The Arab Spring has set in motion a series of revolutions, with varying degrees of violence and efficacy, that have shaped the political climate of the Middle East and North Africa for over a year now. It has been extremely satisfying to cheer on these democratic movements as leaders such as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi were removed from power, as well as terrifying to witness from afar the bloodbath in Syria. Artists like El General in Tunisia have been a source of unification among the protesters who have rallied around their songs of freedom. Hip-hop artists from the Middle East and North Africa have played an especially important role in providing the anthems of the revolutions, due to the highly political nature of their lyrics.
One country that has been mostly spared from the turmoil of revolution is Morocco, a seemingly liberal Arab country ruled by a monarch rather than an elected despot. Yes, Moroccans have seen their fair share of protests, but the people have failed to bring about any meaningful changes. The root of the problem lies with King Muhammad VI, a man whose handsome, cherubic face is framed and mounted in every Moroccan home, business and school. There is an undeniable Big Brother quality to it: the ubiquitous nature of his image is a constant reminder of the tremendous amount of power that he holds.
I spent the summer of 2011 studying Arabic in Fes, Morocco, and upon my return I was often asked what it was like to live in an Arab country in the midst of political uprisings. The most notable comparison to me was that while Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya all managed to overthrow their dictators, Moroccans were celebrating the fact that the King now allows merchants to set up and sell their wares on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, people were being arrested for criticizing the King and his government.
One such critic is Mouad Balghouat, a k a El Haqed, a young Moroccan rapper who in April was arrested and sentenced to prison for the second time in the past year. El Haqed, whose name translates roughly to “the enraged one,” is part of a larger genre of Arabic hip hop, which is characterized by often highly-charged political lyrics. Since the Arab Spring brought about regime changes across the region, many artists have kept the reconstruction process on track by continually providing songs and anthems that emphasize values of democracy and anti-corruption. El Haqed’s position as a Moroccan rapper is unique among Arabic hip-hop artists because his country has not seen the same radical upheaval like its neighbors.
El Haqed’s music style itself is different from other Arab rappers. His lyrics and message are clearly the focus of his songs, which are little more than vocals over a beat and perhaps a sample or two depending on the song. The samples he uses are simple, unlike other Arabic rappers who incorporate more traditional Middle Eastern sounds from folk and popular music. El Haqed raps in the Moroccan colloquial dialect of Arabic called Darija. His name is often spelled L7a9d, which is the Moroccan chatspeak representation that utilizes numbers to express sounds that are not found in the Latin alphabet. His audience is clearly the Moroccan youth who speak Darija and communicate on the Internet using chatspeak. He does not appear concerned with making his music accessible to non-Moroccans because the issues that he raps about are specific to the political situation in his home country.
The YouTube video for his song, “Kilab ad-Dowla” (“Dogs of the State”), was what got El Haqed arrested for the second time this past March. The video depicts a policeman with the head of a donkey, clearly expressing his anti-government views. It should be noted that calling someone a “dog” in Morocco is a particularly harsh insult because the animal is considered unclean according to Muslim jurists. The video has since been taken down, but the song remains available on YouTube.
El Haqed’s arrest on the grounds of censorship highlights the hypocrisy of the Moroccan government. Last summer the people voted on an amendment to the constitution that promised freedom of the press with exceptions for speech that might “inflict harm to the Islamic religion, the monarchical regime, [Morocco’s] territorial integrity or the respect due the King or the public order.” Freedom of speech in Morocco still has a long way to go, and it will take more young Moroccans like El Haqed to draw attention to the injustices that continue to occur.