Popular Culture

Rap and Metal on Planet Islam

The booming voice of pent-up Middle Eastern anger


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 (jmdorsey@questfze.com), a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, writes about social trends in the Muslim world as well as ethnic and religious conflict.

NEXT: Yes, It's Come to This

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    1. Man, IMO that Scarab song owns Nile’s. I was disappointed to find out that was Derek Roddy doing session drums for the song, too.

      1. I once saw Nile. It was overwhelming.

        1. Yes sir.. Nile is nasty

    2. Melechesh is better than either of them.

    3. The Mecca of Metal in the Islamic world is actually Iran. (Pun intended).

      Even though the Iranian religious and state authorities hate headbangers with dark passion of insulted Inquisition.

      There is a vibrant metal underground scene in Iran, and Iranian expatriates in Sweden etc. do have some good bands as well.

  1. By Muhammed, they better stay off my lawn. Maryjane butts and beer cans everywhere…
    Also, you can’t tell the boys from the girls.
    and finally, we need to ship some of our ?best? southern prosecutors to help out those judges, because if there is one thing us old farts agree on, we gotta keep the youngsters from enjoying themselves.

    1. Tipper Gore, who can teach them a thing or two.

  2. I’m pretty sure Iron Maiden brought down the Berlin Wall. Maybe it’ll work here too…

    1. Contrary to popular belief, it was actually pelvic thrusting that brought down the Berlin Wall.

    1. Orphaned Land is awesome.

    2. iAmJush
      2 months ago 5
      why is this israeli band singing about iraq in 2 of it’s? songs?

      its creepy…..i may be off topic saying this, but just cause babylon was built by jewish slaves doesnt mean it belongs to them jewish ppl r more than welcome to stay in the land of mesopotamia, but not take over it …..

      Youtube: where Edward is an intellectual giant.

      1. Gave that comment a thumbs up.

        But seriously, expand the comments and just look for the word Jew. It’s a dog-whistle word for NSBM mouthbreathers in the metal scene.

        IsraeliMetalhead: You mean better than chuck schulilinder R.I.P which they obviously got influenced by him is worse than them and? sucks because he is a Jew?

        Blackened666Death: i admit chuck was great i bet he was a self loathing jew.

        Also I envy that you saw Nile live.

        1. I learned from a movie that jew is the only word that doesn’t lose it’s meaning when repeated over and over and over again.

    3. You are a fucking fag. Abraham didn’t exist.

  3. Kalameh’s a chick. Nice research.

  4. Just out of curiosity, why is the kid in the gray striped hoodie wearing rollerblades? Do they get a lot of roller hockey on the beautifully-paved and immaculately maintained streets of Gaza? Or does it help in the getaway from the tank you just threw a rock at?

  5. Put a sari on that kid and you’re got a real story.

    1. Oh, well lah-dee-dah. I guess the sari is too frivolous a subject for a serious thinker like you. [eye roll]

    2. What about the Four Loko?

  6. I suspect hating on one’s parents may be the beginning of all anti-authoritarianism.

    I think that’s why I distrust all generations after X, at least in this country anyway…

    Don’t trust anyone under 30!

  7. History repeats itself. It’s not the first time that music has symbolized protest in Casablanca. Plus, Claude Rains’ line at the 2:45 mark may be the most ironically libertarian bit of dialogue in the history of cinema.

  8. Except for mentions of the king Mohammad and religion, the whole story sounds like it’s about Soviet Union in 80ies.

    1. Precisely! Same with Czechoslovakia. The campaign in 1980-1985 was particularly vicious.

      When I read the excerpt about a house “filled with tattooed, devil-worshiping youths holding orgies, skinning cats, and writing their names in rats’ blood on the palace’s walls.”, I thought: My God, this guy must have majored in Marxist-Leninist Journalism in Cold-War Prague! (We had a fair share of “progressive” Arab students, so this is actually a plausible theory).

      Totalitarian movements and regimes everywhere are mightily afraid of poetry and music, if it does not appropriately lick their jackboots.

  9. Even music I don’t see the point of can have a beneficial effect in the Muslim world. GO FOR IT!

  10. James Dorsey, drop me a line in Panama, saludos, cabal tcabal@cwpanama.net

  11. I guess Tipper Gore and the PMRC can start outsourcing to the Middle East.

    1. It looks like some of the bands they’re into are from that era too.

  12. Your source for underground music from the Middle east…


  13. I’m curious, how did dissidents get their hands on the equipment for producing music in the USSR? The Soviet was not very good at pretty such goods in terms of quality or quantity but was very good at not distributing them. Bribes?

    1. In Baltic states (then ‘republics’) some equipment came from relatives abroad. Authorities disliked that, but to my knowledge after Helsinki there were no efforts to stop even pretty expensive gifts coming in. In 1987, I knew a 17yo guy who got a spot with one of top bands because he had the first Roland D-50 within ~300 km radius. 🙂

      As for speaker systems, some Soviet produce was actually quite good. On the nets, you can still find people trading 25 year old Radiotehnika S-90’s.

      A lot of amplifiers were home-built.

    2. Czechoslovakia produced some fine audiosystems and they could be bought by Soviets visiting the country. We also had “temporarily visiting” occupation army of 200 thousand since 1968, and the officers and their wives (not the grunts) would typically buy everything they could before moving back to the “worker’s paradise”, where even toiler paper was scarce.

    3. They made amps from tubes they built from scratch! In the snow! Uphill! Both ways!

      Stoli bottles made the best pentodes, although Zyr bottles gave a mellower sound favored by Russkie hippies.

  14. What gets me are the idiots (mostly lefties) who decry Israel as ‘fascist’, then turn a blind ey to real fascism.

    1. Kids these days. Whaddya gonna do? They got their Obama and their rock music pods and their X-Box live ranked multiplayer matches. Feh…

  15. I vote “Islamist police” as the most depressing phrase of the day. Can you imagine doing stand up to a room full of those guys?

    “Oy vey! This room is tougher than Chuck Norris in combat armor!”

  16. I’m curious, how did dissidents get their hands on the equipment for producing music in the USSR? The Soviet was not very good at pretty such goods in terms of quality or quantity but was very good at not distributing them. ???? ????? ??? ???????

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