Update, January 2012: David Peisner, author of "Inside Tunisia's Hip-Hop Revolution," shared some great insights with me about Tunisian hip hop via email. Mr. Peisner has graciously allowed me to repost our correspondence here, so please scroll to the bottom of this article to read his comments.
Like many people, I first took notice of Arabic hip hop because of El Général and the Tunisian Revolution. The story has practically passed into mythology now. For a few critical days, a 21 year-old rapper from Sfax had a more powerful voice than the dictator of Tunisia himself. On October 23, Tunisia will hold the first truly free elections in its history when it elects a new constitutional assembly. El Général's story illuminates, with a vividness that few others can match, how Tunisia got to this point and where it might be going from here.
On November 7, 2010, Hamada Ben-Amor, a young rapper from Sfax known as "El Général," posted this jeremiad against the regime of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Youtube and Facebook:
The video begins with a clip from Tunisian state television of Ben Ali attempting to soothe a sobbing schoolchild. The little boy, whose parents have evidently taught him something of the regime's true nature, must be terrified about being face-to-face with the dictator who destroyed so many Tunisians' lives. Ben Ali, clearly flustered, tells the child, "Why are you worried? Would you tell me something? Don't be afraid!"
The video then cuts to El Général, smoking a cigarette and hiding his face in shadows like Hal Halbrook's Deep Throat in All the President's Men. Général conceals his face with shadows, digital alterations, and a baseball cap throughout the video. Intriguingly, though, he seems to reveal enough of himself and his mannerisms to let his acquaintances (and, presumably, the secret police) figure out his real identity. El Général's friend and fellow rapper RTM told David Peisner of Spin that, "When Hamada recorded ["Rais lebled"], I tried to convince him to be worried. Rap like this may lead him to death. I tried to convince him to convey his message implicitly. He just smiled and told me he's ready for the consequences." El Général acknowledges these entreaties in "Rais lebled" when he raps, "I see so much injustice and that's why I chose to speak/even though many people told me that my end will be execution." In fact, El Général had no idea what was in store for him. "I expected it might get me in trouble but I didn't think the president would be ousted," he told Peisner. "I didn't know there would be a revolution."
In "Rais lebled," El Général wields Ben Ali's consoling words to the crying child as a weapon against the regime. He even opens the second verse by saying, "Mr. President, you told me to speak without fear." The trope of the ruler as father figure is common to government propaganda throughout the world, but it has a particularly strong resonance in the narratives that Middle Eastern regimes have constructed for themselves. El Général turns this paternalistic conceit around on Ben Ali. He condemns the government's severe discrimination against observant Muslim women by rapping, "I see the police beat women for wearing headscarves./Would you accept that for your daughter?.../But you're still a father. You would not accept evil being done to your children. Alors!/This is a message from one of your children." He calls for a society that provides dignity, economic opportunity, clean government, modern infrastructure, and the rule of law for its citizens. By showing how Ben Ali failed to be a "good father" for his country, El Général lays Tunisia's claim to the right of revolution. That El Général doesn't use swear words makes his indictment of Ben Ali's regime all the more damning. Most of all, he strives to make the voices of ordinary Tunisians heard and to inspire them to speak out themselves. "I know there are so many words in the people's hearts that don't reach you," he concludes. "If the situation weren't unjust today, I would not speak."
Tunisia Finds Its Voice
"Rais Lebled" became an underground sensation and went viral almost immediately. "Within hours" of its November 7 release, as Andy Morgan writes, "the song had lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb." Before it was banned, Tunivision and other major local media outlets were broadcasting it. The secret police bugged El Général's phone, blocked his Facebook page, and sent agents to follow him wherever he went. It was too late. On December 17, Mohamed Bouazizi, in despair over the police's humiliating treatment of him when they confiscated his vegetable cart, went in front of the local government office in Sidi Bouzid, doused himself in gasoline, and set himself on fire. Almost immediately, pro-democracy demonstrations broke out all over Tunisia. Not even the state security's worst brutality could suppress them. Inspired by this, El Général recorded a new song named "Tounes bledna" ("Tunisia is Our Country") and released it on YouTube on December 22. In the chorus, he furiously rhymes:
Tunisia is our country, with politics or with blood!
