Rap in Tunisia: rogue but masculine

(Photo by Kim Badawi/Getty Images )

By Reem Bin Rajab

As women, we may not find anything representing us in rap songs, and if we rely on a strictly on a gender approach in our evaluation of them, we will surely understand rap as a space for pure masculinity. The expressions and street idioms are infused with patriarchal notions and draw from a dictionary of male authoritarianism. What we fight against every day – violence, sexual harassment, and economic discrimination based on sexual divisions and male superiority – are issues that the genre never addresses or even cares about. We are merely a single metaphorical expression for all that is bad and evil. Women are called ‘whores’ as an insult, and not articulated as shackled beings that suffer under marginalisation, exclusion and exploitation. Rap in Tunisia has been, and still is, men’s domain, and we almost find no serious notable attempts by women to break into this male world other than a few, some of whom even wear a figurative chastity belt and champion male virility and reactionary values.

In Tunisia, we have noted the presence of prominent feminist women who break the male dominant discourse and make a real difference in the dynamics of this art scene. Language has its own aesthetics and suggestive connotations that are formed within the text and its context. That means that we can use the word ‘whore’ and not necessarily be patrons of masculinity. We employ the word in a specific context that allows us to talk about women’s issues or any other issue with vocabulary outside of its semantic field. The problem with rap is that the context of employing insults and metaphors are in the form of contempt towards and diminishment of women, so that some rappers single out women with insulting songs such as Balti in his two songs, Passe Partout and Skerti Raw7i. Balti and his many followers dance to the tunes of these two songs everywhere; on the street, in the toilet, in nightclubs and dark rooms.

Everyone dances and celebrates the triumph of male virility, just as thousands danced in celebration of Tamer Hosni’s song featuring American rapper Snoop Dogg. Snoop Dogg, who has a track record of misogynistic rap, painted a picture of women in the form of rabid dogs. This picture drew on notions born out of gangsta rap, with all its violence, and the ideology and racism of the Nation of Islam movement. Many American feminist organisations have condemned Snoop Dogg, and Oprah Winfrey designated an entire episode of her show to attacking him. Balti may differ from Snoop Dogg in his identity and concerns, but his view of women as being inferior is the same – and unlike Snoop Dogg, the only thorn in Balti’s side were a few Facebook condemnations here and there.

The urgent question we should ask now is the following: How can we be feminists while listening to rap songs that celebrate masculinity?

Starting from this question, can we open the door to discussion about our approach to any work of art? Do we deal with it based on our personal beliefs and our intellectual backgrounds, or should we be stripped of all of this and only care about the aesthetics of this work? I mean, how can we deal, for example, with the songs of the great French artist Michel Sardo, who sang Être une femme, one of the most misogynistic songs which regards women as infinitely inferior to men? Do we exclude all our own standards so as not to fall into subjectivity? Can art bear the thrust of norms at its foundation? Is art that wandering camel in the desert that carries the weight of customs, norms and ethics on its back, trying to get rid of it and fuse into other worlds, or does it start from that weight and remain stuck in their whirlpool? Is art an identification between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, that is, between power and beauty, as Nietzsche thought, or is it a predisposition to discover the truth as Heidegger says? What truth is one that wants to be exposed under the shadow of art?of 

All of the questions that we raise carry a transcendent nature that stems from a special understanding of art and from an evident confusion in attempting to address it. We want to hide it as much as possible, but it floats on the surface every time we find ourselves faced with the dilemma of art and message or art and meaning. Art to us is a continuous search for meaning, the existence of which derives from the meaning that is produced, whether the meaning is intellectual – that is, learning new things and opening horizons for thinking – or emotional – related to the feelings that art evokes in ourselves -, but is this alone enough?

