“Is rap the battleground between Muslims?” asked the American journalist. I watched as her subject, a Casablancan emcee named Soultana, shifted her gaze into the middle distance, her face expressionless. We all went silent.
The journalist, a specialist in Iranian and Lebanese politics, was visiting Casablanca to give a talk. I had arrived a few weeks before to spend a year doing fieldwork for my dissertation on Moroccan hip hop and neoliberalization. I helped the journalist to arrange a day of interviews with Moroccan emcees for a chapter of her next book, on responses to Islamist extremism from the Muslim world. As we sat in the lobby of her downtown hotel that afternoon in 2009, she introduced herself to the four artists interviewed that day with the same message: she was inspired by hip hop in the Arab world after she heard DAM, a pioneering Palestinian-Israeli group, for the first time. DAM was “giving the kids something besides Molotov cocktails and suicide bombs,” she said.Rappers were the only people speaking truth to power in “these closed societies” across the Middle East and North Africa, she said. And their music was the only thing keeping at-risk youth, kids from slums where Islamist mosques provided services and social ties, from joining violent extremists. That’s why she wanted to spend a chapter of the book on the stories of hip hop artists from across the region—to capture the voices of what she called “the jihad against the jihad.”
As we discussed later, Soultana was both familiar with and wary of the journalist’s hoary characterizations. The assumptions that all the countries of the MENA region were the same, that all populations of those countries reacted to their governments in the same ways, that in fact all those governments were identically authoritarian, and most importantly that there were only two types of Muslims in the world, had made her visibly uncomfortable. The question invoked an Orientalist logic of difference, a clash-of-civilizations discourse caricaturing Muslims and their political positions vis-a-vis “the West,” still alive and well in the US: in this corner, weighing in at 800-pound-gorilla, violent fundamentalists. In this corner, weighing in at USAID-size, pro-Western moderates.
It’s not that there weren’t grains of truth behind the journalist’s question—about the authoritarian Moroccan government, say, or the presence of Islamist mosques in Casablanca’s shantytowns. But they were Moroccan grains of truth, rooted in Moroccan histories, not mere iterations of some regional rubber stamp. Yes, some voices in the Moroccan public sphere do reject hip hop based on a nationalist or culturalist aversion to “Western” musics; some others do maintain that listening to hip hop, like listening to most music, is forbidden by Islam (haram). (The continuing debate over whether music made with anything but male voices and drums is appropriate for Muslims dates back centuries. Within Morocco, only a distinct minority take this position; the rich diversity of music from across the country and the importance of Sufi worship practices, which sometimes use singing and music, factor into that.)1 Still, wanting to converse in good faith, the emcees interviewed that day were reluctant to simply dismiss the journalist’s questions. But answering the question “Is rap the battleground between Muslims?” at all seemed to endorse the question’s premises. It is a testament to her gracious upbringing, but also her acute awareness of the power imbalance built into the interaction, that Soultana did not laugh in her face.
Instead, she withdrew. After that endless moment of silence, she answered: “Maybe.”
As that exchange taught me, if a Muslim artist reaches a certain level of visibility, eventually she will be asked to choose a side in a discourse whose terms she can’t control. Just answering the question—just being a hip hop artist, and a female hip hop artist at that—puts you in the “moderate,” “reasonable” camp. Essentialization, even with the best of intentions, becomes the price of success.
But by answering “maybe,” I think Soultana was imagining a different battleground—one with Moroccan poles of authority and points of contention, not one in which the actors’ Muslim status was overdetermined by US narratives—even as she understood the journalist’s aims. And hip hop artists definitely do weigh in on ongoing battles over what it means to be young, Moroccan, Muslim, and “modern.” However, the “battlegrounds” that most concern Moroccan hip hop artists and their fans are the social and economic issues they observe on a daily basis—increasing inequality, desperate poverty, high youth unemployment, police brutality, clandestine emigration, corruption. Emcees often frame these as social problems with ethical dimensions; the oldest musicians I met in my research, pioneers of Moroccan hip hop now in their late twenties and early thirties, often describe themselves as “teachers,” as “advocates” exhorting fellow citizens to know and use their rights.
