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Tunisia's rappers provide soundtrack to a revolution

From Neil Curry, CNN
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Tunisia's revolutionary rappers
  • "Balti" is Tunisia's best-known rapper
  • His song "Zine el Abadine Ben Ali and the 40 Thieves," is about the country's former president
  • He says Tunisia's rappers fueled its revolution
  • Protests in other Arab countries must be peaceful, says Balti

Tunis, Tunisia (CNN) -- Tunisia's rappers have long made a point of speaking their minds, their lyrics often bringing them into conflict with the old regime. But more than simply upsetting the status quo, according to one of the country's leading rappers their music was the "fuel" for Tunisia's revolution.

"Balti" is Tunisia's best-known rapper and one of the founding fathers of hip-hop music in the country.

His most popular videos have reached 350,000 hits on YouTube and he's performed to audiences of over 50,000, sharing the stage with such Western rap idols as Method Man.

His latest recording is "Zine el Abadine Ben Ali and the 40 Thieves," a barbed account of the former president deceiving his people.

Rappers risked the wrath of the authorities under the Ben Ali regime, writing and recording in secret studios. Balti says he was arrested and briefly jailed in 2005 for a song which wasn't one of his.

We feel like our voices didn't get to the regime ... but thank God our voices were heard by the people, so we were the fuel of our revolution.
--Tunisian rapper Balti

In recent years Tunisian rappers have taken advantage of social networks to post music videos on the internet.

Most notably, a rap by 21-year-old Hamada Ben Amor -- known as "El General" -- went viral after he was arrested by armed police at his home in the eastern coastal town of Sfax and taken to Tunis for interrogation.

The song "Mr President Your People Are Dying" was a personal message to President Ben Ali outlining the corruption and deprivations besetting the Tunisian people. Eight days later "El General" had been released and Ben Ali had fled the country.

Inside the Middle East traveled to a recording studio in the suburbs of Tunis where Balti makes his music to get his take on the role of rap in Tunisia's revolution.

IME: How difficult was it to make music before the revolution and how has that changed now?

Balti: Rap and hip-hop in Tunisia before the January 14th revolution was very difficult. It was forbidden by the old regime and some people were jailed. Rappers such as Philosoph, Ouled Bled and myself stood up to those difficulties and made our voice heard.

Hip-hop music has contributed greatly to the revolution in Tunisia. The revolution started on the internet. Thank you to Facebook and guys like El General and Psyco M -- they spoke before and after January 14th and contributed to break the fear barrier among youngsters.

The revolution is a social movement and rap is always talking about social issues. We come from very tough neighborhoods and we talk in our songs about social problems such as unemployment. We feel like our voices didn't get to the regime, to the top officials, but thank God our voices were heard by the people, so we were the fuel of our revolution.

IME: Do you expect hip-hop to explode in Tunisia now you have more freedom?

You can also ask for regime change -- it's the people's basic right to remove it.
--Tunisian rapper Balti

Balti: Yes, I welcome the new generation of rappers. Everybody has their own style and we will compete, but I am very glad that we will have a new rap scene.

I think that rap music and hip-hop has a good future in Tunisia. Along with Psyco M and El General there are many other rappers who didn't get their opportunity before the revolution and now is the time to have their chance.

IME: What are your thoughts about what's happened in other parts of the region since the revolution in Tunisia?

Balti: I'm so happy to see other Arab countries looking to get back their freedom, and not just because I'm a Tunisian, but because Tunisia played a leading role in this matter.

My message to them is to do things in a peaceful way. Yes, you can ask for your freedom and a job, but you can do it in a peaceful way. You can also ask for regime change -- it's the people's basic right to remove it. I want to emphasize, do it in a peaceful way. Don't let a lot of people die and lose your wealth by destroying your economy.

IME: How do you see the future for Tunisia?

Balti: This revolution has been made by the youth of Tunisia. They are the ones who stood up against the old regime and asked for their freedom of speech.

The whole nation is happy about the revolution but after every revolution there are some economic and political problems such as unemployment, but we should stick together to make this happen.

The stone which brought down the government we can use to rebuild the country.