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13 July 2024

Tears and joy as Tunisia's revolution rap debuts


Tears mixed with joy as "El General" the rapper banned by Tunisia's regime who helped inspire a revolt that has shaken the Arab world took to the stage for the first time in Tunis on Saturday.

Smiling and confident in his oversize white puffa jacket, 21-year-old Hamada Ben Amor stepped out on to the stage and rapped the lyrics that earned him a spell in prison earlier this month as Tunisia's revolution exploded.

"We live in suffering/ Like dogs/ Half the population is oppressed and living in misery/ President of the Country/ Your people are dead!", he said in his most famous song in front of hundreds of cheering fans in a sports hall.

The song a direct address to president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 -- was an unprecedented form of rebellion against the old regime and it became an instant hit on Tunisian Facebook pages.

In the audience, opposition activist Atia Athmouni, 59, broke down in tears.
"He talks about the dictator, about the fallen heroes, about the revolution," said Athmouni, who helped organise the first protests against Ben Ali last month in Sidi Bouzid, an impoverished rural town in central Tunisia.

Most of the fans were students many of them in baseball caps and hooded sweaters -- who said rap artists like El General encouraged them to take to the streets for the demonstrations that ultimately led to Ben Ali's ouster.

Many of them sang along to songs that they only know from Facebook.

"Tunisian rap talks about reality. It tells stories about real life. That's why they were banned," said one fan, 19-year-old Maissa El Fahem, who had come with a group of friends after hearing about the concert on the Internet.

"We listen to his songs. The words really touched my soul," she said.

Mohammed Marrekchi, 21, a mechanics student in a black leather jacket and jeans, said: "It's not music for pleasure. It's music with a real message.

"It helped people rise up," he said, as El General took to the stage.

Before stepping out for his debut, Ben Amor told AFP it was an emotional moment. "Now that the dictator has left, I can finally breathe," he said.

The concert started early at 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) because of the night-time curfew that is still in place in Tunisia following recent unrest.

Asked about the leaders who have replaced Ben Ali, the rapper said: "I hope the new government works in the interests of the people and not for itself."

He looked to the country's uncertain future in his first song on stage, rapping: "Tunisia is our country/ These people will never surrender/ Today we have to find a solution hand in hand/ Peacefully or with blood."

Ben Amor's fame is so far largely confined to Tunisia, but that could be about to change. He says his phone has been ringing off the hook with interest from foreign record labels ever since Ben Ali's downfall on January 14.

He is set to travel for a concert in Senegal next month, then Athens, then Marseille and he's going on tour around Tunisia in the summer.

The concert was held at the start of a rally for the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), a former opposition group that is now part of the new government.

Music blended with politics, as the crowd started chants against Egypt's veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak, who is also under pressure from unprecedented protests.

"Mubarak! Mubarak! Saudi Arabia is waiting for you!" they chanted.

Party banners hung up in the hall read: "For a real democratic transition" and "Loyalty to the blood of the martyrs"a reference to the dozens killed in a crackdown during the final days of Ben Ali's 23-year rule.

Also speaking at the rally was Mannoubia Bouazizi, the mother of the 26-year-old fruit vendor from Sidi Bouzid whose self-immolation in protest at police persecution triggered the revolution.

She cried on the podium: "May God bless him! May God bless him!"