< North Africa's Hip Hop Protest Music


Friday, February 11, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In 2009, in response to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s first speech to the United Nations, a group of Libyan exiles created an organization called Khalas, which means “enough,” the goal, to bring awareness of the struggles again Libya’s dictatorial regime not only to other Libyans in the western world but to the English-speaking world at large. In the wake of revolution in Tunisia and Egypt and protests elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, the Khalas team recognized one surprising common thread in the voices of discontent, rap music. Across the region, rap artists were providing the soundtrack to protests in the street. Khalas has curated a mixtape of some of the best new protest music and is now hosting the mix on its website, Enoughgaddafi.com. Abdulla Darrat is one of the founders of Khalas. Abdulla, welcome to the show.

ABDULLA DARRAT: Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's start by just listening to some Arabic hip-hop.


MUSIC UP AND UNDER] All right, it’s kind of hard for me to relate to that, partly because my Arabic is a little thin, and also because I'm - old. [LAUGHS] So what have we just heard?

ABDULLA DARRAT: In this part of the song we have one of the legends of North African hip-hop. His name is Lotfi Double Kanon, who’s an Algerian hip-hop artist who’s been rhyming since the early '90s. And in this song, he’s writing a letter to Bouteflika, who is the president of Algeria. And he’s not attacking him. What he’s doing is he’s trying to reason with him. He’s saying to him, listen, I'm not here swinging swords, I'm not here bringing you gossip from a newspaper, I'm not here trying to set a new fire. I'm here to give you a message, a message from the youth, and our youth sees their future as bleak, and they see that the people standing in power are there because of nepotism or people who are in those positions have bought into those positions. And if you don't do something about that, you’re gonna have problems.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, you are part of the Libyan Diaspora.


BOB GARFIELD: And no rapper would take the risk of giving Moammar Gadhafi that kind of heads-up and putting his name on it, right?



BOB GARFIELD: I mean, that, that’s a, a one-way ticket to prison.

ABDULLA DARRAT: In Libya, the situation internally is different than in some of the surrounding areas, which is what presents more challenges to the calls for protest inside the country, where there is no organized internal opposition in, inside of Libya. All are headquartered outside the country. Meanwhile, what you do have on the inside is individuals speaking with their voice, and they have suffered jailings, executions, other types of brutality. The artist that we have on the CD, his name is Ibn Thabit, who is the only one who is anonymous. We only know him through his pseudonym.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The title to the song is Hadef Al-Assasi, which means “the principal objective.” And in this song, he kind of outlines his theory, basically, on how change will happen in Libya.


[RAP SONG UP AND UNDER] And what he says, and he’s playing off the word of “Isla,” a word on a lot of people’s tongues, which is about reform, and he says, the person who wants reform needs to start with himself. He also refers a lot to the role that he thinks Islam, in his case, should play in that, and not in the kind of stereotypical way that westerners tend to think about Islam as a thing that suffocates and represses, but in a way that liberates.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, let me ask you about that because as the West observes what’s happening in the Arab world right now, there’s deep ambivalence because, of course, everybody’s always delighted to see an authoritarian, corrupt, repressive regime collapse. There’s always the fear of the bogeyman, Islamism, and the worry that the new Tunisia, the new Egypt, someday the new Libya will be just larger, better-armed versions of Hezbollah and Hamas and Iran. What is that notion of Islam that is threaded through this rap music, if it somehow represents a wide swath of Arab youth?