Frequently Muslim faith is the frame through which emcees’ critiques are articulated, and national identity is the terrain on which many issues are fought. But if, as outsiders to these debates, we take Muslim belief and practice as a condition of possibility for hip hop practitioners’ social and musical work instead of fetishizing Islam or Arabness, we can free ourselves up to learn from them. If we listen closely to the spectrum of statements hip hop artists are making, we can hear ethically-informed responses to the transnational economic order that did not originate Morocco’s crises of unemployment or rising inequality, but continues to intensify them. Behind the sweeping changes that both hip hop artists and their detractors worry about stand neoliberalizing policies enacted over the last thirty years. As Soultana said in that interview describing why she makes “conscious,” socially committed hip hop, “you know that reality nowadays, it’s something—you can’t see it.”
The 1980s and 1990s were characterized by dual transitions: on one hand, the Moroccan state was slowly liberalizing the economy in adherence to structural adjustment requirements; on the other, it was moving from decades of political violence and repression under King Hassan II to the more subtle and variegated methods of managing the population used today. Morocco accepted its first of three loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1983, near the beginning of a wave of structural adjustment programs that marked for developing nations the Western-led shift from the pro-Keynesian economic policies of the 1970s to the neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s.2 Morocco’s requirements under the IMF loans were like other structural adjustment programs of that era—open capital and consumer markets, increase foreign direct investment, privatize state-owned industries, deregulate, lower taxes on enterprise, shed public sector jobs, cut domestic subsidies and price controls. The state quickly became something of a poster child for adjustment, as it followed through on all of these initiatives, many of which extended into the 2000s.
Moroccan hip-hop emerged in the early 1990s alongside the first effects of these neoliberalizing policies. As a foreign form first brought to the country through Moroccans’ travel on historically carved routes to Europe and the Francophone world, the hiphop my interlocutors make has always been simultaneously about local priorities and translocal connections, about repping your derb (street) to your city and your city to the world. First learning from friends and family abroad, then satellite television, and finally today’s Internet-based social media, practitioners—musicians, dancers, graf artists and fans—have honed their craft through countless hours of research, listening, watching, and practicing with their peers. Today, not only Casablancans but youth in all the major Moroccan cities and many smaller towns across the country, create and socialize within a thriving hip-hop network with its own stars, its own stylistic battles, its own venues for publicity and performance.
So how does one write to a U.S. audience about the music of a demographic caught in an essentialist trap (the either/or of jihadists or non-Jihadists?”) without reinforcing one narrative or another? Especially when that music tackles head-on the specters of violence animating that trap? In my dissertation work, I attempted to walk a fine line. Starting off inquiring about musicians’ and fans’ relationship to Islam would just brand me as another American researcher obsessed with the religion, unable to see through any other lens. Youth fall along a wide spectrum of piety, and regional, ethnic, educational, and class-based differences can affect how they express their faith, and of course people can become more or less devout as their circumstances change. But in a context where Muslim faith is often conflated with Moroccan identity, taking Moroccan hip-hop practitioners’ words and actions seriously means attending to the role their faith plays not just in their personal lives but how they and others invoke it in the public sphere.
What do we say, for example, about Casablancan emcee Don Bigg’s “16/05” from his 2009 album Byad u K7al (White and Black)?3 On May 16th, 2003, twelve to fifteen young men staged a coordinated suicide bombing in downtown Casablanca. The targets included foreign-owned restaurants, a branch of the international Golden Tulip hotel chain blocks from the downtown train station, and a Jewish cultural center. Forty-five people died, including ten bombers. Initial news reports from the BBC and the Guardian noted that, though no group had come forward to claim responsibility in the first few days, the coordinated attacks might have been carried out by a group with ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb known as Salafiya Jihadiya. Later reports suggested that a group with unknown ties, known as al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (“the Straight Path”), organized and carried out the attacks.4 As more information about the bombers emerged, it became clear that all of the young men were from a bidonville (“tin town,” after the corrugated aluminum that forms the roofs of these tiny, one-room dwellings on the outskirts of the city), where few to no services were provided by the state. The first of their kind in the country, the attacks generated instant and widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum.
