TUNIS—Mounir Saidani is studying the explosion of political youth expression since 2011, through the medium of rap music. He says rap has progressed from a fringe movement to the cultural mainstream among Tunisia’s young people—and it’s changing the way they debate the issues of the day.
“The first time the word ‘revolution’ was used was in a 2009 football chant,” says Saidani, a sociology professor at the Institut Supérieur des Sciences Humaines de Tunis. “When you listen to young people you can know what’s coming and prepare for it.”
It doesn’t take long for conversation in Tunisia to return to the topic of revolution.
Many here are proud that the 2011 uprising resulted in more democracy and not civil war. Others fear a second revolution could be looming if regional inequality isn’t addressed. (See a related article, “Researchers See Water at the Root of Tunisia’s Inequality Problem.”)
Saidani has been interviewing young rap artists and activists in Tunisia for the past five years. He collects information about their income, political background, motivations and interactions with other rappers.
The younger, more rural rappers don’t copy the artists based in Tunis, the capital, and its cosmopolitan Carthage neighbourhood. Instead they rap about issues important to the people where they live—like regional inequality. In contrast, the older Carthage set rap more about subjects that mirror those tackled by American rappers—like criticism of those in power.
For example, in a song called “A Better Tomorrow,” the rapper Klay BBJ talks about how he thinks Tunisia’s economic policies have created a brain drain.
“In a savage country, I’m living to protest.”
“In a country where half of them are in need and the other half has gone to immigration”
“My soul is escaping every moment.”
“This isn’t just a [temporary] wave,” says Saidani. “It’s more remarkable because the rappers are connected with the new form of doing politics in Tunisia. They carry similar messages between the art and the political campaigns.”
Other researchers agree that the growth of Tunisia’s rap subculture is linked to the recent political change and to frustration and anger among young people who feel excluded.
“Bereft of voice in their political life and suffering from social neglect, these youths turned to underground culture to make their voices heard,” wrote Ilyana Ovshieva, a writer and Young Professionals Network Fellow at the Eurasia Foundation, in a recent article describing Tunisian rap music in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communications.
“Rap has changed and is definitely on the rise in Tunisia since the revolution,” says Haythem Karchoud, a 21-year-old student at the Mediterranean School of Business in Tunis and a rap fan. Despite the growth of rap in Tunisia, Karchoud says fans still need to seek it out on YouTube and social media—it’s rare to hear it played on a national radio station.
“They’re fearless of the government. They criticize politics in a clever, metaphorical way,” says Karchoud. For example, one of Klay BBJ’s songs is called “¡No Parasán!” a battle cry used by communists in the Spanish Civil War, which translates as, “They shall not pass!”
Saidani’s findings paint a picture of an art form that crosses boundaries of class and geography. Some of the rappers come from the swanky Carthage neighborhood, and they’re likely to be rapping at a professional level—they’re typically in their 20s and 30s. But the rise of rap isn’t a trend dominated by the more privileged members of Tunisian society, says Saidani.
“Outside of Tunis they’re more likely to be younger, say aged 17, and amateurs. They also tend to use Facebook instead of YouTube,” says Saidani.
While Tunisia’s youth now feel able to express themselves and criticize the powers that be, that isn’t to say that a post-revolution Tunisia is completely free. One of the rappers Saidani has interviewed, Klay BBJ, has been arrested several times for offenses such as insulting a public servant and performing a song called “Police Are Dogs.”
Nevertheless, Tunisia’s young rappers and their performances are at the very cusp of what controversial topics can be discussed openly and widely within the Arab world. Sari Hanafi, a professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and media studies at the American University of Beirut, says only Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon have societies where this kind of expression is largely permitted. “The other Arab states have repressive policies,” he says.
The fact that Tunisia is one of the few countries in the Arab world where this movement is possible is what makes it interesting and worthwhile—it gives an insight into youth culture and the opinions of young people that social observers don’t have in other Arab countries.
“Young people are voicing what’s interesting in Tunisia and saying what can’t be said in mass media,” says Saidani. “We need to listen because they’re saying what everyday life is like. If we don’t listen then it’s dangerous for the future because that generation will soon be leaders.”