Youth, Media, and the Art of Protest in North Africa

Transculturelles des Abattoirs, Casablanca

Jun 27 2011

by Loubna Hanna Skalli,

“Everyone has his own way of fighting, and my weapon is art!” says Milad Faraway, a 20 year-old Libyan who created the rap group Music Masters with another young friend in 2010. Their song “Youth of the Revolution” urges “Moammar [to] get out” and end the violation of Libyans’ rights. “Qadhafi, open your eyes wide” sings another rap group Revolution Beat: “you will see that the Libyan people just broke through the fear barrier.” In neighboring Tunisia, twenty-one year old Hamada Ben Amor, known as El General, circulated on the internet his video song “President: Your people are dying” in an open address to Ben Ali during his last days as a dictator. For singing about peace, justice and freedom, Hamada faced jail time even after Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor, sacrificed his life for making the same demands. In Algeria, Rabah Ourrad one of the country’s lead rappers, built his popularity on “breaking silence” around the leaders’ corruption, greed and nepotism. Years prior to the recent revolutions that swept through North Africa and the Middle East, Moroccan youth political dissent transpired through the vibrant cultural movement known as the Nayda, or the Moroccan Movida as others call it. Rappers like H-Kayne, Zanka Flow, Hoba Hoba Spirit, and Bigg, are among many who captured the attention of the young generation in ways no political party or ideological current could.

Yet, the politics of youth sub-cultures in North Africa have largely been overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed by many until the horror of Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation forced all to discover how Maghrebi youth have been articulating their protest. When I started researching the political views and attitudes of North African youth in 2008, virtually all existing surveys and opinion polls about the young generation of Maghrebis were sending alarming signals. Youth, they reported, are nowhere to be found in civil society organizations, political parties, unions or any other political structures; not even when their civic duty calls them to the voting booth. Many older political figures or “leaders” I approached advised me to do something else: “You are wasting your time: there is nothing to research here that we don’t already know. Young people have abandoned politics. They are wasting their life away in cybercafés, talking on the cell, or listening to this thing called rap or hip hop!” They meant their comment to be honest and helpful: they knew I am a Moroccan female researcher who taught in my own country for 15 years before settling in the US in 2003.

Yet, the majority of young people I talked to, regardless of class or gender, revealed a sophisticated political perspective and a keen interest in participation. They spoke the language of human rights, responsibilities, good governance and bad governance. I found them neither politically naïve, nor apathetic or disengaged as many accounts were depicting them. Classic definitions of political participation and activism proved to be abysmally misleading and outdated. If youth were not to be found within traditional political institutions, as I was warned,

they certainly were at the latter’s margins. They were at the margins not because that is where they wanted to be. This is where they have been comfortable doing their own politics. Youth were in dialogue with their political establishment, their leaders and their policies. They communicated with them and about them in old media and within new spaces. They took advantage of the newer technologies and outperformed the system in the art of overcoming censorship and surveillance.

As a young, female Tunisian blogger told me recently, “Mohammed Bouazizi did not have to sacrifice his life to force the world to finally listen to us. We have been screaming exclusion all along … people do not grow ears overnight.” Her comment made realize that, indeed, the young Moroccan mother of two, Fadwa Laroui, did not have to set herself on fire few months ago to draw attention to the plight of poor “single mothers” who are denied government housing because they are single mothers. National statistical categories still hesitate to declare women heads of households and continue to exclude them from the meager benefits governments can still provide in the neoliberal order. But Fadwa, like Mohammed, loved dignity and justice more than life itself. They both turned the flames of their body into burning reminders that poverty should not be confused with absence of dignity.

During all of my academic interactions with youth, I was both inspired and humbled by the extent of their hopes and their faith in democratic change. In documenting young people’s uses of social media, listening to and reading their lyrics, discussing their political views, attending their press conferences, associations meetings and informal gatherings, I discovered the same sense of determination and optimism they demonstrated throughout the recent uprisings. At the same time, they were aware that the world was still stereotyping them (young men) as the world’s most feared terrorists and depicting young women as Islam’s most fragile victims.  Even with Qaddafi’s ravaging war machine, youth started networking, organizing and discovery each other’s skills and strengths. They organized themselves in on and off-line civic, charitable and cultural forums to advance the change they want to see. As a young member from “February 17th Spring Forum” put it, getting together “allowed the members to unveil their talents … We discovered among us several painters, writers, demonstration organizers, poets and many other skilled people.” As walls of state security buildings in Benghazi already reveal, artistic expressions are already seeking to write off “years of waste” under Qaddafi.

