Fuck the police coming straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one
For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun
To be beating on, and throwing in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
– N.W.A. – «Fuck tha Police,» 1988
In Tunisia, the birthplace of citizen-led uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011, the government is in the midst of a witch-hunt against outspoken musicians with a potty-mouth. Last week, rapper Weld El 15 (real name Ala Yaakoubi) was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for a music video that authorities claim “contains expressions and gestures that affect morals and threatens the security of officers and magistrates.” It was not immediately clear whose morals were affected by the gestures.
The charges stem from Weld 15’s hard-hitting song and music video Boulicia Kleb, or “The Police are Dogs,” in which he calls out the police for perpetuating the same corruption, arbitrary arrest, and torture that were staples of everyday life under the ousted regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Not only was Weld 15 given prison time for his song, but 2 people who helped make the video, as well as 4 other rappers who were thanked in the closing credits, were also thrown in jail. Music video actress Sabrine Klibi and cameraman Mohamed Hedi Belgueyed were sentenced to 6-months each, while rappers Madou MC, Li’ K, Emino, and Spoiled Boy were sentenced to 2-years each in absentia. To re-iterate, the 4 other rappers had nothing to with the video; their names merely appeared in the final frame of Weld 15’s shout-outs.
In a video response to the sentence posted to his Facebook page, Weld El 15, who also spent time in prison in 2011 for speaking out against the dictatorship, defended his right to freely use art as a form of protest: “I was only using the language of the police. They have harassed me verbally and physically. As an artist, the only way I could answer them is through art. So I gave them a violent art.”
The song is undoubtedly violent—in one line Weld states that if he could, he would skewer the police like a lamb for the Eid holiday. But he has defended his lyrics as “nothing more than metaphors—I am expressing my anger, shared here by a lot of young people, over certain police methods. I’ve never done anything wrong, and I’m not violent, but I want police to respect our youth.”
Legendary Tunisian cartoonist “Z” posted this drawing, titled “Police Dogs,” in support of Weld El 15 and the other artists.
The entire affair underscores a persistent effort on the part of Tunisia’s government to attack, discredit, and imprison those who have been vocal in their criticism of the ruling party and the institutions of the state. After the emotional high of the 2011 revolution that overthrew the decades-long dictatorship of Ben Ali, many political activists, artists, and opposition figures have faced legal threats from the Islamist Nahda government as well as physical attacks from a far smaller but more extremist group of Salafist citizens.
(Please note that we have chosen not to adopt Western media’s convention of gluing the modifying noun “moderate” in front of Tunisian political party “Nahda.” While it’s true that they may be vaguely left of the Muslim Brotherhood on the ideological scale, their fierce intolerance of criticism over the past year has put them somewhere in the vicinity of Napoleon on the respect for fundamental human rights scale. Not moderate.)
Sadly, the situation in Morocco is not much different. Last week, edgy Moroccan rapper El Haqed (“the truth”) was finally released from prison after serving a 1-year sentence for lyrics that criticized the government. El Haqed’s song “Dogs of the State” was what landed him in jail, despite pledges from Moroccan authorities that their new constitution guaranteed freedom of expression. In Houda Abadi’s excellent piece on Al Haqed, she notes the hypocrisy of the “reformed” Moroccan constitution—amended by decree of the King and voted into law following a citizen uprising February 20, 2011—which assures free speech, as long as it doesn’t cross any ‘redlines’:
Under the new constitution, article 25 states: “Freedom of thought, opinion and expression in all its forms are guaranteed. Freedom to create, publish, and display literary and artistic materials and scientific and technical research are guaranteed.” On the surface, this appears to be a major reform but it is automatically nullified under article 263 that states: “Showing contempt to and undermining the honor of public servants or toward state institutions could be punishable with up to two years in jail.
And of course, the recent arrest of massively popular satirical Egyptian talk-show host Bassem Youssef has drawn quick attention to the Muslim Brotherhood’s own brand of intolerance as they consolidate power in post-uprising Egypt.
It remains to be seen how artists and musicians will respond to this latest crackdown, but it is becoming more and more clear that the new governments in many post-uprising Arab states are no better at tolerating free dissent than their tyrannical predecessors.
Back in 1988, American rap-crew N.W.A. caught some flack for their protest song “Fuck tha Police.” The group shocked a lot of people with their violent, angry lyrics fighting against what they saw as an unfair, corrupt system of oppression in black neighborhoods at the hands of white police officers.
The group was criticized heavily for promoting violence against cops, received a “warning letter” from the FBI, and was even briefly detained by police after one of their performances. But their right to perform the song was defended by fans, rights groups, and even politicians, and the polarizing controversy surrounding it only further legitimized their complaints of a system that seemed stacked against them. However one felt about the content of that song, there’s no denying it was prescient. The epidemic of police brutality against blacks living in the inner city came to a climax with the Rodney King police beating and subsequent riots in South-Central Los Angeles in 1991 and ’92.
Let’s hope that leaders in North Africa wake up and initiate long-overdue reform before the anger of dissidents and artists bubbles over into something less constructive than protest music.
Do you live in the U.S. and want to help support free expression? Follow this link to locate and call your representative and ask them to tell their counterparts in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt that it’s not okay to put artists in jail and that we’re paying attention. International pressure works. Then sign up for Movements.org’s Emails to get details about our upcoming “Banned Together” campaign to support dissident musicians around the world.