The journey of the outraged Armada Bizerta rappers
Thameur Mekki - 09/07/2012
“It was really amazing…a very emotional moment. It was the best concert in my life indeed. There were thousands who did not understand the lyrics of our songs but still followed the rhythm, who were sharing the same atmosphere. We interconnected easily” confides Malek Khemiri alias Malex of Armada Bizerta about his band’s concert on the 1st May 2012 at Forte Prenestino in Rome, Italy.
On Wednesday 6th June, he was behind the scenes getting ready to perform in a ring-shaped stage at the El Abdelleya Palace in Marsa, a northern suburb of Tunis. This was Armada Bizerta’s first concert after a European tour punctuated with concerts in Rome, Bologna, Mantova (Italy) and in Marseilles, Montpellier and Paris (France).
When contacted by the international media in early January 2011, Malex had better change his telephone number in order to get rid of the police who were after him before engaging in a conversation. That time has passed. He is now on TV and radio in Tunisia. A year and a half after the Tunisian revolution, he performs on European stages. The situation changed for the quartet coming from Bizerte, a Mediterranean city of northern Tunisia. Ahmed Galai, rapper and beatmaker of the group, recognises "the momentum of freedom of expression in Tunisia that has grown since the fall of the dictatorship." Nevertheless, he fears "regression". The young student in financial studies explains: "There is a kind of socio-political pressure that is putting obstacles to artists and reducing creative space." This 24-year-old artist regrets the rise of conservatism that is threatening individual freedoms in his country. Together with his Armada Bizerta comrades, he strongly criticises the obscurantist wave in I Say no, a song released in January 2012. "When I'm in the street, I feel insecure, I have this feeling of permanent mistrust. When I walk with my girlfriend, I now have right to unusual looks" says Ahmed. Tunisian society is changing. These rappers are just as outraged as they were under dictatorship.
Always “against the system”
In Sound Of Da Police, released in July 2011, the rappers denounce the impunity of the police in an adaptation of the cult classic title track from KRS One, symbol of American rap. “Police brutality continues to cause victims. When there is a protest, everyone talks about it. But the headlines do not talk about what happens in the neighbourhoods. Well, we talk about that” says Campos, rapper and member of this music armada and also a second-hand clothes shopkeeper. Attached to the old school of hip-hop culture, the members of Armada Bizerta present themselves as followers of “conscious rap”. “We want to remain dissenters for always. It's normal to be against the system. As long as there are problems, we'll talk about them. And there will always be problems” adds Ahmed. Founded in 2006, Armada Bizerta has set the tone with its first song called Revolution from La Phrase d’Attaque (The Attack Phrase) first album secretly released in 2009. “I plugged in the speakers in front of my shop and I put Armada Bizerta music, Campos remembers. There was a State Security agent who intimidated me by telling my family that it would be better if I kept my music for myself.”
La Culture de la Résistance (The Culture of Resistance) latest production of Armada Bizerta, was released in free download on the net in January 2012. The group still keeps memories of the revolution’s highlights. “We were at the local café when Lak3y, a rapper who was part of our collective Sound Of Freedom came to tell us that State Security agents came to intimidate him at our studio,” recalled Ahmed. Campos continues: “I told the other members of Armada that they either takes us all or they leave us all here.” On the evening of January 13th 2011, when President Ben Ali fled, the rappers met at the studio to respond through music. Ahmed tells us: “We were trying to record Touche pas à ma Tunisie (Do Not Touch my Tunisia) while the police forces were shooting in the streets. Sometimes we even stopped recording to join the protesters in their clashes with the police.”
“All that is history. Now we are working on a new album. Many people including some French artists we met here tell us that we are beginning to forge a distinctive identity” states Ahmed. In each of the three French cities visited, the Armada Bizerta rappers met local hip hop artists like the rapper and DJ Tal Koma of the Parisian collective Scred Connexion, Dj Djel and Kalash the Afro in Marseilles or even Roya Killa in Montpellier. “We seek to develop the group's sound identity and vary the subjects of our songs. We want our music to become a sort of intermediary between the underground culture followers and the Tunisian general public.”
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech