Arab Rappers Are Landing in Jail for Lyrics—Kind of Like American Rappers

No nation has a richer history of prosecuting hip hop than the genre's birth country does.
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Left: Moroccan rapper el-Haqed in March, after being released from prison for insulting police in a song. Right: Olutosin Oduwole, arrested in 2007 after authorities found a lyrics sheet in his car. (AP Photos / Abdeljalil Bounhar, Madison County Sheriff)

For nearly three months earlier this year, Tunisian rapper Ala Yaacoubi--better known by his stage name, Weld El 15--was on the run. On March 22, just weeks after he released the video for his incendiary protest song "Boulicia Kleb" ("Police are Dogs"), he was charged with insulting and threatening police, tried in absentia, and sentenced to two years in jail. Fearing for his safety in the hands of authorities, Weld El 15 remained hidden, ducking security forces until he finally appeared in court on June 13 to face a retrial and, hopefully, a more lenient sentence for what he argued was merely an exercise of his "freedom of expression." The judge didn't oblige, upholding the two-year jail sentence and sparking a violent clash between protesters and police outside the courtroom. Weld El 15 has appealed the ruling, and a decision is due this month.

Over the last few years, scenes like this one have been playing out across the Arab world, where rappers have been central figures in protests against oppressive and corrupt governments. Indeed, just two years before Weld El 15's trial, another Tunisian rapper, El General, was detained and interrogated for days after one of his songs criticized then-President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. His arrest was one of the pivotal events that lent momentum to the Tunisian revolution and the broader "Arab Spring," as it exposed the extent to which regimes across the region were resorting to coercion and violence to remain in power. In Morocco, the arrest and eventual imprisonment of rapper El Haqed, who launched repeated attacks on the state with his lyrics, was equally important to galvanizing protesters during Morocco's February 20 movement. In many other countries across the region, rap has been a soundtrack of revolution and change, too, but also one with potentially steep consequences for performers. Arrests are common, leading many artists to fear that their lyrics could land them in jail, or worse.

From our perch in the U.S., the birthplace of hip hop and home of the First Amendment, the travails of hip-hop artists in the Middle East and North Africa may seem surprising, archaic, and far removed from anything we might experience here. But if the last three and a half decades have shown anything about hip hop, it's that the movement has rarely enjoyed the freedoms afforded to other forms of artistic expression.

This was particularly apparent when rap first began muscling its way into mainstream American culture. During these early days, examples of institutional resistance and brutality here at home abounded: the vicious 1983 murder of graffiti artist Michael Stewart by New York City Transit Police, part of the city's broader "war on graffiti"; the relentless threats and harassment from law enforcement in response to NWA's 1988 track "Fuck tha Police" and the anti-police songs that followed; and the arrests throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s of LL Cool J, Too Short, 2 Live Crew and others for obscenity when they would take the stage in cities across the U.S.

In these early cases and others, American artists, like the Arab world rappers of today, challenged the status quo and pushed the boundaries of art in a society unaccustomed to such brash and unapologetic musical resistance. The response was often to try and tamp down their efforts with law enforcement. More recent revelations that police departments across the country have dedicated hip-hop task forces that monitor and sometimes harass rappers--not to mention the ongoing police-driven venue resistance that often makes finding concert sites difficult--suggest that the American tradition of using police power to suppress hip hop lives on.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the widespread criminalization of rap lyrics, a topic I've written on in the past and that I routinely consult with defense attorneys about. Just as a number of rappers in the Arab world have been charged and imprisoned for violent, offensive, or threatening lyrics, so too have an alarming number of American artists. These musicians may not be attacking the government, but the government is certainly attacking them. Take, for instance, Olutosin Oduwole, a student and aspiring rapper at Southern Illinois University. In 2007, when police found his car on the side of the road (it had run out of gas) they searched it and found a crumpled note under the console that mentioned a "murderous rampage similar to the VT shooting." Authorities pressed charges, accusing Oduwole of attempting to make a terrorist threat. Although some of the note was written in rhymed verse--and during the 2011 trial an expert witness, Professor Charis Kubrin of UC Irvine, testified that it was clearly a rap lyric--the jury was unmoved. They found Oduwole guilty, and the judge sentenced him to five years in prison--longer than Weld El 15, El General, and El Haqed combined. Oduwole served more than a year of that sentence before an appellate court threw out the verdict, arguing that a note stuffed under a car console, regardless of what it says, hardly amounts to a threat.

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Erik Nielson is assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, where his research focuses on African American literature and hip-hop culture. He has written for The GuardianThe Huffington Post, The New Republic, and a number of academic journals.

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