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El Général and the Rap Anthem of the Mideast Revolution

7 minute read
Vivienne Walt

The bard of the North African revolutionary wave that is washing over the Arab world is just 21 years old. El Général is well built with a buzz cut but with a young, fresh face, a sweet smile and a peach-fuzz beard and moustache. He cultivates a tough facade but has an almost innocent manner about him, and speaks softly. The photo on his Facebook fan page shows him in a maroon bomber jacket with a big Tunisian flag on the sleeve, wielding a pistol, with his finger on the trigger. In reality, he’s the good kid who you’d want to have for your son. Born Hamada Ben Amor, he is the youngest of four children — three boys and one girl. He and one brother still live with their mom and dad in Sfax, a three-hour drive from the capital Tunis. His mother runs a bookshop in town; his father is a medic in a hospital. In Tunisian terms, they are middle class.

He began rapping at 18, in 2008. “The first song I wrote was called ‘Malesh?’ or ‘Why?’ It was a big question about why we were in a situation of corruption, thieves and violence,” he says. “I was against the regime, because the corruption was really visible to everyone.” He says he was heavily influenced by Tupac Shakur, even though he’d died when El Général was just six years old. “The kind of rap Tupac used was revolutionary. So when I became a rapper I wasn’t looking for love. I was looking to rap for the good of the people.” Also when he was 18 he wrote his first song about Ben Ali, called “Sidi Rais” or “Mr. President,” which El Général says was “a call to the president to fight corruption. I still thought he could change the situation, but eventually I realized that the president was implicated in the situation.”

(See TIME’s complete coverage of the Middle East in revolt.)

He says that song was the prelude to the song which became the anthem of the Jasmine Revolution and the Tahrir Square protesters in Cairo, called “Rais Lebled” (a rap twist on Rais el-Bled, meaning President of the Republic). Corruption, he says, remained a big theme for his songs. “The corruption was so pervasive. You went into the street and saw police disrespecting citizens. You went to court and could be discharged from a case, because you could pay a judge, but poor people got put in jail. If you’re a small trader, you were exploited by big sharks with connections to the president. My parents both have good jobs, and we aren’t poor, but I saw injustice for so many of my friends.”

(See a video of El General performing “Rais Lebled” the anthem of the Mideast revolutions.)

El Général was banned from holding any concerts, making any CDs, or from being played on any radio station in Tunisia — although he did gain quite a following among people in Europe, through rock stations like France’s NovaFM. “Whenever someone applied to hold a concert,” he recalls of the censorship during the Ben Ali regime, “and the government saw my name on the program, they would forbid it. They would say ‘this guy is singing about politics, and has a bad reputation. So there is no permission.’ Because I was censored and prohibited I wasn’t allowed to make concerts or CDs.” He turned to social media. “I just used my personal Facebook page to become known. I had two friends, one filmed my songs on a small video camera, and the other edited the videos and put them up on YouTube.”

In December 2010, El Général recorded “Rais Lebled” and posted it on YouTube. For the protests, which were just beginning, the song became an instant sensation, with thousands of downloads. More importantly, the words were sung by demonstrators. The lyrics include: “Mr. President, your people are dying / People are eating rubbish / Look at what is happening / Miseries everywhere Mr. President / I talk with no fear / Although I know I will only get troubles / I see injustice everywhere.” The song put El Général on the map — and in danger. “After that my mobile phone was tapped and my Facebook account was blocked.” Then a young fruit-and-vegetable vendor set himself on fire on Dec. 17. That was a turning point. El General wrote a new song called “Tunisia Our Country” on Dec. 22, about the accelerating protest movement.

(See TIME’s exclusive photos from Tahrir Square.)

For the police the song “Tunisia Our Country” was the final straw. On Dec. 24 at 5 a.m. the secret police burst into his parents’ home in Sfax and hauled El Général to the National Security Bureau. Shortly after that a team of interrogators from Tunis arrived, and transported him to the capital, where he was put in a solitary cell in the Presidential Security Service, and questioned for hours about his political connections. “For 24 hours they insulted me. It was moral torture,” El Général says. “They asked, ‘Who’s behind you? Which party are you from?'”

But then, an enormous public reaction began as demonstrators began chanting for his release. Ben Ali himself called the police to inquire about El Général’s detention. So too did the hated Interior Minister. The police realized El Général was a celebrity. “They understood I was a known artist, and they changed their attitude to me. They asked me, ‘please stop singing about the president and his family, and then we’ll release you.'” For three days he remained handcuffed in a cell. The pressure mounted outside for his release. “That’s when I realized that my act was really huge, and really dangerous, because the police got so many calls about my incarceration. Once I stopped being scared, I had this huge pride. I felt like a VIP.” He was.

After three days he was driven home to Sfax, and set free on the doorstep of his parents’ home. By then, the police were treating him like a celebrity, high-fiving him on his release. “The first thing I wanted to do was to see my mom, and make sure she was okay,” he says.

(See photos from Tunisia’s tumultuous month.)

Only when El Général was released did he realize “Rais Lebled” had become the anthem on the streets. Then after Jan. 25, the song was picked up in Cairo and sung in Tahrir Square. “I had so many messages from Egyptian youth asking me to come to Tahrir Square to sing ‘Rais Lebled,’ but I had no passport and no visa.” But he wrote a new song, called “Vive Tunisie!” honoring those killed during the Jasmine Revolution and “about the program of freedom in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco. And at the end of the song I send a message for the new president who’ll be elected in the next elections, saying ‘Take care of Tunisia.'”

With the two autocrats overthrown so far, El Général has emerged from the underground to a professional rap career. Basking in his mom and dad’s pride, El Général is booked for his first concert, in Lyon, France, on March 16 and 17, and another in Marseilles later that month. His parents’ attitude about his rap music has transformed. “Before the revolution my parents wanted me to forget about the music,” he recalls. “They said it was dangerous, that they were really scared for me. But now they are proud of me. They are encouraging me to continue and to be at the service of the country.”

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