Perhaps this view is narrow and lacking depth, and it is not open to the possibilities of emancipation, but it is part of our understanding of any work of art. Therefore, we do not like rap songs that celebrate masculinity. What we appreciate in any work of art is purely subjective. We cannot move art away from the boundaries of the aesthetic and turn into isolated cocoons that want to ascribe meaning to anything. At the same time, how do we deal with songs that legitimise the authority of the patriarchal system; songs that contain a beautiful melody and a beautiful flow, but are devoid of content and meaning? Any work of art is the result of the artist’s imagination, and rap songs with all the topics that they address are the result of the ideas and fantasies of the rapper. Some rap songs may be trivial, surprising or even amazing, violent or mysterious, but ultimately a work of art that bears the intentions of its owner. We are wandering in the imagination of this or that rapper, and we may indulge in it or shake it off like a fly from our shoulders.

To be a feminist and listen to rap is a difficult but possible task. It is true that rap does not care about us and our concerns. But we, thinking beings who feel the danger like others – the danger of political power – can find refuge in these songs to unleash our repressed and declared anger at the system and from the state apparatus that has no goal other than to control us regardless of our gender. Rap responds to the violence of the state with stronger violence in words that do not make room for neutrality or appeasement, words which aim is to expose reality and the ugliness of regimes that have excessively restricted the freedoms of their societies.

Vulgarity in rap

Insofar as rap reflects the rapper’s thoughts and perceptions of the world, it refers us to what distinguishes it from other musical genres, which is the linguistic dictionary that differs from what we used to hear. We find rappers manipulating words, changing them, creating new ones, volunteering them to produce a desired meaning and deliver them to the audience without retouching or stylization. The issue of vulgarity is often raised in regards to this art form, and gatekeepers of morality discuss the necessity of fine tuning the language, unaware that obscene language is the most honest and most beautiful expression of matters we find apprehensive. They do not know that rap songs or even literary texts that have pioneered vulgarity as an artistic expression, such as the Message of Odalisques and Servants by Al-Jahiz, which cannot be approached with moral reasoning. It does not matter to us in rap songs whether obscenity is presented in its contexts or not. What matters to us is that it is part of thinking and a linguistic tool. The rapper does not avoid insults and street slang in order to subject to societal moral and does not abstain from using vocabulary as it is as long as it is part of language in absolute and part of his street lexicon, that is, the world from which they come. Rappers in Tunisia were accused of transgressing red lines and were met with pre-fabricated charges such as “assaulting good values”, “delinquency”, “degeneration” and “violating modesty”. These flimsy accusations are promoted in the media so that they do not broadcast the crude rap songs as these songs are rogues in the eyes of the formal culture.

Gam7 (meaning “wheat”)  is one of the most prominent rap groups in Tunisia, whose songs we do not hear in official, or even private radio stations, because they are obscene, lewd and rude. They are choosing to walk the road that others see as a dead-end and frontally attack the state. These rappers are among the few groups that have maintained their revolutionary approach and path, opposing the exclusion of difference and suppression of freedoms. Rappers in Gam7, including Yassin Al-Thawadi, known as Douda, Issam Al-Absi, Nordo and Sey Fou are fighters in a constant state of alert. Their lyrics are an collective expression of their respective subjectivity. Each rapper in Gam7 starts from their personal experience. The thing that brings them together is the streets of the popular neighbourhoods from which they come as angry rebels against state power.

The song El 9asem is an oath made by Gam7 members, vowing to themselves throughout the song to confirm their rejection of the regime and the societal controls that have turned into walls blocking freedom. Some of the lyrics in the song goes: “Covenant keepers, performers of the oath. Our wheat rejects and will not obey.” Then they repeat with one voice in the last verse: “We will not be divided. We will not sell, but take revenge,” with the use of many obscenities and expressions.

One of them is tahhan, which is an accurate description of those loitering around the door-sills of power.

Gam7 goes even further in this song, and glorifies Ali Chwereb (who was named after his large lips), who was said to be “the most dangerous man the Tunisian street has ever known”, and was attributed to the so-called honorable delinquency. Ali Chwereb has a special place in the popular memory despite entering the prison dozens of times. He fought against the forces of the French occupation, defending the vendors in the markets who were subjected to harassment by the occupation soldiers. He was killed in 1972 after a bloody confrontation with a group of bandiyyah (from the French ‘bandit’ meaning dangerous or violent outlaws).

