Jean-Pierre Filiu, is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the School of International Studies, SciencesPo in Paris.
He’s in Boston to lecture at Harvard on the topic revolution, Islamism and jihad in North Africa and the Sahel.
But he stopped by our studio to talk about his other interest, hip hop inspired by the Arab Spring.
Filiu spoke with anchor, Marco Werman about the rap music he’s been following.
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Marco Werman: We’re going to talk about hip hop in Gaza in just a moment. Jean-Pierre Filiu stopped by our studio earlier today. He’s a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the School of International Studies, or Sciences Po in Paris, and he came to town to give a lecture at Harvard about jihad in North Africa. But Filiu has another interest–rap music and the way it plays into the Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia.
Jean-Pierre Filiu: Well, I’ve been listening to everything coming out from the streets, grassroots music. I must admit that personally I am more a flamenco or rock and roll fan, but when it comes to hip hop, the lyrics are really enlightening. They’re really what made me understand from the very beginning of the revolution in Tunisia they were going to topple the dictator. Because you had one unknown hip hop singer from the city of Sfax, in southern[?] Tunisia, who deliberately challenged the president he could survive this. So that meant that the balance of power was not working any more in favor of the security apparatus.
Werman: You must identify, obviously, like many people, an American characteristic in rap music, even though it’s spread all over the world. How does the music differ, though, or maybe is it the same, when you find it in the Middle East talking about Arab Spring and revolution and democracy?
Filiu: Well, first they all idolize Tupac Shakur.
Filiu: For them, Tupac is really the man, you know.
Werman: How do you see this? Posters in rappers’ room, or t-shirts?
Filiu: Yes, they speak about him and they have quotes about him and they sample his song. For example, in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, were just hanging around by the market and I saw a Tupac graph [sic] on the wall and I immediately stopped the car, came out. I say I will join you later, and I spent the whole afternoon with the local hip hop gang.
Filiu: That was wonderful, because as this revolution is basically a generational revolution. It’s really not flower power, but youth power, you know, empowerment of the younger generation that can’t accept as normal to have those dictators dictating its fate until the end.
Werman: What did the Mauritanians have to say about Tupac Shakur? Why did they like him?
Filiu: The more politicized ones know about the Black Panthers background of him, and the whole idea that he was, you know, protesting against the social order, that he had a message, that he was involved in the community. So they don’t know so much the issue about gang leaders, West Coast, East Coast, or the Las Vegas shooting. It’s more the ideas that he was a youngster like them expressing his rage. I spent a lot of time, for example, with rappers in Benghazi, which is not spontaneously associated with hip hop music. In Libya it’s incredible the quality of the rhymes. They are really inventive. And it was a mix, English, Arabic, classical Arabic, colloquial Arabic, political songs. It’s really a booming scene all over.
Werman: Now you’ve even tried your hand at writing rap lyrics about the region. You collaborated with a French group, Zebda–I love them–about the Palestinian conflict. I’d like us to listen to a bit of that song. It’s about life in Gaza, Une vie de moins, which I guess roughly translates as “a lesser life.” Here it is.
[singing in French]
Werman: So Jean-Pierre Filiu, what’s this song about?
Filiu: Oh, it’s about a kid in Gaza, his life, his dreams. The way he would love to travel out, away. He is tragically killed.
Werman: The line “I live in a country that doesn’t exist,” [speaking French], I mean that’s really Gaza, isn’t it?
Filiu: Yes, I think if I would be able to convey that the basic aspiration of the Arab youth is living a normal life, I would be happy of my day.
Werman: Jean-Pierre Filiu, rap lyricist and professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sciences Po in Paris. Thanks for coming in.
Filiu: Thank you.
[singing in French]
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Filiu has even started dabbling as a rap lyricist himself. Below is a song about Gaza that he wrote for the French hip hop group Zebda: