Libya has been caught up in the turmoil of Arab Spring since the revolution broke out in February this year. Fighting has engulfed the entire country as the Libyan people worked to overthrow Gaddafi and the remnants of his regime. Now, as the armed conflict draws towards a close, it is worth examining the role that music is playing in the revolution, Hip Hop in particular.
Studios have been popping up in homes and apartment blocks across Free Libya, rebel fighters have been listening to Tupac on the front line, impromptu gigs have sprung up in backyards, and aspiring rappers have been selling their demos on the street corners of Benghazi. Even the National Transitional Council has taken to sponsoring the emerging young artists whose music is so popular with the young revolutionaries of Libya. In only a few months a vibrant music community has appeared from almost nowhere.
To understand this phenomenon and why hip hop is seen to be so important, I spoke to Khaled M, a Libyan-born rapper.
Khaled fled the country as a child with his family after his father escaped from one of Gaddafi’s prisons where he had been tortured for five years. His uncles were not so lucky. After being pursued across North Africa they managed to move to the USA where Khaled has lived to the present day. He began to pursue a career as a rapper and was in the process of producing an upbeat single when the revolution started. Realising the event he and his family had always dreamed about was happening in front of his eyes, he recorded a politically charged track about the horrors of the Gaddafi regime with UK rapper Lowkey. As this track grew in popularity both internationally and within Libya itself, he became more and more involved in the revolution, in constant contact with artists in Libya and those outside.
With both an insider’s perspective of the music community and an outsider’s perspective from living in the USA, he was the perfect man to speak to about the popularity of hip hop and the future of the music community in Libya.
The Phonograph: Hip Hop has been widely documented as the music of the revolution. Why do you think hip hop has been chosen as the medium of expression for artists?
Khaled M: Hip hop has always been subversive in nature. Hip hop was anti-establishment in its inception. For one, the art form of hip hop allows you to express yourself in an articulate manner that no other form of music can match. Hip hop is about the WORDS. And a hip hop song contains more words than any song from another genre.
Also, hip hop has always been the voice of the underdogs. The downtrodden, the suppressed, the minority. The poor and overlooked people of society gravitate towards hip hop. Mix that with Libya’s impeccable poetic history and you naturally have a match made in heaven.
Libya is a country that has to overcome phenomenal challenges in order
to establish itself as a stable unified democracy. With the growing
influence of the new music community on the present Libyan culture, do
you see music as a unifying force which can help achieve this?
I believe music has already begun to show its unifying influence. Libyans from all walks of life can be heard singing the various “revolution songs”. There are also countless chants that became popular through YouTube. Libyans all over the world are familiar with the lyrics and can be heard singing them in unison at every get-together!
I have a song coming out soon called “Ana Leebee” (I’m Libyan). I wrote it at the height of rumors that spoke of divisions between “East and West”. At the same time, the media kept depicting the revolution as a “civil war”. I wanted to send out a message. Libyans are more united than ever. This isn’t a civil war based on geography or ethnicity. Its a people united against a dictator and his evil regime. It’ll feature a surprise guest, along with raw footage of the frontlines…
The NTC have actively encouraged artists to produce music, providing
them with a lot of political freedom in comparison to other North
African states which have been restrictive, as in Egypt for example.
How important do you see this encouragement as being for the growth of
Libyan music? Do you see this as something that will continue?
Freedom of expression is imperative to the growth of any civic society. Under Gaddafi, individual expression was obviously muzzled. Musicians were often forced to make pro-Gaddafi music. They couldn’t even make apolitical music. It had to be about the “brother leader”.
There are countless examples. Ali Fates is a Libyan Amazigh singer who was arrested for singing at an Amazigh festival in Morocco in 2006. Authorities stripped him of his papers and he became stateless in his own country. Armed police later raided a private occasion that he was slated to sing at, and he eventually fled Libya and was granted asylum in the Netherlands. It is routine for artists that choose to sing in Tamazight to be thrown in jail.
The 1970s saw an explosion of Libyan musical talent, people who made an impact on an international level. Artists like Ahmed Fakroun, Nasser Al-Mezdawi, and Tunis Meftah were pioneers poised to become permanent icons. By the late 70s Gaddafi’s insistence that all art praise his rule and existence helped get most of these artists silenced or sidelined.
The only artists allowed to become famous in Libya are those like Mohamed Hassan. He is Gaddafi’s hand-picked jester, who makes countless songs praising the dictator, and is even forced to dress like him and promote his “tent culture”.
I grew up listening to the likes of Hamid El-Shari and Ali Addarrat, both of whom have been living in exile for 30 years or so. They made overtly anti-Gaddafi music, and this has led to them being public enemies of the state. They would surely be killed on sight if they were to attempt entry in a Gaddafi-ruled Libya.
Today the future looks bright for freedom of expression in Libya. I’m excited to see what artists emerge.
Libya will emerge as a potential new market for western music and it
is likely there will be an attempt by the industry to expand into the
country. Would this be something you expect to be successful or is it
more likely that a dominant homegrown scene would emerge?
Honestly there is already a presence of western music in Libya. The internet, when Gaddafi made it available, exposed Libyans to music from around the world. Artists like Tupac and Bob Marley are legends in Libya. I’m sure with the country opening up, the western music market will expand. Now instead of Beyoncé or 50 Cent getting paid a million dollars for a 20 minute private show for Gaddafi or his sons, they may be able to perform for the general public.
Regardless, I definitely expect a homegrown scene to spread like wildfire and have a great effect on the youth. The streets of Libya are already alive with people playing music by artists like Ibn Thabit…being caught listening to him only a few months ago would probably grant you a long sentence in prison.
Your track with Lowkey has brought a lot of acclaim and put Libya into
the collective hip hop consciousness. What do you see your future role
as being with respect to your home country? What plans do you have for
I’m honestly not sure. To be completely open, I’m having an inner struggle. I’m torn between being a positive voice in Libya and giving the people what they want, and playing it lowkey and avoiding being an opportunist and exploiting the situation. You have to understand, Libya is about much more than a career to me. I didn’t grow up dreaming about being a rap star. I grew up dreaming about a free Libya, fantasizing about killing Gaddafi and lifting the people above the chains of brutal oppression and tyranny. I have always been active and connected to this struggle, regardless of my artistic aspirations.
It is a little embarrassing for me to get tweets and messages from fans in Libya who can’t wait to meet me or see me perform live. They don’t understand, I’M a fan of THEM! I want their autographs. I’m the one that is in awe of everything they’ve accomplished. Everyone. From the volunteers on the frontline, to the women cooking for the soldiers and raising awareness, to the kids helping direct traffic and pick up trash. It just feels narcissistic to travel to Libya as a “celebrity”.
Whatever I decide to do, I know I will be dedicated to rebuilding the country and contributing to Libya’s growth with every ounce of my being.
You’ve been in a lot of contact with artists in Libya, who are the
ones we should expect to hear more from in the future?
The main artist that I want everyone to check for is Ibn Thabit. There are two main reasons. First, he is extremely talented. I haven’t heard a rapper flow better in Arabic.
Secondly, he is sincere in all that he says. I knew him before the revolution. He spoke out before it was popular and easy. He is in no way an opportunist, or someone interested in exploiting the situation. Aside from that, his character is impeccable, praise God.
I’m sure countless other artists will jump to the forefront in the near future. It is an exciting time to be a Libyan musician, writer, painter, etc.