Tunisia is our country and her men will never surrender!
Tunisia is our country, the whole people hand-in-hand!
Tunisia is our country and today we must find the solution!
Even though careful observers such as Brian Whitaker of The Guardian quickly grasped the historic nature of the Tunisian protests, Tunisia barely even rated a mention in the Western media at this time. Then, on the morning of January 6, 30 state security officers, acting on "the orders of President Ben Ali himself," arrested El Général at his family's flat in Sfax. As Whitaker wrote on January 8,
In Tunisia itself, the authorities have made a serious public relations blunder by arresting Hamada Ben-Amor ("The General"), a well-known rapper. This generated more than 60 news stories in the world's media about his arrest (many of which also went on to talk more generally about the uprising). The result was exactly what the authorities have been seeking to avoid – far more international attention directed towards Tunisia than on any single day since the trouble began.
Funny enough, for a few days, the voice of a 21 year-old rapper from Sfax became more powerful than the voice of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali himself. The regime, realizing its folly, released El Général a few days later. It didn't matter. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after the Tunisian military refused to guarantee his safety. In his place, a caretaker government promising a transition to full democracy came to power.
The Internet and the Revolution
Social media and expanded internet access weren't the cause of the Tunisian Revolution, of course, but they were crucial to its success. In the spring of 2008, massive protests erupted in the southern mining town of Redeyef. For six months, 3,000 police besieged this city of 25,000 people while its citizens bravely demonstrated against corruption and chronic unemployment. Because of the state's violent repression and its stranglehold on media outlets, the protests failed to spread or gain much attention. Without developed social networks, the thousands of Redeyef's citizens who obtained protest footage on CDs or computers had no way to let most Tunisians see it. Fahem Boukaddous, a Tunisian journalist who covered the protests, said, "In 2008, Facebook wasn't at all well-known, especially in poor cities like here." In fact, fewer than 30,000 Tunisians were on Facebook when Redeyef exploded in early 2008. By the end of 2010, Tunisia's internet landscape had been transformed. A January 2011 survey found that Tunisia, a country of 10 million, had 1.97 million Facebook users - 18.6% of Tunisia's entire population and 54.73% of its online population. By this time, sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and RerverbNation.com had made internet the most important medium for distributing Arabic hip hop. The internet's great gift was that it allowed Tunisians to almost effortlessly share their testimony with each other and with the world.
At this point, it's worth stepping back a moment and looking at the context behind these events. The dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was one of the Middle East's most nightmarish, totalitarian regimes. Larbi Sadiki, writing in September 2010, described the Tunisian "model" in clear-eyed terms:
In politics, such a ‘model’ is far from exemplary. Riots in the phosphates basin of the centre and the south point to trouble in paradise! The homogenous and EU-linked Arab state with so much democratic potential has poor press, weak political parties, and a brutal security apparatus. There is more civic capital in impoverished Mauritania than in Tunisia with its high literacy and industrious society. Bin Ali and his government must realize that people live not by bread alone. They also live as social contractors with aspirations for free speech, organized political activity, civic and social capital, and political dynamism. Ruling as a ‘Bey’ in modern-day Tunisia betrays the very republican pretensions of the regime.
Before the Tunisian Revolution, many people, including many regime critics like Sadiki, failed to grasp just how badly Tunisia's economic model has failed the Tunisian people. As the Tunisian economist Hassine Dimassi put it in April, "Effectively, we must ask ourselves why [Ben Ali's economic] model totally failed, despite the cascade of praise from so many international financial institutions. It wasn’t just the IMF. The World Bank, Davos...these institutions describe Tunisia as if it was close to paradise." Despite the achievements of Tunisia's education system, Tunisian college graduates' degrees have little relevance to the fields that dominate Tunisia's job market, most notably agriculture, tourism, and light industry. Even today, what few good jobs there seem to go to people with personal connections to the former ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD). As a result, many intelligent young Tunisians - especially those outside the cities and tourist centers - graduate with almost no prospects for decent employment.
