Recent news of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, washing up along its shores, or even apprehended by authorities at sea—albeit shocking—has become a recurring representation in the archive of clandestine migration. In the midst of all these morbid crossings, the Mediterranean has come to be called the ‘sea cemetery,’ as the inevitable destination of their narrative journeys.’ Clandestine migration has been on the rise since 1995, when several European Union nations enacted the Schengen Accords to soften internal EU borders, and fortify external ones. Beyond the images of washed-up bodies on the shore or a packed flimsy craft awaiting rescue, however, lie submerged narratives that both fiction and non-fiction have tried to recuperate from this ‘sea cemetery.’
These accounts have emerged in engagement with a collective imagination of a prosperous and accessible North. Migration—hrig in Maghrebian dialect—is posited as an incineration of identity, and an explosion of a hierarchy of geographic and social mobility in the highly policed Mediterranean. At the same time, rap songs from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, amateurish in production and circulated online, have also been released to reflect on clandestine migration in a chorus of disenchanted voices. With low-budget productions and distribution efforts, the songs and videos agitate against more dominant images of migration. While they reveal that the aim of clandestine migration is indeed an erasure or burning of identity during the journey, they also suggest that the recovery or recreation of identity stabilized in a more prosperous North is likely not part of the journey. That, in fact, the transience never ends once the other shore is reached.
Through lyrical refrain, the songs reinforce what cannot always be conveyed in texts: migration’s permanent limbo of transit space that grows around Europe. Repetitively, the lyrics focus on a coffin and a small boat that sinks, disengaging migration from mobility. The boat is invested with a desire to escape and seek fortunes elsewhere, as in the song Partir Loin where Algerian rapper Reda Taliani croons to the boat, “Oh boat, my love / take me out of my misery.”
But the mocking tone undermines the desires migrants put in the flimsy boat as symbol of the journey. By the end of many songs, it transforms into human debris— “fish food” or “coffin,” suggesting thwarted desires and dreams. The chronotope of the boat in motion does not convey, as with Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic, a “transcultural, international formation” where ethnic and national boundaries become blurrier, more fluid. Rather, it suggests a deadly desire, one in which also resides the hope of rebirth on the other shore. The boat is not a vehicle for cultural pioneering in another land, but rather a permanent symbol of limbo and, ultimately, death, since the journey is thrust toward its inevitable stages, “coffins” and “fish food.”
In the songs, global culture is less a matter of hybridity and more of alienating cultural commodities. In Karim Kamkam’s “Kamkam the Harraga,” Madonna and Jennifer Lopez feature as objects of desire, indicating the likelihood of social mobility in the West to be the same as the fulfillment of the migrants’ desires for global stars. Icons alienate the migrant from, rather than connect him to, European culture. Media, featuring Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, only highlight the migrant’s alienation from realistic and tangible spaces of belonging and settlement.
The songs are also cultural markers of clandestine migration during the Arab Spring. Exhilaration following the departure of Tunisia’s Ben Ali was dampened first by news of Tunisian migrants turned back on Italy’s shores, then by Libya’s attacks against sub-Saharan migrants. The uprisings left a mark on the music made in its wake. In “Yammi” (“Mother”), Tunisian artist Balti assumes the voice of a boat migrant in a letter to his mother. He reveals fears of succumbing to the desperation of self-immolation, like street vendor Bouazizi, who sparked protests in the small town of Sidi Bouzid: “I do not want to end up like Bouazizi / lighting the match.” In the same song, Balti refers to the president’s economic devastation of the country after fleeing to Saudi Arabia as a motive to migrate: “Ezzine [Ben Ali’s nickname] has run away with the money / and we are left with debts, / work has stopped, mother / where can I get you money from?”
While media gives impersonal renderings of drowned victims, dominant Arab Spring narratives have focused on state-level politics like Ben Ali’s departure, rather than on submerged personal narratives that do not end with “lighting the match.” “Yammi,” however, contrasts the journey of a president who leaves the country in relative safety with that of the speaker who anticipates drowning on a flimsy boat. The narrative operates as the sole document linking the migrant to his past once he sheds his ID cards and identity. Since it is memorialized through music, the song performs the letter to rescue and preserve a personal story amid these official narratives.
Like the other performers, the singer is a preserver of personal history not documented in official versions of the crossing. It shows the migrant loses more than just his life if he drowns: he loses the story of his life. The song, then, is an act of recovery of personal stories from silences left in newspaper articles and broadcasts of boat crossings.
Against the tides of the ‘sea cemetery’ and official, scripted, satellited representations of clandestine migrants, these artists have created an oppositional space that attempts to retrieve the stories of those drowned at sea—as well as displace an anachronistic, out-of-place discourse of upbeat diversity, multiculturalism, and hybridity in today’s Europe.
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