ABDULLA DARRAT: In each artist you really start to see the specificities of the place that he’s from. For example, in - in Libya and Tunisia and Algeria, countries that are overwhelmingly Muslim, there’s a lot of reference to Islam. In the Egyptian songs, the artists refer to Islam but, at the same time, for example, Ahmed Rock, in one of the songs on the mixtape, he says that this country is for Christians and Muslims alike. And that, I think, is what we saw in these youth movements, particularly in Egypt, maybe one of the most beautiful and poetic displays of civil disobedience, Christians defending Muslims as they stopped to pray or neighborhoods organizing in order to defend themselves. One of the reasons why radicalism continues to fester in these parts of the world is not necessarily because the people feel that way, but because even when they get out in the street and they protest and they do everything right, we saw they’re all thwarted by outside forces. The whole world’s eyes were on Egypt. They saw in a few days the horror that has been the reality of people in this region for years. We saw everything that is wrong with these countries. We saw the corruption. The thugs were paid, after all. We saw the treachery. They were Egyptians, weren't they? Everybody knew who they were. But that doesn't matter. The regime is interested in showing people that it can make the dog do tricks. And the more that western powers and the more that forces inside the country continue to throw up barriers against that type of peaceful protest or that type of solidarity, the more they will radicalize people. And the hip-hop artists in the mixtapes, they talk a lot about that. And what their songs talk about are the way that Islam can make a person more honest, more loving to, more caring for his fellow citizenry.

BOB GARFIELD: How do the artists disseminate their messages? Can they sell CDs? Are they – they're not on the radio, are they?

ABDULLA DARRAT: All the ones that we've presented are on Facebook. They also put out YouTube videos of their songs. I'm sure a lot of people saw the YouTube video of El General, Rayes Lebled, after he was arrested in Tunisia. His video went viral and a lot of people heard his music, and it kind of catapulted him into a really powerful voice in his country.


SONG UP AND UNDER] He’s back, and two of the songs that we have on the album are post his release. His following seems to be growing regularly, as do a lot of the other emcees that we presented, because they do very successfully put into words a lot of the sentiments that young people in the area are carrying with them, and they're voicing really the struggle of, of everyday people. We heard on February 2nd there were calls for protests in Syria. Nothing happened, and a lot of people have been talking about why that’s been the case. And some theories suggest that the reason that people didn't get on the streets is because the calls for protests weren't giving people tangible things with which they can oppose the regime. They were talking about more religious issues, rather than talking to people about the ways that they struggle every day. And you see how, let’s say, for example, in Libya, you see how billions of dollars are pouring into this country? Don't you think it’s unjust that the average Libyan, 30 percent of them are unemployed? Infrastructure, public services are subpar. Isn't that unfair? Instead of talking to people about a very abstract set of ideas, these emcees give people those kind of kernels. That kind of tangible criticism goes a long way, in terms of sparking people’s interest and giving them really a voice.

BOB GARFIELD: What are the chances that the expression of rage that you hear in North African hip-hop is going to result in any kind of political change in the region?

ABDULLA DARRAT: I think these are cultural forces. These aren't political forces. These are young people who are using their skills, their talents to not only make others aware, but give people a set of ideas, you know, like an Ramy Donjewan song, Ded El 7koma, which means “against the government.”

[SINGING UP AND UNDER] He basically just gives us a laundry list of grievances.

[RAMY DONJEWAN SINGING DED EL 7KOMA] He's saying, I'm against the government, I'm against the ruler and I'm against its authority. I'm against bullying, I'm against oppression, and the rope of injustice is long. I'm against the government, and I have a thousand reasons. And then he lists, and he says, “Your blood, they've been spilling it. Your religion, they've been targeting it. Your portion of this world, they swallowed it.” What the world really needs to understand about the struggle in these regions is there is a youth that has hope. They have optimism about the future, but they see a lot of obstacles in their way, obstacles that are internal, in that the people that they see who are kind of ruining that potential of the youth are ruining it through corruption, first and foremost, and - and they see outside forces who continue to intervene.

BOB GARFIELD: You put this mixtape together about a week ago, as the events in Cairo were just beginning to come to a head, but I wonder whether the Libyan rapper Ibn Thabit has not only been further emboldened to rhyme about hopelessness and despair, but to actually foment revolution.

ABDULLA DARRAT: In the song Al-So-aal, which we have on the album – the title means “The Question” – he says, my friend, you asked me a question and I'm still confused about it. And the question is, will Libyans stand up, like we saw in Tunisia. And he goes on to say, these are the reasons why we should, and I know ultimately it may not be next week, it may not be the week after that, but it will happen. One day, it will happen.

BOB GARFIELD: Abdulla, thank you so much.

ABDULLA DARRAT: Thanks a lot, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Abdulla Darrat is a founder of Khalas.