Editorial Assignments: SPIN: Tunisia's Hip-Hop Revolution
A rapper named El General posted a song to his Facebook page that became the anthem to his country's revolution.
By David Peisner on August 14, 2011
"The most dangerous rapper in the world sleeps in a narrow twin bed in a small room he shares with his brother in a tidy, comfortable home on the outskirts of Sfax, an industrial port city in central Tunisia. The comforter is decorated with pictures of teddy bears, rocking horses, and a red wagon adorned with the words bear express. His brother's identical bed sits four inches away. On the morning I visit, he walks out of his house into the dusty, sunbaked street wearing a black T-shirt, black sweatpants, and flip-flops. The unassuming 22-year-old, who is known to his parents as Hamada Ben Amor and to the world at large as El General, looks groggy and tells me, through an interpreter, that he just woke up. He shows me to his room and stands in front of a desktop computer for a few moments, updating his Facebook page. Yesterday, the page was hacked and he just relaunched this one last night. So far, more than 30,000 people "like" it.
We walk down a dark hallway to a one-car garage where his silver Peugeot hatchback sits parked. "I'm going to take my driving test soon," he says, motioning toward the vehicle. "But I haven't had time."
For now, the garage serves mainly as a kitchenette. A sink, refrigerator, stove, and cabinets have been installed along the back wall. It's a bit of a surreal scene on this May morning: The most dangerous rapper in the world sitting in front of the car he can't drive while buttering a baguette, drinking coffee, and being observed by a writer who's traveled more than 5,000 miles to see him.
This is life now for El General. This time last year, he was a 21-year-old university student. He was a big Tupac fan who'd recorded his own raps and posted them online, but even within the microscopic universe of Tunisian rap, hardly anyone knew who he was. Then, on November 7, 2010, he uploaded a song called "Rais Lebled" to Facebook. The date was significant: In Tunisia, November 7 was a national holiday commemorating the moment in 1987 when Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ended the 30-year reign of the previous president, Habib Bourguiba, with a bloodless coup. The song, whose title loosely translates as "President of the Country," is hardly a celebration: Over an eerie synth line and a simple, harrowing beat, El General searingly indicts Ben Ali. "Mr. President, your people are dying," he rhymes in rough, angry Tunisian Arabic. "They are eating garbage." He goes on to rail against police brutality, anti-Islamic policies, and institutionalized kleptocracy.
In a dictatorship that tolerated no public dissent, "Rais Lebled" was either uncommonly courageous or unbelievably stupid. As El General's friend and fellow rapper RTM tells me later, "When Hamada recorded that, I tried to convince him to be worried. Rap like this may lead him to death. I tried to convince him to convey his message implicitly. He just smiled and told me he's ready for the consequences."
The song's low-budget video upped the ante: It opens with archived footage of Ben Ali, looking like someone's creepy pedophilic uncle, asking a cowering schoolboy, "Why are you worried?" before cutting to El General -- his face obscured by a black baseball hat pulled low over his eyes -- furiously barking the song into a studio microphone.
"It was my gift to him," El General tells me with a smile, "in honor of November 7."
"Rais Lebled" had no official release -- that would've been impossible in a police state that had banned songs peddling far milder criticisms -- but it found an audience online, mostly via Facebook, which had established itself as the main forum for underground rap in Tunisia. Then, on December 17, a 26-year-old fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the provincial government headquarters in the inland city of Sidi Bouzid to protest his mistreatment by the authorities, reportedly at the hands of a local policewoman. With this act, the simmering rage that El General's tune had tapped into boiled over, igniting a full-on, nationwide uprising. Tunisians took to the streets to protest food prices, high unemployment, rampant corruption, and the lack of civil liberties. State security forces responded with batons, tear gas, and occasionally, live ammunition.
El General points me toward a sitting room and we settle onto a long, orange, L-shaped couch. There, he explains how at 5 a.m. on the sixth of January, 30 plainclothes policemen surrounded his house and rustled him out of bed.
"I said the shahada," he recalls, referring to the expression of faith Muslims often recite in times of stress. "I thought I'd probably be killed."
He was driven to the Interior Ministry in Tunis, Tunisia's capital, where he spent three days being interrogated. If the idea was to silence him and other dissidents, the arrest was a colossal blunder. His family and friends worked to publicize his detention. Soon, street protestors were demanding his release. El General emerged from a three-day stay in government custody as a huge star. "Rais Lebled" went from being a viral hit to something closer to a new national anthem. When Ben Ali fled the country on January 14, El General was perhaps the biggest living icon of the new, free Tunisia -- Bouazizi had died on January 4. After being interviewed on Al Jazeera, his story spread. As Tunisia's uprisings inspired much of the Arab world to follow suit (with varying levels of success), in what became known as the Arab Spring, democracy movements in other countries adopted "Rais Lebled." Demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square and Bahrain's capital, Manama, chanted it in the streets.
"I wanted to make a strong song and make it reach the president, for him to know what's happening in our country," he says. "I expected it might get me in trouble, but I didn't think the president would be ousted. I didn't know there would be a revolution."