Amazigh singer, poet, thinker, and mandole player, Matoub Lounes, a prominent advocate of the Berber cause who fought for human rights and secularism in Algeria throughout his life, was assassinated in Taourirt Moussa in Kabylie, Algeria, on June 25, 1998. Although Matoub was reviled by many Algerians for his secular political and atheistic views and his militant advocacy of Berber/Amazigh rights, including the recognition of Tamazight (Berber) as a national and official language of Algeria, he was revered by most in the Kabyle community.
His assassination caused an outbreak of violent riots in Kabylie. Berber Algerians still accuse the Algerian government of killing Matoub. However, Algerian officials accused Islamist terrorists of the crime.
Although the circumstances of his death remain unclear, Matoub’s impact across North Africa has been profound.
Matoub was born on January 24, 1956, in the village of Taourirt Moussa in Algerian Kabylie. He built his first guitar at the age of nine from an empty oil can and composed his first original songs as a teenager. Armed confrontations between Kabyles and government forces in 1963–1964 awakened his political identity at a very tender age causing him to skip school as a youngster. By age 19, he abandoned formal education and left for France in search of work.
He began his singing career under the watchful eye of singer Idir, another Algerian ex pat living in Paris. Matoub recorded his first album Ay Izem (The Lion) in 1978, which was so successful it catapulted him into fame. He went on to record 36 albums and songs for other artists. He gave his first major concert in April 1980, at the time of the “Berber Spring” protest movement in Kabylie.
Matoub’s music mixes Algerian Andalusian Chaabi (popular) orchestration with politicized Berber (Tamazight) lyrics. It covers an eclectic spectrum of topics including the Berber cause, democracy, freedom, religion, Islamism, love, exile, memory, history, peace, and human rights. Unlike the Amazigh poet/musicians who had preceded him, Matoub was direct, even confrontational.
He was forthright in his songs, and plain-spoken—the only singer in all of North Africa who criticized a government openly and fearlessly.
Matoub criticized an Algerian president right at the beginning of his career. He was forthright in his songs, and plain-spoken—the only singer in all of North Africa who criticized a government openly and fearlessly.
Although he was banned from both Algerian radio and television, Matoub became and remains immensely popular. No one could unite people the way Matoub did until his death. Yes, despite the support of his people, his fight for Algerian civil liberties was not without pain.
Assassination and The Fight for Civil Liberties
During the riots in October 1988, Matoub was shot five times by a policeman and left for dead. Hospitalized for two years, he underwent 17 surgeries. His 1989 album, L’Ironie du Sort (The Irony of Destiny), describes his long convalescence.
During the Algerian civil war, which began in 1992, the Islamist Armed Islamic Group (GIA) added Matoub’s name to a hitlist of artists and intellectuals. On September 25, 1994, he was abducted, held for two weeks in a GIA mountain stronghold, and then condemned to death. But his supporters staged such a massive public demonstration, threatening “total war” on the Islamists, that he was released.
On June 25, 1998, Matoub was driving along a mountainous road in eastern Algeria in midday when his car was stopped at a roadblock. Masked gunmen emerged and fired on the car, killing Matoub and wounding his wife, Nadia, and two sisters-in-law.
News of Matoub’s murder spread rapidly throughout Kabylie, and thousands of angry mourners gathered at the hospital where his body was taken. The crowd shouted “Pouvoir, Assassin” (“Government, Assassins“). Young demonstrators clashed with riot police and attacked government property during a week of violent riots.
On June 28, 1998, tens of thousands of people attended his funeral at his family home in his native village. Matoub was buried between a fig tree and a cherry tree outside the house he was born in. His family played a scathing parody of the Algerian national anthem, which came from Matoub’s final album Lettre Ouverte Aux… (“Open Letter To…”), that was released after his death.
Matoub had been an outspoken critic of a law eradicating all languages other than Arabic from the public realm. His assassination came just a week before it went into effect.
On June 30, 1998, the Islamist GIA claimed responsibility for the assassination. Thirteen years later, on July 18, 2011, Malik Madjnoun and Abdelhakim Chenoui, were tried and convicted of killing Matoub, and sentenced to 12 years in jail, though Matoub’s family and others continue to believe they were innocent. The truth remains murky.