The attacks also generated a string of responses from local hip hop artists. Over the years since, some of the best-known soloists and groups throughout the country have produced songs about the bombings or their aftermath. Each has taken its own musical approach, but all reject the notion that Islamic doctrines or values permit such violence, casting the bombers’ actions outside the pale of religion. “16/05” is the only song about the bombings to go beyond expressing outrage to imagine the voices of actors in that event.5 Don Bigg stages a dialogue between an unnamed security official and a would-be bomber in which the bomber gets to tell his own story.
A spare, acoustic piano opens the song, giving the impression of a still, open space in which sound radiates in all directions. Into the solemn expanse a burst of white noise breaks. Patrol two to center. Come in, barks a voice, far away on the other end of a hand-held transceiver.6 Patrol two to center, the voice repeats. Come in. I’m here, on the spot…Moulay Youssef, Boulevard Moulay Youssef. Come in. No one answers him. After capturing one of them we are in the possession of hand-made explosives. Patrol two, come in, Center—we’re starting interrogations now.
Bigg begins the first rapped verse of the song in an unfiltered sonic present. Doubled by himself at a lower register throughout, supported by the entrance of spiky percussion and a low, muted bass line, his voice sounds nearer to us than the patrolman on the transceiver.
I want to present myself to you
Eighteen years old and always skipping school
Every day of the year there’s whisky on ice in the fridge
Between classes I consider: crises of money and school curriculum
MTV on TV and my beard is wet [from ablutions before prayers]
Doting on the Top Models passing on TV
My icon is Akon
My motorbike’s broken down, he drives a Ferrari
I’m online circulating
Pictures of Jay-Z in the Maybach, a clip of Fat Joe’s “Lean Back”
What a plan! What a life! What a tongue
Born with a spoon of shit between [my] teeth
The stolen Xbox CD GTA was fucked up
He brought the original from the secondhand market
I don’t listen to Bigg, I don’t listen to H-Kayne, I don’t
Listen to Fnaire, there’s no rap in Morocco
This interrogation is already not going well. Instead of telling us what he’s doing on Boulevard Moulay Youssef, a posh section of downtown Casablanca, Bigg’s unnamed suspect describes himself succinctly—your average 18-year-old, balancing rebellion with Muslim practice, who would rather play Xbox than deal with his impoverished neighborhood school—living in poverty with images of others’ material success all around him. He loves hip hop music, but dismisses the leading Moroccan artists H-Kayne, Fnaire, and (of course) Bigg, preferring the wealth and glamour of rapper-turned-CEO Jay-Z and New York legend Fat Joe. Akon is an apt figure for the story Bigg is telling; born in the US with a childhood spent in Senegal, reportedly Muslim, blindingly successful in the US and on the African continent, he’s living our narrator’s dream.
In the next eight bars, the space where the chorus of this song ought to be, we hear from the security official again, speaking directly with the voice in our ear. He does not rap; he sputters. Plenty of words are censored in the original recording.
What [expletive]? Help me out, I want to ask you—why do you want to blow yourself up? Why do you want to blow yourself up, and in front of the American Center? …Why would you make chaos in the country? Everything lives in chaos [already]… Are you Moroccan or aren’t you? Are you Moroccan, or aren’t you? …Respond! Tell me why. Why? Tell me why. Why? Go on then! Go on, burn yourself [expletive]!
Within the frame of the story, the interrogator is a seemingly unprepared negotiator in a dangerous real-time situation. Outside the frame, he acts as the locus of common wisdom, making the rhetorical points contemporary listeners expect to hear in the dramatization of what is, by now, a well-worn argument. Here his voice, picking up speed in anxiety, is the first explicit confirmation of the bomber’s plans in the lyrics themselves. “Are you Moroccan or aren’t you?” he repeats. His logic is evident to both characters and to listeners: your allegiance is to a specific fundamentalist sect, not this nation; you must not be a “real” Moroccan.
