Inside Tunisia’s Hip-Hop Revolution
In Libya's neighboring country, politically-minded rappers can take credit for overthrowing a longstanding government.
A rapper named El General posted a song to his Facebook page that became the anthem to his country’s revolution. David Peisner travels to Tunisia to see how hip-hop brought down a dictator.
The most dangerous rapper in the world sleeps in a narrow twin bed in a small room he shares with his brother in a tidy, comfortable home on the outskirts of Sfax, an industrial port city in central Tunisia. The comforter is decorated with pictures of teddy bears, rocking horses, and a red wagon adorned with the words BEAR EXPRESS. His brother’s identical bed sits four inches away. On the morning I visit, he walks out of his house into the dusty, sunbaked street wearing a black T-shirt, black sweatpants, and flip-flops. The unassuming 22-year-old, who is known to his parents as Hamada Ben Amor and to the world at large as El General, looks groggy and tells me, through an interpreter, that he just woke up. He shows me to his room and stands in front of a desktop computer for a few moments, updating his Facebook page. Yesterday, the page was hacked and he just relaunched this one last night. So far, more than 30,000 people “like” it.
We walk down a dark hallway to a one-car garage where his silver Peugeot hatchback sits parked. “I’m going to take my driving test soon,” he says, motioning toward the vehicle. “But I haven’t had time.”
For now, the garage serves mainly as a kitchenette. A sink, refrigerator, stove, and cabinets have been installed along the back wall. It’s a bit of a surreal scene on this May morning: The most dangerous rapper in the world sitting in front of the car he can’t drive while buttering a baguette, drinking coffee, and being observed by a writer who’s traveled more than 5,000 miles to see him.
This is life now for El General. This time last year, he was a 21-year-old university student. He was a big Tupac fan who’d recorded his own raps and posted them online, but even within the microscopic universe of Tunisian rap, hardly anyone knew who he was. Then, on November 7, 2010, he uploaded a song called “Rais Lebled” to Facebook. The date was significant: In Tunisia, November 7 was a national holiday commemorating the moment in 1987 when Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ended the 30-year reign of the previous president, Habib Bourguiba, with a bloodless coup. The song, whose title loosely translates as “President of the Country,” is hardly a celebration: Over an eerie synth line and a simple, harrowing beat, El General searingly indicts Ben Ali. “Mr. President, your people are dying,” he rhymes in rough, angry Tunisian Arabic. “They are eating garbage.” He goes on to rail against police brutality, anti-Islamic policies, and institutionalized kleptocracy.
In a dictatorship that tolerated no public dissent, “Rais Lebled” was either uncommonly courageous or unbelievably stupid. As El General’s friend and fellow rapper RTM tells me later, “When Hamada recorded that, 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.”
The song’s low-budget video upped the ante: It opens with archived footage of Ben Ali, looking like someone’s creepy pedophilic uncle, asking a cowering schoolboy, “Why are you worried?” before cutting to El General — his face obscured by a black baseball hat pulled low over his eyes — furiously barking the song into a studio microphone.
“It was my gift to him,” El General tells me with a smile, “in honor of November 7.”
“Rais Lebled” had no official release — that would’ve been impossible in a police state that had banned songs peddling far milder criticisms — but it found an audience online, mostly via Facebook, which had established itself as the main forum for underground rap in Tunisia. Then, on December 17, a 26-year-old fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the provincial government headquarters in the inland city of Sidi Bouzid to protest his mistreatment by the authorities, reportedly at the hands of a local policewoman. With this act, the simmering rage that El General’s tune had tapped into boiled over, igniting a full-on, ?nationwide uprising. Tunisians took to the streets to protest food prices, high unemployment, rampant corruption, and the lack of civil liberties. State security forces responded with batons, tear gas, and occasionally, live ammunition.
El General points me toward a sitting room and we settle onto a long, orange, L-shaped couch. There, he explains how at 5 a.m. on the sixth of January, 30 plainclothes policemen surrounded his house and rustled him out of bed.
