural action is an instrument for superseding the dominant alienated culture. He states: “Every authentic revolution is a cultural revolution” (Freire 2000: 180). For him a cultural revolution is especially important because of its role to reconstruct and remold society and distance itself from the old system. Art and culture constitute an important component for promoting collective identity and for recognizing and deconstructing hegemonic narratives (Berstein/De La Cruz 2009: 738).
The mobilizing nature of hip-hop culture in the “Arab Spring” is most apparent in a collaborative work by Omar “Offendum” Chakaki (Syrian-American), the Narcicyst (Iraqi-Canadian), Sami Matar (Palestinian-American), Ayah (Palestinian-Canadian), Amir Sulaiman (African-American), and MC Freeway (African-American). These artists from various cultural backgrounds came together to create one song called “#Jan25” to mark the date when the Egyptian protests and the demands for the removal of Hosni Mubarak were at their loudest. The song is a reflection of shared humanity and giving a voice to the voiceless.
Their lyrics map out various facets of oppression, marginalization, and corruption. These songs existed long before the Arab Spring but went unnoticed. Subsequently, they were described as “post Islamic” or defined from a US polemic binary narrative of extremist versus liberal. For example, the US State Department began “sending hip hop envoys” to perform in different parts of the Middle East as part of its foreign policy.
However, it is now clear that many of these movements that have swept the region have used the cultural and local political frames that this music has set. It is grounded in the material struggle of the everyday poor and seen as “real” emerging from these very neighborhoods. New hip-hop soundtracks through homemade studios capture the most powerful and emotional moments of the protests and government repression. They have circulated both in the streets and the Internet. There is a strong relationship between the media culture and the broader context in which it has developed. An economy has emerged producing cds, tapes, caps, and t-shirts.
One of the common battlegrounds that is of critical importance across Middle Eastern and North African hip-hop artists and their fans is social and economic justice- high unemployment, excessive poverty, corruption, educational system, and police brutality. In an ethnographic study done on Moroccan hip-hop, the musicians described themselves as teachers and advocates exhorting fellow citizens to know and use their rights. The lyrics of these songs shed light on the everyday struggle that most have to face and describe youth grievances and how poverty leaves one unprotected from economic and political violence.
Don Bigg, considered by many a pioneer in Moroccan rap, places hip hop at the center of political struggles for citizenship rights. In a 2009 interview with Al Jazeera, Bigg states that he uses his vocal lyrics as an opportunity to ask the people to quit fear and characterizes his style as daring art (l’art ose). Big raps in one of his songs:
And I want Morocco to give me real citizenship Not just some blue paper from the civil office
Big redefines citizenship as one of rights and not one of birthplace and paper documents. Hip-hop artists work within uncharted space and claim economic inequality as political inequality.
These voices create a fissure or rupture within the political hegemonic system and allow us to approach issues of political representation. It provides the opportunity for marginalized groups to voice their opinions, share their stories, and inspire youth to join the cause. Their lyrics produce new politics of identity that challenge state centered and patriarchic systems, and serve as a gateway for the public to understand their nuanced grievances, and specifically for western countries to re-examine immigration policies, and political and social inclusion.
Through this type of music, a true solidarity is built around the struggles of the marginalized. Issues that are of critical importance are articulated while inviting the public to participate in their own liberation through a form of cultural revolution and self- expression.
Dr. Houda Abadi is the founder and Executive Director of Transformative Peace. She is widely recognized for designing and implementing peacebuilding programs in MENA region.