Defenders of women’s and children’s rights. Promoters of democracy in Africa. The voice of minorities. Advocates for the poorest and weakest… Who are they? Activists? NGO members? No. They’re rappers.
They’re all aged about thirty. Izak, Hamada, Jiddou and “DJ” Lomrabett call themselves the “Children of the Land” or “Ewlad Leblad” in Mauritanian Arabic. Mauritania, their country, which they love dearly and were forced to leave after receiving numerous threats from the current regime. “Ewlad Leblad is much more than a group of rappers” says Jiddou, “It’s a youth movement where the singers are the leaders.”
Ewlad Leblad’s barely hidden hope is to bring together all Mauritanians, going beyond and overcoming ethnic differences. Izak, the group’s leader, insists: “Ewlad Leblad represents all of Mauritania, all ethnic groups. We sing in Arabic, Wolof, Peul and Soninké. We want to display a Mauritanian ideal while showing at the same time that modernity and rap are not in conflict with customs in any way. We are proud of our culture and we want to show it.”
The singers want to make their presence felt in the political debate in Mauritania, invite their fellow citizens to focus on the problems that are eroding and crippling the country: corruption, impunity, poverty, slavery, etc. “The whole family can listen to our music: children, parents and grand-parents because we don’t use offensive words.” We sing the respect imposed by Islam,” says Jiddou.
Very far removed from “bling-bling” rap, Ewlad Leblad’s singers dress in traditional clothes: “Don’t count on us to throw money into the street from a limousine.” First of all, we have a country to change. We don’t want any marketing. We’re focused on slavery, injustice and unemployment.”
Fans of Method Man, son of a police officer and a serviceman respectively, the two singers, Izak and Hamada, launch into rap out of a love of prose and song. Much later, at the request of their fans, they realise that they have another role to play: “Our fans talked to us about their problems, even military personnel and police officers in precarious situations asked us to tell their stories.”
The more the group’s popularity and influence increases, the more the Mauritanian regime attempts to manipulate it and intensifies its threats. Thus, in 2013, although the group had been selected, along with two other Mauritanian artists, to participate in the “Jeux de la Francophonie” in Nice, the rappers were unable to leave from Nouakchott because the Ministry of Culture refused to cover their costs.
Above all, as from 2014, the entourage of Mauritania’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, well aware of Ewlad Leblad’s ever growing popular support, asks the rappers to sing songs glorifying him. The group’s response: “Gueyeme” or “go away” in Arabic, a spiced-up number that asks for the departure of the president who seized power by force. Already, in 2008, they opposed the coup d’état with the song “Nakna Dhidh Lenkhilab” (“We are against the putsch”) and in 2013 with the title “Khabar Ajel,” which denounced fraud at polling stations during the legislative elections of November 2013.
At the end of 2014, the group is summoned by the Mauritanian president’s security advisor and the president’s son. The two men threaten the group: either they sing for the president or they end up in prison. Outright refusal from the artists. A few days later, at the Chinguiti festival in Mauritania, the advisor asks them to apologise publicly during the concert, which the president will attend. Once on stage, they obviously do not apologise. “We didn’t sing songs criticising the regime that time because we were bound by a performance contract with the organisers. However, we did say “all of you who love Mauritania, raise your hand!” Everybody raised their hand except the president! He was furious because we didn’t apologise.” says Izak.
But the regime’s threats are carried out. Its henchmen raid the rappers’ home. Only Hamada is there at the time. Accused in a more than improbable case involving sexual assault and possession of drugs, he is charged and remanded in custody. The investigating judge wants to release him but the prosecuting authorities appeal. The investigating judge is dismissed. The authorities again ask Izak, still free, to write and record a song glorifying the president. Faced with the pressure and the distress of Hamada’s loved ones, he finally accepts. Hamada, about to be jailed with common-law prisoners in Nouakchott prison, calls Izak: “When he arrived at the prison gates, the inmates started singing our songs. They were demonstrating to prevent him being locked up with them. The police officer accompanying Hamada allowed him to call me. He said “Listen Izak, these are our fans! Don’t accept their conditions.”
Izak tries to play for time. He informs the authorities that he can not record his new song without Hamada. The authorities accept and are prepared to set up an ad hoc studio in the prison. On the day scheduled for the recording session, Izak finally flees to Dakar, Senegal, where he records a new title with the committed Senegalese rap group Y’en a Marre: “Libérez Hamada.”
Finally, in the face of international pressure, Hamada is released on bail. He joins Izak and the other members of the group in Dakar, where they resume the struggle, particularly with “Vabraka,” a song in which they denounce the corruption of the clique in power and the “Ghanagate” affair, which targets the president in a counterfeit banknote trafficking operation:
The country is governed by gangs, bringing together all the hypocrites who apply the law of the jungle there while the citizens are tired, thirsty and feeling the pain.
Do you really think you can continue to manipulate people like children?
The people have understood your lies, your ways… They will rise up against you, they will oust you.
The newspaper Le Monde has denounced you; money laundering is your job.
We, Ewlad Leblad, true Mauritanians, don’t come out of the blue like you.
You imprison us, you deport us and you accuse us of your crimes. Criminality and lies are your works.
Following release of this new song on 28 February 2016, Izak escapes an assassination attempt. His home in Dakar is visited by armed men speaking Mauritanian and showing a photograph of the singer to a person who happened to be there at the time. The singer was not at home but filed a complaint immediately.
These threats do not discourage Ewlad Leblad at all. The remote battle against the kleptocratic regime continues with the songs “Democracy in Africa” and “Président des pauvres.” In this last song, the rappers again accuse Aziz: “You’re nothing but a fake president, we know all your tricks now: don’t meddle with the constitution.”
Today, the children of the land “cultivate” hope, a hope that it will be possible to return to a Mauritania liberated from a clan-based, corrupt regime, as Jiddou says: “We love our country, its desert, its cows and its sheep but we need change, we need justice, we need good living conditions. Too many of our qualified young people have no jobs. That hurts us a lot.”
The “Fondation pour l’Egalité des Chances en Afrique,” (Foundation for Equal Opportunities in Africa), a non-profit foundation with its head office in Brussels for which “power must not be a shortcut to enrichment,” covers legal defence costs for the four rappers and the expenses incurred during their stays abroad.