“I said the shahada,” he recalls, referring to the expression of faith Muslims often recite in times of stress. “I thought I’d probably be killed.”
He was driven to the Interior Ministry in ?Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, where he spent three days being interrogated. If the idea was to ?silence him and other dissidents, the arrest was a colossal blunder. His family and friends worked to publicize his detention. Soon, street protestors were demanding his release. El General emerged from a three-day stay in government custody as a huge star. “Rais Lebled” went from being a viral hit to something closer to a new national anthem. When Ben Ali fled the country on January 14, El General was perhaps the biggest living icon of the new, free Tunisia — Bouazizi had died on January 4. After being interviewed on Al Jazeera, his story spread. As Tunisia’s uprisings inspired much of the Arab world to follow suit (with varying levels of success), in what became known as the Arab Spring, democracy movements in other countries adopted “Rais Lebled.” Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Bahrain’s capital, ?Manama, chanted it in the streets.
“I wanted to make a strong song and make it reach the president, for him to know what’s happening in our country,” he says. “I expected it might get me in trouble, but I didn’t think the president would be ousted. I didn’t know there would be a revolution.”
When I’d landed in Tunisia a few days earlier, it’d been four months since Ben Ali’s departure. But Tunisia, a former French colony of roughly ten million people jammed between Algeria and Libya on the northern coast of Africa, remained in a state of edgy uncertainty. Roughly 300 people had died in the revolution and hundreds more had been tortured by members of what’s known here and in other Arab countries as the “security services” — a catchall designation that includes uniformed police, plainclothes secret police, and various other shadowy government-sponsored thugs. The initial enthusiasm at having thrown off the shackles of this dictatorship had begun to fade. Now there was a gnawing anxiety over continued economic problems, the potential rise of Islamic fundamentalism in what is perhaps the region’s most modern, secular ?society, and the prospect that those connected to Ben Ali and his former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD, were not only avoiding prosecution but returning to power.
There were protests almost every day. Two days before my arrival, a rally along Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis’ wide, Champs-Elysees-like main boulevard, turned ugly when police beat demonstrators with metal bars and arrested dozens. Journalists seemed a particular target — 15 had been attacked. In the wake of the violence, the government imposed a 9 p.m. curfew in Tunis.
If this wasn’t troubling enough, the uprising in neighboring Libya had devolved into an all-out civil war. Libyans were streaming across the border by the thousands to escape the mayhem being unleashed by forces loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Tunisians were mostly welcoming of the refugees, though they were understandably less welcoming of the ordnance from Gaddafi’s battalions that had begun falling with some frequency in Tunisian territory.
On the afternoon I arrive, the scene on Avenue Bourguiba reflects the confusion and uneasiness. A two-story corrugated tin wall erected at the front of a construction site serves as a makeshift monument to the revolution. The barrier is riddled with graffiti, mostly in Arabic and French (VIVE LA LIBERTE!), with one slogan scrawled in English in two different spots: THANK YOU FACEBOOK. Nearby, mounds of fetid garbage pile up on corners — the trash collectors are on strike.
Other parts of the boulevard appear under siege. Dozens of police officers cluster near their paddy wagons on the tree-lined walkway that runs down the middle of the road. The hulking seven-story gray edifice of the dreaded Interior Ministry — home for years to Ben Ali’s secret police — is ringed by concertina wire and guarded by tanks. It’s one of several buildings on the street being watched over by conspicuously armed personnel. In the shadow of this imposing security, most in the city seem unperturbed. The cafés that line the sidewalks are filled, the shops are all open, and the maze of stalls in the medina at the end of the boulevard is relatively bustling.
