Raï Music: A Powerful Tool of Social Protest in North Africa

Raï music influenced generations of North Africans from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s. A mixture of tradition and modernity, Raï has both mirrored and inspired social movements in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Raï Music A Powerful Tool of Social Protest in North Africa
Photo credit: Magharebia via Flickr

Raï, a genre of Algerian folk music that emerged in the 1920s, has continuously reinvented itself with the introduction of new instruments and new tonalities. Inspired by the L’Alwi style that is common in Morocco, Algeria, and to a certain extent, Tunisia, it developed as a rival to Malhoun, a style of music also common in the three countries. The government and Algerian elites valued the technical style of Malhoun because it incorporated classical Arabic poetry. In contrast, Raï is sung in the Algerian dialect and is a mix of Malhoun, improvisation, and interactions with the audience, similar to “call and response” in some forms of Western music. The word “raï”  means opinion, ideas, or “one’s way of doing things.”

Originally sung throughout the local markets by shepherds in cities like Sidi Belabbès, Hammam Bouhadjar, and Oran, Raï became popular among the poor and working class, who adopted it as their own, with lyrics frequently addressing social issues.

Hammam Bouhadjar, one of the major seats of French colonization in northwestern Algeria, experienced rapid industrialization, fragmentation of its rural populations, and urbanization. As the city became more urban, two distinct changes occurred: the consumption of alcohol became more prevalent, and prostitutes and dancers became common at cabarets, taverns, and brothels. Raï became regarded as “dirty” or unsavory music—the music of moral corruption and decadence.

Ironically, perhaps this explains why Raï became increasingly important in both Algeria and other parts of North Africa as the music of the marginalized and the downtrodden.  The movement that began in the 1920s and became known as “extreme social realism” demanded social change, freedom, and acceptance in society. Thus, Raï developed as an underground musical style.  

After the end of the first World War, Algerians experienced extreme poverty and misery, and suffered the trauma and deaths of a war that was “not theirs to begin with.” Algerian youth wanted to live freely, forget, and have fun; Raï seemingly offered an opportunity to do just that. The lyrics of the songs reflected the societal developments and social issues of the day such as drinking, typhus, and the rise of black markets. They talked explicitly about love and sexual intercourse, sometimes incorporating resistance and nationalist messages within racy songs. 1950s libertine artist Kelthoum El Banini’s song, “El Banini Gher Houa,” is a prime example.

The rhythms of Raï are composed of dynamic beats that make people want to dance; the discernible optimism of the rhythm provides a counterpoint to the sometimes despairing lyrics. Although the music began to incorporate more modern instruments, the core message stayed the same. The musicians continued to sing about taboos, freedom from social mores, and social issues, something that was unusual and even revolutionary in society at the time.

Raï encountered violent resistance from both the state and the Islamic fundamentalists in the 1970s under Houari Boumediene’s regime. The regime banned the media from playing Raï, and women were virtually banned from taverns and cabarets in an attempt to “kill” Raï music. Despite the efforts of the government, it became the music of weddings, the streets, and, above all, the music of the young people who identified with it. Although the women singers at the cabarets were replaced by teenage boys whose voices were still gentle and innocent, the songs kept their “indecent” lyrics. Evolving as it did in a transitioning, unstable, and fragmented country, Raï became a peaceful tool of protest.

Artists in Algeria were handicapped by an inability to produce Raï commercially due to a lack of monetary resources.  By 1975, however, Raï was being produced for the first time in Morocco, in Oujda and Casablanca specifically, and was spreading elsewhere in North Africa to countries with similar political and socio-economic conditions.

Due to their geographic proximity and cultural, linguistic, and religious similarities, Moroccan and Tunisian audiences fully embraced Raï in the 1980s, just as a new generation of Raï musicians started to incorporate new rhythms and instruments from other genres of music such as Latin American salsa, rock music, and jazz. The addition of violins, bass guitar, trumpets, saxophones, synthesizers, and rhythm guitar, among others instruments, brought immediate success.

