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Tunisia's Hip Hop Artists Are More Than Symbols and Troublemakers

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/11/2015 Youssef Ben Ismail

Since 2011, there's been a large number of articles on the Arab art scene. For many observers, studying the region's artists has served as an analytical window, allowing for a deeper understanding of the evolution of societies in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring.
We've seen articles in Western media covering the censorship of a Moroccan filmmaker, a fatwa against an Algerian writer, and a lawsuit filed against Tunisian rappers. These stories are valuable because they allow us to condemn the political gagging of Arab creativity. However, their authors often focus on the socio-political context, and overlook the most interesting aspect of these artists: their art.
In Tunisia, you only hear about rappers when they're arrested or face legal problems, or when their concerts are banned. In the media, we like to build them up as symbols.
"The media is more interested in what Tunisian rappers represent, than in who they really are."
And the examples abound: after his arrest in 2011, El General's song "Rayes El Bled" was proclaimed the "rap anthem of the Mideast Revolution" by Time Magazine. He came to represent the fight for democracy and freedom of expression. And in 2013, when Weld 15 was arrested after the release of "Boulicia Kleb" on YouTube, viewership for the video soared to more than 8 million. But no attention has been paid to the musical value of these songs. It doesn't seem as important. The media is more interested in what Tunisian rappers represent, than in who they really are.
Still, Tunisia's hip-hop scene is extremely creative, and deserves attention that is free of ulterior political motives. Just listen to the Afghan Project, the latest collaboration between rapper Katybon and beat-maker Zinga, and you'll be convinced.
But it is, without a doubt, the hip-hop collective Zomra that best exemplifies the dynamism of Tunisia's hip-hop scene.

The aim of this piece is to dissuade the reader (and, who knows, maybe some of the media?) from reducing Tunisian artists to the role of trouble makers or indicators of the political climate.
Zomra in a unique phenomenon within Tunisian hip-hop. It's a collective of several rappers, beat-makers, sound engineers (but also several graffiti artists, breakdancers, cameramen, producers, and more). Its structure fits in perfectly with contemporary international hip-hop culture. The artists in the collective don't necessarily produce all their music together.
Individual rappers have their own songs, with their personal aesthetic, and their unique musical identity. When Zomra's songs are attributed to the collective as a whole, its fan base recognizes the different voices, instruments, styles and even themes of each artist. Fans even claims their favorites in the comments section under Zomra's YouTube videos.

Some like the clean beats and rich lyrics of Castro and A.L.A, while others prefer the more melodious and discretely reggae style of Djappa Man. Then there are those who prefer the muffled and melancholic rap of Zoufree. There's also Black T, Bamboocha, Mouhannad, GAS.
"I think that for us, in general, no matter what people say, Biggie [Notorious B.I.G.] is above everyone else."
In the past five years, collectives of independent artists have emerged across the international music scene. Examples are: Odd Future, ASAP Mob, Pro Era and Black Hippy in the U.S., and the collective L'Entourage in France. Some of the most creative contemporary rappers have emerged out of such collectives, including Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, Joey Badass in the U.S., and Nekfeu and Jazzy Bazz in France.
youssef ben ismail © Provided by The Huffington Post youssef ben ismail
But the concept of a hip-hop collective isn't a new phenomenon. Among the most famous pioneers, the Wu-Tang Clan, founded in 1992, stands out. In France, the most famous example was the legendary Time Bomb, established in 1996.
Today, hip-hop collectives are making a comeback. Zomra is without a doubt at the forefront of this comeback in Tunisia.
But beyond the structure of the collective, it's really the music that impresses. Zomra has something to please everyone who grew up in the "golden age" of rap: Polished, rich music, a good mix of multisyllabic rhymes and punchlines, rap and beats that reveal a nostalgia for '90s rap.

