Why prison rap? How do I not stop being a musician, after three times in prison? What role can rap play in defending society from those who rule it so corruptly and abusively?
I will tell you a short story. It was the summer of 2007 and I was about 20 years old. I had just started rapping seriously with my friends in a band we called Akasha Family. It was about the time when we chose the path of rap and resistance, when we published a song on YouTube and circulated it among friends. The song, “Atini haqqi” (Give me my rights), took off and we gave our first public performance. The organisers of the event didn’t know the content of our songs beforehand. The audience was hit with our words – these words expressing their concerns – really the first rap song in Morocco about usurped rights, defying the authorities and crossing red lines.
After a little while, one of the organisers of the show came up on stage and told us to stop and began to argue with us.
“Who are you?! Who are you?!” he asked. After interrogating us, he let us go, but we wondered, “Are we such a danger to the authorities, just because we speak the truth?”
Of course we were.
There was obviously only one question to answer at that moment – are we going to be on the side of the people or of the state? But still we needed to understand. Why are we choosing rap for this? And which style of rap will we choose?
Rap and politics
As I’ve learned more about rap, and politics – and prison is a very good place and time to become educated – I realised there were four points I would have to focus on both as a rapper and an activist.
With the passage of time and releasing music both on my own and as collaborations with other rappers, I have come to see firsthand how effective rap is in reaching and influencing young people, how quickly it spreads within the community. Despite the media blackout and closing every door in our face and censoring us, we still felt its incredible power, its words of freedom in the face of authoritarian systems.
I became a danger to the system, to the gatekeepers of power. This path, of course, led me ultimately to prison, and every time I get released, the first question people ask is, “Will you complete your career? Is it going to change the content of the words of your songs?”
I admit that I wondered to myself: Is this the best way? Should I continue on this path or should I sell my principles and dignity, and walk behind the herd and bow my head to the sultan and earn his satisfaction like other rappers? It might lead to awards and fame, but I still can’t imagine myself a slave drumming for the ruler, being sympathetic to him with a smile. I have chosen music as my weapon to express the truth to a large segment of the people, and I will not give that up for anyone or anything.
Rap and the state
The Moroccan state didn’t give much importance to rap when it started around 1994, considering it a passing wave. Between then and 2001 there wasn’t that much output because of a lack of rappers, but the songs already addressed topics of interest to young people such as unemployment, drug abuse and marginalisation.
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As the scene developed, however, the state began to understand that rap could be dangerous and state institutions began to create or support festivals they could control, which wasn’t so difficult since most artists were not willing to challenge the state or maintain the revolutionary character of rebellious rap.
So it was up to those few of us willing to rap the truth to keep going, without fear – the same lack of fear that launched the Arab Spring years later.
In 2007, a new kind of rap began to spread, with roots in groups like H-Kayne who rapped about social but not quite political issues. It was authentic rap, not imitating anyone. These dangerous ideas led the system to try to shut us down, put us in a big prison so to speak, a prison for ideas and freedoms to try to hem in our dangerous ideas.
Birth of prison rap
And so we called our rap ar-rab muhabsi – “prison rap” – rap that expresses reality and sings about freedom, breaking down the borders and chains. We need to understand the power of prison rap in the context of most rappers being little more than marionettes, wholesale puppets of power. You can count the number of truly political rappers on one hand. And yet, the small number makes our music that much more powerful. The intellectual and cultural prison only made our music more powerful. The state still doesn’t get that.
By depicting the realities of our society in total honesty, “resistance” rap plays an important role in opening space for criticism and giving people an alternative perspective. Without this kind of critique of power there can be no progress for people. We all know the idea that rights are never given but rather have to be taken.
So I say that it is the duty of a serious protest movement, and the artists who work in it, to educate and enlighten the people. While we are now seeing an increase in the number of political rappers since the Arab Spring began, we find that freedom has declined and the state punishes criticism even more harshly.
And so today, the government imprisoned me again because I harbour the same rage against their repression and I continue to touch on very sensitive subjects through my music. This makes me very dangerous, because in an underdeveloped country like ours, everyone who speaks in a way that crosses these red lines is considered dangerous.
But prison hasn’t changed me at all. On the contrary, it’s given me more time in solitude to reflect and redevelop my ideas, read more books and even meet my fans in prison, who give me so much more hope. At the same time, the experience of prison reminds me to keep my lyrics accessible, especially when the media remains in the hands of the state.
In the end, I remain convinced that “prison rap” will help bring my generation, and all Moroccans, closer to freedom. And for that, I will pay whatever cost the government wants to impose on me.
El Haqed, the “Enraged One”, is a Moroccan rapper who was recently released from his third stint in prison. His latest album, “Wallou”, was released earlier this year.
This article was written in Arabic and French by El Haqed and translated into English by Mark LeVine.