A rai and chaabi artist. An eccentric rock-n-roll rebel. A populist punk star. A house-electro-dance music legend. This is how Rachid Taha, an Algerian-French musician, has been described over the years. But, as his fans know, he was not just any of those things. While rai and chaabi were the foundations of his music, he masterfully blended multiple genres, creating some of the most unique melodic fusions that defied categorization and brimmed with poignant political and social commentary. He was perhaps one of the most significant, albeit not fully recognized, Arab-European singers of our time.
It is hard to talk about Rachid Taha in the past tense because his creative genius was making waves not so long ago. His untimely death a week before his 60th birthday in September 2018 from a heart attack left the music world poorer, but his musical legacy lives on. And we could learn a lot from it.
In a world increasingly dominated by identity politics, populist chauvinism, racism, anti-immigrant hysteria, and separating people with walls, his music could not be more relevant to our times.
In a world increasingly dominated by identity politics, populist chauvinism, racism, anti-immigrant hysteria, and separating people with walls, his music could not be more relevant to our times. His was a powerful voice that roared against injustice everywhere over the past three decades.
Born on September 18, 1958, in rai’s birth place, Oran, Algeria, Taha moved to France with his family when he was 10 years old. With his father stuck in menial jobs and his own first job in a heating plant, he was bitter about working conditions and the hard life of immigrants, themes which were reflected in early songs with his first band in Lyon, France. He made a political statement by naming the band Carte de Séjour, or “residency permit” in French, in 1981. The band sang angry political songs in Arabic in the suburbs of Lyon. Its rendition of Charles Trenet’s patriotic Douce France (Sweet France), redone in new wave and punk and delivered in the Arabic language and with Arabic instruments, earned them the notoriety by being banned on French radio because of its bitter irony and offensiveness to the culturally-sensitive French.
But for Carte de Séjour, it was a protest against France’s ill-treatment of its immigrant underclass. Taha and his band struggled to break through in France not only because it was hard for a new band to achieve commercial success, but also because it was doubly difficult for an Arab artist in France to sell albums at that time. He once quipped that immigrants do not seek to become singers—an occupation of an already well-off folk—but they aspire to be doctors and engineers. Ultimately, Taha carved his own unique musical niche as a singer.
His 1995 Olé, Olé album cover portrayed Taha with blond hair and blue eyes to accentuate prejudice against Arabs and “homophobia of North African culture.”
After the breakup of Carte de Séjour in 1989, his solo career, in constant partnership with British producer and guitarist Steve Hillage, did not veer far from a scandal. His 1995 Olé, Olé album cover portrayed Taha with blond hair and blue eyes to accentuate prejudice against Arabs and “homophobia of North African culture.” His subsequent albums became stronger and bolder in sound, meaning, and controversy. There is a thunderous melee of rai, chaabi, rock, punk, pop, and techno in Made in Medina, Tékitoi, and Zoom. There are less aggressive and more traditional Arabic ballads, redone in Taha-esque fusion style, which pay homage to his North African roots in Diwan and Diwan 2.
Taha’s grungy music emphasized his unapologetic embrace of his identity, heritage, political beliefs, and values – Algerian, Arab, immigrant with uncompromising sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and contempt for Arab dictators and Western racist attitudes. He cried out against racism in Voilà, Voilà, against Arab tyrannical regimes and oppression in Dima and Safi, against forced marriage in Jamila, against conflict and broken understanding between Arab and Western worlds in Tékitoi, against Arabs clinging to the past and holding on to old grievances in Lli Fat Mat, and against war, division, and chaos in Barra Barra.
His H’asbu-Hum pulled no punches by going on an open rage against “liars, thieves, humiliators, killers, oppressors, traitors, the envious, the rotters, the diggers, propagandists, destroyers, slavers, the lazy,” and imploring his followers, “Get rid of them! Ask them for an explanation!” As bigotry, racism, intolerance, and anti-immigrant violence and policies have become acceptable norms in many countries today, politically charged multilingual musical fusions that put a mirror to a society’s face and make no apologies to cultural appropriation critics are perhaps exactly what we are lacking at the moment.
Although he defined his musical life with edgy experimental sounds, provocative polyglot lyrics, and non-conformism, Taha stayed true to his Algerian roots. It is easy to feel that in his music, the basis of which was rai, but always mixed with many other musical genres. While he was called French-Algerian, Taha was always more Algerian than French. As he wrote in his autobiography: “Algérien pour toujours, et Français tous les jours,” which means in French “Algerian forever, and French every day.” Loneliness and longing for his home country come through in one of the most beautiful renditions of Algerian Dahmane El Harrachi’s émigré chaabi ballad Ya Rayah, which he released in 1997.
Taha’s music was largely underappreciated both in the West and the Arab world. While his music received a Victoires de la Musique award in 2015 – a French version of the Grammy Awards – he was not mainstream in the West because his music, paradoxically, was niche given the mix of Arabic, French, English, and sometimes Berber lyrics and musical genres that were perhaps not so easily understood in the Western musical marketplace. By his own account, he rarely performed in Arab countries because Arab governments “don’t like large gatherings that they can’t control.” They would most likely not have appreciated his songs openly criticizing them either.
His politically incorrect, blunt, and honest lyrics in French and Arabic, combined with his scruffy aggressive voice, rattled many French and Arabs alike. But he was not bothered by not fitting in with either of them. Taha derived a particular joy from being a provocateur and equal opportunity offender of musical and political traditionalism of French and Arab cultures and singing anything he wanted in whatever form and language he wanted.
That level of freedom of creativity, intellectual honesty, and fiery irreverence to old-fashioned norms, combined with his pioneering musical style, is what this author will acutely miss.
Feature image by Erinc Salor via Flikr.