Barely a man, 16-year-old musician MC Amine raps into a video camera over a mellifluous soundtrack as the streets of Tunis flash behind him. “I’ve got my way and I’m ready to go ... Don’t you forget me,” he raps with some style in a mix of English, French and Arabic.
It’s a love story but within the lyrics politics are never far from the surface as he criticises hypocrisy in society and its opposition to rap and freedoms of expression. “Believe in me, I’m making the right to choose ,” he raps.
The song I’ll be back was released on YouTube in September and produced during one of the Turntable Labs conducted in the past year by Turning Tables in their brand new studio in Tunis. The organisation with its mix of activists and musicians supports music production and freedom of artistic expression by dissident hip-hop and street artists across the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
During their labs they produce beats in collaboration with Arab producers from across the region, create high quality music videos, and amplify the messages of Tunisia’s emcees in collaboration with the local activist radio station Radio Sha3abi. The studio gives artists such as MC Amine an opportunity to produce their music free of charge.
“Turning Tables is a great idea, for real. It shows that there are good minds that work for the hip-hop movement in the world,” MC Amine says.
Support from Turning Tables is a godsend for the Tunisian hip-hop artists, who this past year have been operating just under the radar of Tunisian law enforcement. A recent wave of arrests has forced an emergent hip-hop scene underground again and the future is uncertain.
“The struggle for freedom of expression in Tunisia and the Arab World has only just begun,” Martin Fernando Jakobsen, a 31-year-old Danish DJ and the founder of Turning Tables, tells me.
The organisation was born as Turntables in the Camps in 2009, when Jakobsen and other local DJs began running Turntable Labs in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.
After seeing how hip-hop artists across the region engaged musically in the fight for political change as part of the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011, Jakobsen felt an urge to support the activist artists and began organising shows for young Arab rappers. He was worried that conservative forces could use more recent upheavals to shut down the scene, which was finally being allowed a public voice.
“This youth movement and the young people’s freedom of expression and artistic freedom face an uncertain future because of opposition by powerful conservative forces, societal norms and limited production and expression,” he explains in an interview from his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives with his wife and young daughter.
Hoping to support dissident voices in Egypt, Jakobsen contacted Nasser Kalaji, the owner of Immortal Entertainment in Jordan, who has documented hip-hop in the Middle East the past 10 years.
In six weeks, the two organised a concert in Zamalek in Cairo as a tribute to those who had lost their lives during the first revolution.
They brought together some of the most respected emcees in the region: MC Swat from Libya, Malilka and Edd from Lebanon, Khotta B, Tareq Abu Kuwaik and DJ Sotusura from Jordan, Boikutt from Palestine and Arabian Knightz, MC Amin and Deep from Egypt.
But just before the concert was scheduled to begin, the Ministry of Interior threatened to send in riot police. Quickly, the crew changed the location to a private rooftop in the Old City, spreading the word through texts, phone calls and Facebook updates. Jakobsen and Nasser heaved a sigh of relief when they saw the crowd approaching from the subway shouting “hip-hop, hip-hop!”
“It didn’t have the effect we had hoped for, but they didn’t manage to shut down free speech,” Jakobsen says. “It all shows something about hip-hop’s origins and significance as a tool and voice against social and political oppression.”
“This was a historical concert for Arabic hip-hop,” Nasser Kalaji adds in an interview from his office in Amman. Their aim is to provide the artists with a platform and a chance to meet and collaborate in person and to connect with fans from different Arab countries.
“It’s about creating a space to speak up if you have something to say, put a sick beat on it and tell it to the world, start a dialogue, call people and organisations out, criticise, reflect, tell your story, and push the boundaries – politically, poetically and artistically,” he says.
Immortal Entertainment and Turning Tables are now preparing to open a lab in the Syrian refugee camp Za’atari in Jordan.
“I hope I will be able to help the youth living in extremely difficult circumstances in the camp express themselves and channel their many emotions into creating music,” says Jordanian-Palestinian rapper Khotta Ba who will run the lab.
The initiative follows a successful year during which Turning Tables opened labs in Tunisia and Cambodia, and as of this month, Myanmar.
When Jakobsen and the Turning Tables crew first arrived in Tunis to build the music studio and video production facility, it was after the arrest of the rapper Weld el 15, who was held in May after releasing a song and music video that talks about police brutality and mocks the security police.
In September, he and fellow rapper Klay BBJ were sentenced in absentia to 21 months in prison for inciting hatred and calling for the death of police and magistrates. They are now both in hiding underground.
Jakobsen described how they had to smuggle the rappers into the studio to record without getting seen by the police. One of them was the rapper Vipa, whose house was raided by police in the middle of the night after the arrest of Weld el 15.
It was this situation that inspired the first Turning Tables song and music video, Up on the Roof, which talks about freedom of expression and was released on YouTube in April.
The song is a collaboration with Vipa and the rappers WMD and Katy and produced by Hayej from Tunis, Boikutt from Palestine and Damar from Jordan.
“Tunisians try to move forward with great desire, but there are always some barriers that prevent us from trying to speak about justice, be it political or economic or social,” says Vipa, whose Facebook page has garnered nearly 80,000 likes.
The rapper WMD agrees. “We still have a long way to go,” he says before adding that the situation inspires him and other activists with “more energy to fight for one’s right.”
WMD, who is also a radio host at Radio Kalima, released a track on September 5, titled Let’s Build, in which he calls for the people to take back the power.
“We are supporting young people who are fighting for a Tunisia that respects basic freedoms and equal opportunities for all through the targeted use of arts festivals, music events and the creation of independent media that conveys the youth’s views on Tunisia’s future,” Jakobsen says.
In September, Vipa and another seven Tunisian hip-hop and street artists participated in the Images Festival in Denmark, where they performed tracks from some of Turning Tables’ other labs from the Middle East and Cambodia.
The theme of the festival was artistic activism and how artists around the world use music and street art as non-violent counter-culture in the struggle against oppression.
Next up is a hip-hop and street art festival organised by Turning Tables in Tunis, which will run from December 14 to 15, and features Vipa, WMD and MC Amine, in addition to artists from Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan.
Jakobsen and his partners in Tunis are not deterred by the recent escalation of arrests of artists and activists.
”People say that a festival like this is needed, now more than ever, to assert pressure on the government,” Jakobsen says. ”Our aim is to strike a blow for the freedom of artistic expression in Tunisia. So we continue.”
Janne Louise Andersen is a Danish journalist who writes about the Arab hip-hop and alternative music scene.