I got to meet some of the members (Castro, A.L.A., and the mixers/beat-makers Mehdi Machfar and Yallsee) a few weeks ago, when I attended one of their recording sessions. I asked them some questions about their musical influences, and I was blown away by their expansive and versatile knowledge of hip-hop culture.
Castro: "I think that for us, in general, no matter what people say, Biggie [Notorious B.I.G.] is above everyone else."
A.L.A.: "That's obvious. After that, I personally listen to Eazy-E [Member of the group N.W.A.], Vinnie Paz, Wu-Tang. The rappers of Odd Future are also very creative. Joey Badass. I've also always been a big fan of Fifty [50 Cent], no doubt about it!"
I asked them about their favorite American rapper.
A.L.A.: "I'd say Kendrick Lamar, his rap is very elaborate, very refined."
Castro: "His latest album [To Pimp a Butterfly] is incredible!"
And I asked them if they listen to French rap.
Castro: "Not so much, it's American rap that's the source for me -- so that's where I go to find inspiration."
A.L.A.: "There are however some things that are happening in France right now. L'Entourage, Alpha Wann, and all of these, they're not bad at all."
You find this vast knowledge of hip-hop culture in Zomra's music. In "Holy Pen" for example, A.L.A references Notorious B.I.G., Vinnie Paz, Eazy-E of N.W.A., and Bizzy Bone. References that few MCs could manage. Their expertise is also evident in the mastery of different classical hip-hop registers: ego-trip, political rap, existential rap and even, rap battles. During our meeting, Yallsee had Castro recorded a rap battle aimed at Killa MC.
Castro: "We passed each other on the street and he insulted me! Really! I mean, rap is an art and the rap battle is a discipline of rap, but clearly he didn't understand that. I wanted to respond with a track. I wrote it yesterday evening when I got home, and I called Yallsee this morning."
"It's difficult to talk about Tunisian hip-hop without discussing the economic conditions of the music industry."
The recording session took place at David's house, a South African student and friend of Yallsee, who does the mixing. David is a fan of rap, and his living room is quiet enough to be a studio, except when his dogs are barking, in which case you have to take a break until they calm down. Yallsee's mic and his equipment are the only indicators that recording session was taking place in the living room. Mehdi Machfer and A.L.A. were there for feedback.
I asked them if they always record music at David's house.
Castro: "No, it depends, we're not fussy. Whenever there's a power outlet, we're good!"
And I asked them whether or not they worked with professional studios.
Castro: "We've tried but we've hardly ever gotten along with them. If you don't have contacts, it's difficult to record in a studio. It isn't a professional environment at all, studios have their favorites and they give them preferential treatment. Everyone hates us!"
It's difficult to talk about Tunisian hip-hop without discussing the economic conditions of the music industry. Lack of resources is a problem that affects all the cultural players in the country, and Zomra is no exception. Before committing to rap full time, Castro worked in a video library, and then in a mall.
A.L.A. left the country for more than a year to work as a sales assistant in Qatar and Kuwait. Once he had a little money put aside, he went back to Tunisia, and back to rap. Some of the other Zomra members are students, and others have day jobs. The question about the future of the collective and its financial sustainability is a source of anxiety.
Castro says: "I can't speak for the other members, but as for A.L.A. and myself, our career plan is to continue making music. You can't be a part time artist and hope to produce quality music. "
In Tunisia, a rapper cannot live off of his music, and only a few have contracts or work with studios. Zomra makes very few music videos, because they're expensive and time consuming. But the artists know quite well that without an album and without distribution, YouTube is king. Not making music videos costs them viewers.
Yallsee: "You have to make videos for YouTube, otherwise it's hard to widen our fan base. People want to see videos. When you look at the number of views on our tracks, you notice that in general, those that have videos are viewed much more often. But videos are expensive."
Castro: "And it takes time! We want to make rap, not noise. We want to release new songs. But we don't have time to make a video for each song."
To my knowledge, there is no Tunisian artistic collective as prolific as Zomra. They post new tracks at a rapid pace; one every two or three weeks, on average. To the point where at the end of barely one month without new material from Djappa Man, Zomra's fans panicked on YouTube. Has Djappa Man left the collective? Has he abandoned rap? He responded with "Never Ask Me Why" and "In Depth"; enough to satisfy anxious fans, even for a moment.

Founded in 2011 -- thanks to Djappa Man, the friend all the members of the collective have in common -- Zomra has been growing over the past four years. Today, their music is so rich and eclectic that it's hard to choose a favorite. Since I couldn't choose, I asked Castro and A.L.A. to name the songs they're proudest of. AL.A. hesitated, then decided in favor of "Kids," featuring Castro -- a very distinctive track. The absence of bass and the autobiographical nature of the lyrics give it a poetic feel, which breaks away from traditional rap.
Castro is especially proud of "King," an eight-minute-long musical performance, commonly referred to as a 100 bars in rap jargon. Mehdi Machfar's beat is simple, in order to highlight Castro's lyrics. In short, it's a track aimed at the lovers of technique and lyrics, and it steers clear of commercial rap.
Zomra has also done some commercial rap. There's one featuring Klay BBJ and Medusa titled "Getting So High." And there's "Hin Maysara," the collective's most popular song, which has around half a million views on YouTube. Despite this relative success, Castro regrets having recorded it.
"The moment an artist becomes the bearer of a single message, of a single idea, he becomes a puppet."
Castro: "It's too commercial. Incidentally, I was initially hesitant about doing it, and then Yallsee convinced me that we needed to adapt to the demand and make a song that was easier to listen to -- more mainstream market. But we shouldn't have had to do it."
That doesn't stop Zomra from producing quality tracks that appeal to a larger audience. Some examples are "Peace and War" or "Make You Pay," (one of only a few songs recorded in studio) to the beat of "Palm Trees" by Flatbush Zombies, and with an excellent chorus by GAS.
Listening to this track, you get the sense that Zomra had fun with its music. In all of the collective's work, you feel the same passion for hip-hop, and you have the desire to follow Zomra and support them in their artistic development.
The artistic project of the collective can't be understood through a sociopolitical filter. Zomra isn't a symbol. When I explained to Castro the approach of my article and my frustration over seeing so many artists reduced to a political representation totally dissociated from their artistic creation, he laughed, and said: "You know that not long ago I was a campaigner in UGET? I am very political! Political rap, the idea of critical rap, it's important. We do it in Zomra too. But it's the artist's responsibility to resist being confined to a symbol. The moment an artist becomes the bearer of a single message, of a single idea, he becomes a puppet."
Then, he added, with a smile: "We, in Zomra, are the symbol of nothing."
Taher Ben Ali contributed to this post.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Maghreb. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.

ZOMRA © Youssef Ben Ismail ZOMRA

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