By Amal Amraoui, translated by Vanessa Szakal.
Screen-capture from «شغل حرية كرامة وطنية» (Work, freedom, national dignity).

Brought to appear before the investigative judge in Bab Bnet (Tunis) at 8:30 on the morning of October 21, Klay BBJ and two friends are met by a crowd of a hundred or so indignant supporters. Shortly after 10:00am, the three young men are acquitted.

Several days earlier, before leaving to give a concert in Hammamet, Klay BBJ is snatched up by the police in front of his home in Bab Menara. With Sniper, also a rapper, and another young man, they are transported to the police station in the Kasbah before being placed in the detention center in Bouchoucha. According to spokesman of the Interior Ministry, Walid Lougini, the arrest had been ordered by the public prosecutor in Tunis.

On the morning of October 19, the three are transported to the district central police station, and then to the emergency care facility, the Centre d’Assistance Médicale Urgente de Montfleury (CAMU), for a THC test. At this point it becomes apparent that the young men have likely been indicted for the alleged consumption and/or possession of narcotics.

Klay BBJ will not take the test because he is aware that it is a violation of his physical integrity. Furthermore, he doesn’t trust the test procedures, his lawyer Ghazi Mrabet declares.

A new form of artistic resistance

Klay BBJ, born Ahmed Ben Ahmed, grew up (and remains) in Bab Jdid. Trained as a boxer, he converts to rap shortly after the revolution. He meets Mohamed Amine Hamzaoui in a police van where they share handcuffs. During this encounter, they create the song «Zakataka» which overtly defends the consumption of cannabis. The rapper builds up his reputation and becomes one of the top names on the Tunisian rap scene. Whether solo or accompanied by the self-proclaimed voices of underground music in Tunisia, the rapper continues to focus his artistic energies on social and political issues. Klay BBJ comes to be seen as an icon of artistic resistance through lyrics that defy authority and denounce injustice. He advocates on behalf of the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and victims of the justice system.

The particular intensity–a sort of well-channeled ferocity–that propels his flow and poignant lyrics distinguishes Klay BBJ from other rappers. In «لن يمرّوا» («No pasaran») produced in April 2012, he denounces the revolution’s betrayal of dignity. Shortly after, he releases «شغل حرية كراكة وطنية» («Work, freedom, and national dignity») in which he reprimands the silence of the opposition. With Phenix in 2013 he produces «حشينا هولنا» («We screwed ourselves»). The song draws attention for its crude language and unflinching criticisms of democratic transition. In support of Weld El 15 in June 2013, he addresses «رسالة إعتذار» («Letter of Apology») to the police in which he condemns law enforcement officials, the justice system, as well as the government and its international supporters, Qatar in particular.

Current events are more than a source of inspiration for Klay BBJ: they radicalize his verses and sharpen his creativity. With Sniper, he creates an homage to Walid Danguir, arrested in Bab Jdid for drug trafficking (November 2013). Several hours after his arrest, Danguir died in a police station in the Medina. Photographs showing torture marks on Danguir’s body provoke a chain reaction of condemnations by human rights organizations. Following the arrest of blogger Azyz Amami, Klay BBJ and Phenix create the audacious «تحبوا البولة» («You want urine») in which they denounce the urine test, Law n°52 concerning the consumption of narcotics, and police repression. At the time of elections in 2014, Klay BBJ calls for a boycott through «لسنا للبيع» («We are not for sale») for which he invites Amami to appear in the prologue. His message is clearly addressed to presidential candidate Slim Riahi whose campaign targets the youth of working-class neighborhoods and the supporters of the soccer team Club Africain (of which Riahi himself is the owner).

In the heat of summer, he releases two hits, «اكرام الميت» and «حفتريش» («Homage to a dead man» and «Low-life»), and two free-style pieces, «هزّوه» and «مجنون» («Get rid of him» and «Crazy»), again focusing on the police and arbitrary arrests of city youth. With a mix of candor and crude language, the expression—at times in the same breath—of love and hate, joy and pain, he describes his discontentment and sense of having been abandoned by his country. In these songs, Klay BBJ is fearless: he calls for the removal of President Béji Caid Essebsi and bashes pseudo-artists-turned-pawns of electoral campaigns, namely Kafon.

Pressure, intimidation, and repression

In spite of censorship by mainstream media, the impassioned rap of Klay BBJ has stirred the enthusiasm of youth far beyond working-class neighborhoods and provoked the animosity of law enforcement officials. Upon the release of «وقتاش» («When?») in January 2012, the Union of Customs Agents filed a complaint against Klay BBJ and Hamzaoui Med Amine. His mother claims that while the rapper was performing in Morocco in February 2013, two men came to her home in the hopes that she might convince her son to stop writing political songs.

On 22 August 2013, Klay BBJ and Weld El 15 (Aladine Yacoubi)-the latter fresh out of prison—are pulled off stage and beat up in the dressing rooms of the International Festival at Hammamet by agents in uniform who judge their lyrics offensive to Interior Ministry officials. On August 30, the two rappers are sentenced to prison: one year for insulting officials, three months for violation of public decency, and six months for slander. Not having been informed of the trial date, the two rappers are successful in getting the sentence overturned. After a new trial, they are condemned to six months in prison, and once again acquitted upon appeal.

On the fourth anniversary of the revolution, Klay BBJ alone is unauthorized to appear on stage amongst a group of rappers. «In May 2015, I tried to organize a Klay BBJ concert in Kairouan. Law enforcement officials refused to ensure the security of any event where Klay BBJ was present,» recalls Imed Ben Khoud, an alternative show promoter.

In May 2015, the Ministry of the Interior decides to close the Whatever Saloon definitively and without warning. In an interview with Nawaat, the café’s owner Wael Mhamdi points out the coincidence between the announcement of a Klay BBJ concert and the decision to close the cultural space:

We are aware of the problems that police still have with Tunisian rap and especially with Klay BBJ. Their threat to prohibit all of his concerts in Tunisia still resonates.

Behind bars in Mornaguia in October 2013, Klay BBJ addresses a letter to his audience, friends, and family in which he claims his innocence:

I haven’t committed any crime. I find myself in prison for having defended the disadvantaged, city youth, and freedom of expression which they want to suppress.

In this report filmed in January 2015 by two documentarians—Marisa Holmes (United States) and Bruno Giuliani (Italy), the rapper presciently describes his rapport with «el 7akem,» the authorities.