In this way, the members of Gam7 define themselves as delinquents indifferent to the regime. They fight subjugation and injustice and resist the tahhans, which is also evident in a song Ched 9adrek (Meaning ‘Have Self Respect’) which is filled to the brim with obscene vocabulary, expressions and descriptions showing irreverence of the religious campaigners and crusaders on what language is permissible.

Rap and Police

What unifies rap songs in Tunisia – regardless of their artistic merit, lyrics and references – is the discussion of the relationship between the people in popular neighbourhoods with the police. Most of the rappers are residents of these neighbourhoods, and are in a permanent confrontational relationship with the police, who represent the entire regime and its power. On the basis of this shared hostility, rap artists have taken upon themselves the task of defending the marginalised, the vulnerable, the toilers and the consumers of zalta (Indian cannabis consumed in Tunisia) who are pursued by security. Youth of the popular neighbourhoods in particular suffer from continued security restrictions that persisted even after the events of 14 January 2011  when the Tunisian president Ben Ali was ousted after 28 days of civil resistance. Nothing has changed, it seems, and the police who are described in Tunisia as hannouche, meaning snakes, make random stops of young men and disturb the “tranquility of the drunkards’ nights”.

The state, which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence according to Max Weber, continues its attempts to violate liberties and strangle its citizens with an arsenal of unfair laws and practices. Before and after the revolution, rap songs are a volcano of anger that bursts in the face of the authority. Nothing stops the rapper and nobody prevents him from expressing his political positions, but it must be remembered that few of them were a thorn in the side of the regime and talked about the scandalous practices of the police. Here, rapper Farid Al-Mazni must be mentioned, who before the revolution released the song Ibaad fi Tarkina, which spoke very frankly and directly of the police oppression of the youth. It remains a song that we listen to surreptitiously to strengthen our will and nurture our hatred against the system.

Rapper Alaeddin Al-Yaqoubi, known as Weld El 15, went further than talking about police oppression. He described them as “dogs” in his famous song Boulicia Kleb (Police Are Dogs) , and he was arrested on charges of a performance that is “insulting” the police, was sentenced to four months in prison and was denied a hearing. As a result of this incident, campaigns were launched that demanded the release of Wled El 15 and condemned attempts to suppress freedom of expression.

We cannot talk about rappers rejecting the police repression machine without talking about Vipa, who paved a different path from others. He is one of the artists known for creating words and phrases that stuck and became like a coded language among his fans. Vipa, a defender of freedom and opponents of all regimes, released his song Egleb Mandhrek (Get Out of My Sight) in 2012, in which he spoke in excessive anger about repression, ignorance and the policy of marginalisation. He filmed the video for the song in the heart of Habib Bourguiba Street, where the Ministry of Interior is located, and in front of a police car in clear defiance of the existing authority.

Vipa is a member of the collective DEBO, which includes rappers Massi, Trappa, WMD and Belhassen Empire. DEBO is not only a group that has maintained its revolutionary and dissident character, but is also a musical movement and a cultural project in its own right, aimed at elevating hip-hop and promoting underground culture in Tunisia. From the DEBO collective emerged the group El Banda, whose members are known to be indifferent to fame and stardom. They convey reality without falsification and speak from the heart of the popular neighbourhoods, the suffering of the poor and the exclusionary policies of the state. This is evident in the song L’MANFA (The Exile) by Belhassen Empire.

These rappers, then, do not reconcile; do no appease; do not kneel; do not follow what is socially acceptable. They will remain targets of attack as long as they are hostile to the regime and are fighting its eternally repressive machine. Rap exposes those who voyeurise our imagination and use “permissibility” as a pretext for repression. Let us listen to rap songs, and then take to the streets of the big city to throw insults and stones at police cars. In all cases, circumstances and contexts, rap is accused of “inciting against the system,” and in all cases, circumstances and contexts, the shared enemy is the authority.

Therefore, we will not address some rappers with adolescent radicalism. We will wander in their imaginations and identify with them, but we will always maintain that rap is masculine, and its masculinity needs someone to penetrate and overtake.

The article was originally published 17 January 2018 by Ma3azef. Read the original here.

Translated and edited by AlJumhuriya/Docstream

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality