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Singing Truth to Power: Morocco’s Complicated Relationship with International Superstars and Dissident Artists
- Published on Tuesday, 30 October 2012 10:42
- Category: Music
Howard Cosell never actually said, “The Bronx is burning.” It’s a longstanding urban myth that the famed sports announcer delivered the line at the start of coverage of the second game of the 1977 World Series. However, the fire that destroyed Public School 3, just blocks from Yankee Stadium, was no myth. It is no myth that between 1970 and 1980 over 40% of the South Bronx had been burned or abandoned. Commentators at the time likened the devastated neighborhoods to those of European cities left in ruins by WWII.
The South Bronx was where hip-hop was born. As Chuck D famously put it: “Rap is CNN for black people.” It became the vehicle of expression for the underserved, the downtrodden and the forgotten. What began in the slums of the Bronx has since become a global cultural force and the widely chosen voice for Arab uprisings against ousted dictators and corrupted governments. Anywhere there is a city – or even country – burning, you will find voices and beats yearning for a way forward.
While hip hop stations here in the States dominate airwaves with riffs about sex, drugs and blingy cars – you can bet those aren’t the issues plaguing Kanye and Jay-Z’s counterparts in the Middle East. Like the old-school tunes that put rap on the cultural radar, these artists – El Haqed, Si Simo, Fez City Clan, to name several – are concerned with bringing attention to the daily realities that already threaten to fracture Moroccan society: crime, poverty, illiteracy, hunger, unemployment and the disproportionate rising cost of living.
March 29, 2012: A young Moroccan rapper who calls himself El Haqed - roughly translated as “the indignant” - was arrested and charged with attacking the image of state employees, including the police. In a track called “Kilaab Addawla” (Dogs of the State), Haqed attacks various aspects of the state and describes the police as being part donkey. For his metaphors, he received a four-month jail sentence. His trial on May 7 handed him a second term. Younes Benkhdim, a dissident and poet who has come to be styled “Poet of the People,” has also been jailed for his work critical of the Moroccan regime. Meanwhile, a satirical cartoonist known for his caricatures of the Moroccan monarch, King Mohammad VI, similarly found himself on both the wrong side of the authorities and jail cell walls.
El Haqed - whose real name is Mouad Balghouat - and Younes Benkhdim both belong to the February 20th movement, named after the day that witnessed thousands of Moroccans rally in Rabat to demand reforms from the king. Despite the oft-cited beauty of the city of Casablanca, it is a jewel surrounded by shanties. According to the World Bank, 25% of the country’s population lives in or is threatened by absolute poverty. While conditions in Morocco’s cities has been steadily improving, it is widely acknowledged that those responsible for the 2007 suicide bombings in Casablanca were products of the local slums. The vast majority of the poor, however, are found among the rural population, with 70% of the nation’s poverty being found outside of urban areas. 72% percent of women living in the countryside are illiterate, and among rural students, only 40-50% complete the 6 years of primary education. Access to healthcare for the entire country is still extremely limited.
These are the issues fueling the country’s homegrown rappers, who have only exploded in influence within the country’s urban cores, where internet access is high and the youth savvy to proliferating music through online distribution sites such as YouTube, MySpace, Last.FM and ReverbNation. Where once there was isolation, connectivity thrives, as strong in its virtual exchanges as it is in its underground presence.
In addition to the economic challenges, political hurdles also persist. Despite being labeled a constitutional monarchy, the King wields vast amounts of power, including the power to dissolve the parliament and place limits on the judiciary. When Mohammad VI, the young scion of the ruling Alouite Dynasty, acceded to the throne in 1999, it filled many Moroccans with hope. Many compared the new spirit amongst the youth in Morocco with the “Movida,” a cultural renaissance that emerged after the death of Franco in Spain. The Moroccan version has been dubbed “Nayda,” roughly translating to “standing up” in Moroccan Arabic.
