How a rapper soundtracked the Arab Spring

Further proof that hip-hop is the best genre, with the fascinating tale of El General, a Tunisian rapper that wrote the anthem of his country's revolution.

17.08.11

Words by: Charlie Jones

This anti-Routledge article from Spin on the Tunisian rapper El General’s song Rais Lebled and its part in soundtracking the Arab Spring tells an absolutely fascinating story. Read extracts under the video, before heading to Spin to read the whole story.

The most dangerous rapper in the world sleeps in a narrow twin bed in a small room he shares with his brother in a tidy, comfortable home on the outskirts of Sfax, an industrial port city in central Tunisia. The comforter is decorated with pictures of teddy bears, rocking horses, and a red wagon adorned with the words bear express. His brother’s identical bed sits four inches away. On the morning I visit, he walks out of his house into the dusty, sunbaked street wearing a black T-shirt, black sweatpants, and flip-flops. The unassuming 22-year-old, who is known to his parents as Hamada Ben Amor and to the world at large as El General, looks groggy and tells me, through an interpreter, that he just woke up. He shows me to his room and stands in front of a desktop computer for a few moments, updating his Facebook page. Yesterday, the page was hacked and he just relaunched this one last night. So far, more than 30,000 people “like” it.

This is life now for El General. This time last year, he was a 21-year-old university student. He was a big Tupac fan who’d recorded his own raps and posted them online, but even within the microscopic universe of Tunisian rap, hardly anyone knew who he was. Then, on November 7, 2010, he uploaded a song called “Rais Lebled” to Facebook. The date was significant: In Tunisia, November 7 was a national holiday commemorating the moment in 1987 when Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ended the 30-year reign of the previous president, Habib Bourguiba, with a bloodless coup. The song, whose title loosely translates as “President of the Country,” is hardly a celebration: Over an eerie synth line and a simple, harrowing beat, El General searingly indicts Ben Ali. “Mr. President, your people are dying,” he rhymes in rough, angry Tunisian Arabic. “They are eating garbage.” He goes on to rail against police brutality, anti-Islamic policies, and institutionalized kleptocracy.

He was driven to the Interior Ministry in 
Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, where he spent three days being interrogated. If the idea was to 
silence him and other dissidents, the arrest was a colossal blunder. His family and friends worked to publicize his detention. Soon, street protestors were demanding his release. El General emerged from a three-day stay in government custody as a huge star. “Rais Lebled” went from being a viral hit to something closer to a new national anthem. When Ben Ali fled the country on January 14, El General was perhaps the biggest living icon of the new, free Tunisia — Bouazizi had died on January 4. After being interviewed on Al Jazeera, his story spread. As Tunisia’s uprisings inspired much of the Arab world to follow suit (with varying levels of success), in what became known as the Arab Spring, democracy movements in other countries adopted “Rais Lebled.” Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Bahrain’s capital, 
Manama, chanted it in the streets.