The controversial trial of anti-monarchist Moroccan rapper Mouad Belghouat, who performs as El Haqed or “The Spiteful,” ended on January 12 with a prison sentence and a 500-dirham fine ($57 USD). With demands such as establishing a constitutional monarchy in Morocco, creating an independent judiciary, and cracking down on government corruption, his following amongst Moroccan youth has only gained momentum since last year’s Arab Spring. Labeled as the singing voice of the Moroccan revolution, his scathing lyrics tell his listeners to “wise up,” and in channeling the widespread youth cynicism over nation-wide corruption and unemployment, his popularity has many monarchists worried.
On September 9, 2011, Belghouat was arrested on assault charges after a member of conservative pro-monarchist group The Royal Youth Movement accused him starting a brawl. During his four-month detainment, judges dismissed his trial six times and bail was repeatedly rejected. Outside, a number of activists organized online and on the street to demand his release, claiming anti-regime lyrics landed him in jail rather than plausible charges, that the rapper was framed and the trial was really just a ploy to silence his growing influence amongst anti-monarchists. Because Belghouat served his sentence in pre-trial detention, authorities released him shortly after the verdict was delivered.
The judge’s pronouncement prompted supporters in the Casablanca courtroom to start shouting, “Long live the people!” echoing the rapper’s subversion of a national motto (El Haqed’s song, “Long Live the King” is transformed into “Long Live the People.” ) The country’s motto “God, the Nation, the King,” is changed to “God, the Nation, Liberty.” As an activist of the February 20 movement—which won major concessions from the king after mass demonstrations inspired by the region’s uprisings—El Haqed maintains that these allowances are cosmetic at best. The new constitution simply reinforces the king’s role as the sole arbiter of Morocco’s political system without establishing explicit checks on limits to his authority.
Extracting the king from the text of the national motto reverberated profoundly in a country where the King has amassed more wealth than the Emir of Qatar—one of the richest countries in the world, where the GDP is $179,000, compared to Morocco’s $4,800. In his song “Stopping Being Silent,” El Haqed challenges Morocco’s uncontested genealogy of authority by singing, “As long as I am still alive, his [Mohamed VI] son will not inherit.” His provocative lyrics mock the King for being too “busy giving orders,” so much that he has little time to count his money in Switzerland or take advantage of the clientelism he fosters.
This trial tested more than El Haqed’s innocence; it tested the government’s commitment to the new constitution established last year. It also tested the constitution’s vow of judicial independence—which failed, considering the judge’s guilty pronouncement despite stark evidence of innocence. Consequently, the trial only illuminated that the constitutional checks put into place were merely artificial pressure valves in a country with some of the Arab world’s deepest inequalities.
After his release, El Haqed returned to his poor Al Wifaq neighborhood, on the fringes of Casablanca. In his city, a short drive showcases the city’s peripheral slums—both visible and hidden behind high walls—as well as the villas and posh night clubs of the wealthy. Concentrated in the palace and diffused throughout society, crony capitalism, corruption and patronage sustain Morocco, with a governing elite known as the makhzen. Creating a country with some of the lowest literacy and highest unemployment rates, as well as the highest income disparity in the Middle East and North Africa, this economic dictatorship is an undeniable social reality. The kingdom, in fact, props up the largest income inequalities in the Arab world. And, the gap between those with immense wealth and those living in stark poverty grows every year. That a middle class is practically non-existent merely accentuates the sense that the kingdom is sharply divided into two parallel realities.
These two conflicting territories are divided not just by an economic fault line but a cultural one. As El Haqed returned home, the idea of putting him “back in his place” gained traction as journalists derisively pointed to the distance between rap’s street language and the rapper’s knowledge of any real affairs of the state. The Moroccan press, which El Haqed had denounced earlier as insignificant for its well-known censorship, launched an attack based on cultural relevance—rap’s association with the street vernacular of Casablanca’s shantytowns rather than traditional Arabic and French art [high] forms. Journalists of the nation’s largest papers collectively lambasted him on nearly the same points: El Haqed’s unrepentant stance upon release; the “low culture” of rap’s street language; and, his lack of knowledge attributed to his “low cultural” leanings. Paradoxically attacking El Haqed’s significance and affirming it with columns of print, the press demonstrated the contested cultural sector integral to maintaining authority over Morocco’s political system.
Emerging prominently after the 1991 urban uprisings, Morocco’s rap scene endured as an underground phenomenon maintained by a growing number of marginalized youth. The genealogy of the rap scene can be traced to Casablanca’s shantytowns, similar to the one from which El Haqed and thousands of frustrated youth hail. Using the language of the street to communicate to ordinary people—under the oppressive rule of King Hassan then or his son King Mohammed VI now—is an enduring feature of rap’s desire to lay claim to Morocco’s cultural territory as grassroots, representative of a struggling and poor majority. Keeping to the American roots of rap, this economic and marginalized collective learned to communicate beyond the confines of speech and art governed by the state and its shadowy elite.
The state grasped and re-appropriated the integrity of this cultural territory and began promoting pro-monarchy rap groups to sing the kingdom’s virtues: groups with government ties, like Fnaire and Would Cha’ab, were promptly mobilized to provide a youthful, “counter-cultural” face to nationalistic posturing—whether taking on February 20 demonstrations or the 2003 Casablanca bombers that threatened to mar the country’s soft, open, tourist-friendly image.
Even though El Haqed’s trial ended, his detention and simultaneous dismissal and incrimination by press and authorities has not only raised his voice more prominently but it has revealed the struggle for Morocco’s cultural territory is far from finished. Although El Haqed’s release from jail was marked by his signature call “Long Live the People,” it will be no wonder if after his confrontation with Morocco’s authorities—visible and invisible—he comes to declare in his caustic, mocking style, “Long Live the Makhzen!”*Photo Credit: Magharebia