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How Rai Music Became a Symbol of Algerian Liberation

from oran to the world

The origin of Rai music can be traced to Oran, with roots strongly associated with the local culture of the street life in the northwestern Algerian city. A form of  folk music that dates back to the 1930’s, the word “rai” means that an opinion is being expressed, reflecting the desire for freedom of speech and expression that have been subjected to extreme censorship by non-democratic government Arab leaders.

The genre uses local dialects of Algerian, but also incorporates Spanish, French, and Arabic. While it incorporates Western instrumentals in the music, some of the most popular instruments used in this genre are “the Rabab,” the precursor to the violin which dates back to 5000 BC Iran, “the Derbuka,” a traditional Arabic drum that was originally made of fish skin and clay, but is now made with sheepskin, and “the Qarqaba,” an instrument used to create dance beats.

In the early 1900’s Rai was performed and sang by men who were usually elders and had respected social stature in the city of Oran. They were referred to as Cheikhs, and they performed sentimental ballads, with drumming, flutes, and hand-clapping following a percussive beat.

In post-revolutionary Algeria, artists sought to modernize Rai by making it more danceable, and replacing some of the traditional instruments with more Western ones such as guitars, keyboards, and synthesizers. The length of songs was drastically shortened, and the dialect transformed from classical Arabic poetry to Algerian darija. These newer generations called themselves “Cheb” for male, and “Cheba” for female, which means youth. This allowed them to distinguish themselves from the previous generation of Rai artists. During the 80’s Rai emerged as one of the most prominent musical representatives of pop culture.

Disco Maghreb is a legendary record label and music shop in Oran founded in the 1980s. It played a key role in popularizing Rai music, and remains an iconic symbol of Algerian musical heritage.

However, things quickly took a dark turn. During the 1990’s, Algeria was under a strict Islamist regime and the government attempted to ban the music form due to controversial topics such as alcohol and sexual affairs, which are forbidden in Islam. In the eyes of the conservative forces, Rai music was seen as promoting immoral values against Islam, such as love, relationships, alcohol, and affairs, though many of the Algerian youth saw it as a liberating force. As a result, many artists lost access to their passports so that they could not produce or distribute their music throughout the country or internationally and their tapes were not sold anywhere. Many of them also received death threats from extremist Islamist fundamentalists and were exiled.

One of the exiled Rai artists was the beloved late Cheb Hasni. He was offered to return to Algeria for a performance in 1994 and he accepted, unaware of the fate that awaited him. On Sept. 29 1994, he was the first Rai artist to be murdered outside his parent’s home– because he allowed females to kiss him on the cheek during his televised concert. His funeral was among the largest ever seen, with over 150,000 mourners in attendance. Not even a year later, two other popular Rai artists were also assassinated by extremist groups. Due to rising tensions in Algeria between the conflicting Islamist Groups and musicians, many Rai artists fled to Europe, more specifically France, to escape this government restriction and political conflict as a means to sustain the music form’s existence.

In its new adopted form, Rai represents an alternative form of liberation and protest. In their lyrics, Rai artists reject older religious ideals, insist on the freedom of speech, and present resentment that pleasure is associated with sin. The genre appeals to diverse social groups, and that is what allows it to be so popular outside of Algeria. Many people can relate to the political and sexual messages of the songs; it promotes cultural values that address certain taboos found throughout the Middle East and other Arab countries, as well as addresses topics of immigration, assimilation, modernization, and criticism of the state. However in Europe, Rai artists were able to express their sentiments against the harsh life in their towns and villages without any censorship and fear of persecution. They were also exposed to larger audiences, better technology that they lacked in Algeria— there was only one recording studio in the city of Oran—and new styles of music that contributed to the growing popularity of the musical form.

Today, Rai music has become an important element in the identity construction of Algerian immigrants. One of the more popular theories of identity is Stuart Hall’s theory, where he argues that identity is achieved through discourse. This means that identity and culture requires more than a fixed set of criteria. It is fluid, and is gained through several dynamics such as interaction with “the other.”  The result of this is often a hybrid culture/identity.

