Youth, political activism and the festivalization of hip-hop music in Morocco
It was the windy and dusty summer of 2004 when I visited the imperial city of Meknes in northern Morocco. As I strolled through the neighborhoods, I was struck by a suﬀocating smell from decaying sewage. I wondered if the residents had ever expressed their dissatisfaction to the city council or if their numerous complaints had simply fallen on deaf ears and led them to accept this reality. As I walked around this old city and its dilapidated streets and cracking walls, it was noticeable that households had faced hard economic times. Teens were idle; many of them stood in lines or circles against walls that had not been painted for years. Some had quit school because of failed educational plans and the lack of job opportunities. Many who had ﬁnished their schooling were still in search of work. I was told that hundreds had tried the route of illegal migration only to be deported back to these neighborhoods. Youth unemployment was not only high here, but a persistent issue. Dressed in lightweight pullover-hooded sweatshirts, groups of teenagers
gathered on neighborhood corners or sat chatting in local coﬀeehouses that dominated every part of the city. In the midst of this depressed atmosphere, I was struck by the public airing of Moroccan hip-hop and rap groups. Sound bites emanated from smoky coﬀee houses and dimly lit shops of clothes and artisanal goods. The more the zigzag streets narrowed, the louder the music became, ﬁlling the air of this traditional Islamic city. For a moment, the muezzin’s call for the ‘Asr (afternoon) prayer was mixed with one of the songs of the Meknes-based hip-hop group H-Kayne. Surprisingly, although these loud songs disturbed the calmness of the old neighborhoods, nobody seemed to be bothered by them. People went about their daily life as if hip-hop were as natural as the polluted air they had been breathing. While some shopkeepers turned oﬀ their lights, closed their shops and headed to the nearby mosque for prayer, groups of teenagers stood at the corner of the neighborhood humming the words of hip-hop songs that cried out against the grim social and economic realities. In this part of Meknes, like in other urban neighborhoods throughout
Morocco, hip-hop has represented a form of protest for younger generations
who have suﬀered from unemployment and lack of opportunities.1 H-Kayne (Moroccan Arabic for “What’s happening?”) pioneered hip-hop in Morocco in the late 1990s and represented the emergence of a new street culture as an alternative outside of the familiar family and state structures. Originally from Meknes, the group includes four boys who grew up in the same neighborhood. As teenagers, they were exposed to American hip-hop through satellite television in the late 1980s and early 1990s.2 H-Kayne uses Moroccan Arabic and French, drawing inspiration from local culture to critique the economic, social and political problems of Moroccan youth. They claim that their music emerged at a time when freedom of expression was limited and government censorship dominated the political and cultural scene.3 However, like other young Moroccan musicians, such as Bigg/El Khaser, Fanaire, and the Haoussa Band, their popularity remained limited to certain urban contexts and groups in Morocco until the emergence of YouTube in 2005 as a space for information sharing among Moroccan youth, who are technologically quite savvy. Indeed, for Moroccan youth, cyberspace has emerged as a useful tool
where political, social, and economic grievances are publicly circulated without state censorship. YouTube has, at least partially, helped rural and urban Moroccan youth challenge the hegemonic spaces of media traditionally regulated by the state. Hip-hop music has become a common form of expression among the youth. Through it, young artists contest their socio-economic marginalization and challenge state subjugating policies. YouTube dissolves the barriers of traditional state media (such as the government-owned Radio Télévision Marocaine), allowing individuals to participate in a virtual public sphere that includes the global discourse of human rights. I argue that despite the fact that YouTube and cyberspace is thought to be a counter-hegemonic force, its threat to state control of youth resistance is minimal. Like Nass alGhiwane, a popular musical movement of the 1970s, which relied partly on cassette tapes to disseminate its veiled anti-government and anti-corruption message,4 the emerging appropriation of young hip-hop singers by government agencies limits the power of YouTube and cyberspace as a sphere of contestation. A capitalist domestication engineered by the state as an integral part of its culture of festivalization would transform the styles and themes of the contesting discourse of Moroccan hip-hop, its production, and its circulation.