In response to the rallies of February 20th, and inspired by the Nayda movement, the young king instituted a series of reforms, including granting more power to the Prime Minister and declaring the Judiciary branch fully independent. Among the cultural projects that Mohammad VI initiated was to increase state sponsorship of music and the arts. Up until his accession to the throne, only traditional and conservative forms of music benefitted from state sponsorship and access to state controlled distribution channels. Under “M6, “ as the king is popularly known, new types of music suddenly emerged on the national scene, including hip-hop, heavy metal and alternative rock, and Gnawa music. Songs in French, Berber and even English suddenly could be heard on popular radio. Musical acts like hip-hop artists Bigg and H-Kayne, and fusion bands like Hoba Hoba Spirit reached ever-widening audiences. By and large it seemed that the reforms were heading in the right direction.
Despite the tumult of revolution in the rest of the Maghreb and the wider Middle East, Mohammad VI’s reforms seemed to suggest that all out Tahrir Square-style revolution was not needed in Morocco. Rather, it put out the cosmetic image of reform, social activism and artistic expression, all the while handing down unjust prison sentences to artists such as El Haqed who tested the limits, only to prove that freedom of expression is a relative term when it comes to a country’s masses and its political elite.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
The spirit of the Nayda Movement is no illusion: it has created a sense among many Moroccans of progress and excitement. There exists a feeling - particularly among middle and upper class elites in cities like Rabat and Casablanca – that Morocco is on its way toward providing its people a lifestyle comparable to Southern Europe for those with access to education and social influence. However, in the streets and slums, and increasingly among the rural poor, there is another form of Nayda emerging. Some of the development projects created by the new regime have resulted in improvements in healthcare and education, as well as infrastructure and resource development.
Yet corruption remains rampant, and in the case of healthcare access, the improvements have come from increased funding of charitable organizations rather than state –supported structures, putting the long-term viability of such improvements in jeopardy. The disenfranchised youth in the ruins of the slums are harnessing the spirit of Nayda and beginning to speak out. But it’s not just artists with words of protests. Skeptics of the King’s vision of reform have raised doubts about the extent, and indeed intent, of the current changes in Moroccan society. “Nayda is an attempt to promote the image of Morocco as an open and tolerant society,” suggested political science professor Dr. Mohammad Darif, “while at the same time trying to contain the appeal of extremism to increasingly conservative youth." The picture that emerges is one of superficial and aesthetic reforms and the co-opting of a revolutionary spirit to dissuade the youth to peer behind the curtain and rally for real revolutionary change.
The idea that Mohammad IV’s reforms - and the regime’s embrace of the Nayda zeitgeist - is a cynical strategy to curb a nascent revolutionary moment may best be brought to light by the Mazawine Music Festival. This year’s festival, held in Rabat under “the patronage of his Majesty King Mohammad VI,” featured numerous international stars including Pitbull, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, as well as national hip-hop artists Fnaire and Muslim. Rabat has certainly opened itself to the rest of the world and shown a progressive approach to international culture rare in that part of the world. However, the veneer of openness and progress is shattered by the imprisonment of artists who dare speak out. While Lenny Kravitz sang, El Haqed languished in jail under solitary confinement in a dark room and other “mental tortures.” While Mariah Carey sparkled, the slums of Casablanca burned. The next day, El Haqed began his 48-day hunger strike. Lenny and Maria jetted back to the States. Though unintentionally, these artists, whom one can assume support the democratic uprisings, only served to help bolster Morocco’s corrupt regime: by inviting international superstars to perform, Mohammad IV puts out the image that his country is cosmopolitan, modernized, reformed, tolerant of international culture, yet – less knowingly – still iron-fisted against its own.
Just like the Bronx in the 70’s, so long as young people face a crumbling world, voices for change – often strident and uncompromising – will emerge to demand better. Where social unity in Morocco crumbles, hip hop artists have learned to fill the void for a disenchanted youth population that still has yet to see any form of genuine reform that the February 20th movement sought to incite. And so long as those voices face prosecution and imprisonment, it is clear that “better” has not yet come to pass.
By Bobby Gulshan, Aslan Media Contributing Writer
Photo Credit: L7a9ed via Wikimedia Commons