The Algerian immigrants living in France in particular are often at a state of conflict with their identity. They are unsure of whether they relate more to their North African-Arab culture or with their new French culture. More importantly, they are afraid to lose their sense of identity and assimilate into a Western one. Rai artists often address these issues in their music, and it relates to both the North African immigrants in France as well as the Arab population that is still residing in North Africa. Rai music celebrates intercultural values without abandoning the Arabic heritage. A lot of Rai artists have even produced trilingual albums in which they have songs in English, French, and Arabic. Rai does a perfect job in blending the local and the global inclusively in one genre allowing it to be a growing world music phenomenon— In 2000, British musician Sting joined forces with Algerian crooner Cheb Mami to release Desert Rose, which peaked at No. 2 in Canada, No. 3 in Switzerland, and No. 4 in Italy; Cheb Khaled, one of the most beloved Rai singers of all time,  has sold over 80.5 million albums worldwide, making him one of the bestselling Arabic singers in history; and in 2022, DJ Snake paid homage to his native Algeria with Disco Maghreb, a nostalgic Rai-infused track. That same year, UNESCO listed Rai music as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

However, It is misleading to say that Rai was fully embraced globally, especially in France. Artists, as well as other North African immigrants began to notice that they were unwelcome by some factions in the country that colonized them, and began to experience extreme prejudice and harsh discrimination by The National Front (FN), which is France’s right-wing party. The FN spread ideologies of fear and hatred towards Muslim immigration, and this particular stance led to the idea that Islam is a religious threat to the Christian identity of the West. These harsh realities inside both France and Algeria reinforced Rai artists to direct their lyrics to address social and political tensions, demanding freedom and reforms.

Former French president Jacques Chirac, leader of the right-wing Rally for the Republic, expressed his sympathy for “the decent French working people being driven understandably crazy by the noise and smell of foreigners”– Noise and smell, referring to the Rai music and cuisine of the immigrants, which were the two most important vehicles in maintaining a sense of identity for the Arab immigrants living in the country. Rai became one of the chief means of cultural expression for a minority struggling to carve an identity in a racist environment.

Although French racist discourse groups all the Arab immigrants into a single category, they are a group that encompasses Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians. These heterogeneous groups make up the Franco-Maghribi audience for Rai. According to sociologist, Adil Jazouli, the Franco-Maghribi’s often take up various trajectories. These are the assimilationist, the delinquent, the ethnonationalist, and the hybrid. The assimilationist changes their names, or religion in order to blend or assimilate with the French culture and societal norms, whereas the delinquent is incapable of fashioning a coherent identity. They are trapped between two distinct cultures, neither of which can accommodate them. The ethnonationalists affirm allegiance to their Arab roots, and plan to return to their homelands, but in the meantime seek to create a separate social space with as minimal interaction with the French as possible. The hybrids are the Franco-Maghribi youth and they embrace cultural diversity and attempt to mold an identity through their hybridity. Rai music allows these distinct, marginalized groups to channel communication and articulate their frustration, and hardships.

Rai portrays the collective desire of the Franco-Maghribi’s to belong within France. It embraces a culture that is simultaneously Arab, modern as well as socially progressive. As Hanna Noor- Al Deen stated, “Rai has become just as essential to the identity of the Algerians in France as the Blues was to Black people in America.”

Algerian Rai artists have a long history of exile, departure, and longing due to the harsh reality of their hometown and some of the hostility that they received abroad. They express this misfortune using their music as a medium, which communicates to Algerians and other North Africans living in either harsh realities in Europe or North Africa. This becomes crucial in forming their cultural identities. Overcoming many obstacles by Islamist fundamentalists, as well as prejudice in the West, Rai has expanded beyond the boundaries of North Africa and Europe and has become an international musical sensation and a symbol of Algerian liberation.

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