Prior to the revolution well-known Tunisian rappers shunned “taboo topics” such as politics, criticizing Ben Ali’s regime or expressing dissatisfaction with government institutions. Most of the songs were about love, break ups and societal issues that were not related to politics. The rap songs that were “approved” by the former regime were shown on the official state media such as television and/or radio stations. Nevertheless, already back then there were some rappers who did actually rap about topics that could and would get them into trouble with the Tunisian authorities.
Most famous is probably Ferid el Extranjero (Farid the Foreigner), a Tunisian rapper that has been living in Spain for quite some years and who released back in 2005 “the people are isolated” (l’abed fi tarkina). A rap song in which he openly and in Tunisian dialect (and sometimes foul language) criticized Ben Ali’s regime of being oppressive, injust and full of corruption. The video of his rap song speaks for itself, with many images of Ben Ali’s secret police and poor Tunisians living “a shitty life in poverty and misery whereas they are not allowed to say anything” (as he mentions in his song). After the revolution Farid mentioned in a tv-show that he gave his song to a friend, and once he was back in Spain (after a holiday in Tunisia) he told him to release it on the internet. Soon his parents and family were harrassed by the secret police in trying to persuade him to go back to his country so that the secret services could get their hand on him. Which he did not.
Although Farid’s rap song was not spread by the official (highly restricted) Tunisian media, it did become popular through the internet among a lot of young Tunisians. Some of them even took the risk of downloading the song unto their mobile phone and listen to it in secret.
Rap & the revolution
After approximately three weeks of demonstrations across Tunisia rapper El General released a song in which he turned openly to former president Ben Ali, voiced his frustration at his oppressive rule, and rapped why people were out on the streets.
The song, “mister President”, became well-known among young Tunisians because many felt he was speaking for all of the Tunisian people in their growing dissatisfaction during Ben Ali’s 23-year rule. Soon after his song was released the rapper was arrested by the secret services and for days his family didnt know anything about his whereabouts. Soon after however, Ben Ali would fled the country and things in Tunisia were turned upside down; the revolution had led to the fall of the regime. El General became well-known and was invited in many TV program’s and news channels to share his story and why he released his rap song.
Rap after the revolution: disillusion & imprisonment
After the revolution the Tunisian rap scene has become highly involved in politics. Whereas before the revolution it was a taboo to be left aside, after the revolution each rapper shared his ideas, dreams and dissatisfaction with current politicians through one of his songs. From criticizing the previous (post-revolution) interim-government, to criticizing religious extremists in another song or “Arab backwardness”, as Guito N did. To arguing that “nothing has changed” as Hamzaoui did, or advocating the return of the Islamic Caliphate as rapper Psyco M often mentions in one of his songs. From being disillusioned by what the revolution has failed to improve (and possible even made worse), to calling the revolution a lie and a divided Tunisian people that is left alone in difficult times. From an outcry to politicians that they “will be hold accountable for what they fail to achieve”, to openly calling the police “dogs”. As rapper “Weld el 15” did.
However, this seemed to be a bridge too far. Weld el 15 was soon arrested for his rap song on charges of “insulting state institutions and “conspiracy to commit violence”. Insulting state institutions such as the police is a crime according to (contemporary) Tunisian law. Initially he was sentenced to two years in prison for “threatening and insulting police”. After a public outcry and sympathizers of Weld el 15 clashing with police outside the court house it was eventually reduced on appeal to a six-month suspended term. Nevertheless the case led to a scandal at the time, with members of the opposition and human rights groups calling it an attack on freedom of speech.
The case of Weld el 15 shows that freedom of expression is in some cases still limited, although civil society seems to be active in avoiding that freedom of expression might be censured again. Although the government would argue that is not necessarily the case regarding Weld el 15 because he “conspired to commit violence” in his rap song. Nevertheless, the law on criminalizing “insulting government institutions” can be interpreted in such a way that freedom of expression become a hollow phrase. Although the current Tunisian law has been inherited from the former Ben Ali regime it remains to be seen whether the new (almost-to-be-finished) constitution will not contain the same limitation on freedom of expression. There seems to be some support for the law to make sure the police force stays a “respected institution”. The force itself has stated it will become active in trying to preserve the law in the new constitution, although it is not clear what the bigger Tunisian’s parties stance is on preserving the law in the new constitution.