‘Break the silence’: In Tunisia, rappers keep revolution alive

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes art is life. Rappers in Tunisia have moved on from the toppling of a dictator to exploring how music can empower the marginalized in society. Rap has become the political language of the people.

Taylor Luck/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Mehdi Akkari, known as DJ Costa, records new lyrics from behind the glass of a soundproof booth at his home recording studio in Manouba, Tunisia, October 20, 2019.

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From hip-hop studios to outdoor festivals and the streets, in Tunisia you’re never far from rap. It's not only the dominant music, but the political language of the people. A decade after serving as the soundtrack to Tunisia’s revolution, rappers are expressing Tunisians’ hopes and anxieties as they rebuild their society. Their new focus has a familiar refrain: poverty, inequality, police brutality, and racism.

“We still do not have decent schools or proper hospitals; some regions do not even have access to drinkable water,” says DJ Costa, whose two-decade rap career has spanned Tunisia’s transformation. “The main causes of poverty, disenfranchisement, and discrimination have not changed in any tangible way since the revolution,” he says. “We are staying on message to keep progress alive.”

Mohamed Kekli, who goes by the name Trappa, spent several years learning the hip-hop industry in the United States. “What I learned in the U.S. is that hip-hop can change minds,” he says. “In Tunisia we are trying to keep our unfinished revolution alive to address social issues. It’s not that you rid yourself of a dictator and everything is fine.”

“Break the silence, stop the violence,” DJ Costa says as he bops his head left and right to the beat, sweat beading on his brow. “Break the silence, stop the violence,” he leans into the microphone and utters: “Police.”

But this is not an American studio.

A decade after serving as the soundtrack to Tunisia’s revolution, rappers today are expressing Tunisians’ hopes and anxieties as they continue to rebuild their society.

Freed from a dictator, Tunisia’s rappers have moved on from toppling oppressors to exploring how music can be used to empower the marginalized in the young democracy. Their new focus has an all-too familiar refrain: poverty, inequality, police brutality, and racism. 

“We still do not have decent schools or proper hospitals; some regions do not even have access to drinkable water,” says Mehdi Akkari, known as DJ Costa, whose two-decade rap career has spanned Tunisia’s transformation.

“The main causes of poverty, disenfranchisement, and discrimination have not changed in any tangible way since the revolution,” he says. “We are staying on message to keep progress alive.”

Lessons from America

From hip-hop studios to outdoor festivals and the streets, in Tunisia you’re never far from rap, which has become not only the dominant music in the North African country, but the political language of the people.

The Debo Collective serves as rap’s public library.

Here in its graffiti- and paint-splattered studio on the third floor above a central Tunis cafe, artists, DJs, rappers, dancers, and musicians come to collaborate, explore, and use recording equipment for free.

Mohamed Kekli, who goes by the name Trappa, was inspired to form the collective in 2013 after spending several years learning the hip-hop industry in Chicago and Connecticut. He was particularly impressed by the use of hip-hop to get out the vote in the 2004 presidential election and tackle community violence, he says in an interview late last year.

“What I learned in the U.S. is that hip-hop can change minds,” Trappa says as a group of clarinet players walks in to record at the Debo studio. “In Tunisia we are trying to keep our unfinished revolution alive to address social issues. It’s not that you rid yourself of a dictator and everything is fine.”

With different musical flourishes, styles, and a diverse array of topics, the dozens of Tunisian rappers and hip-hop artists share the same mission: to keep pressure on post-revolution politicians.

Despite different political parties peacefully transferring power since 2011, Tunisian rappers are quick to remind them little has been done to address poverty and soaring inequality, or even to reform the feared security services.

Songs chide squabbling MPs and criticize government ministers for their response to a deadly building collapse in a rural town and the government’s indifference to the plight of the homeless.

Connected to reality

With many rappers themselves unemployed or skirting the poverty line, their connection to the people’s plight is real; authenticity and anguish pumps through their lyrics. DJ Costa rummages for used automobile parts and odd jobs; other unemployed rappers sit for hours in cafes.

So strong is the political commentary in their songs, Tunisians can listen to a track and immediately remember the year and month of the song from the topical lyrics.

