Two young Libyans whose rap music is broadcast to the front line by rebel Benghazi radio hope they are helping to maintain the morale of fighters outgunned by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
“Rap does not physically change things, but it invigorates the soul of people fighting and sends a message to all Libyans,” said 16-year-old Imad Abbar, sitting perched on a paint can in the patio of his home in Benghazi.
Hamza Sisi agreed, and the lyrics that he wrote in Arabic for their rap song Shamat Al-Medina, or Candles of the City, say it all:
The candles of the city shine to tell the world what we want.
The candles of the city won’t rest and won’t give up.
The blood of the fighters is our own.
We won’t surrender until the regime falls.
“I have friends who fought in Benghazi and others currently on the front line and this pushed me to write the song as a sign of respect to them,” the 22-year-old said.
“My words are reaching the front and encouraging people,” said the shy young man dressed in a jacket, jeans and sneakers — a remarkably European look in a country cut off from the world for decades and where traditions run deep.
Although he is proud that his rap beats out of Benghazi’s radio — one of the free radios working in the town since the uprising started in February — Sisi dismisses his contribution to the Libyan revolution as “not much,” saying he would rather join the ranks of the rebels and battle against Gaddafi’s troops.
“I would fight but we are only two brothers and one is already on the front line, so I have to stay home and take care of my family,” he said with a glance at his father who was watching the interview from the doorway.
Sisi has been rapping since 2004 while Abbar’s first taste of the music was in Italy, where he lived a few years with his father, who had a band.
The two met when Abbar returned to Libya and settled in Benghazi, now the center of the uprising against Gaddafi. They record their songs in a small amateur studio, equipped with a keyboard and a computer, in Sisi’s house.
As for Libya’s rap scene, Abbar says there are many young men rapping in Benghazi, Tripoli and other cities, adding that they all keep in touch with each other, but “few” are any good.
He says rap is a relatively new phenomenon in Libya and that the regime is not thrilled at the talk-back tendencies of this music trend.
“In the past, this was very difficult to do. Anyone who said anything against the regime spent the rest of his life in prison,” said Abbar. “The revolution expresses how we feel and that is what rap is about: expressing how you feel. And now we are not afraid.”
Although rebels are currently on the retreat and the front line is creeping closer to Benghazi, the duo share an upbeat outlook.
“The future is in the hands of youth,” said Sisi, adding that he hopes his voice will one day “reach the whole world. I’d love to sing in other countries of the region and in Europe. But for now I prefer to do it in Libya and support my brothers who are fighting.”
Abbar is more modest in his expectations. “Inshallah, things will get better. I hope that in the future there are more rappers on the street. That is my dream.”