It’s a Saturday night in downtown Tunis. Dozens of people lean against the graffiti covered walls of Tag Store as they wait to enter Tunisia’s first collective hip hop event, War Zone. Inside, Millenials wearing snap backs, bucket hats, and sports jerseys packed into Tag Store’s back warehouse, converted into a venue hall, to watch break dancers, beat producers, and rappers battle head to head. Despite it being Ramadan, there was a massive turnout. Over 300 people filled the audience, leaving little room for latecomers to see the stage. For many of the performers, the spectacle was their first time in front of an audience as large.

Photo Courtesy of War Zone

Not just a “Rap Battle”

During the Revolution, hip hop and rap culture in Tunisia gained international recognition for the political content in its music and art. Five years later, founder of Art Solution, Chouaib Brik and Tunisian rapper and member of TRLLxGNG, Benny Benz saw the hip hop community in Tunisia slowly start to become disjointed and divided. With a new generation of artists on the come-up, the inspiration for War Zone was to showcase some of the country’s best underground talent as well as to provide a space where artists could interact, compete, and collaborate with each other. Contradictory to its militaristic name, exchange and mutual support within the hip hop community were essential to War Zone’s mission.

A grassroots project with a tiny budget, all promotional marketing and outreach was conducted through social media and word of mouth. Performers were selected after organizers and judges checked out links to applicants’ Soundcloud and Facebook accounts submitted to War Zone’s event page. The final line up consisted of underground artists from outside the capital. Performers came from cities such as Ghardimaou, Sidi Bouzid, Gabes, and Sousse. 12 MC’s, 12 beat producers, and 4 break dancing teams made the final cut.

Photo courtesy of Art Solution

Women in Tunisian Hip Hop

Tunisian women face many obstacles when entering the hip-hop scene, especially as artists. Nour Ben Soltane, a 17 year-old B-Girl from Hay Halel, a marginalized neighborhood in Tunis, has been break dancing since 2013. At first, it was difficult to prove herself to an artistic community dominated by men, but her skill and passion for break dancing couldn’t be ignored. Before coming to War Zone, she performed at events such as Red Bull BC One Carthage and Beat the Beat in Sousse. Throughout the years, the Tunisian hip hop community has been increasingly more accepting and inclusive of women and girls according to Ben Soltane. However, the same cannot be said for how women in hip-hop are perceived by society.

Despite gaining the support and respect from fellow artists, women and girls in hip hop are viewed negatively by those outside of the community. When asked how many females she knows in the hip hop community, Ben Soltane stated, “Not a lot, reason being either a girl’s family, or society in general”. She speaks from personal experience, as her family hasn’t always approved of her break dancing:

My mom and dad refuse to accept that I break dance but they still love me and want to see me happy. So I want to be the best B-Girl possible.

At War Zone, a dozen or more young female spectators were in the audience, cheering on their favorite contenders. According to participants, despite being relatively small, the rate of female attendance was impressive. By making themselves present both as patrons and artists, Tunisian women and girls are slowly subverting societal norms both within and outside the hip hop scene. Artists like B-Girl Nour may be a minority in Tunisian hip hop, yet their hard work will hopefully encourage younger generations to use art as a form of self-expression and empowerment, despite societal expectations.

Photo Courtesy of War Zone
Photo courtesy of Nour Ben Soltane

War Zone: For Tunisians, By Tunisians

As longtime members of the hip hop scene in Tunisia (Brik and Benz both started as a B-Boys in the early 2000’s) the two aim to create spaces where Tunisians can tell stories using the techniques and skills they have crafted. However, being members of the hip hop scene hasn’t always been easy. As Brik puts it, “We don’t have everyone’s support”. Nevertheless, supporting the Tunisian hip-hop scene from within is his and Benz’s first priority. And rather than exporting their art abroad to countries in Europe to gain fame and notoriety, the two value the political impact that youth cultural production can make in their homeland.

We want to show that you can make something out of nothing. We want to motivate people to change their future, get out of the house, and to go do something. Stated Benz.

By bringing various artistic networks and resources together, Brik and Benz’s vision for War Zone is to provide Tunisians from all regions a means to find self-empowerment through art. For them, originality, creativity, and self-expression are what make hip-hop culture rich and vibrant.

We are trying to prove that without [anyone’s] money, support, input, we are still creating something that responds to the needs of the youth. And we encourage other artists to do the same! We created War Zone to show that [hip hop] is accessible, everyone can do this. If there are more events like this, it can make an impact.Chouaib Brik, Founder of Art Solution and co-organizer of War Zone

Other participants felt similarly. For instance, one of the judges for the event, Souhayl Guesmi told Nawaat: “Events like War Zone allow young artists to not only exchange and collaborate with one another but also provide them a space to express different sides of their identities freely.” In response to the success of War Zone, Brik and Benz, with the help of other members of the hip hop community, have plans for War Zone 2 already in the works. War Zone 2 is scheduled to take place late August of this year with plans to host the event in a larger venue as well as to showcase other North African artists.