Magharebia (Washington DC)

25 March 2014

Tunisia: Rapper Jailing Sparks Debate

Tunis — A young Tunisian rapper whose song caused a YouTube sensation is free after spending nearly nine months behind bars.

Ahmed Laabidi, known as "Kafon", was "placed under conditional release" on the eve of Independence Day, his attorney Ghazi Mrabet said on Thursday (March 20th).

Arrested in June 2013, the rapper was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 1,000 dinars for using cannabis.

His friends and fans claimed, however, that the real reason behind his conviction was his daring songs and criticism of the government.

"I've learnt a lot in prison," Kafon told Magharebia. "I now believe that all Tunisians are under conditional release because of the situation in our country."

Kafon is considering releasing a song telling the story of his own experience, "although I have previously talked about the conditions of prisoners and prisons in Tunisia", he said.

Kafon recorded "Houmani" last September with famous rapper Mohamed Amine Hamzaoui.

"The song came at a time when there was violence and terrorism," Hamzaoui told L'Express after its release.

"Tunisians need to hear music that speaks to them about their lives," he said. "Our song is a mirror," he added.

Kafon was surprised by the song's phenomenal success.

"I'm not looking for fame, and I never thought that 'Houmani' would spread like it did," he told Magharebia. "I only present the reality of Tunisians as I see it."

The lyrics of the piece have struck a chord with young people. Meant to depict the disillusion and misery of disenfranchised youths in the "hood", the song became a major hit upon its release. "Houmani" garnered more than 8 million views on YouTube, a level unheard of for any Tunisian rap song.

"We live like rubbish in a trash bin, poor, penniless, without a cent. We get up late, we do not see the time passing, I do not have a watch. Here we do not study. Here, we feel asphyxiated. Here the atmosphere is heavy," the song says.

According to blogger Mehdi Lamloum, "Houmani" has also raised a social debate.

"The issue of working class neighborhoods versus rich neighborhoods, though not directly tackled in the song, is very present, The song succeeded in transcribing part of what Tunisians feel, whether they come from poor neighborhoods or not, or live the life it describes," Lamloum wrote.

Fans of the rappers, meanwhile, have wondered whether Kafon's incarceration was more about politics than cannabis.

"It is deplorable that in a country that had a revolution for freedom of expression, we find a man behind bars for expressing his views about the reality we live in, meanwhile corrupt people live freely," Melek Agouzoul wrote on Kafon's official Facebook page.

Fans from Libya, Morocco, Egypt and other countries also expressed their support.

After he was discharged, Kafon celebrated with fans and fellow rappers at his parents' home.

Together, they all sang "Houmani".

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