PLAYLIST: The Soundtrack to Tunisia’s Revolution
The day before I visit El General’s house in Sfax, I meet him at one of those cafés. He’s in Tunis to pick up a visa so he can travel to Europe for concerts in the coming months. Being the flesh-and-blood symbol of a once-in-a-generation geopolitical sea change is good for business. When I find him, he is being interviewed by a Belgian film crew. His manager, an older balding man who moonlights as an accordion teacher, tells me there’s also a radio interview scheduled for later.
El General cuts an unlikely figure as a revolutionary. The middle-class son of a hospital medic and a bookstore owner, he’s of average height and build, with a well-groomed look more boyishly charming than ruggedly handsome. Today, he’s wearing a black T-shirt that reads JOIN THE NEW RESISTANCE and features a lone red star, a clear aesthetic nod to the spiritual godfather of young revolutionaries everywhere, Che Guevara. In most of El General’s videos, he flashes angry, serious expressions, but in person, the expression that seems to come most naturally is a bemused smile, as if he can’t quite believe all that’s transpired since January.
“It’s difficult,” he says. “My fame, it all happened in a month. I didn’t expect that.” He mentions more than once, with a combination of befuddlement and self-satisfaction, that Time magazine ranked him higher than Barack Obama in their annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Later, he’ll remove his shoes and show me the bottoms of his feet, which are red and heavily calloused. “You see what the stress and traveling are doing to my feet?”
El General began rapping in 2008, inspired by Tupac, Eminem, and Lotfi Double Kanon, a politically minded Algerian rapper whose music has been wildly influential here.
“I started rapping not for money but just to get my voice across,” he says. “I wanted to focus particularly on politics, and wanted to defend Islam through my music.” Like many Tunisians I spoke to, El General’s worldview is resolutely anti-Zionist, slightly anti-American, and frustrated by years of suppression.
“Ben Ali was against revolutionary rappers,” he continues. “They didn’t give us access to sell CDs or do concerts, so my raps couldn’t really be heard by other people.”
After lunch and El General’s radio interview, I pile into the back of his manager’s green Mercedes alongside our photographer, Kim, with the rapper riding shotgun. As we drive south from Tunis toward Sfax, scraggly green hills gradually turn sandy and brown, and rows upon rows of olive trees line the side of the highway. It’s a quiet ride: El General doesn’t speak English, and even his French seems shaky. He chain-smokes, and then after a spell pulls out his iPhone and scrolls through music on it. When he decides on a song, he leans into the backseat and shows me his selection: Tupac’s “Don’t Sleep.” Kim, who speaks passable Arabic, asks how he understands Tupac if he doesn’t speak English.
“The lyrics don’t matter,” he says with a smile. Then, as if to prove it, he turns back around, puts in his earbuds, closes his eyes, and nods off.
By most popular estimates, 60 percent of the Tunisian population is under 30, and thanks to free, comprehensive schooling, they’re mostly well educated. The health-care system is modern and efficient, the highways, at least between big cities, are well maintained, and Internet access is available almost everywhere. But coupled with raging unemployment, high prices, and a public sphere off-limits to any meaningful criticism during Ben Ali’s time in power, mass frustration, particularly among the youth, was inevitable.
On a clear, hot day, I drive with my interpreter, a genial, erudite university professor named Hammouda Salhi, through the country’s interior toward the revolution’s birthplace, Sidi Bouzid. When you get away from the coast, Tunisia grows more religious, more impoverished, and less European. French begins to disappear from shop signs, roads are worn, and more women are veiled. We stop in a small town called Regueb and pick up an acquaintance of Hammouda’s named Mahfoud. He shows us some of the revolution’s early flash points around Regueb, such as the minaret of the mosque from where government snipers picked off street protestors below. He walks me over to a tiny cigarette shop to show?me a bullet hole in the awning. I poke my head inside — it’s really just a stall, with a space behind it no larger than a broom closet — and discover the young shopkeeper hunched over a laptop, updating his Facebook page.
