‘Silence in the face of oppression is a crime’, declares Libyan rapper Ibn Thabit on his track ‘No Doubt’. And for a long time, there was a pervading silence in Libya.
In comparison to neighbouring powerhouses of Algeria and Egypt, Libya’s music industry has been virtually non-existent during the past forty years. While artists such as Khaled (Algeria) and Amr Diab (Egypt) have dominated the airwaves of North Africa and have even achieved international fame, most world music aficionados would be hard pressed to name a single celebrated Libyan musician.
‘Zenga Zenga‘, a satirical techno track sampling one of Gaddafi’s megalomaniacal speeches in the midst of the 2011 revolution, is probably the most widely recognised track with any relation to Libya since the 1970s. It became an anthem amongst members of the Libyan opposition due to its lampooning of the Libyan dictator’s melodramatic threat to capture protestors ‘alleyway by alleyway’. But even this two-minute parody can’t be considered truly Libyan – as it was actually produced by an Israeli journalist.
The cause of this musical silence was, like so many of Libya’s other issues, a result of Gaddafi’s brutally authoritarian regime. Music was a strictly controlled industry; any track considered subversive could lead to repercussions, ‘Western’ music was essentially outlawed (it was seen as a tool of colonialism) and only Gaddafi’s favoured musicians were broadcast over the radio.i
Mohammed Hassan, with his traditional folk music and patriotic lyrics lauding the ‘brother leader’, became the de facto sound of Libyan music. Dressed in traditional garb and bearing a striking resemblance to Gaddafi himself, Hassan was the musical darling of the regime.ii Despite Libyan attempts to raise his profile internationally, (including a five-hour concert within a decorative tent near London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2002), Mohammed Hassan’s music failed to resonate with other North African Arab populations, let alone European and American audiences.
Despite suppressing the spread of ‘Western’ music within Libya, it is clear that the Gaddafi clan themselves had a certain penchant for contemporary ‘R&B’. Their legendary New Year’s Eve parties held on the Caribbean island of St. Barts featured live performances from luminaries like Beyoncé and Mariah Carey before the uprising in Libya began.
The sounds of the few select artists played on state controlled radio stations betrayed the musical diversity that had always been present in Libya, away from the deep-reaching grasp of the Gaddafi regime.
Ghat and Ghadames, two oases in the south of Libya, became bastions of ethnic Tuareg cultural activity. Home to around 300,000 Libyan Tuaregs, the oases held yearly music festivals celebrating the diverse melodies that accompany the many Tuareg traditional ceremonies and celebrations. Ghat became so synonymous with their rhythmic rituals (most notably the ‘sword dance’) that it earned the unofficial moniker ‘the dancing city’ amongst Libyans.iii Yet Tuareg music failed to enter the mainstream in Libya.
With its distinctive mix of pulsating traditional rhythms and modern guitars, the ‘desert blues’ of the Tuareg bands from Mali, has achieved international recognition. The same cannot be said however of the Tuaregs in Libya; their greatest claim to fame was that Malian superstars Tinariwen underwent eight months of military training in the country as part of Gaddafi’s ambitious dream of creating a Tuareg Saharan regiment.iv
Before Gaddafi consolidated his power in the late 1970s, Libya’s music scene was somewhat recognised within the Arab world. Adil Abd El-majid, who recorded over 200 tracks during his career, achieved fame with his track ‘Haz El-Sho‘, which was played throughout the Maghreb.v With its mournful vocals over sweeping string sections and rhythms, it’s reminiscent of the classic tracks of the far more famous Egyptian songstress Umm Kalthum, but with a noticeably distinct Libyan accent.
The sixties and seventies have been described as the ‘golden years’ of Libyan music, during which female singers also began to attract attention.vi The young and attractive Tunis Miftah was amongst the most prominent throughout this period, with songs extolling the virtues of her homeland.
While most artists, including Adil Abd El-Majid, Tunis Miftah and Ibrahim Fahmy, played in the classical style popular throughout the Arab world at the time, other unique Libyan genres also began to develop.vii Marskawi, a mix of traditional lyricism and dissonant polyrhythm originating in Benghazi, became celebrated amongst the youth.
However Gaddafi’s ‘cultural revolution’ aimed at reforming Libyan society stifled these burgeoning musical movements. Some Libyan musicians emigrated in order to make a living; Ahmad Fakroun spent time in Europe, picking up Western pop and rock influences along the way; Hamid El-Shaeri forged a successful career in Egypt, as did Cheb Jilani, who also spent time in Morocco.
With the start of the 2011 revolution, Gaddafi’s omnipresent clasp on the daily lives of Libyans began to loosen. As protests began to swell on the streets, protest music began to emerge from the bedrooms of aspiring troubadours.
Irish-born Rami El-Kaleh wrote what was to be the most resonant song during the uprising. Although the soft-rock track was musically uninspiring, the lyrics struck a chord with protestors and the international community. Translating the words of Libyan war hero Omar Mukhtar into English, ‘We Will Not Surrender’ forged a clear link between the rebellion against Gaddafi and the Libyan resistance against Italian colonisation in the 1930s. Mukhtar, whose face adorns the ten-dinar note, had already become a pertinent symbol of the opposition. The song’s reputation was further cemented after Rami El-Kaleh was himself assassinated by Gaddafi loyalists in Benghazi mere days after recording the track.
Much in the same way as it had been used as a medium for channelling social discontent in the United States during the 1980s, rap music also began to flourish during the rebellion in Libya. Ibn Thabit, who had started rapping about the situation in Libya a full three years before the Arab spring, took centre stage with piercing lyrics demanding the overthrow of the ‘idiot tyrant’ and ‘coward’ Gaddafi. In order to conceal his true identity, he chose his symbolic nom-de-guerre in reverence to Hassan Ibn Thabit, a renowned poet companion of the prophet Muhammad.viii
Ibn Thabit, who retired following the fall of Gaddafi, was committed to protest rather than profit.ix Rapping in Arabic to a Libyan audience, he chronicled the conflict, celebrating the successes of the rebels and lamenting over the slaughter of his people. Like many of his budding contemporaries in Libya, his music was distributed freely over the Internet. In the age of ‘social media’, music provided a platform for opposition views to be broadcast to the masses in a country in which dissent had previously been censured by force. To many, his verses formed the soundtrack to the revolution.x
On one of his final tracks, ‘No Doubt’, he questioned: ‘when you saw wrongdoing why was your mouth shut’? Before the ‘Arab Spring’, political, artistic criticism against the government had been virtually absent within the country. Now, with a slew of new musicians and rappers surfacing from the debris of revolutionary Libya and radio free from government control, perhaps the previously repressed music scene will finally reverse the near silence of the past forty years.