Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ibn Thabit, Libya's Leading Rapper, Retires from Hip-Hop

Note: I'm happy to announce that the wonderful Muftah.org has brought me on board and made me a contributing blogger. It's quite an honor see my blog's name next to The Moor Next Door, Kamil Pasha, and Muftah's other superstar contributing bloggers, so I'm very grateful for the opportunity.

Ibn Thabit, Libya's leading rapper, announced his retirement from hip hop this week (video here). Although Ibn Thabit is largely unknown by the Western media, he's almost universally known among the Libyan diaspora and has a big fan base in Libya itself. Ibn Thabit is the person who first got me interested in Arabic hip hop, so it's a tough moment for me and for many other fans of his as well. He doesn't give many details about his motivation or future plans in his video, but he did say this: he never wanted his music to bring him fame or money. His only goal was to help Libya overthrow Gaddafi's regime (he's not kidding - every song of his is political and Libya-focused). Now, he says, he wants to help build a new Libya in a different way. On Twitter, he wrote:
for peeps that know me, this is not gonna be a big surprise. for everyone else, jawdropper...All praise to The Merciful. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders.
In 2008, Ibn Thabit began posting songs on YouTube that denounced the government of Muammar al-Gaddafi and called for its overthrow. The pseudonym he chose suggests both deep piety and a respect for the wordsmith's craft, for Hassan Ibn Thabit was the favorite poet of the Prophet Muhammad . Attaching his real name to his work would have led to certain arrest and torture, for Gaddafi's Libya was one of the world's most suffocating, oppressive, and arbitrary police states. Gaddafi even banned all foreign language instruction in Libya from 1986 until the mid-1990s. When 2011 began, despite Libya's great oil wealth, unemployment was at 33% and 67% of Libyans were living on less than $2 a day. This was the situation that inspired both Ibn Thabit's music and Libya's revolution. His conversations over the phone and internet with Tripoli residents about what the Tunisian Revolution might mean for Libya are what inspired the song "The Question," which he released in late January. On February 14, 2011, one day before the revolution's first protests began, Ibn Thabit released, "A Call to the Youth of Libya" (click here for the full lyrics). He has so much to say that he doesn't even bother with a chorus - the entire song is verse:


When Tribute FM was founded in Benghazi in May, the number of requests for Ibn Thabit songs dwarfed all others. In an interview with Tribute in May, Ibn Thabit said, "I get people telling me all the time, like, old timers! Their parents and even their grandparents, you know, are listening to my music and, to be honest with you, its shocking. I would never even have imagined." Professional producers from all over the world volunteered to help him. When Tribute FM asked him why he raps almost exclusively in Arabic, he replied, "Well, first of all...I really can't rap that well in English. Honestly, it's all for the Libyan people. I'm not trying to reach out to people somewhere else...to a market or anything like that. I'm just trying to, you know, communicate with my people." Ibn Thabit is being quite modest here. His English is flawless and "Lookin for Freedom," his only song with English lyrics, is one of his best (click here for the full lyrics). But the first rule of any form of expression is "know your audience," and Ibn Thabit certainly does.


Over the past four years, Ibn Thabit routinely took incredibly dangerous risks, but he always managed to come out okay somehow. In May, he told Tribute FM that he moved back and forth between Libya and abroad, where he had a job that requires "a lot of driving." In "Shukrun," he taunts his enemies by rapping:
How many times have the people who know me warned me!
They told me [Gaddafi's men] would butcher me if only they discovered me.
You think I was distributing my music from far away?
From my hands, I would give out CDs to those who know my face.
It seems that he visited America in 2009 and helped found met up with Khalas! (EnoughGaddafi.com). In 2010, he was briefly detained in Ras Jdir, but his jailers couldn't figure out who he really was and let him free. A friend who was captured by Gaddafi forces during the spring later told Ibn Thabit that Abdullah Sanussi, the chief of Libya's intelligence service, personally interrogated him about Ibn Thabit's real identity. In July, Ibn Thabit joined up with rebels in the Nafusa Mountains and served with them on the front lines until the fall of Tripoli in a logistical, non-combat role. He documented the Battle of Tikout for EnoughGaddafi.com and proved one of Twitter's most reliable sources of information on front line movements and the final battles in Zawiya and Tripoli. He managed to keep his identity hidden until mid-September, when a miscommunication led the @live2tripoli people to mistakenly include footage of Ibn Thabit in the first "Mabruk el Horria" video they posted to YouTube.



