After all, TBP’s inspiration are the block parties that took over neighborhood streets in 1970’s New York and were a formative component of hip hop culture in America. And so it is no small detail that the legendary emcee, born in Brooklyn in 1973, will break in the stage for the evening’s line-up: rappers Vipa, Massi, Tiga and Pazza, DJs Youstaaz, Gamra, Baba Ben and Supaflava plus Bboy battles and a graffiti performance.
Yasiin Bey began his rap career in the mid-90s before teaming up with rapper Talib Kweli to form Black Star in 1997. He released his first solo album, Black on Both Sides, in 1999, and continued to write, record and collaborate with other big names in the industry to come out with soulful and socially-conscious classics of the next decade, tracks like « Mathematics », « Auditorium » and « History ». Beside a fruitful and lasting music career, Bey has been recognized for roles played in a number of films and television series, including The Italian Job (2003), Something the Lord Made (2004) for which he received Emmy and Golden-Globe nominations and Cadillac Records (2008). Through and beyond his musical and acting career, Bey has been a strong voice against police brutality, racism and inequality. He made waves in 2013 for undergoing a force-feeding procedure to draw attention to the mistreatment of detainees of Guantanamo Bay, and again in 2016 when he was arrested in Cape Town, South Africa for attempting to travel with a World Citizen passport.
Opening the door for more US artists
As far as the generation born in the 80’s is concerned, the emcee’s participation at TBP is nothing short of history in the making. « It’s the first time that we have an American hip hop icon in Tunisia », remarks Trappa, founder of the hip hop collective Debo. « We don’t have a big rap icon in Tunisia at all, and we don’t have a history of hip hop artists coming here », continues Trappa, who spent a good 12 years between the US and France before returning to Tunisia in 2012 to launch Debo. « When you’re doing something like this for the first time, you don’t have data that you can look back to and say, ok, when we had Jay-Z it was like this, when we brought Method Man it was like that ». With Bey’s visit, the idea is that the doors will remain open for more artists to come, that Tunisia will have a place on the map for touring artists, and by the same token, that Tunisian artists will have more international exposure.
In this sense, Trappa notes that « TBP is bigger than just a live show. The point is that it’s a hip hop day for all the artists ». Rooted as they are in the communities of DJs, Bboys and rappers, the collectives FRD, Upper Underground and Debo running the project are aware of the responsibility they carry in providing a quality event but also safe space for artists. For Debo, which has a rap studio in the capital but touches on all of hip hop’s disciplines, Trappa indicates that « we know that the hip hop community in Tunisia is a big community, we know the youth here love hip hop. We are a big team and we’re everywhere, we have people in the streets, on the stage ».
Bridging the generational divide
For Hamza Ben Youssef, long-time Bboy and member of the Upper Underground Crew, hip hop’s capacity to evolve and adapt according to different settings relates mainly to the fact that it is not delineated by rules in way that other disciplines are. « Since hip hop was created, it was freestyle. You bring your originality into the game, your different influences and inspirations…you can own it. This is why it’s so different from one country to another », he says with conviction.
We ask Ben Youssef, who started dancing in 2001 and is known on the floor as Cranky, how the scene has changed in Tunisia over the years. He takes a breathe, beginning, « We have gone through an entire cycle in Tunisia ». He elaborates: « hip hop started to get big in late 90’s-early 2000s. People got really passionate and were reaching high levels. But most of the dancers, rappers and DJ’s reached a point where they couldn’t make a living, and had to find other stuff to do. Most of them quit, and this gave way to a gap between two generations. All those people who could have passed on whatever skills they had gained so that the new generation could start somewhere and get better… that transfer of knowledge didn’t happen. So basically everything started over again and the level dropped in the five disciplines. Today new faces are owning it, people who are even better than us… But if the cycle continues this way », he concludes, « we’re not going to get very far ».
This is precisely the pattern that Upper Underground, Debo and FRD are trying to change. And this is one of the main objectives behind Tunis Block Party, to open the way for new artists, to draw out people from across the country and give them a chance to meet, compete and get better. After TBP 1 and 2 which drew 2,000 and 2,500 respectively, expectations are high for the block party on May 10. And the decision to invite Bey into the mix is an important one. As Ben Youssef tells us, « Bey has been keeping it real. He’s got mainstream appeal, but still keeping it raw and to the roots of hip hop. He does some crazy stuff to change things in the world. This is the kind of influence we need to bring. Hip hop is not just entertainment, it conveys real messages. This is why it started, it’s about people expressing themselves, talking about problems, mistreatment, poverty…We’re still at the beginning and we know that people have a lot to say. We want to give them opportunities and exposure… the stuff we didn’t have when we were doing it ».