Arab Hip-Hop Rebellion: Rock The Casbah

The Arab Spring is widely known as a Twitter rebellion, but underground hip-hop artists also played a very important role, says Robin Wright, author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”


In November 2010, a young Tunisian rapper who called himself El General posted a song on his Facebook page and YouTube. He had no alternative.

The government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had virtually banned hip-hop. Its musicians were not on government-approved playlists for state-controlled television or radio. They were rarely able to get permits to perform in public. And most were barred from recording CDs.

El General—whose real name is Hamada Ben Amor—had no resources of his own. At age 21, he faced the problems of many young Tunisians. He was without reliable work and still living at home with his parents. For Tunisia’s rappers, the only regular gigs were on the Internet. So he recorded the song underground.

“I had two friends,” he later explained. “One filmed my songs on a small video camera, and the other edited the videos and put them up on YouTube.” It raged against the problems of poverty, unemployment, hunger and injustice—and boldly blamed them all on Mr. Ben Ali.

The four-minute video was haunting and raw. It showed the young rapper sauntering through a dark, sewage-strewn alley on his way to a makeshift studio with graffiti spray-painted on the wall. He beat out the song in front of an old-fashioned mike, with no one else in sight, and then ambled back down the alley into the night.

His face was never in the light, his identity remained unclear. Going public was too dangerous.

El General’s song was an instant sensation. Its outrage resonated, especially among the young. It broke through the climate of fear in a country where no politician had dared to criticize a president in power for almost a quarter-century. His incendiary rap registered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and across other social networks. The amateur video was even picked up by Al Jazeera, the 24-hour Arabic news channel.

Amazing stuff!


Robin Wright talks with Jerry Seib about the The Hip-Hop Rebellion phenomenon

7/22/2011 9:13:24 PM

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