The names of few rap artists I mentioned earlier are among the young generation of cultural entrepreneurs, as I call them, who started refashioning the youth cultural scene in North Africa since the 1990s. Many were forced to remain underground years before they were permitted to perform in public. Theirs beats, lyrics, drawings and dances were declared “satanic” by those in power because they were the irritants of the system. Many chose the microphone, the chalk or the brush over the guns and bullets to sing about a better world and have their fans imagine a better world. And when state guns and bullets threatened them, they still opted for the microphone and the brush.

The youth music scene should not, therefore, be isolated from other forms of youth expressive cultures and media spaces. Besides rap, metal rock and other “hybridized” music forms, the young generation of Maghrebis has been communicating through blogs, Facebook, YouTube, theatre, and even youth pages in newspapers. In all these forms, they have been calling for change, embracing change and willing to pay the price of change. Neither fear nor censorship succeeded in muzzling their free imagination, sense of creativity or spirit of initiative. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of Internet users in Morocco and Algeria, for instance, increased by 4,500% and 3,740% respectively, placing Morocco ahead of any other country in the Middle East in terms of internet adoption. Mobile phone subscribers reached 73 and 77% of the population in Libya and Tunisia respectively. All the while, leaders dismissed these broader trends as apolitical and obsessed about few bloggers who dared use the words “politics,” “opposition,” “corruption” or any other word that puts the state’s censoring machine in motion. The Tunisian and Libyan dictators were losing the battle against their young citizenry years before youth mobilized to bring them down. In 2007 already, a young Tunisian blogger was sending warnings to his president “We are fed up. We need real change … but what can we lose? [The government] stopping our blogs, we can create a blog for the occasion. We will post our notes in a new blog. We will create an aggregator for the occasion and see what happens. If the 300 blogs and the aggregator are censored; no problem. We will do the same thing with new addresses.”

Since the 1990s a young generation of filmmakers, journalists, playwrights, painters and performers invested their art with the mission of social critique and change. Moroccan filmmakers including Narjiss Nejjar, Laira Marrakchi (Marock), Mohammed Al-Asali (In Casablanca, Angles Do Not Fly), and Nour Eddine Lakhmari (Casa Negra) have adopted an uninhibited approach to tackling issues long silenced. We now talk about sexual orientation, domestic violence, single mothers, rape, street children, homelessness and prostitution. Similar developments can be seen in Algerian and Tunisian cinema where a thriving film industry includes the work of Tunisian Nouri Bouzid (Making of… kamikaze), Fadhel Jaibi (Microphone), and Ahamad Abdalla Basra have won international awards and the admiration of their public.

Not all Maghrebi filmmakers were born or educated in North Africa. Their diasporic identities and negotiation of more than one culture, language and reality have sharpened their artistic talents and critical outlook on their societies. This helped many escape or defy censorship and still reach a large viewership among the young generation. Many short films have been made available for free on the Internet. Many productions sparked heated discussions on and off the Maghrebi blogosphere, inviting the censoring hand of the autocratic machine. But Maghrebis remain loyal to their long oral tradition of interpersonal communication and group interaction. What new media has made available through technology is also shared, discussed and circulated by and among individuals offline.

In 2000, a group of associations and young artists convinced local authorities in Casablanca to transform a former Slaughterhouse, known to all as Lbattoir (French Aboittoirs) into a space for celebrating young artistic talents. Built in 1922, Lbattoir is located in one of the most populated industrial zones of Casablanca, Hay Mohammedi, where real estate speculators usually eye old spaces for new businesses. Years of strategizing and negotiating with the government finally paid off for the artists and the group of associations that backed the project.


Transculturelles des Abattoirs, Casablanca


They succeeded in converting the space into one of the first and finest cultural sites in the Arab world for cultivating, showcasing and celebrating young urban cultures. Since, the same roof has brought together young talents in fine arts, visual and sound arts, performing arts, street arts and much more. New possibilities and initiatives have been created to unlock the imagination of hundreds of children. Round tables, workshops and art sessions have been organized to introduce even younger generations to the art of expression and the power of communicating it.

Initiatives such as these and many more are redefining the meaning of youth cultures, protest and communication in North Africa, a region about which very little is still known. Indeed, it is only recently that researchers have started to recognize youth cultures as worthy of attention, research and publication. A great deal has been said about this generation’s alienation, frustration, and vulnerability to radicalization. The world had yet to discover and appreciate their creativity, ingenuity and determination to rise above all odds to transform their world for the better.

Recent youth uprisings that started in North Africa have not only validated youth’s expressive cultures in parts of the world assumed to have none. They have mostly opened our eyes to the myriad ways in which youth have been negotiating repression, marginalization and boredom. Youth are inviting us today to see their expressive art in a new light: as a tool that serves a bigger and bolder vision of the very ideals of democracy.

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