The Rap That Sparked a Revolution: El General (Tunisia)


January 31, 2011 joshasen

As the world watches Cairo burn, I can’t help but think that the flames of protest engulfing Egypt were sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17 after police confiscated his vegetable cart. The desperation that he expressed through his act of self-immolation caught on, literally, and spread across the country, into Algeria, and now to Egypt.

But Mr. Bouazizi, God rest his soul, was not the only young Tunisian to sacrifice his own safety, and life, to ignite the country in a revolt against dictatorship. Twenty-one year old Hamada Ben Amor, also known as El General released an incendiary rap song called “Head of State” around the same time as Bouazizi’s suicidal act. The song, which directly addresses now-former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, caught on like wildfire on Facebook, inspiring thousands of young Tunisians to take to the streets, and landing El General in jail. The young rapper was not heard from for days and many assumed the worst, as Ben Ali’s security forces had already killed 14 protesters and made many more disappear.

The happy ending to the story is that Hamada Ben Amor did not have to die to make his message heard. In fact, this past weekend, El General took to the stage once more, in Tunis, to give an emotional performance in front of a crowd of students. And he’s about to go on his first tour this summer, first around Tunisia and then on to Greece, Senegal, and France.

As the debate blazes on, as it inevitably will, as to who is really responsible for setting off the powderkeg of North African discontent, I encourage you all to read the words of Hamada Ben Amor, aka. El General, and take a moment to meditate on the power of Hip Hop music to articulate frustration and incite young people to action – but without violence or destruction. One cannot help but wonder if Mohammed Bouazizi’s fate would have been different had he grabbed a microphone instead of a can of gasoline. His mother, who attended the El General concert and applauded in tears, certainly wishes that he had.

Here is the subtitled video for “Head of State”, with lyrics reprinted below. In remembrance of Mohammed Bouazizi, I pray that young people across the Arab world and beyond heed the words and, moreover, the deeds of their courageous local rappers, who consistently succeed in speaking truth to power.

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