DJs and rappers struck a blow for freedom of expression in Tunisia

Published On February 10, 2014 | By Greg | Denmark, Features, News, Palestine, Tunisia

A series of arrests of rappers and other dissident artists in Tunisia the past year has spread skepticism about the new government’s position on freedom of expression. In December hip-hop artists and activists hailed the free artistic expression with a regional music festival in Tunis.

By Janne Louise Andersen (for World Hip Hop Market)

He ‘s angry, Martin Fernando Jakobsen, the 34-year-old Danish DJ and founder of the organization Turning Tables, which supports young hip-hop artists in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

He and the Tunisian organization Asso Chaabi had invited the cream of politically conscious musicians from all over the Middle East to perform at L’Angar Festival in Tunis on December 14-15. It was to be the first music festival of its kind between the Masreq and the Maghreb, but the Tunisian immigration authorities rejected the visa applications for musicians from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Fernando Jakobsen and the Tunisian organizers from the organization Asso Chaabi took the refusal as a message. The past year, there has been bad chemistry between Tunisia’s hip-hop movement and the new government.

“We have had problems with the authorities all along the way,” says Fernando Jakobsen, who has previously organized similar festivals in Egypt and Libya. “They might come and close it down in a bit, but one thing is certain, we continue. The goal is to highlight that the fight for freedom of expression has only just begun, and that conversation has started,” says the hip-hop activist whose worry lines double as the venue, an old movie theater in downtown Tunis, cancels the soundcheck in favor of showing a film three hours before the opening.

The sound of the police

The organizer’s paranoia doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. A music festival that took place in the popular tourist town of Hammamet in northern Tunisia on August 22, was shut down when the rappers Weld El 15 and Klay BBJ went on stage.

Weld El 15 had just been released from prison, where he served a two-year sentence for expressing himself “unethically” and “spreading false information.” It was the song and music video “Boulicia Kleb” [The Police are Dogs] that talks about police brutality and mocks the security police, which provoked the state. The dancer in the music video Sabrina Klibi and its director Hédi Belgaïed Hsine were also each sentenced six months of prison.

These arrests sparked strong criticism by local and international human rights organizations, and in July they were all released. But with the performance at Hammamet, Weld El 15 and the rapper Klay BBJ were sentenced in absentia to 21 months in prison for defamation of the police and violation of public morality.

Klay BBJ, who was acquitted by an appeal court on October 17, is regarded by fans as one of the artistic voices of the revolution. In “Employment, Liberty, and National Dignity” Klay BBJ accuses both the opposition and the government parties for abandoning the revolution, “clinging to their chairs” and “stepping on the people.”

Rappers say the case against Weld el 15 and Klay BBJ marked the beginning of a police offensive against the hip-hop movement.

The Tunisian rapper Phenix also performed at the festival.

“This festival is very important to us. I appreciate everyone who supports underground rap here,” said Phenix whose sharp tongue also got him imprisoned earlier this year. In his song “Bastardo“ he calls government officials “bastards” and “vampires who suck the blood of the people.” In “No Reconciliation” Phenix states his support to Weld El 15, by telling authorities, “I say what I want, call me a criminal. Between rappers and the government, there will be no reconciliation.”

“Hip-hop in Tunisia is considered dangerous by the politicians,” says 29 -year-old Néjib Abidi, the president of the Association Chaabi and co-organizer of the festival. Abidi, who is as well a filmmaker, has also been behind bars. The police arrested him and eight filmmakers and musicians on September 21 at 4 AM in his home, where they were working on the soundtrack for his upcoming documentary about Tunisians who disappeared in 2011. The day before, Abidi’s two hard drives with footage was stolen.

“They are running a campaign against this generation who are trying to change the country,” says Abidi who was accused of smoking marijuana, which is a serious crime in Tunisia. But he was released when his urine sample proved negative.

Generational Conflict

It was in the wake of Weld El 15’s arrest that Fernando Jakobsen and the Turning Tables team first arrived to Tunisia to build a studio for music and video production with free recording, mixing and training sessions in a partnership Association Chaabi.

Fernando Jakobsen described how they had to smuggle rappers into the studio to record “Up on the Roof” without being seen by the police. In the song the rappers Katybon, Vipa and WMD criticize what they experience as a police campaign against the scene.

The 33-year-old rapper WMD, whose real name is Mehdi El Monastiri, is also a radio host at Radio Kalima, a platform he used to mobilize for the release of Weld El 15 and Klay BBJ, “because people should not be arrested for words,” as he says.

But when it comes to the actual song, he is not a fan. “Anyone can say that the police are dogs,” he says and calls for a more sophisticated approach to hip-hop activism.

“Weld El 15 was overconfident, he believed he could say what he wanted, and that it would be okay. But that’s not the reality here; it’s not the U.S ” WMD says and draws a parallel to NWA’s release of Fuck Tha Police in 1988, which although it provoked the FBI to caution N.W.A’s record company about the lyrics, didn’t get the group arrested. He believes that part of the conflict boils down to the old generation not being in tune with young people’s appreciation for their newfound freedom of expression.

“But there are also those who are just riding the wave because criticizing the police is now cool,” he says.

“Bolicia Kleb” was followed by a stream of music releases with derogatory lyrics about the police. The group Blackfire published Boulicia Bgar [Police are cows] (in Tunisia symbolizes cows stupidity) on 14 June, which has more than 157,000 views.

“I have seen the police compared to a whole zoo in all the songs that have been released,” WMD laughs.

“In any case, Weld hasn’t deserved to be locked up. It’s just words, and no one was hurt.”

A drop in the ocean

L’ Angar Festival succeeded without any intimation, just a few plainclothes policemen sitting in the back row of the venue.

So when two days of performances by 20 Tunisian rappers and DJs from Tunisia and the region ended on Sunday night with two outstanding concerts from Den Sorte Skole of Denmark followed by the Palestinian rapper and electronic producer Boikutt, Fernando Jakobsen’s worry lines had disappeared and there was a smile on his lips.

Four days after the L’Angar Festival on 19 December 19 Weld El 15 was released.

“I hope that our work has been a small drop in the ocean,” says Fernando Jakobsen and continues to push the beat for the artistic freedom of expression in the Middle East.

turning tables– Turning Tables began in 2009 when a group of Danish and local DJs began so-called “Turntable Lab” in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. They since opened studios in Tunisia, Burma and Cambodia with one on the way for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

– After seeing how hip-hop artists in the Middle East got involved in the struggle for political change Turning Tables began organizing festivals in the Middle East to support them.

– In September, eight Tunisian hip-hop and street artists performed at the Occupy Utopia Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they performed with artists from other Turning Tables programs in the Middle East and Cambodia.

– L’Angar Festival took place in Tunis from December 14-15 and was supported by the Danish Center for Culture and Development and MS ActionAid.

MORE about Human Rights in Tunisia

Human Rights Watch reports that since the Tunisian revolution in 2011, the authorities have repeatedly used repressive laws from the former government to prosecute citizens for expressions they deem offensive.

– Article 125 of the Tunisian Penal Code punishes with up to one year in prison anyone who insults a public official during the execution of the person’s duties.

-Article 247 allows for up to six months in prison for defamation of public officials

– Article 226 prohibits the violation of public morality or decency through actions or words.

The National Constituent Assembly, have made attempts to repeal these laws.