While Ben Ali's Tunisia had a genuinely progressive family law code and relatively high levels of female representation in the police and civil service (up to 30% in some fields), the regime did its best to co-opt or destroy all of Tunisia's independent feminist movements. The government barred religiously observant Tunisian women (in effect, most Tunisian women) from public institutions and employment, which was hardly an act of female empowerment. Most importantly, Tunisian women suffered from political repression every bit as much as men did. The Ben Ali regime was an equal opportunity oppressor.
These injustices were what inspired El Général to start rapping and what kept his conscience burning. "Corruption was everywhere here. And it still is everywhere. You could see it everyday," he told Lauren Bohn. "If you had money, you could do anything...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."
Who is El Général?
When Lauren Bohn met with El Général and his friends in a Sfax café this summer, she posed the question, "How do you see yourself?" His response is admirably thorough:
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....I'm a normal Tunisian youth. But, you can tell the American people, I'm dangerous to governments. So if they need my service, I'm ready.
Like just about every revolutionary Arab rapper I've ever come across, El Général cites 2Pac and Algerian hip hop legend Lotfi Double Kanon as his biggest musical influences. Yet he doesn't speak English and even his French is only passable. When asked how he understands 2Pac if he doesn't speak English, he smiled and replied, "The lyrics don't matter." He's right, of course. The sensibility, the flow, the vibe of a good rap song conveys its message just as eloquently as its lyrics can. Like his heroes, El Général has a compulsion to call out the elite's hypocrisy and to give a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard.
Hip Hop and the Ben Ali Regime
There's a delicious irony in the prominence of Tunisian rap music in the events that led to Ben Ali's overthrow. In 2006, the Tunisian and French governments co-sponsored a (bad) film that promotes hip hop as a counter to jihadi ideology. In Nouri Bouzid's The Making of a Kamikaze, a young rapper named Chokri (a.k.a. "Bahta") falls in with a jihadi crowd that pushes him towards suicide terrorism. As Hishaam Aidi writes, "State officials and diplomats introducing the film reiterated the message that hip-hop is the antithesis of radical Islamism, perhaps even the antidote to it." The film and government ignored both the fundamentally anti-establishment character of hip hop and the deep ties between hip hop and Islamism. Many Islamists listen to hip-hop and rappers with Islamist or even Jihadi sympathies are quite common (the 2004 video for Dirty Kuffar is a famous and probably overblown example of the Jihadi variety). In December 2010, the regime banned the dissident Islamist rapper Psycho M from the airwaves after he encouraged listeners to kill Nouri Bouzid for slandering Islam.
Islamist rappers like Psycho M and RTM, though, are exceptional within Arabic hip hop. El Général, like most prominent revolutionary Arab rappers, is a devout Muslim who emphatically rejects Islamist politics. "I'm Muslim, but El-Nahda doesn't represent me," he told Lauren Bohn. "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." El Général and RTM did release one unsettling song with a militant, Islamist vibe named "Allahu Akbar." The song's anti-democratic Salafi rhetoric - e.g. "The Quran is our only law" - comes from RTM. While El Général avoids any anti-democratic messages and focuses on fighting imperialism and reviving Islam's glory, he still embraces the video's militant, Islamist vibe despite his hatred of Islamist politics. Why is that? Here's my best guess. Revolutionary Arabic hip hop has little scope for an American-style "gangsta" sensibility like that found in the hip hop of the Ivory Coast. Revolutionary Arabic rappers must therefore demonstrate their toughness in one of two ways: by challenging the regime's secret police (the popular choice for most leading rappers, including El Général usually) or by expressing a desire to fight and even die with the Middle East's resistance movements (which can lead rappers to adopt the language of militant Islamism). Since El Général took on Ben Ali's secret police and won, he needs to find a new target. Whatever Général's motivation behind the video, though, it's a good reminder that political transformation in the Middle East will not always be amenable to liberal sensibilities. At the same time, El Général, like most other revolutionary Arab rappers, never swears gratuitously, talks about sex, or talks about women in a disrespectful way - a refreshing break with most current genres of popular music.
