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Algeria, soundscape of a popular revolution

Eve­ry Fri­day since Abde­la­ziz Bou­te­fli­ka announ­ced his can­di­da­cy for a fifth term in Februa­ry, tens of thou­sands of Alge­rians of all back­grounds and ages have been gathe­ring in pro­test. From foot­ball sta­diums to the streets and through social media, what are the anthems that make up the sound­scapes of pro­test in Algeria ?


From sta­diums to the streets : fan chants ral­ly the crowds

Live­ly cri­ti­cism and invi­ta­tions to ral­ly have been heard on the stands of Algeria’s foot­ball sta­diums for seve­ral years now. Faced with control­led public spaces and cen­so­red free­dom of speech, these have become a forum for pro­mo­ting the expres­sion of poli­ti­cal cri­ti­cism and social and eco­no­mic grie­vances. In the spring of 2018, Ouled El-Bahd­ja [Chil­dren of Algiers], a group of fans from the Sports Union of the Medi­na of Algiers (USMA), com­po­sed “La Casa del Mou­ra­dia”. In refe­rence to the Spa­nish series La Casa de Papel [Money Heist], the song is direct­ly addres­sed to par­ti­sans of the El Mou­ra­dia palace, the offi­cial resi­dence of the Alge­rian presidency.

Repea­ted over and over during pro­tests, this social anthem condemns Abde­la­ziz Bouteflika’s various man­dates one by one : “The first, let’s say it’s over / They’ve had us for a decade / During the second, his­to­ry became very clear / La Casa d’El Mou­ra­dia / During the third, the coun­try loo­ked gaunt / Blame it on per­so­nal inter­ests / For the fourth, the doll is dead and nothing has chan­ged…”. Since then, the sports club has relea­sed a new song cal­led “Ulti­ma ver­ba”, a direct nod to Vic­tor Hugo’s poem in which the poet sca­thin­gly cri­ti­ci­sed Napo­leon III and his cor­rupt regime. Other examples bear wit­ness to the close links bet­ween sta­dium chants and revo­lu­tion, such as this song by CS Constan­tine that addresses hou­sing issues and the cost of living, some of the many bar­riers to the deve­lop­ment of the young generation :

On the web and on the streets : the young gene­ra­tion of artists sets the tone

If fan chants have floo­ded out of the sta­diums, inva­ded the streets and swept up crowds beyond the stands, they have also attrac­ted the atten­tion of popu­lar music pro­duc­tions. The song “Liber­té” by rap­per Sool­king, fea­tu­ring Ouled El-Bahd­ja, has been huge­ly suc­cess­ful and rea­ched more than 73 mil­lion views since mid-March 2019. Its simple and per­cus­sive lyrics, beats, vio­lins in the back­ground, auto-tune and cho­ruses of sup­por­ters are the per­fect recipe for a song that brings eve­ryone toge­ther. The lyrics cri­ti­cise cor­rup­tion among the elite and hypo­cri­sy in the face of a uni­fied Alge­rian socie­ty ins­pi­red by the great figures of anti­co­lo­nia­lism : “They thought we were dead, they said ‘Good rid­dance!’ / They thought we were sca­red of our dark past / There is no one left, only pic­tures and lies / Only thoughts that eat us up, all right, take me there / Yes, there is no one left over there, only the people / Che Gue­va­ra, Matoub, take me there / I write this one night for a new morning.”

Raja Meziane is a lea­ding figure in this pro­test sound­scape. Dis­co­ve­red on the talent show El Han oua Cha­bab in 2007, the young artist from Magh­nia was dri­ven into exile in the Czech Repu­blic for seve­ral years after refu­sing to be invol­ved with the elec­to­ral anthem for Pre­sident Bouteflika’s fourth term. In her video for “Allo le Sys­tème !”, the young rap­per makes a dis­pa­ra­ging phone call to the sys­tem, but there is no ans­wer. By spli­cing ele­ments from the stan­dard aes­the­tic of US hip-hop music videos with images of actual pro­tests in the coun­try, her video uses meta­phor to show how the govern­ment has become cor­rupt and dis­con­nec­ted from the issues faced by its citi­zens. Raja Meziane condemns the absence of public and edu­ca­tio­nal infra­struc­tures that forces young Alge­rians to leave their coun­try : “The coun­try has come to a stand­still / worn out / It stays that way / You have des­troyed edu­ca­tion / and things are out of control. Disa­bled socie­ty / absent culture / the people jump into boats”. The artist also disap­proves of the obs­truc­tion cau­sed by a ruling power that does not bring any change : “And you believe that you will remain fore­ver / you have buried us alive / and left the dead in power”.

Pro­test, a tra­di­tion at the heart of Alge­rian music

Beyond the impact of these two songs, the Alge­rian art scene has taken mul­tiple steps for­ward in recent weeks. An artists’ col­lec­tive com­po­sed of Jam, Amel Zen, Idir Benai­bouche and Abou­ba­kr Maa­tal­lah came toge­ther at an ear­ly stage to work on a song entit­led “Libé­rez l’Algérie” [Release Alge­ria]. The song calls for “An edu­ca­tion for our chil­dren”, “An authen­tic and inde­pendent culture” and “A free press”. These claims reso­nate with the various pla­cards writ­ten in French, Ara­bic and Ber­ber that appear in the music video : “One hero, the people”, “Youth takes control of its des­ti­ny”, “In favour of a consti­tu­tio­nal state”, “Uni­ted people, win­ning people”. This cate­go­ri­cal­ly col­lec­tive action reveals the uprising’s fun­da­men­tal DNA : pea­ce­ful, popu­lar, and with no lea­ders or ambassadors.

This is not the first time poli­ti­cal pro­test, whe­ther tra­di­tio­nal or modern, has come up in Alge­rian music. Since mal­hun poe­try and other anti-colo­nia­list songs, pro­test through music has per­sis­ted with the deve­lop­ment of raï and kabyle poli­ti­cal songs. Artists such as Cheb Has­ni and Matoub Lou­nès – both mur­de­red during the “Black Decade” – embo­died the poli­ti­cal dimen­sion of music in Alge­ria. From the 90s onwards, the young gene­ra­tion also began making a name for itself on the music scene with groups such as MBS (inclu­ding MC Don­qui­shoot, Red One and later Diaz) and Intik.

In a long tra­di­tion of poli­ti­cal music, today’s anthems are woven from a tapes­try of foot­ball sta­diums, social media and music pro­duc­tions, some more alter­na­tive than others. Above all, they are the results of a culture of street music impro­vi­sa­tion with lyrics sung in Ara­bic, Ber­ber and French, often humo­rous and some­times accom­pa­nied by acous­tic ins­tru­ments. For example, this lite­ra­ry and musi­cal crea­ti­vi­ty car­ries slo­gans such as “Jibou El BRI, Jibou Sa3i9aa… makanch el kham­ssa ya Bou­te­fli­ka” [“Bring back the Spe­cial Forces… There will be no fifth Bou­te­fli­ka man­date”] from the streets of Algiers to Bechar, from an eve­ning of Ber­ber rhythms to the Face­book pages of the musi­cian bro­thers TiMoh & Djam.

Many thanks to Anès and Idir for their inva­luable help.

Sarah Melloul

Sarah Melloul


Online media manager for OnOrient, Sarah Melloul works at the crossroads of the world of media and culture in France and the Arab world. Passionate about writing and radio, she is particularly interested in music, issues of memory, heritage and interculturality in North Africa.


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