The official’s last word in this moment is a vicious double entendre. “Go on, t7arrag!” he blurts, using the verb that means “to burn (oneself),” but which, in common parlance, evokes clandestine emigration to Europe. Upon arrival on Southern Mediterranean shores, émigrés from the African continent burn or destroy their citizenship documents in case they are discovered by immigration authorities. Many don’t make it to Spain, however, and are sent back to Morocco (sub-Saharan migrants are then deported). While the literal meaning is an especially cruel thing to say to a young man just caught with a bomb in his backpack, metaphorically, it’s a bit like “Love it or leave it.”
But our bomber is already familiar with this kind of judgment and rejection. In the next verse, he describes how his poverty leaves him unprotected from economic and political violence.
I gave rap everything and it didn’t give me nothing
Unemployment and prison made me powerless, my rap must be my homeland
In order to get on the radio and the television
I need to have a Lebanese ass [i.e., be a sexy Lebanese singer]
I decide to ignore it, I say I’ll finish my studies
They said to me, “you crazy or not? Why, what for?”
I said I can make money at it, I’ll become a high-up official, man
They killed me with memorization until I nearly suffocated
I changed direction, decided to suck up to them
Two hours later I came running from those outrageous people
I fled from the shit, I found myself with the police [Bigg says “al-boul,” which means “piss,” but could be short for “police”—“al-bouliss”]
They threw me in the sea, they threw me in prison
Fuck it—I said “I’m finishing the path”
My voice is hoarse [lit: “I have no more saliva”] and people, how come you still don’t understand?
Fuck, if I had blown myself up, I’d never have seen that jail
Bigg’s character dreams of becoming famous in his own country as a rapper, but is rapidly disillusioned. His lack of connections and capital defeats him at every turn. Despite his assertion, his friends know that finishing his baccalaureate (equivalent to a high school diploma) or more school won’t guarantee economic mobility. Any listener who has visited downtown Rabat on a weekday over the last several years will recognize a reference to the breadth and depth of the problem of diplômés chômeurs, unemployed university graduates who protest the lack of jobs in the public sector, and whose daily demonstrations in front of the Rabat Parliament building have been a feature of national news for nearly a decade. The character hints that he was kidnapped and tortured by police, and this is the last straw. Worn down by his helplessness, he resolves: “fuck it—I said, ‘I’m finishing the path.’” Bigg delivers this verse so that the syllable on the fourth beat of each measure is emphasized; here, the word triq (path) falls on that fourth beat, and silence hangs in the air until the middle of the next measure, when he resumes speaking.
Static noises erupt under the last two lines, shifting us back into the sonic and personal space of the man on the transceiver. He’s not interested in socio-economic analysis. Each of the security officer’s responses demonstrates that, to him, conceptions of properly Islamic behavior must be at the heart of the matter. “There is no Islam in this,” he points out. Next, he attempts to explain that the attacker is being taken advantage of, that the bomber’s presumed religious motivation makes him a pawn in Islamists’ games. “This is all just politics, you know what I mean?” he protests, to the sound of the other’s dry laugh. Last, he tries another tactic, a reminder of eternal punishment: “To what place are you going, now that you’re going to blow yourself up?”
None of it matters. The last verse dramatizes Bigg’s argument most clearly: palpable economic disparity intensifies the pain, hopelessness, and vulnerability of poverty, and the state—the nation—has a responsibility towards the poor.
I want to present myself to you
I’m at the end of my rope
I’m tired of asking you, of screaming and giving speeches
I want to arrive, like the sons of the bourgeoisie
When I hear the national anthem I don’t shiver
Even if the maghreb is my country I don’t kneel
When I hear the speeches, I shiver
My country is apparent in the midst of all these struggles
If have set off a bomb between my ribs, I’m now suffering because of it
The last several lines are delivered in a fashion much closer to prose than to rap. The percussion, strings, and the multitracking on Bigg’s voice drop out of the track, leaving him sounding smaller, alone but resolute. It’s as if the character has finished his prepared speech and extemporizes something even more personal.
