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Moroccan rapper keeps spirit of Feb. 20 movement alive

El Haqed voices popular displeasure with elite rule

October 12, 2014 6:00AM ET

Only 24 hours after being released from his third stint as a political prisoner in three years, the Moroccan rapper El Haqed (“the Enraged One,” or l7a9ed, as he writes his name in chat Arabic) was already on the verge of inadvertently causing trouble. On Sept. 19 he went to the opening day of Casablanca’s Boulevard festival, Morocco’s answer to Lollapalooza, to check out the young rappers in the hip-hop competition. Though he tried to keep a low profile, he was recognized almost immediately and was surrounded by young fans who wanted to celebrate his release from jail.

Being mobbed less than a day after getting out of prison while the final disposition of his case was still pending would not be the smartest move for the Arab world’s most important and best-known political rapper, not least because almost all l7a9ed’s arrests began with some sort of set-up physical altercation with another person, whether a pro-monarchy activist or a policeman. These incidents led to charges that justified his detention for months to a year. As Human Rights Watch said in July when he was convicted, “This wouldn’t be the first time that what looks like an unfair trial on common criminal charges has served to silence a persistent critic in Morocco.”

With little doubt that the Makhzen — Morocco’s governing elites around King Mohammed VI — would like nothing more than a new excuse to return him to his cell, l7a9ed decided to leave the festival. But the moment reinforced his faith in the message of his highly charged music, which channels the rage, marginalization and hopelessness of his generation and its determination to change Morocco. 

Dire straits

He captured the plight of this lost generation that formed the backbone of the Feb. 20 movement, the countrywide protests in 2011 for democratic reforms, inspired by the Arab Spring. In Morocco 30 percent of the population is 15 to 29 years old, and depending on whose statistics you believe, roughly half the youth population is unemployed, with some studies suggesting that up to 90 percent of young women and about 40 percent of young men who are not in school are without work.

The protests shook Morocco’s political establishment; the king and the Makhzen then skillfully coopted much of the movement’s energy through a top-down reform process that produced an ostensibly more democratic constitution. In a lesson for democracy activists globally, in the wake of these seemingly positive changes, crackdowns on democracy activists and their supporters have, in fact, increased.

Prison won’t silence me ... it gave me more time to reflect in solitude on my ideas and strengthen them.

El Haqed

In a country with as rich and established a hip-hop scene as Morocco’s, two things make l7a9ed’s music stand out. First, as with Tunisia’s El Général (the rapper whose song “Rais Lebled” is credited with helping launch the mass protests that led to the toppling of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime), l7a9ed’s lyrics and their delivery are succinct and easy to follow. As l7a9ed raps in the title track of his latest release, “Walou,” mixing defiance and despair:

Nothing satisfies us ... We are so sick. No culture, no art, no creation ... No, no way. We won’t back down. It’s my slogan. Choose my side or theirs ... Put this in your head: Never give up your rights ... This country is ours, not his [the king’s].

Second is, of course, the directly political nature of his words and his willingness to suffer the consequences of engaging in political speech. As the broader Feb. 20 movement has lost its valence, l7a9ed’s multiple jail terms have become a symbol of the reality of Morocco’s superficial democratization, earning him supporters worldwide (although the international artists who regularly play Moroccan festivals have remained shamefully silent about his plight). Only hours after leaving the festival, he made clear in an interview that he wasn’t going to keep quiet, explaining as we chatted on Facebook that “they imprisoned me again because I still have the same rage despite their repression and my songs continue to touch on issues the monarchy considers taboo.”

“Prison won’t silence me,” he continued. “On the contrary; it gave me more time to reflect in solitude on my ideas and strengthen them.”

Satanic metal

The Boulevard festival is an apt metaphor for the larger plight of Moroccan society. It was created in 1999 as a DIY grass-roots festival that blended activism and cutting-edge local music and featured artists such as De la Soul and the Portuguese metal band Moonspell. As it grew bigger, it was forced to take on more corporate sponsorship and then, ultimately, money from the king, which compromised its political activism.

Though the festival and organization that runs it, Boultek, provide badly needed space for young Moroccan artists to rehearse, perform and broadcast their work, the Moroccan media have thwarted serious criticism or activism that few besides l7a9ed are willing to engage in, at least outside the festival. Inside it, in a zone broadly free of police (although undercover agents are surely in the crowds), a new generation of rappers is including ever more explicit political criticism in their lyrics. (The most immediate example is Mr. Crazy, a young rapper close to l7a9ed who is in prison for his lyrics.) There’s a reason l7a9ed received warnings and death threats almost as soon as he left prison: Jailing him actually raises his profile and makes him more noticeable and dangerous at a moment when there’s almost no public face of the opposition to the regime.

The kind of grass-roots activism in the baseline communities that l7a9ed represents is precisely what the Moroccan government will not allow, even if it permits human rights organizations to exist at the official level. In this regard, while in Tunisia — the only Arab Spring country still on a genuine path to democratization — has witnessed the jailing of rapper Weled el 15 and activist filmmakers like Abidi Nejib for highly politicized speech, these cases are the exceptions and speak to the entrenchment of the authoritarian impulses of the old regime in the emerging system. In Morocco, by contrast, such repression is still the rule and very much supported and directed at the highest levels of the Makhzen. Its policies are clearly geared to breaking the will of activists and no doubt often succeed.

However, as l7a9ed has explained in numerous discussions I’ve had with him about his detentions, he sees prison as an opportunity to read, write and strengthen his resolve more than as a punishment. With such determination, he will continue to represent one of the most authentic voices of the marginalized majority of Moroccan youth. This is a group that the government simply cannot reach because all its policies are geared to ensuring that most of the country’s wealth remains in the hands of the elite and is not distributed fairly and widely. As long as l7a9ed retains enough local and international support to prevent the government from taking more extreme action against him, the Feb. 20 uprising will continue to smolder, waiting for the next unexpected event in Morocco or elsewhere in the Arab world to ignite the movement again.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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