Much as it used "state feminism" to co-opt women's movements and crush political dissent within them, the Ben Ali regime and the RCD tried to appropriate Tunisian hip hop for its own ends. The earliest Arabic hip hop scenes took shape in Morocco and Algeria in the late 1980s. A viable Tunisian hip hop scene only began to emerge in the late 1990s when groups such as Wled Bled, T-Men, and the Philosophes gained a following. (By the way, I just found an excellent French-language site called TunisianRap.com, so go there to dig deeper into the current hip hop scene). These rappers faced tremendous obstacles, as David Peisner notes in Spin, because the government controlled song lyrics, concert licenses, CD distribution, and all TV and radio access. In the early 2000s, Balti, a Sousse MC who carefully avoided politics and focused on family, love, and personal struggle, became Tunisia's first real rap star. The songs Ryah Wayne, Mata7kilich , and Shogra (see the embedded video below) provide good examples of his style and flow.
The potential explosiveness of hip hop became clear in 2005 when a Tunisian emigree in Spain named Férid El Extranjero (a.k.a. Delahoja) scored an underground hit with "3bed Fi Terkina." This catchy, cutting track compares Ben Ali's Tunisia to an open-air prison. Many rappers, including Balti, were promptly summoned, interrogated, and threatened by the Interior Ministry. In essence, the secret police told Tunisia's rappers to a) make apolitical, commercial rap and have a chance to earn a livelihood or b) go underground, rap freely, and dodge poverty, imprisonment, torture, and death. Balti chose the former. Yet even if Tunisia had enjoyed freedom of expression, its rappers would have still faced a profound artistic dilemma. "If you sung in Arabic," as Andy Morgan accurately (if indelicately) puts it, "you either cloistered yourself away in anodyne ‘high art’ music or embraced the banal glitz of the local pop production line, prostituting yourself to conglomerates like Rotana, the huge Gulf-owned media and entertainment conglomerate that more or less controls the music industry in the Middle East." Most of the Arab music industry's money comes from the advertising and sponsorship revenues that the dominant Arabic satellite channels generate. The owners of these channels are counter-revolutionary to the core because the revolutions threaten their livelihoods, which they owe to their good relationships with oppressive regimes. "A lot of the music that comes from here, from the region, is pop," El Général told Bohn. "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."
Peisner notes that the music industry, like everything else in Tunisia, was a racket that well-connected RCD officials gamed and grew rich from. In 2005, party officials tried to hijack a concert organized by Lak3y, a well-known dissident Tunisian rapper, by hanging up an RCD banner at the last minute. When Lak3y ripped down the banner and performed his anti-government songs anyway, five policemen beat the hell out of him for it. Balti, by contrast, signed with the California-based record label Raw Poetix and used the system to become a wealthy man. "I'd play for 12,000 people," he explained. "Tickets might be ten dinars [about $7] each. I'd get 2,000 [dinars] and the rest would go to the Ministry." Balti played many RCD-sponsored shows, hung out on the infamous Imad Trabelsi's yacht, and generally served as "the government's favorite rapper," as the Tunisian journalist Haythem El Mekki put it. Police told him that as long as his songs steered clear of politics and religion, his career could thrive - and it did. Now it's coming back to haunt him. Peisner writes:
After Ben Ali's ouster, rappers here scrambled to burnish their revolutionary credentials. Seemingly overnight, songs praising the uprisings or condemning Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, proliferated. Rappers judged insufficiently supportive of the revolution fell quickly from favor. Chief among them was Balti. "I work the art for the art...I perform music. I don't care about politics." He chalks up the criticism from other rappers to envy.
This "Haterade" defense is weak for many reasons. For one thing, there's a lot less to envy about Balti in the new Tunisia. His manager, Amine Lamari, admitted to Peisner that, "Not a lot of people come to the concerts now. He's not selling a lot of albums...you can see a big difference. Before, it was better." Balti's cluelessness about how the revolution - indeed, how politics - is the best hope for combating Tunisia's poverty and social ills shows how little he really cares about these issues. His dealings with the Ben Ali regime left him hopelessly compromised and willfully blind to the oppression and injustice that most Tunisians suffered.
Balti says that after "Rais Lebled" appeared, the security services visited him. He also had been considering writing a song about the uprisings, but after that visit, his manager talked him out of it. He has no regrets. "It was very risky at that time. It's success or death. I cannot put my family, my career, everything into jeopardy just because of one song. You have to be intelligent enough to deal with the rules of the game. There are certain things more valuable than the music. If I issued a song like that, who will feed my mom?"
