While some Arab countries saw political changes in 2011 – president Ben Ali was ousted from power after ruling Tunisia for 24 years, Hosni Mubarak was deposed after ruling Egypt for 30 years – many cultural and political boundaries still remain in place for artistic freedom.
In 2012, Egyptian authorities censored a song from a major blockbuster film. The music style was ‘electro chaabi’ – a new wave of electronica coming from Cairo’s poor suburbs and slums.
The Tunisian rapper Weld El 15 has been imprisoned twice since the Arab Spring. In 2013, another rapper, Klay BJJ, was imprisoned for six months in Tunisia for “insulting authorities in his songs”.
In 2014, French-Tunisian journalist Hind Meddeb started the TeMa Rebelle Festival as a way to bring together young socially conscious musicians from the Arab world – such as Cairo’s electro chaabi musicians, Weld El 15 and Klay BBJ – with their European counterparts, in the hope that they would meet and collaborate.
The 36-year-old journalist is a renowned urban contemporary Arab music specialist. She is also a veteran of the Arab underground music scene. Since the 2011 Arab spring or revolution, when tens of thousands of young Arabs marched across Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region, demanding more rights and rejecting dictatorships, Hind Meddeb’s work as a filmmaker dedicated to exploring difficult issues and amplifying marginalised voices has become significant.
J’en ai ras le bol que les médias occidentaux ne nous présentent le monde arabe qu’avec des femmes en Niqqab, des types qui se font sauter et des salafistes à barbe. Je montre cette jeunesse comme elle vit.
I'm fed up with Western media always portraying the Arabs with a niqab or as bearded terrorists. I want to show this youth as it is, with [Egyptian electro chaabi] songs like ‘I've Always Lived in Sin,’ which tells the life of those who don't fast during Ramadan or don't do pilgrimage in Mecca.
Under the slogan ‘From punk to rap – independence and freedom of speech’, the festival strove to highlight Tunisian and Egyptian artists who were pushing the boundaries of freedom of expression in their work at the FGO Barbara Cultural Centre in Paris on 21 February 2014.
Missy Ness, the first Tunisian female DJ, performed at the festival along with nine other artists, including Weld el 15 and Klay BBJ. Their performances were complemented by screening of film documentaries such as ‘Pussy Riots’, and ‘Electro Chaabi’, and panels discussing topics such as ‘Rap & revolutions’ and ‘The history of punk through the story of a punk’.
Hind was inspired to start the festival after she met Weld El 15 while covering his arrest and his trial over the song Boulicia Kleb (Cops are dogs).
In 2012, Weld El 15 was beaten by the police and jailed for nine months, allegedly for smoking cannabis. In 2013, he wrote the song ‘Boulicia Kleb’, which then got him a two-year prison sentence. Thanks to media campaigns all over the world, he was released from prison in December 2013.
Hind Meddeb took this case to heart. She attended the trial and, when the verdict was out, she screamed: “Shitty country! Now I really understand what Weld said in his song.” This did not go well with the Tunisian authorities. Hind was expelled from court by police officers.
In November 2013, Hind Meddeb was sentenced to four months in prison – a comparatively light sentence, which was eventually suspended due her status as a French journalist.
Backstage before the TeMA Rebelle Festival started, on 17 February 2014, I conducted audio interviews with artists who sat around discussing the issues at hand in French.
Freedom of artistic expression has been touted the primary indicator of progress made since the Arab Spring in the Middle East. When the subject was mentioned, the tired but still mocking eyes of Tunisian rapper Don Emino shined. Smirking he said:
What revolution? They killed the revolution. Weld took two years for his song. It's the same old thing as during Ben Ali’s dictatorship.
The conversation became animated. It shifted to politics and also shifted from French to Arabic.
Weld el 15 noted:
Le sujet favori des Tunisiens, c’est désormais la politique : c’est déjà un gain important en terme de liberté d’expression.
We still have the same taboos. Freedom of expression hasn’t really improved. Well, a bit. Tunisians’ preferred topic of conversation now is politics, and that itself is a huge accomplishment.
Electro Chaabi – electronica from the margins
The 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca were a shock to Hind. She went to Morocco and directed her first film – ‘De Casa au Paradis’ (‘From Casa to Paradise’) which told the story of one of the suicide bombers. She then spent time in Lebanon, working on how political factions use music a propaganda tool. Most recently, she spent time in Tunisia and Egypt, where she had just finished a documentary about the music style electro chaabi:
Hind Meddeb came across this music in 2011, a couple of months after the Egyptian revolution. One of her Egyptian friends introduced her to an electro chaabi keyboard virtuoso named Islam ‘Chipsy’. He spurred her interest and she started meeting other figures from the less privileged parts of Cairo, talking to artists and audiences who were who were not usually covered in the media, due to their lower socioeconomic standing.
Hind was surprised by the freedom of tone and the variety of topics tackled. The music explored social taboos such as drinking which is forbidden in Islam, and also prominently featured political and social commentary, taking bold stances which were seldom expressed by other artists at the time.
The documentary helped to introduce electro chaabi musicians to bigger audiences. But as electro chaabi began gaining visibility on the mainstream stage, they found their work vulnerable to censorship. The 2012 Egyptian blockbuster ‘Abdo Mota’ featured an electro chaabi video clip as part of the soundtrack. The film had made the censorship cut. However, some talk show hosts pointed out that a line in the song mentioned Muslim saints, and that it was inappropriate to mention their names while bellydancers were dancing lasciviously. The producer and the musicians had to drop the line and create an edited version:
Breaking new ground for women
Missy Ness shares the same interests and the same sense of curiosity as Hind. The pioneering DJ borrows deftly from many different music styles. When she first started mingling with the Tunisian musical underground scene in 2006, she soon discovered the Tunisian hip-hop. Since then, she has been busy working with Tunisian rappers and promoting them outside of Tunisia. She has been making history by being the first female DJ in a region, a country and an industry which are not reputed for promoting equal female presence.
At the festival in Paris, Missy Ness spoke frankly to me about the current state of freedom of expression in Tunisia:
On est passé de la dictature mafieuse à la dictature un peu religieuse. Le curseur va bien finir par trouver un juste milieu un jour ou l’autre. Le fait qu’il y ait une répression sauvage et une saga judiciaire sur Alaa Weld El 15 nous a vraiment montré où est la limite de la liberté d’expression. C’est là qu’on doit taper.
We went from a mafia-type dictatorship towards a religious one. We will find the right path somewhere between these two extremes. The fact that Weld el 15 has been detained for his song showed us the current limits and taboos in Tunisia. [Talking about] the police is clearly one of them. But at the same time, it gave us a target: we now know that this is where we should aim.
Meanwhile, underground artists continue to push boundaries and illuminate blind spots in the cultural conversation. During Ben Ali’s presidency, no one would have heard about a detained rapper. Weld’s song went quicker and further than the political process: it showed the limits and to that extent has crafted a new and bigger space for freedom of expression.