Morocco Cracks Down on Democracy Rappers
The refrain is—like most of El Haqed’s lyrics—a challenge to the authorities.
You call this a prison?/I’ve been living in an outdoor prison my whole life!
El Haqed hails from a neighborhood referred to by its inhabitants as Oukacha—the name of a prison on the other side of town—a deeply religious district plagued by drugs and poverty, where few are able to obtain the money to escape apartments often crowded with entire families sharing a single room. “Many of the people there are in constant rotation between Oukacha the neighborhood and Oukacha the prison,” says Maria Karim, a 32-year-old Moroccan documentarian and democracy activist who helped El Haqed produce his album. Karim, who is facing her own legal battle for having allegedly insulted the authorities, is working on borrowed time to get El Haqed’s message out to Moroccans and, she hopes, to the wider world. “People ask El Haqed what his school of rap his is. He says it’s m'habsse (prisoner) rap, which I take to mean the rap of a people who are prisoners outdoors,” Karim says.
A few months after American superstars Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey traveled to Marrakech to perform at a high-profile music festival (where they thanked King Mohammed VI for inviting them) Morocco still has some of its own musical talent locked up for producing songs deemed injurious to the state. Today many Moroccan activists say the U.S. singers’ visit ended up tacitly supporting a repressive regime. (Carey’s booking agency declined to comment on the singer’s trip to Morocco, and Kravitz’s record label had not responded to request for comment at the time of publication.)
“We encourage performing artists to speak out about repression of freedom of expression when they visit Morocco, especially on behalf of imprisoned fellow artists like El Haqed,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East North Africa region.
“By hosting international music festivals, Morocco is able to embellish its image as a cosmopolitan, tolerant haven of international culture. The presence of prestigious artists contributes to that image. We encourage them to urge Morocco to release artists like El Haqed, whose imprisonment tarnishes the image they wish to cultivate,” Goldstein said.
Shortly after the pop stars’ departure, El Haqed reportedly embarked on a 48-hour hunger strike in prison, after he was allegedly confined to a dark room and exposed to other forms of what his supporters characterize as “mental torture.”
The glitzy Mawazine Festival that Kravitz and Carey attended, which netted $7 million in revenues, presents a rosy image of a tolerant, open Morocco decidedly at odds with the state that locked up El Haqed. Meanwhile, the U.S. government remains supportive of Morocco’s royal leadership, thanks to the latter’s perennial compliance with counterterrorist measures in the region—no matter that the regime, like many others in the African and Arab World, does not grant its citizens the human rights that the U.S. has said should apply internationally. Earlier this week, the United Nations issued a scathing report on human-rights abuses against dissidents in Morocco. It included accounts of sexual assault perpetrated on men involved in the democracy movement, and other horrific tortures. In one case, a dissident reported that his torturers plucked his eyelashes out, in retribution for his having attended a protest.
“For me, U.S. politics is about protecting [America’s] own interests, like any other country in the world,” says Karim, the documentarian. Still, she noted that El Haqed and his entourage deeply respect the First Amendment rights that the U.S. grants its citizens. Indeed, those rights inspired the title of El Haqed’s latest album.
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