Just as the iconic band Nass El Ghiwan, and more traditional Moroccan and Tunisian musical styles had done in the past, Raï music’s exploration of social issues relied on symbolism and metaphor. Lyrics also incorporated religious themes. Raï became not only a tool of protest and self-expression but also a means of expressing one’s identity.

The lyrics of Raï music approached the topics of love and relationships in a “Maghrebi” style. In other words, what appeared on the surface to be love songs incorporated themes about social issues such as familial and societal pressure to conform, generational conflicts, the inability to afford getting married, the frustration of youth, alcoholism, sexual taboos, sexism, and migration.

At the height of the genre’s popularity, young North Africans were still immersed in the remnants of colonialism and heavy-handed political authoritarianism. The majority were traumatized and overwhelmed by the violence and injustice of their governments and socio-economic conditions. Far from having a political agenda, many of them in the mid-1980s simply wanted to enjoy being young, falling in love, having sexual freedom, drinking, and dancing. The lyrics of Raï resonated with them, so it is not surprising that Raï became increasingly popular among North African youth.

Despite the fact that the songs explicitly address “shameful” or taboo or haram (forbidden by Islam) topics, references to God in the songs were common. Inserting a religious component served to temper the messages and assure the listener that “living one’s youth” did not make one a non-believer or a bad person. Suggestions of sex would, for example, be followed by phrases such as “God is protecting us,” or “this is with the blessing of God.” Such contrasts in the statements represented a form of relief for young people, who were torn between their instincts and desires and the social and religious norms they were expected to live up to.

In the 1980s, North African societies were rocked by unrest and protest. 1981 and 1984, for instance, gave way to violent riots and street protests in Morocco. The protests coincided with the increasing popularity of Raï, and although no study has attempted to draw a link between these two events, Raï might have played a role in the rise of these protests. Unlike certain underground musical trends of the time, including groups like Nas El Ghiwan, Raï represented a more direct and active form of resistance and protest.

While the music at the time described and denounced the state of society, musicians remained passive in their speech, given the political turmoil in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Raï, on the other hand, rejected complacency and broadcast a global message: “this is how we are, this is how we live, and this is what we want.” In essence, this form of art allowed the youth of the Maghreb countries to construct and assert a new identity that would, in later years, lead to social conflicts and repression, especially in Algeria.

Not only was the murder of Algerian musician Cheb Hasni, one of the most revered icons of “Raï Love,” one of the casualties of this repression, but most Raï artists emigrated out of Algeria, primarily to France. Raï continued to evolve after most of the artists fled. Musicians adapted to new trends, such as incorporating more French in the lyrics, and new genres, like “waï-waï,” emerged.

Maghrebi artists are persistent, however, and many are still active participants in their brand of musical protest. Modern North African musicians, such as the groups Labess in Algeria, Hoba Hoba Spirit in Morocco, or Barbaroots in Tunisia, use the “fusion” of various genres of music such as rock, reggae, and Gnawa, to develop their own sounds and rhythms, with songs that advocate social, economic, and political change.

Today, Raï is still common in North Africa, but it is no longer actively suppressed by the regimes. In many respects, the commitment of these budding genres and musical styles to social activism is reminiscent of Raï. However, certain factors have detracted from the artists’ visibility and impact. A lack of means coupled with new challenges facing the music industry, such as the massive increase of genres, artists, and competition from Western musical styles, now makes it harder for these musicians to reach North African audiences.

The governments in the Maghreb have realized the cultural importance of music in their societies and are taking steps to improve the music industry. Morocco, for example, has increased the number of music festivals and is now working on promoting public-private partnerships to enhance the cultural and creative landscape by increasing funding and providing more opportunities and visibility to Moroccan artists.

If the North African music industry supports and promotes new music with characteristics similar to Raï, especially in the post-Arab Spring era, music may once again function as a powerful tool of peaceful social change in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.