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.