At the time, Gaddafi was still free and his supporters and officials were still fighting on in Bani Walid, Sirte, Fezzan, and in small pockets of Tripoli, so Ibn Thabit wanted to wait to release the footage until the NTC had won its final victory. The @live2tripoli people quickly replaced the YouTube video with the Ibn Thabit artwork and the rapper asked his fans not to circulate his on the internet. The cat was already out of the bag, of course. Libyan girls posting lovey-dovey, heart-filled photos of Ibn Thabit became a running joke in the Libyan Twittersphere. Fortunately, nothing bad happened because of the release. Ibn Thabit formally revealed his identity (although not his real name) in a "Happy Eid!" message in early November. At the end, he announces that he and his colleagues must delay a planned concert in Tripoli's Fashloum neighborhood because of logistical challenges (I don't know whether they still plan to host it or not). Here's the video.

Ibn Thabit's music ranges all the way from love song (Tripoli is Calling, Libya: A Love Song) to diss (Shukrun, Shayateen Al Inss) to celebration (Misrata, Mabruk el Horria, Benghazi) to mourning (Martyrs, Shohada2na) to Arabic (Western Mountains) to R&B (Tassa 7amra, La Shek) to gangsta (Temla, Lookin for Freedom) to whimsical (Hallucination Pills, Warrior Song). He has some of the most advanced flows and lyrics around and his skills only improved as time went on. When he met up with MC Swat in Tripoli in September, it took them only 90 minutes to compose the lyrics to "La Shek" from scratch (click here to listen). In Shayteen Al Inss, where he blasts Gaddafi, the pro-Gaddafi forces, and Gaddafi's "leftist" fellow travelers, he delivers the equivalent of a 1,300 word essay (in English) in about six minutes. Isn't rap great? What other genre can give you the equivalent an entire Jadaliyya or Muftah article in a single song? Most Arabic pop songs, which tend to repeat their verses as well as their choruses, have maybe one-tenth the textual volume of that.

Like almost all revolutionary artists who rap in Arabic, Ibn Thabit distributes his music for free online. As Mark Levine argues, the uncommodified, do-it-yourself character of revolutionary Arabic hip hop gives it “the aura” of pre-modernity artistic expression.  This aura, which "previously had given art such aesthetic, and thus social power by highlighting its singularity, irreplaceable and incommensurable value, was for all practical purposes lost" because of the commercialization of the music industry in the 20th century. That's a really complicated way of saying, "Arabic rap is awesome because its rappers aren't sell-outs." Commercialization inevitably leads artists to compromise their politics and their message because every music industry is run by rich, powerful people with a huge investment in the status quo. Ibn Thabit's awareness of this must have contributed to his decision to retire from the rap game.