Where to begin? Let's focus on the end. Balti's parting line is eerily similar to what Albert Camus, the great humanist, existentialist philosopher, and tormented Pied-Noir, infamously declared in his 1957 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. To justify his support for France's colonialist war to preserve Algérie français, Camus said, "I love justice, but I will defend my mother before justice." Like Camus, Balti justifies his abandonment of his own moral values by making "I'm'a get mine!" his highest principle. It's not exactly, "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
Today, after the revolution, Balti still maintains that "you've got to deal with the rules of the game." Yet the Tunisian people and Tunisia's hip hop artists have changed the game's rules. Lak3y is a great example. After El Général was arrested in early January, Lak3y figured he'd be next. Instead of backing down, he recorded a blistering nine-minute song with Armada Bizerta entitled "Touche Pas á Ma Tunisie" ("Don't Touch My Tunisia"). "I had to continue," Lak3y told Spin. "A rapper here is like a journalist. Rap reflects the reality of Tunisian society. It's the only music that supported the revolution. The youth appreciate that."
Balti tries to justify himself by emphasizing his role as an innovator and pioneer of Tunisian hip hop:
I'd like to add something else...If there's no Balti, there's no rap in Tunisia. Everyone knows this. The first topics I tackled are the problems of the people -- unemployment, illegal immigration, delinquency. Things I dared to say, the journalist couldn't write. This is how I contributed to the revolution.
Balti's claim that, "If there's no Balti, there's no rap in Tunisia" or that he bravely broke taboos is, to put it kindly, absurd. It's whack. For one thing, raï music, the Algerian fusion genre, made its name in the late 1970s by subversively tackling topics such as sex, poverty, injustice, and hogra ("humiliation"). By then, raï had become a powerful cultural force throughout Francophone North Africa and Europe's Arab communities. When raï was shattering taboos and reaching the peak of its popularity in the 1980s, Arabic rap didn't even exist. In fact, many media observers hailed raï as the soundtrack to the momentous 1988 youth uprisings that compelled the Chadli regime to initiate a democratic transition in Algeria (note: sound familiar, anyone?). Arabic hip hop blew up in Algeria, Morocco, and France in the early 1990s. Tunisian hip hop would be blowing up today whether or not an indigenous Tunisian hip hop scene had developed during the early aughts. Music-sharing social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Reverbnation allow hip hop's influence to transcend any border. "Right now, [Balti's] argument isn't playing very well in the rap community here," Peisner told NPR, "but it's not totally invalid." To be fair, Balti and the rap scene that he helped pioneer probably helped accelerate the development of the Tunisian hip hop by, say, 3-5 years.
"We're Blowing Up the World"
Before the revolution, El Général wasn't well-known even within Tunisia's small underground community. That obviously began to change after he released "Rais lebled." The publicity surrounding his arrest and the collapse of the Ben Ali regime made him a full-blown international celebrity. After Ben Ali fled, Al Jazeera, which reaches well over 50 million viewers, played a clip of "Rais lebled" and interviewed Général during a live prime time broadcast from Tunis. As El Général told Bohn, "Arab rap is finally on the map, and we're blowing up the world."
Soon afterwards, demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square and Bahrain's capital of Manama were chanting "Rais lebled" in the streets [update, January 2012: MERIP's Ted Swedenburg is highly skeptical about this]. El Général was named one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. Today, the only person who's a bigger icon of the Tunisian Revolution is Mohamed Bouazizi himself. Nine months after Ben Ali's flight, people of all ages are still bumping El Général's music in the streets and approaching him for pictures and autographs. "El Général himself has yet to perform anywhere else in the Arab world, partially for fear of his own safety," writes Peisner, "but he remains a potentially influential power broker."
