Nabyl Guennouni, 30, is a heavy metal singer and band manager in Morocco. He also sits on a jury that selects rising talents to perform at Casablanca’s annual L’Boulevard des Jeunes Musiciens, a six-day extravaganza in two soccer stadiums that has become North Africa’s largest underground music festival, with some 160,000 visitors each year. This marks a dramatic change for Guennouni. When he and 13 other black-shirted, baseball-capped, middle-class headbangers tried to organize a music festival seven years ago, the police dragged them from their homes and charged them with wooing young Moroccans into Satanism, with a bonus count of promoting prostitution. Morocco’s legal system allows a maximum sentence of three years for such attempts to convert Muslims to another faith.
Egged on by conservative Islamist politicians, who six months earlier had doubled their number of seats in parliament, prosecutors produced as evidence against Guennouni fake skeletons and skulls, plaster cobras, a latex brain, T-shirts depicting the devil, and “a collection of diabolical CDs,” which they described as “un-Islamic” and “objects that breach morality.” In cross-examination, the government attorneys asked the defendants such questions as, “Why do you cut the throats of cats and drink their blood?” Al Attajdid, a conservative daily, depicted the musicians as part of a movement that “encourages all forms of delinquency, alcohol and licentiousness which are ignored by the authorities.” One of the trial judges maintained that “normal people go to concerts wearing suits and ties” and that it was “suspicious” that some of the musicians’ lyrics had been penned in English.
During the trial, some of the defendants recited sections of the Koran to prove they were good Muslims. It didn’t work. In a verdict that divided the nation, Guennouni was sentenced to one month in jail; the others received sentences ranging from six months to a year. Outside the courthouse, protesters organized concerts, waged an Internet campaign, and criticized King Muhammad VI for presiding over a travesty of justice.
Yet as dark as that moment was for Casablancan rockers, the trial was a turning point that set Morocco on a path to becoming one of the Arab world’s more liberal societies when it comes to accepting alternative lifestyles. A month after the sentencing, prosecutors, unnerved by the degree of popular support the musicians had attracted, urged an appeals court to overturn the verdicts. The appeals court acquitted 11 of the defendants and reduced the sentences of three others. The decision constituted a rare example of successful civic protest in the Arab world.
Weeks after the appeals court decision, Casablanca was rocked by a series of Islamist suicide bombings that killed 45 people. Musicians responded with a Metal Against Terrorism concert that boosted what Moroccans call Al Nayda, the Awakening, a movement for greater cultural freedom that is topped every year by the L’Boulevard festival. “We needed to channel the aspirations and frustrations of young people in Morocco,’ ” Guennouni tells me. “Al Nayda is a community of spirit,” adds Mohammed “Momo” Merhar, co-founder of the festival. “Moroccan youth was holding its breath for 40 years. A wind of freedom is blowing now, and creativity is exploding.”
Today L’Boulevard attracts metal, rap, and jazz performers from around the globe. King Muhammad donated $250,000 to the event last year. Marie Korpe, executive director of Freemuse, a Copenhagen-based organization funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency that advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide, notes that “as musicians push the boundaries of acceptable musical performance in their countries, it is clear that, wittingly or not, they are helping to open their cultures and potentially their political systems.”
With L’Boulevard, Morocco is doing something new in a part of the world where repression and censorship are the norm. The cultural awakening nonetheless operates within a narrow band in a country where human rights groups, independent media outlets, and critical artists continue to live a precarious existence. Moroccan radio stations, acting on government instructions, recently boycotted a collection of rap songs that was appropriately titled Forbidden on the Radio. Invincible Voice (I-Voice), a Beirut-based Palestinian duo that fuses hip-hop with classical Arab music, was forced to cancel an Arab world tour when Morocco and other Arab countries denied them visas. Yasin Qasem, a 21-year-old freelance sound engineer and half of I-Voice, was subsequently denied entry to lead a sound engineering workshop in Casablanca. Qasem and his partner, TNT, a.k.a. Mohammed Turk, a 20-year-old construction foreman whose songs lament the sorry state of political, cultural, and economic affairs in the Arab world, finally obtained visas for the United Arab Emirates to finish production of their upcoming album, only to be declined entry when they landed at the Dubai airport.
Across a swath of land stretching from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the Persian Gulf, underground musicians are playing a continuous game of cat and mouse with authorities to evade harassment and arrest. Musicians in Iran endure forced haircuts, beatings in jail, and threats to their families. Egypt bans heavy metal from radio and television. Earlier this year, Islamist police stormed a crowded auditorium in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where the hip-hop musicians B Boy Gaza had just started performing. “The show is over,” the officers announced before confiscating equipment and arresting six musicians, who were eventually released after signing a pledge not to hold further performances without police permission. The rapping Emirati brothers Salem and Abdullah Dahman have had their music banned in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because their lyrics contrast the Arab world’s multiple problems with the glorious Muslim past. Last summer, police in the Saudi capital Riyadh broke up a metal concert in a residential compound attended by 500 mostly Saudi fans.
Civilian and religious authorities across the Middle East and North Africa have accused heavy metal musicians of threatening public order, undermining Islam, and performing the devil’s music. Metalheads are also singled out because of their music’s highly charged and often politically, socially, and sexually suggestive lyrics. As a result, their music flourishes mostly in underground clubs, basements, and private homes, and only occasionally on stage when a regime decides that banning a public performance is not worth the political risk.
Underground musicians pose a challenge to Middle Eastern and North African regimes because they often reflect in their lyrics pent-up anger and frustration about unemployment, corruption, and police tyranny. “We play heavy metal ’cause our lives are heavy metal,” says Reda Zine, one of the founders of the Moroccan headbanger scene.
