FES, Morocco (AP) — Moroccan rapper Gnawi knew the police would come when he and two friends released an unusually outspoken video exposing their country’s problems with migration and drugs and expressing frustration with the king.
And sure enough, they did.
Gnawi, a former military serviceman whose real name is Mohamed Mounir, was handed a one-year prison sentence Monday by a judge for insulting the police in a case that his supporters say is a backlash against growing public anger at authorities and over a lack of economic opportunity.
Moroccan authorities have said Gnawi’s arrest was prompted by an earlier video in which he insulted the police, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.
The video he released with rappers Lz3er and Weld L'Griya featured the song “3acha cha3b” (“Long Live the People”). Released Oct. 29, it immediately went viral, and now has more than 15.5 million hits on YouTube.
The five-minute video rages against the powers-that-be and criticizes the country’s widening economic gap, a message aimed at the country’s disillusioned younger generation.
One passage of the song reflects on the Hirak protest movement in Morocco’s impoverished Rif mountain region. Another section profiles a mother whose sons died attempting to migrate to Europe, while another paints a picture of a young generation ruined by hashish and hard drugs.
Most shockingly to many Moroccans, the song also directly criticizes Morocco’s king and his adviser, a criminal offense.
“We didn’t do this project to point fingers or create controversy,” Lz3er told The Associated Press. “We voiced what the majority of Moroccans feel but fear to say ... and it naturally upset those who do not want change.”
Morocco, a kingdom long known for its stability in the Arab world, adopted constitutional reforms in response to the 2011 Arab Spring protests against corruption and abuse of power and in favor of expanding free speech. But the country is still struggling with poverty, corruption and unemployment. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution, but with limits.
The 31-year-old Lz3er, whose real name is Yahya Semlali, said he was followed after the song’s release and that “All Morocco knows that Gnawi is arrested because of the ‘3acha cha3b’ song.”
Morocco’s political rap is grounded in poetry and has a rhythm and meter distinct from American rap. The language’s guttural syllables demand fury in delivery, and rap is a welcome outlet for political passions.
“All of us are in the ‘see and be quiet’ mode. But I do this because I don’t want to see and be quiet. That’s why people respond to my music,” Lz3er said in an interview at his house in Fes. The city is prized by tourists for its beauty and royal sites; locals know it as Morocco’s capital of crime.
Lz3er and Weld L'Griya grew up in a world of crime. Both school dropouts, they got their education on the streets from those who turned to prostitution for lack of other opportunity and from young men who slept on the street in cardboard boxes and turned to drugs as an escape.
“We are stuck in a caste system and our rap mirrors exactly that,” Lz3er said.
But for government spokesman Hassan Abyaba, the rap song doesn’t reflect Morocco’s reality.
"Songs of all kinds must respect the citizens, the constancy of the nation and the principles and values that are part of the Moroccans’ education,” he told a news conference last week.
The Minister of Human Rights, Mustapha Ramid, dubbed the song “provocative and offensive."
A small group of supporters gathered in front of Salé court to demand Gnawi’s release.
“The state is always oppressing us,” said protester Youssef Montaser. “The police don’t guarantee our rights, they wrong us.”
Politically engaged rappers are often arrested for “offenses that have nothing to do with music or their artistic production,” said linguistics expert Zineb Harrouchi.
Opposition rapper Mouad Belrhouate, better known as El 7aqed or “the resentful one,” has been arrested three times for his music critical of Morocco’s social ills and ruling elite.
A political refugee in Belgium since 2015, he told the AP: “Though I love my country very much, it suffocated me. I was always followed, watched. I felt in prison outside of prison, and yet I dream of the day I return to my neighborhood, my little bunker in my neighborhood in Casablanca.”