I didn’t come to say “I’m going, I want to blow myself up”—maybe I want to explode in order to say I want to be somebody
And I want Morocco to give me real citizenship
Not just some blue paper from the civil office [i.e., a copy of his birth certificate]
If I had followed those bearded men, it would be a mistake
But if you say I became a terrorist because of religion, then maybe their plan succeeded after all
At first glance, this song is the perfect foil to US and European narratives of “Muslim rage.” Look, a rapper, that most Westernized of musicians, who blames violent extremists for taking advantage of pious young men’s desperate poverty and luring them to terrorism! Clearly this calls for more high-profile aid and more low-profile drone strikes.
But Bigg’s protagonist knows—better than his interrogator—that the question “Are you Moroccan or aren’t you?” is a false choice. Citizenship isn’t a word, a birthplace, or a piece of paper, he argues; it’s the promise of employment and the safety of his person. Whether this young man gets to participate in society, to be “a Moroccan” in a practical sense, was decided long ago. But instead of Salafist Islam, hip hop culture is his refuge, his “homeland” (watan), where he can speak as if he has the rights and protections enjoyed by the more affluent. In a world in which he has no control, in which he is barely visible, the bomber’s one strategic act was to choose the available framework of “terrorist” to carry out an irreligious decision. In a painful twist, he realizes with his final line that whether he dies as a result of his bomb or his sentencing, his story will still not be his own; it will still be used to fuel a narrative of dangerous Islamist extremists—one that aids the goals of both the extremists and the state that hunts them.
In the last few months of my fieldwork I rented an apartment in downtown Casablanca, in a neighborhood filled with fading Protectorate-era landmarks, down the block from a busy roundabout. One day traffic was slowed to a crawl on the artery leading up to the circle. As I reached the corner, from the sidewalk, I saw a man, shabbily dressed with a deeply lined face, lying in the intersection with a ratty pillow beneath his head. A police officer was leaning over him, hand outstretched. I thought he had been hit by a car until I realized the officer was trying to convince him to get up and walk away. The man refused. He had no sign, no clear agenda; they both looked drained, as if they’d been discussing some implacable problem. I watched as the police officer shrugged, retreated to the sidewalk, and started waving onlookers away. The man curled around his pillow and let the cars drive around him.
In the past few weeks, U.S. media has erupted with discussion of the small but effective groups of protesters who attacked US and European embassies in order to protest the “Innocence of Muslims” trailer. The “clash of civilizations” narrative, always lurking, sprang to life again with shameless enthusiasm, putting those who would defend against it in the same familiar rhetorical box. (It is genuinely beautiful that ordinary Libyans gathered to tell the world they were sorry for Ambassador Stevens’ death; it is genuinely sad that they, and we, accept that it takes English-language signs and counterprotests to make us think this is true.) Thankfully, many have taken to social and conventional media to re-humanize the dehumanized Muslim other through humor, shaming, and stone-cold logic. But the institutionalization of the response, justified as it is, reifies our tired discussions of the moderates-vs.-fanatics trope even as the content of the responses successfully skewers the “fanatics” side.
Most of us, including many fine journalists, academics, and commentators, realize how sensationalist and simplified these discussions are. And many of us have long since chosen not to support with our dollars magazines that pick fights, or news media that wanly circulates the resulting “controversy” instead of condemning it. But until there is no outlet making money and generating hits by trolling the Arab Spring, or by describing every new outrage as the latest in a long-standing decline—until those trying to ride an egregiously offensive and discredited narrative to fame have no means to do so—we have to continuously repudiate such gestures even as we watch our own thinking for the return to easy essentialisms.
