At Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel, Lauren E. Bohn has an interview with the Tunisian hip hop artist El General (also known as Hamada Ben Amor) whose song “Rayes Lebled” landed him in jail during the January uprising and became an anthem for revolutionaries in Tunisia and the region. Not long ago, this blogger complained about Robin Wright’s essentialist approach to hip hop in the Arab countries in her lackluster new book, Rock the Casbah (Issandr El Amrani complains that the review forgot to mock the title; but how easy would it be to make fun of its goofy title when its chapters have titles like “Extreme Makeover” and “The Scent of Jasmine”?) Even the short introduction to Bohn’s interview with Ben Amor is more edifying than Wright’s chapter on the subject. (Note: After this post goes up, this may sounds like hyperbole.) Today there is a lot of Arab hip hop that testifies to the brilliant internationalism of hip hop and how art as a people’s propaganda, far more overtly than its contemporary American or European cousins. The interview brings this out well.
Ben Amor has much to say and readers should look at the interview. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly he cites Tupac Shakur and the Algerian rapper (little known in the English speaking world, unfortunately) Lotfi Double Kanon as major influences. He rejects a catch all sort of self-identification. One can be more than one “thing” at once; one can be unique and have more a few things in common with those “different” from one’s self. One have beliefs and convictions in common with others and still carry on his his own way.
LB: Do you see yourself mobilizing through a specific political party?
HBA: Absolutely not. I say to these parties: where were you before the 14 of January? What were you doing? They just came up after the revolution. They’re stealing it for their political interests.
And I’m Muslim, but El-Nahda doesn’t represent me. I’m against people who use religion to realize their political goals. Politics has a lot of dirty games. Religion needs to be away from these games. I’m very scared that Islam will be manipulated by El-Nahda.
So, I’m not participating in elections in November. No one is convincing me. And I will not participate because I want to criticize all the mistakes of the people in power. If I vote, then I will not be able to criticize them.
Right now my main political activity is working on a song about the Palestinian peace process. Many young men in Sfax want to rap now. So I’m working with my friends.
[. . .]
LB: How do you see yourself?
HBA: I’m just a Tunisian citizen. I’m Muslim. I’m an African from a poor country. I’m proud of my heritage. I’m 21. I travel but I mostly stay in Sfax. My family is here. My parents have regular jobs; my mom owns a book store and my dad works at the local hospital. My girlfriend — I call her my wife — she’s here. We’ll probably get married soon. I made her a revolutionary; she’s a revolutionary in love.
I have a gift given by God. I believe in God strongly, and that human beings can make the impossible possible. For one song, I was in prison and tortured. This song made me famous and successful. I was selected as TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2011. If this would have happened to someone else, they’d have limos and bodyguards. But look at me. Look where I stay. I’m with friends at a café right now drinking coffee.
So I’m normal Tunisian youth. But, you can tell the American people, I’m dangerous to governments. So if they need my service, I’m ready.