DJ Costa, Balti, and others rappers have rap about harraqa, or migrating to Europe by boat, highlighting the dangers, the factors pushing young men to risk their lives, those who never live to reach land, and the families they leave behind.

Another frequent topic has been the dangers of extremism and the Islamic State group, which recruited thousands of young vulnerable Tunisians facing economic despair and social marginalization.

It is a topic close to many rappers who lived in marginalized neighborhoods where ISIS recruiters once prowled; Mr. Akkari’s brother Yusuf was recruited by ISIS to travel to Syria and was later killed in an airstrike on Kobani, scene of a pivotal battle between Kurdish fighters and ISIS.

“I tried to reach him and young Tunisians through my music,” Mr. Akkari says. “Now I sing so it never happens again.”

Ya Lili, Tunisia’s biggest rap hit yet, overtook Arab airwaves in 2018. It’s a song by rapper Balti about domestic violence and a young boy’s feelings of helplessness and being trapped.

Since the revolution, Hamza Ben Achour, a Black Tunisian, has used rap to address Tunisia’s underlying racism against dark-skinned citizens and those of sub-Saharan African heritage, challenging Tunisian society’s “denial.”

His song, Manash racist, or “I’m not racist,” depicts a debate-turned-rap-off between Mr. Ben Achour and a white Tunisian rapper; the white rapper insists there is no racism in the country, while Mr. Ben Achour lists issues faced by Black Tunisians one by one, concluding with, “I have not gotten my rights.”

At the end, they shake hands and hug.

“Tunisian rappers are part of the society and face the same daily economic and social issues as the rest of the country. Even as the music has become professional, they have not abandoned these social causes,” says Mohamed Jouili, a Tunisian sociologist.

“The spirit of the music remains underground,” he says, “and that has given a popular legitimacy to the music that resonates today.”

Revolutionary history

Tunisian rap and hip-hop’s focus on social justice dates back to its introduction to the country.

Rap became popular in Tunisia in the late 1990s with the smuggling of cassettes and CDs of French rappers such as I AM and American artists like Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Snoop Dogg.

What made Tunisians latch on to rap were lyrics against police brutality, poverty, persecution, and substance abuse – real-life issues facing Tunisians under the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, but never discussed or reported in the news.

“Hip-hop came talking about different messages – social issues we faced but never expressed in music,” says Trappa. “People in Tunisia connected with it, and the music got bigger and bigger.”

Aspiring young rappers would use multiple cassette recorders, recording their lyrics on one tape, then adding the beat on the other to make a crude mix.

With the internet censored, rappers would then distribute their cassettes to friends and neighbors. To escape the watchful eye of the police, some would leave a batch of cassettes in a bag at a drop-off point at a deserted lot like contraband or a ransom pickup.

The secret to the enduring success of Tunisian rap, they say, is its use of local dialects to reach a large sub-section of Tunisian society – particularly the working class and rural citizens who do not understand the classical Arabic used in newspapers and by newscasters.

 “We were singing to people who didn’t understand the news on TV or read a newspaper. We were telling them the country’s story in under three minutes,” Mr. Akkari says from his makeshift home studio. “We are expressing our feeling as a people.”

Rappers also used different names to fill in for Mr. Ben Ali, ministers, mayors, and the police, using slang familiar to average Tunisians but alien to the political elite that ruled them, occasionally running afoul of the regime.

It was only natural, then, when Tunisians rose up in 2010, that rappers released songs on a near-daily basis calling for the overthrow of Mr. Ben Ali, becoming the revolution’s soundtrack.

Rapping forward

Today dozens of young women and men rappers and hip-hop artists are exploring the boundaries of music free of censorship, intertwining Tunisian musical heritage with 21st century beats, complete with slick YouTube music videos garnering millions of views.

Yet they insist on focusing on local causes rather than “going commercial” or “selling out.”

Mohamed Guitoni, 28, part of the younger generation of rappers that came of age during the revolution, says as Tunisia continues to find its footing, rappers have another message under their calls for political action: Don’t give up hope.

“Many Tunisians have doubts over the direction of the country, but I want to tell Tunisians to remain positive about our revolution,” says Mr. Guitoni, who raps under the name Guito’n.

“We have overcome a lot the last nine years and learned a lot about ourselves. It may be cloudy now, but we have brighter days ahead.”

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