A Legacy of Independent Thought
Matoub’s assassination came after a decade-long campaign of harassment by the Algerian authorities. The murder precipitated a groundswell of solidarity, unity, and even more militant activism in Kabylie.
On the first anniversary of his death, the people of Kabylie’s capital Tizi-Ouzou went on strike; thousands of Kabyles protested in the streets. The activists blamed the government for Matoub’s death, rejecting its claim that Islamists were responsible.
Every year since his death, conferences, music parties, and special events have been held in North African cities and villages, as well as in Canada, the United States, and Europe, to commemorate him.
Matoub’s was a free voice, in a country where, more than ever, free-thinking intellectuals are subject to persecution and harassment.
Today, Matoub is an icon of the movement for civil liberties in Tamazgha (North Africa), in Europe and in many countries where Berbers live. His legacy serves as a beacon for intellectuals, activists, and people all over the world to challenge prejudice and intolerant nationalism. Matoub was an Amazigh/Berber, in a country where Imazighen (Berbers) have long faced racism, hatred, and marginalization. As an advocate of peace and secularism, he was reviled by fake nationalists and extremist groups. Matoub’s was a free voice, in a country where, more than ever, free-thinking intellectuals are subject to persecution and harassment.
After his death, Matoub’s family and friends established a foundation in his name that has since expanded his work in Kabylie, Algeria, striving for civil liberties, for the rights of Imazighen, through peaceful demonstrations and activism. The foundation also continues to shed light on the circumstances of his assassination and to promote the values he championed. Many streets and squares in France have been named after Matoub, in Paris, Grenoble, and Lyon.
2019 marks the 21st anniversary of the assassination not just of Matoub but of many voices of freedom, including 127 young Kabyles killed by the Algerian army during the 2001 Black Berber Spring. These crimes, which some call genocide, have sparked a number of protest movements in Kabylie. From the autonomy movement and Larouch coordination to the independence movement led by the great artist and militant, Ferhat Mhenni.
On June 25, Matoub’s intellectual and political legacy is honored and should remind Amazigh activists to take stock of the movement for civil rights and tolerance for which his assassination was a catalyst and to continue demanding the truth about Matoub’s assassins.
Matoub’s Artistic Legacy
Many artists have been inspired by Matoub’s vision for a free North Africa, free of intolerance and terrorism.
Lounes Matoub is one of the rare Kabyle and Berber singers who gave great importance to Amazigh culture through his songs. If you look at his albums,” Bouyacoub says, “he’s the only one who fought through his songs both the government and the Islamists, and anyone else who tried to impinge upon the dignity of the Amazigh people.
Matoub was the only one who fought through his songs both the government and the Islamists, and anyone else who tried to impinge upon the dignity of the Amazigh people.
Kamel Bouyacoub, known affectionately as the “little Matoub,” continues Lounes’ legacy, singing his songs around the world. According to him, “Lounes Matoub is one of the rare Kabyle and Berber singers who gave great importance to Amazigh culture through his songs. If you look at his albums,” Bouyacoub says, “he’s the only one who fought through his songs both the government and the Islamists, and anyone else who tried to impinge upon the dignity of the Amazigh people.”
Moroccan singer M’barek Oulaarbi (nicknamed Nba) was inspired not only by Matoub, but also Idir, Oulahlou, and Mallal. Nba inherited the courage and candor Matoub was known for in criticizing the government and appealing for global change in North Africa. Nba too died in suspicious circumstances. But many other young artists are following these pioneers of Amazigh rights, imitating both Matoub and Nba, and keeping the battle alive generation after generation.
In the words of his close friend, Tayeb Abdelli, “It is an understatement to say that Lounes Matoub was a free spirit…. His revolutionary fiber, against tyranny, injustice, contempt, and mostly the falsification of the history of North Africa, made him the man who shook an Algerian political system based on an institutionalized obscurantism that reduced the citizen to a zombie because of a doctrine of generalized fatalism.”