For her master’s thesis at Malmö University, Tilia Korpe explored artistic activism, or “artivism”, among the youth of Tunisia in the aftermath of the recent revolution. We will be publishing an article by her on the subject of art and freedom of expression in the country soon, but in the meantime we’d like to share some of the interviews she conducted during her research. This is one she did with Tunisian rapper WMD on March 10, 2013.
WMD: I have been rapping for like 8 years and I’m now 31 years old (pauses). I’m ooold! (laughs). Anyway, for me, nothing has changed much due to what I could call a language barrier, because I started listening to American hip hop. I didn’t even understand what they were saying but I was in love with the groove and the flows and the beats. Like, your voice is the musical instrument, so that is what I focus on. I just started rapping in standard Arabic – not even the Tunisian dialect, but the “old” Arabic. The point is that I want to reach out to as many people as possible. I don’t focus on the buzz topics like the revolution just to make a hype, you know? A lot of rappers now make songs about the revolution just to get famous. But for me an artist should not try to look for ways to please the crowd – I am an artist first, you accept me or not.
Tilia: You mean like El General and others?
WMD: Yeah, I mean what we say in Arabic is that “they jump on it”, you see? Anyway, the news does not show the real revolution here. The revolution is live – it’s not televised (makes reference to Gil Scott Heron). Ok, let me tell you something: You mentioned El General? He is from Sfax (southern Tunisian city). There was a rapper there who spoke about these topics long before. He made a song called “Monsieur Le Président”, but nobody paid any attention to him. Then, during that situation the opposition, or I don’t know who, wanted to jump on something to you know…So, the cops started searching for him (El General). He went to jail and he became a symbol. But also I know groups like Armada Bizerte who talked about the music of the revolution before January 14 (the revolution) and nobody looked at them. So, El Genéral has nothing to do with the revolution.
Also, he was invited recently to a show where he spoke badly about opposition leaders…he is a young guy. I think he’s got good intentions, but when it comes to knowledge he is unaware politically from A to Z.
In the US probably, a commercial song on the radio has lyrics about, excuse the term, “bitches” and money and cars and alcohol. But in Tunisia, a commercial song now talks about the revolution or social issues. But I think music can still change things…Rap has power because it is words. Just look at politicians, their words can influence the world.
And now they want to arrest Weld El 15, why? Because he uses words that hurt them. Words that might change the views of some people against the police institution of the government. So words might hurt and words might uplift. Like Balti (Tunisian rapper) you know, he was working for the old government! Then he released a track that was anti-government and people of course were outraged. So what he did instead was make songs about poverty in Tunisia (WMD shakes his head), talking about social problems and getting on the radio.
Tilia: I see, but how can an artist like that gain any kind of credibility and get airplay after having totally contradicted himself?
WMD: The radio has a monopoly here, that’s why. The biggest radio station is Mosaique FM. Balti has friends there (pauses), so with money you can get exposure. But the good thing is now, even if we do not have a “real hip hop audience”, things are getting better I have to say. Now you have Street Art on the TV and I have my show where I play no bullshit commercial songs, only real rap on Kalima FM. Rap started in the early 90’s here in Tunisia, so it has been around for a long time. But only now we have DJs and rappers and shows, things like that. I don’t know why, but in Tunisia it’s like people do not have the will to build things. Even the rappers who make money from music, they don’t invest in the culture…they buy a house, take a vacation, but no money comes back into the scene. And the new government is not taking measures to re-build or re-structure the culture. They are just fighting the opposition…the Minister of Culture, I think he hates hip hop! So, I have to thank you for coming here and doing this workshop. We need to invest in local things…Hip hop is supposed to be a positive movement!
Tilia: So do you consider yourself an activist?
WMD: Well, I try to do (erhm) like, on January 14th, I was with other artists in front of the Interior Ministry. It was cool because people just united for one cause. We were blocking cars, making blockades, demonstrating and making noise together. For two days we were like freedom fighters. We ruled! The days that followed are just black days to me. This is when people started dividing and people went into different political camps: Islamist, the left, the right. So, when I write lyrics I try to say that this government is trying to divide us but we have to not care about people’s religious beliefs or political beliefs. First we are Tunisians.
I also make videos to show the context, to show that rap is an art form, that’s all. Most people here – I mean 2 million used to support the old government so of course there are issues…
(Phone rings and WMD takes the call. When he hangs up he tells me that a radio show just called to get his opinion on the arrest of the rapper Weld El 15 just two days before our interview is conducted. He also tells me he has just told the radio that this sort of harassment should not be tolerated in Tunisia)
WMD: Anyway, I am for all freedom of speech. But when it comes to the law it is very ambiguous. He (Weld El 15) said that “police men are dogs”, that’s why they are after him. Okay, you arrest him, but the people who are just part of the video? Like the girl in the video, she is just acting in the video and she has now been taken to jail. Weld El 15 is afraid because he received death threats before, so that is why he is now hiding. But I think there will be more of this; you know it’s like the Berlin Wall. Some things just cannot be undone, and now we have crossed this barrier and we will continue to do so, no matter what the government does.
Tilia: So, there must have also been rappers during Ben Ali that were critical of him?
WMD: Yes, there are some rappers who have guts you know (erhm)…
Tilia: And what happened to them?
WMD: Well, there was one who was arrested. He told me that when he came to the police office, they sat him down and listened to his music with him and after each sentence they pressed pause and asked: Why did you write that? What do you mean by that? You never write this, you never write that and then he was released, but he was banned from public shows!
Tilia: But how did they even find these people and their music?
WMD: During Ben Ali, they were listening to your phone calls. There were agents and the Internet police! And now, the Minister of Education watched ‘The Harlem Shake”, some of which were taking place in high schools, and the director of the school…I don’t know what happened to her, but there were some sanctions. What the hell!? I mean, police officers are watching videos on YouTube, come on. Real crimes are happening in the streets, what are you doing man?!
Art is a threat to them, especially rappers. Part of the revolution is hip hop, you know…So they try to strike that down so things won’t happen again. Basically this extends to media, because after the revolution the government took over the biggest TV channels, which used to be run by the ex-President’s family. That way they can also control what comes out.
I never had any problems myself, maybe because I use a lot of imagery and metaphors and I avoid some words to not be caught. I use words “in between the lines” so there is no doubt what I mean, but it can be interpreted in many ways…this is my creative strategy.
Like with the case of Zwewla – I mean it’s just crazy that they are accused of causing interior damage to the country! Like they were terrorists! I mean, if you are the guy who came up with this you must really not want to serve the people in your country. It’s another big strike for freedom of expression. For the moment I’m neutral politically. I mean I used to go and protest a lot but now I don’t have much time, but still I go out with other collectives and try to help to spread the word. The problem with public space here is that if you want to organize an event you need so many permissions. You had to go to the Royal Family before the revolution and ask for money and their blessing. Now, you can do things more freely but still, you need to raise all the money by yourself. It’s very expensive for independent artists like us to rent a place, pay the artist and get security.
But even cultural institutions, you need connections and they are just not willing to include culture and art coming from the streets. They see it as a threat. It’s getting on my nerves actually…and sometimes I say things on the radio I probably shouldn’t but…yeah.
You can access Tilia’s thesis here.