A lively and self-confident rap scene has developed in Algeria, and it is remains highly critical of the state the country is in. Arian Fariborz reports on the political dimension of Algerian rap
In almost every Algerian city, the youth-and protest-culture of hip hop is now omnipresent. Since the 90s, the music virus has spread quickly from the capital, Algiers, to other cities, such as Oran, Constantin and Annaba. It can now be encountered even in remote villages in the province of Kabyla.
What's remarkable is that this rebellious youth movement has managed to survive and flourish over the last twenty years in an environment so decidedly hostile to it.
"The mic breaks the silence"
Algeria's hip hop musicians are determined to continue lambasting the miserable state of their country's political culture. Rabah Ourrad, lead rapper with the popular band "Le Micro Brise Le Silence" (MBS) emphasises that he sees it as his task "to break the silence":
"When we started off, it was very important to us to deal with social and political matters. We did so because of the war. Life became very hard for the artists – all of them left Algeria and came to France to perform here."
Ourrad describes the Algeria of the 90s as a cultural wasteland: "What we had was artistic stagnation. There were no shows, no performances, no CDs – just bad Rai music. So we set out to break this silence, to do something new, something seriously political and deeply committed."
The protests of 1988 as the cradle of Algerian Rap
Algerian Rap was born on October 5th, 1988, when thousands of schoolkids and young unemployed people manned the barricades against President Chadli Benjedid and began to politicise themselves. They had been angered by a rise in food prices and by the ruinous condition of the country's education system.
The government cracked down on this outburst of youthful rebellion with extreme severity. For several days, army units hunted down peaceful demonstrators in Algiers, killing anything between 500 and 1,000 people.
To the young generation in particular, this was a powerful shock; for the first time ever, the People's Army – the symbol of Algeria's struggle for independence – had opened fire on its own population.
Touat M'hand from the band MBS recalls those days: "In 1988, we were still pretty young. We heard about it from our brothers, who had taken to the streets to protest. That was when we started to understand the political connections, and to realise that things were badly wrong. Up till then, we hadn't had any political ideas or voiced any opinions; but since 1988 we've been naming things by name – and writing about them."
The hip hop bands "Hamma", for instance, have written a song called "The Algerian Fairytale" (L'Algerie le conte des fées). Its subject is the generation of October 1988, who went on to describe themselves as the "October martyrs" – a polemical challenge to the "November martyrs" of the older generation, who had fought in the struggle for independence against the French colonial power.
"The Martyrs of Bab el-Oued"
From the viewpoint of young Algerians, this older generation no longer held a monopoly on martyrdom, for they were now standing on the other side of the barricades. Algeria's young people presented their own heroes: "The Martyrs of Bab el-Oued" – school pupils and students from an impoverished part of Algiers.
The early 90s witnessed the formation of the three pioneer bands, "Intik", "Hamma" and "Le Micro Brise Le Silence". With songs against judicial injustice, the arrogance of power and the suppression of free speech, they gave voice to their anger at the widespread misery in Algerian society and the government's disregard for the people.
Then came the so-called "Algerian Spring"– a relatively brief phase of democratisation that included the abolition of the country's authoritarian one-party system.
Soon, however, there followed another grim chapter in the history of the Maghrebinian state, with the eruption of civil war in 1992. The armed conflict between radical Islamists and the army produced a climate of fear – but it also offered musicians another chance to break the silence and to rap against violence and arbitrary brutality.
"Speak and die!"
The civil war expanded in scale and grew ever bloodier. It was a conflict in which the civilian population was increasingly caught in the middle, becoming hostages to the two warring parties. The people of Algeria were the true victims of this dirty war, as militias went berserk, individuals were liquidated without warning, and entire village populations were massacred, sometimes in a single night.
In this atmosphere of lawlessness and terror, the critical attitudes expressed by Algerian rappers were not welcomed by the country's Establishment, or by its music industry, or indeed by the population in general. Touat M’hand of MBS explains:
"During 'the black decade', as it's sometimes called, it didn't matter whether you were an artist or a police officer. EVERYONE was frightened of the extremists, or of the army's actions. I'm reminded of a quote from the great Algerian writer Tahar Djaout, who was murdered in 1993 during the civil war. He said: 'If you keep your mouth shut, you'll die; if you speak, you'll die too; so speak, and die!"
"Rabah Président" as a media coup
In July 1999, President Bouteflika announced an amnesty for imprisoned Islamic extremists – a deed that's generally held to mark the end of the Algerian civil war. Nonetheless, Algeria's rap musicians haven't stopped criticising their country's political and social shortcomings.
One of the cleverest and most courageous rappers around is Rabah Ourrad of MBS, who describes the state of things in Algeria with the blackest of sarcasm. When he released the album "Rabah Président", the MBS rapper landed a media coup. The cover depicts Rabah posing as Algeria's President Bouteflika; it's a photo-montage, with the rapper's head perched on the President's body.
"We made 'Rabah Président' just before Bouteflika was re-elected", explains Rabah. "The CD was released during the run-up to the election. I presented myself as if I were a candidate for the presidency. Then I went to Algeria and gave a press conference there. The journalists came in droves, and there were loads of articles in the Algerian press about the CD and all the things I'd said against the President. I didn't want him to be re-elected because he really is a little dictator… and he makes peace with all the terrorists!"
A young generation with no prospects
Today more than ever, hip hop expresses the way young people in Algeria feel about their lives – because even years after the end of the civil war, their living conditions have not improved substantially. High levels of youth unemployment, a lack of affordable accommodation, a dreadful educational system and a general lack of prospects - this is what everyday life looks like for many. Nabil Bouiche from the band "Intik" explains:
"Seventy-five percent of the Algerian population are young – with this much youth, it should be possible to build up a wonderful country. But that's not happening; on the contrary. Young people are working like hell, yet struggling to survive. There are people with university degrees who have to scrape a living as waiters. The resources for recording music are also lacking. To be able to produce a record, we had to invest our own money. On one occasion, a member of the band even had to sell his shoes so that we could pay the studio!"
As in many places throughout the world, hip hop in Algeria exemplifies a trend that's been dubbed "glocalisation": global and local phenomena that don't stand in opposition, but instead meet and mingle, influencing one another and forming new syntheses.
In its country of origin, hip hop culture now seems to mean little more than hedonism, conspicuous consumption, and illusory ideas about violence and sex. In Algeria, the almost-forgotten potential of that culture is audible once again. Here, rap means speaking about reality, about an everyday life that is often frankly depressing, about political injustice, terror and war.
And it remains important to raise one's voice, even after the end of the civil war; for there can still be no talk of an end to the Algerian tragedy and a real solution to the country's social and political problems.
Translated from German by Patrick Lanagan