With the growing realization that the region’s authoritarian regimes and controlled economies are unable to offer opportunity to their predominantly young populations, metal and rap have been elevated as channels to express discontent. Their role is enhanced by the Internet and other technologies for mass distribution that make government control difficult and allow musicians and their fans to carve out autonomous spaces that shield them from intrusion by censors and other cultural scolds.
In a recent report for Freemuse, Mark LeVine argues that music plays a role in the Middle East and North Africa similar to the role rock played in the velvet revolutions that toppled regimes in Eastern Europe. LeVine has a good vantage point for studying the subject: He is both a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California at Irvine and a musician who has performed with the likes of Mick Jagger and Albert Collins. The struggle and success of underground music, he says, “reminds us of a past, and offers a model for the future, in which artists—if inadvertently at first—helped topple a seemingly impregnable system of rule.” LeVine describes underground musical communities as “avatars of change or struggles for greater social and political openness,” saying “they point out cracks in the facade of conformity that is crucial to keeping authoritarian or hierarchical and inegalitarian political systems in power.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in Iran, where all rock music is forced underground. Musicians risk harassment and imprisonment by a regime that frowns on all music and routinely tortures dissidents. In May 2009, a heavy metal concert in Shiraz was raided by an Islamist militia that arrested some 100 people on charges of consuming alcohol and worshiping the devil. Musicians are forced into exile or onto the Internet to carve out creative spaces of their own.
Coming under particular scrutiny are Iranian underground musicians who replicate American accents, indulge in obscene lyrics, and use female singers—all viewed as symbols of Western decadence by the authorities. Most CD shop owners refuse to sell underground music, fearing raids, imprisonment, and hefty fines. Concerts in private gatherings are often canceled because of threats from neighborhood vigilantes. Kalameh, an Iranian rapper, recently uploaded one of his latest songs to YouTube in response to the regime’s crackdown on the country’s reform movement: “This nation says No / Says NO to autocracy / Says NO to censorship / Says NO to sedition / Says NO to beating and killing / Says NO to injustice / Says NO to democracy / This constant pain of mine, emanates from being a human / Because one night, they stole my light of hope / If I stay silent, if I stay still / Who is gonna right? Who is gonna say? / If I leave it that way?”
Yet hip-hop’s lyrical style and heavy metal’s pounding beat may be natural fits in a world where poetry is a popular art form and praying often involves rhythm and bobbing. Some Muslim religious figures, particularly practitioners of more mystical forms of Islam, recognize an affinity with metal, even though some of the genre’s most popular forms in the region are its most extreme. “I don’t like heavy metal,” a Shiite cleric in Baghdad told LeVine. “Not because it’s irreligious or against Islam; but because I prefer other styles of music. But you know what? When we get together and pray loudly, with the drums beating fiercely, chanting and pumping our arms in the air, we’re doing heavy metal too.” Cyril Yarboudi of Lebanon’s Oath to Vanquish agrees. “You can practice your religion; you can go pray in a mosque and listen to metal,” he says. “What’s the problem?”
In a 1997 crackdown that put its stamp on much of the heavy metal scene in the Middle East and North Africa, police in Cairo arrested 100 heavy metal fans. The arrests followed publication of a photo from a metal concert allegedly showing someone carrying an upside-down cross. One newspaper reported that the house raided by the police was “filled with tattooed, devil-worshiping youths holding orgies, skinning cats, and writing their names in rats’ blood on the palace’s walls.”
Muslim and Christian clerics were up in arms. Cartoons in newspapers depicted scruffy, marijuana-smoking musicians with T-shirts emblazed with the Star of David who play guitar while being seduced by scantily dressed blond women. The musicians’ critics portrayed them as Zionist agents subverting Muslim society and blamed their emergence on a government that, in their view, was in cahoots with the Zionists in allowing Western culture to undermine Egypt’s social and religious values. Interestingly, this criticism was expressed by many in the underground music community as well. A broad segment of Egyptians, cutting across political, ideological, religious, and social fault lines, accuses the government of failing to effectively support the Palestinians, acquiescing in the Israeli control of Palestinian territories, and supporting unpopular U.S. policies in the region.
Emotions peaked when Sheikh Nasr Farid, Egypt’s mufti at the time, demanded that those arrested repent or face the death penalty for apostasy. In response, intimidated musicians and fans destroyed their guitars and shaved off their beards to avoid the worst. A decade later, many Egyptian musicians remain reluctant to publicly discuss their music or lyrics, even though government policy has become somewhat more relaxed. (The regime of President Hosni Mubarak is currently more concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and dissident bloggers than it is about underground music.)
“You can’t get arrested for being a metalhead so easily now,” an Egyptian heavy metal fan tells me. “They can still stop you in the streets, or stop your car if you listen to very loud heavy music. But when it comes to arresting they can’t now unless you have some sort of drugs on you. It’s not that the law is more liberal now. Rather, it’s because the whole media is not so interested to know about us anymore.”
Morocco’s bow to popular pressure and Egypt’s recent shift of focus highlight a lesson most Arab regimes have yet to learn: The velvet glove is often more effective than the baton. The more mainstream underground music becomes and the less censorship it endures, the less socially and politically potent it may become.
But as long as there is discontent to be expressed, there will be musicians eager to channel it. Even if metal and hip-hop lose their bite, LeVine predicts, the “cultural avant-garde of youth culture will naturally search for other genres of music to express the anger, anxieties, and despair that originally made the music so powerful.”
James M. Dorsey (email@example.com), a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, writes about social trends in the Muslim world as well as ethnic and religious conflict. This column first appeared at Reason.com.