«Tunis, prison» read black letters against white walls, the first line of a song by Tunisian rap group Empire. The lyrics have been transcribed in French and Tunisian Arabic at the entrance of “Rhyme is no crime” a series of photographs by photo-journalist Emeric Fohlen depicting Tunisia’s hip hop culture.

On Friday, February 26, the newly-renovated Institut Francais in Tunis kept its doors open late into the evening to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, on view until March 26. At 6pm, visitors trickled into the gallery, a bright space between the building’s main entrance and multi-media library. A man crouched facing an outer wall of the exhibit was carefully pressing into place the last letters of the French translation as the first visitors arrived.

Crime, drama, one kilo one year…
The system, uneasy, senses the unrest…
Still more gas, reinforcements…the technique of saturated lists…
Rebel, hip hop, a censored culture…“Karaka” by Empire

Inside, a technicolor glimpse into “a censored culture,” Tunisia’s hip hop movement. Portraits of young artists in motion feature rappers, b-boys, Djs, a (female) tattoo artist, faces of performers and crowds illuminated by the green-red-purple-blue hues of stage lighting. Such images, which invite the viewer a look behind-the-scenes, are interspersed with familiar street scenes and details of day-to-day life. Walking through the exhibit, denizens of Tunis spot the city’s landmarks: the yellow-bodied, blue-lined taxi jamaa’i [collective taxi] passing in front of Al Fateh mosque; Bab Souika’s Dar Etthaqafa, the environs of the Whatever Saloon cultural café; the metro line connecting downtown to Banlieue Sud; the wind-eroded wall and golden-colored rocks on the beach of La Goulette (Halq el Wadi).

« I love hip hop…and there is an effervescent movement here… »

Shortly after the exposition’s opening event, we sit with Fohlen in a bustling café facing the Institut Francais. “I love hip hop,” he begins, “…and there is an effervescent movement here.” Fohlen started working on the project two and a half years ago during his first visit to Tunis. «I discovered in looking at the walls that there was a hip hop culture here, relatively young and new but which expressed itself without boundaries…» Eager to connect with the youth driving the movement, Fohlen immersed himself in the world of graffers, rappers, Dj’s, beat-makers, photographers and break-dancers among others. Through his own work, the Paris native has attempted to showcase the work of these artists and what he characterizes as an “effervescent movement” which lacks the industry to sustain its momentum and enable youth to continue creating, producing, and growing their skills.

Intended for the Tunisian public, the exposition captures the realities and highlights the successes of the country’s hip hop movement. Fohlen has accompanied artists in all phases of creation, production and performance, but has also spent hours with the same individuals sitting in cafés and walking the streets downtown, documenting “daily life, not only concerts but life in the street, the contrasts that exist between, for example, the way that rappers dress and the way that Tunisians dress, police pressures, the lack of money, the inexistence of a hip hop industry…”

Rhyme is no crime, and yet many artists have been in and out of prison in time that Fohlen has been in the country. The injustice and socio-economic disparities which rappers denounce are at once a source of artistic inspiration and impediment to artistic expression. Indeed, the absence of legal protections, economic resources, and adequate infrastructure remain tremendous obstacles for hip hop artists who are hard pressed to make any money or even secure the means for their art in Tunisia.

Fohlen notes the necessity of a legal framework that serves to support (rather than criminalize) hip hop through, for instance, the provision of spaces for exchange and performance: “Youth centers and cultural cafés represent the infrastructure to welcome artists and to enable the evolution and progression of the movement. » He has observed the vital role of these establishments in and outside of the capital, in places like Bizerte, Sousse, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, where he has attended competitions and workshops that draw talented artists from all over the country and beyond.

Back in the gallery, Fohlen points to the photograph of a young man in neon green headphones and a dark purple sweatshirt. His back to the viewer as he gazes out over the sea from behind a weathered wall rimming the beach, the young man evokes a longing to cross the expanse between shore and horizon. For Fohlen, the image reflects the uncertain future of Tunisia’s emerging hip hop movement, dynamic and vibrant but also restrained by the very limitations—social, economic, legal—which are inspiration for its beats, lyrics, and rhymes.