“Wi-Fi,” he says, motioning to the air around him, as if describing some magical ether.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the recent rise of this virtual infrastructure here. The Internet, and specifically Facebook, loosened the government’s monopoly on information. So, unlike 2008, when the state-run media ignored bread riots in the southern city of Redeyef, protests following Bouazizi’s self-immolation were viewed instantly online, serving to fuel further uprisings and eventually topple the regime.
If Facebook provided the medium that made the revolution possible, underground rap frequently provided the message. When I visit a rapper named Lak3y (pronounced Lak-eye-ee) at his tiny studio in the courtyard of an apartment building in the small Mediterranean city of Bizerte, he tells me about a concert he organized in 2005. At the last minute, representatives of the RCD hijacked the event and hung a youth of the rcd banner over the stage. Lak3y performed his antigovernment rap anyway and ripped down the banner, which earned him a postconcert beatdown from five policemen. In 2010, police warned that if he continued to criticize the government, there would be consequences — not only for him, but also for his family. After El General was arrested in January, Lak3y figured he’d be next, and defiantly recorded a blistering nine-minute song, “Touche Pas á Ma Tunisie” (“Don’t Touch My Tunisia”).
“I had to continue,” he says. “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.”
Rap is still relatively new in Tunisia. Although there’s anecdotal evidence of a few lonely enthusiasts spitting rhymes as early as the late 1980s, hardly anyone paid attention until at least the late ’90s. Around that time, a few groups such as Wled Bled, T-Men, and the Philosophes built followings despite huge obstacles. Concerts or CDs had to be sanctioned by the government, which suppressed politically incendiary lyrics. The media was controlled by the regime, which meant virtually no access to TV or radio.
The one rapper who began to change all that was Balti, an original member of Wled Bled, who began establishing himself as a solo performer in the early 2000s. Rhyming with a deep, authoritative flow, he toned down the political rhetoric to avoid the government’s wrath, pairing crowd-pleasing lyrics about love, personal struggle, and family with relatively slick production heavily influenced by Dr. Dre and Mobb Deep. He soon became Tunisia’s most popular rapper.
I meet him one evening at an upscale rooftop restaurant in the seaside city of Sousse. The area is a tourist hub, and the restaurant — with its black tables, matching chairs, sharp décor, and the faint throb of Sean Kingston wafting in the background — could’ve been airlifted in from South Beach. Balti is a strikingly large man: at least six-and-a-half feet tall and probably 280 pounds, with a large head, stubbled face, and big, sleepy eyes. He says that when he started in the late ’90s, “no one believed in rap.”
“It was as if we were planting things in the desert,” he says. “No one understood. No one paid attention. People laughed at us. There was no Facebook. We had to strive to look for information, to look for the culture.”
In 2005 another Tunisian rapper, Férid El Extranjero, released the song “3bed Fi Terkina” (“In an Open-Air Prison”), which criticized the police and became an underground hit, drawing the government’s attention. Férid had emigrated to Spain, but many other rappers, including Balti, were subsequently hauled into the Interior Ministry for questioning. The investigations had a chilling effect, and rappers essentially were forced to choose between two paths: either make commercial rap, which would avoid taboo subjects and offer at least the chance to earn a living, or go underground, rap freely, and risk poverty, imprisonment, or worse. Balti chose the former. As he grew more popular, government officials and their business associates saw him as a potential revenue source. “I’d play for 12,000 people,” he explains. “Tickets might be ten dinars [about $7] each. I’d get 2,000 [dinars] and the rest would go to the Ministry.” Police told him that as long as his songs steered clear of politics and religion, his career could thrive. It did, in ways that now have come back to haunt him.
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.
“The grievances against Balti are numerous,” says Haythem El Mekki, a journalist who has reported extensively about rap. “First, he was the government’s favorite rapper. He did many concerts for them. Besides that, there were pictures of him on the yacht of Imad Trabelsi, Leila’s nephew, who is a big figure of corruption.”
Balti denies being allied with the former regime. He admits to playing RCD-sponsored shows, but says, “I work the art for the art, regardless of political identities. I perform music. I don’t care about politics.” He chalks up the criticism from other rappers to envy.
