Generation TBD: Tunisia's revolutionary rappers



Juan Herrero/Natalie Keyssar/Emily Judem

Editor's note: This story is part of a GroundTruth project we call "Generation TBD," a year-long effort that brings together media, technology, education and humanitarian partners for an authoritative, global exploration of the youth unemployment crisis.

TUNIS, Tunisia — Hamzaoui Med Amine’s home neighborhood of Ariana, a roughshod working-class district near the Tunis airport, is the setting for the music video of the now nationally ubiquitous song Houmani, performed by Amine and his vocalist partner Kafon.

The video depicts Tunisia’s urban poor, picking through used clothing stands, sipping espresso and smoking cigarettes. Leathery-skinned women wrapped in black headscarves smile into the camera, their crooked teeth and wandering eyes intimately displayed.

Houmani has racked up millions of views on YouTube, and the song’s relentless drum & bass track can be simultaneously heard blasting from cell phones, car stereos and corner store radios.

The song’s popularity owes to its frank illustration of life for Tunisia’s majority, with lyrics about the joblessness, dirty streets, cramped living conditions and worn infrastructure in working-class neighborhoods throughout the country.

In post-revolution Tunisia, a generation of young people who were, until recently, excluded from formal politics and still facing grim economic futures — with an average unemployment rate above 30 percent among youth between the ages of 15 and 30 — have found a means to express growing frustrations through hip hop arts.

This hip hop movement stands in stark contrast to the sporadic violence, from various sides of Tunisia’s political spectrum, that has been present in Tunisia since the national uprising that overthrew Ben Ali.

“Police say they hit people to stop them from stealing,” said Amine, speaking over a half-finished cigarette in a café in Ariana clanging with the noise of a television in the corner. “But that boy will go and steal again because of poverty.”


Khalil Awafi, a 24-year-old member of the Tunisian political graffiti collective Zwawla — Tunisian Arabic for “poor people” — said this is the reason Amine and Kafon’s music is widely appreciated.

“Amine and Kafon’s song depicts some of the violence of daily life for [Tunisia’s] poor,” he said. “That’s why [the song] is so popular.”

To Oussama Bouagila, a founding member of Zwawla, violence remains an particularly important issue in the post-Ben Ali Tunisia. Bougilia was arrested in November of 2012 on charges of spreading messages that disturb the public order. He had written “The people want rights for the poor” on a wall in Gabès.

He was acquitted of the charges last spring, but fined for defacing government property.

Echoing Amine’s feelings on the prevalence of what he calls police brutality, Bouagila said, “Even if you try to transmit a message peacefully through art, the state will use violence against you. So violence becomes necessary.”

While the UN has reported several hundred deaths and many more injured during the uprising, scores more have been killed in attacks on security services and politicians by small but extreme Islamist groups, including the assassinations last year of political opposition leaders Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid.

Further, periodic riots and clashes with security forces over the last three years, largely in poor towns of the Tunisian interior, have brought numerous injuries and occasional deaths. Ultra-conservative Salafists have also staged  attacks on art exhibitions they see as blasphemous.

But some Tunisians, like graffiti artist Karim Jabbari, are not dissuaded and still see art as a way to channel energy that might otherwise lead to criminal activity or violence.

In December, Jabbari launched “Streets,” a hip hop arts festival, in his home town of Kasserine. The event united local and international artists for five days of workshops and concerts featuring rap, graffiti, breakdancing, DJing, and street basketball.

In Kasserine, an impoverished city in the western mountains of Tunisia that lost tens of martyrs to state violence in the uprising, what was once a sea of grey cement buildings and pale earth is now showing something brighter through its cracks.

Huge graffiti murals incorporating Arabic calligraphy and local motifs, glowing in neon colors, decorate the alleys and avenues of the city. Slam poetry and acting workshops have continued to echo through the local youth complexes in the city, months after the festival.

Unemployment in cities like Kasserine, deep in the interior of Tunisia, is above 20 percent, according to recent estimates, and young people’s prospects for jobs outside of the local paper plant, or smuggling in cheap goods from the nearby Algerian border, are slim.

Jabbari hopes that events like “Streets,” which he plans to continue yearly, will give local youth skills to express their frustrations constructively and contacts to build a career. He also hopes to attract hip hop tourists from Tunisia and elsewhere to give life to the local economy.

“Streets is a medium I'm using to transfer positive energy to my hometown,” Jabbari said. “I’m telling the youth that if you believe in your dream, you will achieve it.”

Jawher Soudani, a street artist and graffiti muralist from the southern city of Gabès, said he uses his work to begin discussion on topics considered taboo in Tunisian society. One of them is racism.

“I’m black. I’m from a simple family,” he said, just returned to Tunis from an exhibition of his work in Paris. “But I’ve made it on my own. This can be a good example. Just by being black and doing art that others admire — this is a way of fighting racist stereotypes.”

Tunisia’s new openness following the 23-year rule of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has initiated a new vogue for politically conscious art — and particularly hip hop — and brought it into mainstream society, according to Soudani.

As a youngster in Gabès, Soudani practiced breakdancing with his friends. Around 2002, however, he quit breakdancing to pursue graffiti and street art. He often spent hours in Internet cafes downloading pictures of graffiti and memorizing artists’ names.

“Before the revolution, if you find someone doing graffiti, or rap, it’s because he likes it, because he was looking for it,” he said. Now, “in the street you see graffiti, you put on national television and you can hear rap music. Even the books that they give to children in school now have graffiti graphics on the cover.”

Some see the underrepresentation of Tunisia’s poor as the country’s gravest ill. Zwawla’s Wassim Bouafif, from the industrial port town of Radès just outside of Tunis, said the group was founded expressly to draw attention to the circumstances of Tunisia’s poor.

“Everywhere hip hop delivers messages about the social conditions of the people,” he said. “It’s the same story in Tunisia.”

Zwawla was formed in Tunis in 2012 soon after the uprising that toppled former President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, with the hopes of becoming a voice for the interests of the country’s poor.

The collective’s members say that art can help give voice to poor people whom they say are excluded from political debate over how to remake Tunisia. For artists, that role carries a great degree of responsibility.

“[Artists] are forgetting the simple person on the street when they make a big expensive graffiti mural with slogans in English, or written in a style that the person can’t understand,” said Khalil Awafi, a Zwawla member. “That’s not art. Art doubts. It puts a society’s problems front and center in plain view.”