Some Tunisian rappers like Sousse's Fils2Bled grumble that luck, good timing, and Al Jazeera are what made El Général a star. DJ Costa, a veteran rapper with puzzling politics, told Peisner that, "it's not a real success because [El Général] doesn't know the basics of rap. He has only one topic: the revolution. His success is bound to a period of no more than this summer." El Général can give back as good as he gets, though. Here's a great exchange that Peisner had with him:
I ask why "Rais Lebled" became so influential while many other protest songs barely created a ripple. His answer makes him sound like a guy who's been reading his own press. "I revealed the reality of what's happening in Tunisia," he says. "I conveyed a message that's never been conveyed before. I'm the first to have conveyed that message directly to the president. No one dared do that before."
I suggest that fortuitous timing also may have played a role, and he seems mildly offended, as if I'm accusing him of opportunism.
"I already posted that song before Bouazizi set himself on fire," he says.
"But what if you'd posted it a year earlier?" I ask. He doesn't hesitate.
"Probably the revolution would've started a year ago."
El Général's claim here is unconvincing, of course, but bravado is one of the keys to success in the rap game. El Général has that swagger in spades.
The revolution has dramatically changed the way Tunisian society views hip hop. Before, it was seen as music for thugs and gangsters. El Général's parents strongly discouraged him from pursuing it. Now, they're proud of his profession. Rap music's main audience, the youth of Tunisia, is the demographic made the revolution happen. "Now everyone is looking at rappers as the new elite of the country," says the journalist Haythem El Mekki. "When everyone was silent, they spoke up. When everyone was at home, they went to the streets shouting and fighting against the police. So today the old generation are feeling guilty and giving rap much more respect."
After the Revolution
A few weeks after Ben Ali fled, El Général and fellow Tunisian rapper Mr. Shooma released "Tahya Tunis," a celebration of the revolution, of its martyrs, and of a democratic Tunisia. The song captures many of themes that resonate throughout revolutionary Arabic hip hop: revolution, reconciliation, national unity, participatory engagement, and the modern human rights discourse.
Tunisian to Tunisian, with compassion for one another, we opened the door.
2011! The entire intifada comes from the youth!
We are the solution, not the problem. We are the ones who seized freedom.
Hand in hand, the whole nation, long live democracy!
A new type of pan-Arab sensibility, one based on shared experiences a common desires for social and political change, infuses the lyrics. At the conclusion of the second verse, the song reflects the tension in revolutionary Arabic rap - and in Arab societies more generally - between a violent, vengeful desire for justice and a sincere desire for reconciliation and good governance. While his words against "treason and apostasy" carry an implicit hint of violence, they're quickly superseded by El Général's most passionate demand: he wants an effective anti-corruption campaign!
This is a message to the rulers, to those who committed treason and apostasy:
Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, they all must be liberated!
The final word that my voice brings is for the next president of the country:
Tunisia, integrity is within your grasp! You must eliminate corruption!
Tunisia's transition to democracy is making uneven but unmistakable progress. The army, which has resolutely stayed out of Tunisian politics, still enjoys the public's deep respect. The explosion of public discourse and the winter protests that compelled many ancien régime RCD members to resign from the transitional government testify to the vitality of Tunisia's new political culture. On October 23, Tunisia will hold its first elections since Ben Ali's overthrow. Tunisian voters will elect a constituent assembly to write the country's new constitution. Because the transitional government mandated that every party list alternate between male and female candidates (i.e., male-female-male-female), approximately 50% of the constituent assembly's members should be women. In all the world, only in Rwanda and Andorra do women make up more than 45% of the national legislature. All of the major movements in Tunisian society have accepted the democratic game and are willing to play it.
Despite these achievements, Tunisia still faces overwhelming economic and political challenges. The Islamist Al-Nahda party's front-runner status and the transitional government's clumsy mishandling of the election schedule have created an atmosphere of mistrust and polarization that threatens to destroy the post-Ben Ali political consensus. Many Tunisians worry that al-Nahda, despite its leaders' assurances, will roll back women's legal, social, and political freedoms. The revolution still hasn't reached Tunisia's civil service or economy. The economy and government bureaucracy of the Ben Ali era remain largely intact. In light of this, many of Tunisia's young people have lost faith that the transition will deliver anything like genuine social justice or democracy.