Ibn Thabit's songs have three main aims: to tear down Gaddafi's regime, to celebrate Libya's society, culture, and people, and to explore how to build a new, free Libya. The anchor of his music is his faith. When Tribute FM asked him to give some advice to young listeners about how they can "shoot for the stars," he said, "It's very simple. Pray and give your blessings five times a day, and your Lord will bless you in your work, God willing. I've never missed a prayer one time, God be praised!" The memory of the 1996 massacre at Abu Sleem Prison looms large in his music. He celebrates Libya's history, denounces the West's reconciliation with Gaddafi during the aughts, and maintains that Libya's anti-colonialist spirit is as alive as ever. He continuously affirms his faith in the Libyan people's piety and strength, as he does here in "A Call to the Youth of Libya":
The Libyan people are honorable.
The Libyan people are moral.
The Libyan people: when they get angry they become bad-ass,
they become crazy. The Libyan people have roots.
The Libyan people pray to and give blessings to the Prophet.
One-fifth of the Libyan people are memorizing the Quran.
The Libyan people are not willing to follow Satan
because the grandfathers of the Libyan people, with the rifle and on horseback,
fought against oppression, against the greatest of crimes.
He also promotes national and communal reconciliation in his music by giving shout-outs to all elements of Libyan society - especially tribes and cities with reputations for being pro-Gaddafi. "The man from Sirte is your brother. What can you blame him for? Fitna [strife within the Islamic community] doesn't come from anyone but the government." This issue has particular poignancy for Ibn Thabit because his beloved hometown of Tarhuna had many pro-Gaddafi residents and was one of the last towns to fall to NTC forces. He calls for Gaddafi-era officials to fully pay for their crimes but only in a fair, well-organized judicial framework. He appeals to Libyans' patriotism and Islamic beliefs to argue that vigilantism and revenge killing have absolutely no place in the new Libya. As he told Tribute FM in May:
I got a lot of comments - mostly positive, God be praised - about the song "Western Mountains." But there were a couple negative ones too - and that's fine. I listen to everything that everybody says, and I just want to say to, you know, folks from out there, from Misrata, from anywhere else [that wants] a shout out - I can't really incorporate every single tribe. I can't shout out to everybody. And I do intentionally...shout out to towns that, with all honesty, people call them traitors...and I'm not cool with that...I don't want to be part of creating a vengeful atmosphere when Gaddafi is gone. So I actually intentionally...shout out [to tribes] I've heard things about...because...this whole struggle is against injustice and oppression, you know?...We can't have a majority that's going to go after individuals who are completely innocent.
In "Libya is," which further explores these themes, Ibn Thabit raps in the Tamazight (the Berber language) of the Nafusa Mountains for what might be the first time (click here for the full lyrics).


Although I'm obviously a big fan of his, Ibn Thabit has disappointed me in one major way: he has never devoted an entire song to denouncing the racism and abuse that thousands of black Libyans and foreign nationals have been suffering under Libya's new authorities. Racism, of course, was a terrible problem in Gaddafi's Libya, too. Gaddafi also trained, financed, and unleashed some of Africa's worst war criminals, including Charles Taylor, Foday Sankoh, and the Janjaweed militias of Darfur. But that's no excuse for what's happening in Libya now. To his credit, Ibn Thabit often speaks out against racism in his songs. He always refers to Gaddafi's mercenaries simply as "mercenaries" and never uses racially-loaded tropes such as "African mercenaries" (or worse) to denounce Gaddafi and his crimes. However, given his moral stature, his audience, and his talent for giving a voice to the voiceless, Ibn Thabit could do a great deal right now to help Libya confront the worst injustices to come out of its revolution.

In his music, Ibn Thabit often speaks movingly about the role of Libyan women in Libya's struggle for freedom. He maintains that Libya's women were the key to the revolution and that they were warriors who were ever bit as brave and important as Libya's men. Here is Ms. Revolution (click here for the full lyrics):


While Ibn Thabit's retirement makes many hip hop fans and Libyans sad, they can take heart in the amazing florescence that Libya's hip hop scene has undergone since February and in Libyan artists who are still going strong, such as Khaled M, Junior, Saleh Ghaly, MC Swat, and Malik L. His contribution to that florescence will certainly be one of Ibn Thabit's enduring legacies. I have a feeling that the non-hip-hop legacies he leaves for his country will be even cooler. 

3 comments:

  1. agreed he is amazing mashallah god bless him
    and him retireing was typical ibn-thabit if you listened to his music carefully you would have seen it coming when i first heard the news i walked around moaping for days but now all isgood his songs take me back but i know he is out there building a better libya

    ReplyDelete
  2. A seriously enlightening article! fascinating stuff.

    ReplyDelete