A rap song for the revolution
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When Muammar Gaddafi lost control of Benghazi, three aspiring Libyan rappers found themselves in the heart of history. FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto discovers how one rap tune captured the soul of the Libyan revolution.
The beat is pumping, the music blasting and the kids are flaying their arms and pouting in the international body-language of rap stars. As they spot my camera, they flash the ubiquitous Libyan pro-democracy “V” for victory sign. Then the song glides into its catchy refrain and they're off again:
Yani kamat al intisar!
El horriyah l'il ahrah!”
“This is revolution!
The height of victory!
Freedom for the free people!”
This is revolution the way the Libyan youth see it. If every history-mending youth movement were to have its own Bob Dylan vocalizing the dissent and dreams of a generation, “Hadi Thawra” is the “Times They Are a-Changin'” of the anti-Gaddafi hipster set.
This catchy rap song is familiar to any Libyan who made his or her way to the Benghazi's central square in the heady days after February 21, when Libya's second-largest city fell from Muammar Gaddafi's control to become the de-facto capital of liberated Libya.
It was written, sung and produced by three Benghazi youths who bought packs of 50 CDs, copied their hit tune, and distributed the CDs to the anti-Gaddafi demonstrators in Benghazi's central courthouse.
“We're doing it for the country,” explains 23-year-old Mutaz el Obidy. “We don't want money – now,” he adds as a prudent afterthought.
The 'Street Beat' that never hit the streets
Before the revolution, Mutaz and his friends, Islam Barassi, 21, and Youssef Prucki, 24, used to gather in their parents' basements to sing and produce their rap songs in a mix of Arabic and English.
A committed Anglophone, Mutaz is an English literature student while Islam works in his brother's business. Youssef is a garbageman by day and a rapper by night.
In the old days, when Gaddafi's Revolutionary Committee members were keeping a close watch on the populace, the trio called themselves the “Street Beat” even though their music never hit the streets – it was too dangerous.
“We weren't allowed to talk about the system, we could not speak our thoughts. We were not allowed to perform in college or anywhere. We just did the music for ourselves,” says Mutaz.
In those days, they were carefully, deliberately tight-lipped about their passion. “I was afraid not about myself, but about my family,” says Mutaz. “They would have been killed, I'd have to watch my sister being raped. I never got into trouble because I was not stupid about it, we never published it.”
Their early songs from the underground era tackled the angst and frustration of many young, educated Libyans under Gaddafi.
“Hate that, Hate this,
The one thing I hate is living in this shit.
Hard to figure out where do I fit.
Streets of Libya make me feel sick,
I rap out loud,
No kissing ass like those hypocrites.”
Mutaz sings his song in the one-room studio-cum-office, where Benghazi's three star rappers work and hangout along with a changing number of friends and groupies.
Revolutionary entertainment for everyone
After the city fell, they changed the group's name from “Street Beat” to “Revolution Beat” and that's what they've been doing ever since – belting out the revolution. I'm somewhat surprised to find them in the backroom of the Benghazi courthouse premises.
A cluster of seaside buildings, the “courthouse” as it's commonly called, is the hub of the Libyan pro-democracy movement, where journalists gather to badger mostly clueless TNC (Transition National Council) spokespeople, fighters back from the frontline hang around, and crowds descend every evening for what could best be described as “thawra entertainment” - or “revolution entertainment” - which includes an exhilarating mix of speeches, music and much flag-waving.
The flag of course is the pre-Gaddafi tricolor under the former King Idriss, a native of these parts. These days, it's hard to spot a street that does not boast the omnipresent tricolor.
Ensconced in prime revolutionary real estate
A gigantic tricolor emblazons the wall of the studio-office, where the rapping kids are belting out their thawra tunes. How did they secure this prime revolutionary real estate?
“Well, on February 19, we came to the courthouse and found a room,” explains Mutaz. “We brought our laptops, our tunes, our mixers, our beats and so we started singing our first song, 'Thawra'.”
In a testament to the unscripted yet tolerant nature of the anti-Gaddafi revolt, TNC officials have let the kids use the space – although they did transfer them from the main courthouse building to their current space in the former lawyers offices next door.
Their revolutionary rap oeuvre so far features three songs: “Thawra”, “Saba thash fubraihu” (Arabic for Seventeenth February - the day the Libyan uprising began) and “Freedom”. Mutaz himself raps in English. “Even though I speak Arabic, I don't know how to rap in Arabic. English is easier for me,” he explains.
Islam and Youssef rap in Arabic and the group's songs typically feature a mix of English and Arabic.
For “Thawra” though, the trio decided the song must be sung in Arabic - “because all the people would not understand English,” Mutaz explains.
The next step is adding new songs to their album-in-the-making.
Are they afraid that the Gaddafi forces will overpower the rebels' shoddy military organization combined with NATO's weak, wavering aerial support?
Apparently not – or at least that's what they say. “Gaddafi is not going to win, we will, it's gonna be easy,” insists Mutaz. “I feel sad when I see Gaddafi's troops advance, but not scared. The people may die, I may die. But the revolution will never die.”