Even more broadly, we have to make a genuine effort to see things through a frame in which the US and our narratives, our expectations, our “national interests,” are not the center of the conversation—and keep seeing them that way. Decentering the neoliberal paradigm through which the “developed” world continues its economic, and therefore political and military, dominance under the guise of “free” market integration needs to be part of that work. Artists and ordinary folks in Morocco don’t have the same luxury; the stories they tell about themselves to the wider world, and increasingly within their local worlds, are structured by narratives from Europe and North America about Islam and Arabness out of necessity. Once this could be attributed to their status as a Protectorate of the French; today it can be seen in the state’s constant reinforcement of its position as the “stable,” “moderate” Islamic nation in the region, and the feedback loop between that reputation and economic success (like the growth of tourism). Such is our post-colonial condition, in which what Anibal Quijano calls our “coloniality of power” thrives.7
Hip hop artists, as members of a transnational tradition dedicated to critical commentary on one’s own culture, often respond to this condition far more eloquently than I have here. In “16/05,” Bigg’s character feels the gap between not just his life and those of the Moroccan “bourgeoisie,” but also those of the “developed” world. Media glorifying the local and global haves on the other end of that gap is all around him—including the famous rappers he loves. In a situation perhaps reminiscent of W.E.B. DuBois’ observation regarding African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century, Moroccans live a kind of “double consciousness.” As (mostly) Muslims who (mostly) claim Arab descent, they know with DuBois how it feels “to be a problem.”8 As a result of decades of colonial domination and “developing nation” status, Moroccans always have to be able to read the local through the eyes of “the global”—which generally means the global North. Youthful hip hop practitioners work the uncomfortable, uncharted space between, using a form identified first with African-American resistance and second with American cultural dominance to critique their nation’s own evolving role in the intertwined economic and geopolitical order. And in doing so, they refuse to let their nation and its citizens off the hook by subscribing to neoliberal beliefs about the (transnational) market’s essential separation from the (internationally interdependent) state. Instead, like the most trenchant critics from the US hip hop tradition, they insist that economic violence is within the state’s monopoly on violence, and economic inequality is political inequality.
1) For a (very) succinct explanation of this conflict, see Beeman, William O. 2011. “Production, Hearing and Listening: Intentional Participation in Musical Culture in the Islamic World.” Anthropology News (Jan 2011): 11. Or, see al-Faruqi, Lois Ibsen. 1980. “The Status of Music in Muslim Nations: Evidence from the Arab World.” Asian Music 12(1): 56-85.
2) For overviews of Moroccan structural adjustment, see Cohen and Jaidi 2006, Maghraoui 2001. For a general-readership history of the neoliberalization of economic policy, see Harvey 2005.
3) I follow Bigg’s spelling of the album’s title. He uses a transliteration system developed by native speakers using Roman-script keyboards, sometimes called “Arabish” or “Aransiya,” in wide use throughout Morocco on social media and in SMS messaging. Numbers stand in for Arabic letters with no English equivalents: the most common are 7 for ? (“ha”), 3 for ? (“‘aiyn”), 9 for ? (“qaf”), and 2 for ? (the hamza, a glottal stop).
4) See “Terror Blasts Rock Casablanca,” BBC News, 17 May 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3035803.stm and “Moroccans March Against Terror,” BBC News, 25 May 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2936918.stm
5) The album is available on iTunes. For a fan-made YouTube video of “16/05,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ig89Yc5WMEY&feature=related
6) This translation was helped immensely by Sarah Hebbouch, a graduate student in Cultural Studies at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, Fez. Any remaining mistakes in translation or interpretation are fully my own.
7) For “coloniality of power,” see Quijano, Anibal. 2000. “Coloniality of Power, Ethnocentrism, and Latin America.” Nepantla 1(3): 533–580 and Escobar, Arturo. 2004. “Beyond the Third World: Imperial Globality, Global Coloniality and Anti-Globalisation Social Movements.” Third World Quarterly 25(1): 207–230. H/t Larisa Mann.
8) DuBois, W.E.B. 1994 . The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. 2nd edition. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Co.