In September, the Tunisian rappers Klay BBJ and Weld el 15 were sentenced to jail terms after a performance that was deemed to be too harsh on the nation's police force. Klay's sentencing and subsequent jailing – Weld el 15 remains in hiding – sparked outrage among Tunisian rap fans on social media. Photos of the rapper went viral and his music gained international attention. Initially sentenced to 21 months in jail, Klay was freed on the 17th of October after an appeal hearing in the city of Grombalia.
“The whole system is fucked up,” Klay, a baby-faced 22-year-old, tells me while sitting in his bedroom. “You have to find your way in or else you will be totally lost." Klay was born Ahmed Ben Ahmed in the Bab Jdid neighbourhood of downtown Tunis, where he still lives today. His father died when he was nine so both he and his 17-year-old sister – a national fencing prodigy – were raised by their mother, Faouzia. I met Klay for a chat and he explained the motives behind his work, which he still defends vehemently.
“Rap is the air I breathe, an expression of what I live and feel," he explains, "of what people like me go through daily. I defend the poor through my art, the marginalised. Not all people were born in rich families, some of us had to struggle in poor neighbourhoods."
Like Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and other American rappers he says inspired him, Klay raps about poverty and is zealously anti-authority. His music is known for exploring Tunisia’s deep-set social divides – both between rich and poor but also between those in power and the disempowered. Tunisia’s post-revolutionary political struggle also charges his music. Imagine if Tupac had to worry about militant Islamists every day and you sort of get the idea. (Though he's not all solely concerned with curing grand societal ills – his first hit was early 2011’s “Zakataka”, a duet in which he and fellow rapper Hamzaoui Med Amine called for, among other things, the legalisation of weed.)
Klay BBJ's video for "We Fucked Ourselves Over"
Klay’s career started in December 2010, when the process of ousting former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Al started in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings. Like many young Tunisians, Klay participated in protests during the revolution. After the slogans died down, Klay kept his voice up, not to welcome the new politicians but to raise awareness of what he saw as an “ongoing political scheme to take over and further exploit the country”.
Since he came to prominence with "Zakataka", Klay’s music has spread via social media and the shows he plays around the country. Despite the fact he doesn’t really sell records and doesn’t make enough money from his music to support himself, his popularity is growing. In his song ”Employment, Dignity and National Liberty” – a natural follow-up to the revolution’s slogan of “bread, freedom and national dignity" – Klay accuses the governing Islamist Ennahda party of “profiting from the revolution, while others stay poor”. It’s the kind of message that resonates with his audience, given that youth unemployment, cited as a main driver of the revolution, is still as high as 30 percent nationwide and even higher in rural areas.
If that last title is too cryptic, Klay has another song, “We Fucked Ourselves Over”, in which he condemns Ennahda's October 2011 electoral victory as the “greatest mistake his people committed”. The message in this and other tracks is that rather than improving, things have gotten worse since Ben Ali was toppled. In another song, “No Pasaran” – a left-wing slogan meaning “they won’t pass” – Klay says that strict social rules haven’t improved after elections, only the rhetoric surrounding them has changed. What was called “prohibited” before is now simply redefined in Islamic terms as “haram" by Ennahda.
During my visit to the country, I also met Issam Absy, a rapper who shares Klay’s views. “Tunisians are sick of politics,” he told me. “Young people are jailed on a daily basis for their opinions and ideologies. Life has become even harder under the rule of Ennahda."
Klay and friends freestyle in the rapper's home
It's not just the young who are restless in Tunisia. On the 25th of October, the country's squabbling parties opened talks aimed at ending three months of political paralysis since the assassination of an opposition politician. A recent increase in violence – including a suicide bombing at a major tourist resort – makes the stakes for reaching a deal even higher.
Two years after the revolution, protesters still chant “Interior Ministry, Terrorist Ministry” (it rhymes in Arabic). Weld el 15 escalated things in “Cops are Dogs”. The song made headlines and was full of insults aimed at the authorities, in case you didn't get that from the title. Some of the lyrics went beyond angry name calling, levelling the accusation that, “government and corrupt cops are the biggest [drug] dealers, smuggling drugs into the country”. Weld el 15 was arrested and sentenced to two years in jail for the song; he served six weeks before being released. “Tunisia is in a state of police tyranny whether we admit it or not,” said Absy.
On the 23rd of August, Klay and Weld el 15 were arrested after performing songs critical of the police. The police weren't best pleased about this and raided the stage, dragging the two artists away to a police station where they interrogated for two hours before being released. Klay returned for trial and sentencing in September. While Klay chose to face sentencing and serve time, Weld el 15 is still on the run.
Klay is both a convict and a mama’s boy. He has a close relationship with his mother, Faouzia, his younger sister and their dog, Max. Faouzia makes a living selling wares in the street and cleaning houses. With a tired look on her face, she tells me their house is a “desert” while Klay is gone. The rapper is quick to cite his family’s support as crucial to his development as an artist: “Your family’s support is highly important to boost your morale and just keep you going."
Bothersome to the Islamist authorities, Klay’s songs are a source of pride to his mother, who visited him 20 times during his three-week stay in Mornaguia prison. “Many people think Klay’s rap is too violent and strong, but I listen to it and support it,” Faouzia says, wearing glasses and a loose veil. “There is something right about what he does. He defends the poor and disempowered.” Faouzia memorises all of her son's tracks to the extent that she can sing along to them.
“Some people told me that he couldn’t have become Klay BBJ if he didn’t have someone like me for a mother. I laugh at that but deep down I know that my family went through a lot. It was not easy to raise two kids all alone and so we have each other’s back, that is our number one rule in the family."
Klay’s mother explains that things turned out to be even harder after Klay started rapping: "We keep changing houses because the police come looking for him; I had officers come to my house and ask me to stop him from rapping.”
But it doesn't sound like Klay will be stopping any time soon. “We will always be anti-system,” he says. “They only prosecuted me for saying what’s right.”
More dispatches from Tunisia, where the revolution has gone a little awry: