The Grand (Hip-Hop) Chessboard: Race, Rap and Raison d’Etat

"A Scholar's Take" in white text above a white pen outline

The Grand (Hip-Hop) Chessboard: Race, Rap and Raison d’Etat

In November 2006, the film The Making of a Kamikaze by Nouri Bouzid, a respected Tunisian director, was screened to great fanfare at the Carthage Film Festival. The film, a collaboration between the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Tunisian Ministries of Interior, Defense and Culture, examines the grievances of Tunisian youth through the story of a young hip-­hopper named Chokri, better known by his b-­boy moniker, Bahta. The film opens in a coastal town where Bahta and his crew—made up of other unemployed youths—roam the streets, hounded by baton-­wielding police, looking for a spot to practice. The atmosphere is tense, the frustration palpable. The United States has just invaded Iraq, and satellite-­channel broadcasts in homes and cafés speak of occupation and resistance. A gangly, volatile youth, Bahta splits his time watching television, dancing and seeking a boat to smuggle him across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. But due to the Iraq war, the Italians have tightened their naval patrols; very few harraga (boat people) are getting across. As doors close in his face, and police maltreatment increases, Bahta turns to petty crime, angry outbursts and wacky behavior, in one scene moonwalking across a café floor in a stolen police uniform, loudly promising all the patrons passports so they can travel legally. He eventually falls in with a crowd of Islamists, who drill him with sermons about the sinfulness of music, democracy and the West, wooing him toward martyrdom.

Making was mauled by French critics—“unconvincing,” “politically correct”—and not without reason: The characters are caricatures, the break-­dance scenes are routine and the pace plodding. The Islamists’ tirades, which aim to show precisely how a suicide bomber is made, are in particular need of editing. Finally, the film’s posing of hip-­hop and Islamism as mutually exclusive opposites is very simplistic, overlooking the dense relationship between the two countercultures: Islamists listen to hip-­hop, and rappers with Islamist—even jihadi—sympathies abound. The plot implies that both countercultures are a reaction to authoritarianism, but as the film was produced and marketed by organs of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s police state, the question arises whether the regime’s preferred counterculture—hip-­hop—has become a mechanism of state control. The most interesting parts of Making come when Lotfi Abdelli, who plays Bahta, drops out of character and storms off the set to confront filmmaker Bouzid. The ensuing grainy, documentary-­style footage purports to show “the making of ” the film itself. Abdelli asks why he, an up-­and-­coming actor, is being told that dancing is haram and why his character is being turned into a terrorist. “Where are you taking this film? You’re using this film to attack Muslims.” Worried it will land him in trouble, he shouts, “I’m not your puppet!” Bouzid calmly explains his secular worldview—religion and politics should be kept separate—and Abdelli resumes his role.

It is unclear why Bouzid inserted these awkward snippets. Perhaps he did so to signal that he had little wiggle room in reflecting the Ben Ali regime’s secular outlook and the Culture Ministry’s vision of hip-­hop as a counter to jihadi thought. The film went on to win the regime’s accolades, including the Golden Tanit at the Carthage exposition, which is put on by the state. Praised for its exposure of the “process of brainwashing” used by jihadi groups, Making would be shown in European and North African cities. The Pakistani Ministry of Culture co-­sponsored a screening at the Tunisian embassy in Islamabad. 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.

What Making left out was not just the possibility of Islamist hip-­hop, but also of youth music directed against the regime, and it was precisely those two trends that rose to the fore as Ben Ali’s dominion began to crumble in late December 2010. The regime had long harassed dissident rappers, banning Mohammed Jandoubi—aka Psycho M—an artist with Islamist sympathies, from the airwaves, in part for a track exhorting listeners to pick up Kalashnikovs and shoot Nouri Bouzid for his negative depiction of Islam in Making. In December, Psycho M, who had a large following on Facebook, stirred more controversy with “Manipulation,” in which he angrily attacked Western imperialism, official Tunisian laïcité, the country’s personal status code (which bans the headscarf in schools) and a range of secular figures from Voltaire and Marx to Nasser and Atatürk. By the time mass protests spread in early January, other Tunisian rappers with varying political perspectives—DJ Costa, Armada Bizerta, Laky—had posted tracks on Facebook capturing the growing rage and memorializing Mohamed Bouazizi, the man who had set himself on fire. The regime swiftly issued warnings to the artists and shut down their Facebook pages. At 3 am on January 6, the police burst into the home of Hamada Ben Amor, 22, the rapper known as El General. His track, “Mr. President” (Rais Lebled)—an open letter to Ben Ali excoriating the lack of freedom and anti-­veiling laws—had become the unofficial anthem of the revolt. Ben Amor was locked up for three days. The authorities banned his song, blacked out his MySpace page and cut off his cell phone service, but Al Jazeera had already snatched up the recording. It would resound from Tahrir Square in Egypt to Pearl Circle in Bahrain.

Much has been said about the role of rappers in the Arab revolts. French media spoke of “le printemps des rappeurs,” and Time magazine gave the title “Rage, Rap and Revolution” to its cover story on the “Arab youthquake.” Time would go on to name Ben Amor one of the “100 Most Influential People of 2011,” ranking him higher than President Barack Obama. It is true that, as security forces rampaged in the streets, artists in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi were writing lyrics and cobbling together protest footage, beats and rhymes, which they uploaded to proxy servers. The impromptu songs were then played at gatherings and solidarity marches in London, New York and Washington; exile opposition groups and Muslim communities responded with musical tributes. Five Muslim American rappers fronted by Omar Offendum uploaded the track “#jan25” in support of the Tahrir Square protesters on February 6; the song received 40,000 hits on YouTube overnight. “I heard ‘em say the revolution won’t be televised,” Omar led off. “Al Jazeera proved ‘em wrong; Twitter has ‘em paralyzed.” The “rap loop” between protesters and the Muslim diaspora galvanized youth on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, but the role of music should not be exaggerated: Hip-­hop did not cause the revolts anymore than Twitter or Facebook did. The countries in the region with the most vibrant hip-­hop scenes, Morocco and Algeria, have not seen revolts. Moreover, the cross-­border spread of popular movements is not a new phenomenon in the Arab world; the uprisings of 1919, which engulfed Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, occurred long before the advent of the Internet, social media or rap.

What is intriguing is that Arab states saw hip-­hop as a threat, monitoring and censoring local rappers, long before the 2011 upheavals began. And they were not alone. In the last decade, as hip-­hop has emerged as a political force among youth, regimes across the world have intervened to promote some sub-­styles and sideline others, in an attempt to press-­gang the genre to disparate political ends. In 2002, the Cuban Ministry of Culture founded the Cuban Rap Agency, along with the magazine Movimiento, to create a “revolutionary” hip-­hop sound that would give voice to the “downtrodden of the world,” and to make sure tracks suspected of “ideological deviation” were given no airtime. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez funds hip-­hop schools around the country, and invites Bolivarian raperos onto his Sunday television show, “Aló, Presidente.” In the US, Michael Steele has tried to give the Republican Party a “hip-­hop makeover” to bring its ideas to “urban-­suburban hip-­hop settings.” The US Army, in partnership with The Source magazine, has used hip-­hop culture in its “Taking It to the Streets” campaign to recruit African-­American youth. Governments are also sending hip-­hop culture to far-­flung corners of the globe. From its putative birthplace in the Bronx, hip-­hop has traveled to become, at once, a means of protest and a tool of public diplomacy, counter-­terrorism, democracy promotion and economic development. It is in the post-­September 11 “war on terror” and in Western states’ dealings with Muslim-­majority states and Muslims in Europe that government mobilization of hip-­hop is most noticeable. While European states are using the genre to integrate and “moderate” their Muslim populations, the US has made hip-­hop part of its outreach to the Muslim world. The very music blamed for a range of social ills at home—violence, misogyny, consumerism, academic underperformance—is being deployed abroad in the hopes of making America safer and better liked. The officials behind the sundry hip-­hop diplomacy initiatives invariably point to the success of jazz diplomacy during the Cold War as evidence of the “smart power” potential of music….

To read the rest of this article, please see JSTOR. This article was published in the Fall 2011 issue of the Middle East Report.

Hishaam Aidi is a fellow at ISPU and a Lecturer in Discipline of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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