El Général recoils from partisan politics because he sees himself as a voice of conscience for the revolution and an independent representative of the Tunisia's popular will. When he learned that a charity concert he performed had actually been organized by the PDP, a centrist party, he was furious. "I'm not participating in elections in November. No one is convincing me," he told Bohn. "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...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." It will be fascinating to see how El Général grows as a speaker and activist and what role he eventually assumes in Tunisian public life. He might never do anything as influential as "Rais lebled" again. Yet if he helps mobilize a popular movement that effectively pushes the government to implement genuine social justice and good governance, he might be remembered as an iconic figure of Tunisian history. He has certainly set lofty enough expectations for himself. El Général powerfully articulates what he thinks Tunisia needs.
Ben Ali left. But did anyone else? Caid-Essebsi, the prime minister -- I'm against him. He has a long history and friendship with Ben Ali...Nothing has changed. All young people are jobless. We need a new revolution...We will take to the streets if we do not see change...[to] make people understand how dangerous the Tunisian situation is right now. I need support from scientists, politicians, educators. Everyone. We need massive participation..
He set these sentiments to a beat in his song "Deuxieme Revolution," which he released in August.
Despite the hardships, injustices, and uncertainties of Tunisia today, the Tunisian people have an immensely powerful weapon against all challenges they face: the freedom to discuss them openly and freely. By voicing their feelings about the challenges they face, they have taken the first step towards meeting them.
Update, January 2012: Here is what SPIN magazine's David Peisner, author of "Inside Tunisia's Hip-Hop Revolution," wrote to me about the Tunisian hip hop scene. He gave me permission to post it on my blog a while ago and I've finally gotten around to it. Thank you again, Mr. Peisner!
Thanks for the heads-up. Great post. I think you zeroed in on all the most important points from my story, particularly about Balti. I mean, on a human level, I understood his basic point--that he wasn't a revolutionary ("I'm not Che Guevara"), just an entertainer, so why should he be held to this political standard? Yet, he had such a big ego that he couldn't just leave it at that. He wanted to try to take some credit as one of the revolution's pioneers by virtue of the fact that he was older than most of the other rappers and had been doing it longer. It just didn't really wash. Strangely, one thing that probably isn't reflected that much in my story is how much in-fighting there was in the world of Tunisian rap. Not just everyone hating on Balti, but everyone hating on everyone (or at best, offering back-handed compliments). Psyco-M might have been more hated than Balti. (Though when I met him, he seemed a pretty nice guy.) In that way, I worry that they were sometimes emulating the least productive elements of American rap culture. That said, I found the whole scene completely fascinating. I was bummed I didn't have more space to write more about it. There were probably a dozen other rappers I spoke to who didn't even make it into the story.
...One other thing about Balti which was kind of interesting (if somewhat paradoxical): He had a much, much deeper knowledge of American rap culture than any of the other rappers I met there. He really was well-versed in rap history and could talk knowledgeably about it. Conversely, El General knew very, very little about American hip-hop beyond Tupac. He had never heard of Public Enemy or N.W.A. I played him a little PE on my iPhone, but he just stared at me pretty blankly. I mention this not as an indictment of El General or an endorsement of Balti, but rather as a little context. Most of these guys don't really know much about American hip-hop, and therefore Tunisian rap culture is not mere appropriation of American rap culture but rather something closer to its own messy invention. I got the feeling that the widespread love for Tupac--which was near universal over there--had more to do with Tupac the Icon than Tupac the Rapper. (As evidenced by El General's quote in the story about not understanding the lyrics.) As I'm sure you know, Tupac the Rapper was a complicated character and one that I think many devout Muslims (and even many not very devout ones) would have a hard time reconciling with their beliefs. But Tupac the Icon is just a revolutionary on a t-shirt, no different than Che Guevara or whoever else.
...As for who I spoke to, here's a list below:
Big Boss Mascott
Haythem El Mekki (journalist)
Bechir Zioudi (manager/promoter)
MC Hassan (fairly unknown MC from Sidi Bouzid)
Sheb Karim (rai singer)
Sofien Cherni (video director/studio owner)
Sofien Siala (manager for El General and Psyco-M)
Raw Poetix guys
There were a few other guys who I spoke to for just a few minutes here or there or who were sitting in during my interviews with other people and chimed in, but that's a list of most of the people I spoke to.