“I’d like to add something else,” he says. “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 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.
“I couldn’t perform a song like ‘Rais Lebled,'” he says. “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?
“Pay attention to this because this is the most important thing,” he continues, bringing his face inches from my own. “I am not Che Guevara.”
The criticism has affected Balti’s career, says Amine Lamari, a manager for his California-based record label, Raw Poetix, which has an office in Tunis. “Not a lot of people come to the concerts now,” says Laamari. “He’s not selling a lot of albums. When you sit with Balti, people still take pictures with him, but you can see a big difference. Before, it was better.”
There is an alternate narrative that’s gained currency here, in which El General isn’t the most dangerous rapper in the world — but the luckiest. He was hardly the first antigovernment rapper to get arrested, just the first to get famous for it.
Fils2Bled, a Sousse-based MC, says El General’s greatest asset wasn’t courage or talent, but timing. “After the revolution started, ‘Rais Lebled’ became popular and he received Al Jazeera’s backing and that video clip made him successful. Anyone could’ve achieved that success.”
DJ Costa, a rap veteran from the Tunis suburb of Manouba, agrees. “It’s not a real success because [El General] doesn’t know the basics of rap,” he says. “He has only one topic: the revolution. His success is bound to a period of no more than this summer.”
Tunisian rap is rife with the kind of petty jealousies that have long permeated American hip-hop, and some of the jabs at El General are undoubtedly the product of that. El General will likely never write anything else as influential as “Rais Lebled,” but that, perhaps, misses the point. To live in a Tunisia where his biggest worry is whether he’s a one-hit wonder will be the ultimate validation of that one hit. For his part, El General is dismissive of the criticism. As he sits on a couch in his home in Sfax, 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.”
The plausibility of this hypothetical turn of events is less important than the prospects for the very real future of Tunisia. As an interim government struggles to keep the country from collapsing — elections originally scheduled for July have been postponed until October — El General and other rappers find themselves suddenly in a position to help shape the path forward for Tunisia, if not the region.
“Now everyone is looking at rappers as the new elite of the country,” says the journalist 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.”
Several parties recently have tried to align themselves with rappers to co-opt their revolutionary cred. The first concert El General performed after Ben Ali’s ouster, for more than 10,000 people in Tunis, was hailed in the international press as a triumphant moment for him, and for rap. But there was more to it than that.
“They told me the concert was for charity, but in fact it was organized by the PDP,” El General says, referring to the centrist Progressive Democratic Party. “I was deceived. I got angry. I want to remain independent.”
He’s begun to recognize that all the rhetoric about newfound freedoms here, and even his status as a national hero, won’t necessarily protect him from those who’d prefer that he just shut up. “I’m now facing some problems ?because the interim government doesn’t want me to deal with political issues,” he says. “They may not arrest me, but they can kill me.”
Since the revolution, El General has released songs encouraging other uprisings around the Middle East. As conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen have grown protracted and bloody, his example seems to have taken hold. Within days of the first violent crackdowns in Syria, an anonymous rapper released “Biyan Raqam Wahid” (“Communique No. 1″), calling for revolution against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Anti-Gaddafi songs by Libyan rappers such as Ibn Thabit and MC Swat have gained traction online. The fallen dictators in Tunisia and Egypt stand as cautionary tales to anyone who’d dismiss these as lonely voices pissing in the wind.
El General himself has yet to perform anywhere else in the Arab world, partially for fear of his own safety, but he remains a potentially influential power broker. In such a volatile region, at such an uncertain time, that can be a dangerous role to play. “I’m proud to be the symbol and the soundtrack to the revolution,” he says. “I know many people are encouraging me to go further with it and others are against it.
“I’m worried, because if people know I’m against their interests, they may do something bad to me,” he continues, slipping off his shoes and once again examining the calluses on the bottoms of his feet.
“But I have a responsibility now.”