“We are trying to give a good image of Libya” – an interview with G.A.B.

Marseille – At the world music expo Babel Med, last month, News & Noise spoke with Seraj Kamel/G Thug AKA Lantren, the crew manager and one of the rappers of G.A.B. (Good against Bad). This zealous Libyan hip-hop group is reveling in and grappling with the new freedom of expression that has flourished since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi. Sponsored by a French institute, G.A.B. came to Babel Med in Marseille to represent their country. This is their first international experience. The timing of their performance wasn’t that opportune, because they had to compete with the Congolese Jupiter & Okwess International. Despite their excellent rapping skills, for the delegates of Babel Med the message of G.A.B. seems to be far more interesting than their music. Talking with Seraj Kamel of G.A.B. gave us an interesting impression of today’s Libya.

by Charlie Crooijmans

Tell me about your mission

“Libya, after the revolution, is open to a new phase, a phase of mass development. But the development can’t take place if the brain and the mentality don’t change. We have to change the mentality and how the brain tickles by spreading the social and political awareness. Encouraging the younger generation to develop themselves into many different aspects from photo shooting, to music, to any type of art. And also, to move further with the country to develop into, at least something to match with the international standards.”

So can we see your music as a tool of education?

“Well, our understanding to hip-hop and rap industry is not about ‘bling bling’ and alcohol. Our concept is different. The rap itself, since the way we know it and since how we researched it on the internet, it’s a way on how you can criticize the situation you are in. Basically this art was born and founded in Africa. It was mainly criticizing and describing the agony and the pain that was taking place at that age or at that certain time. Of course it started in the USA, but do you know what rap stands for? Rhythmic African Poetry! So it is basically an African art. Regrettably nowadays some cultures are representing this art in a very bad way that would damage any society. You know like, ‘I smoke, I drink, I jump, we got money’, what are you trying to say exactly? But for us, because the younger generation is much attached to this kind of culture…”

But why do you use rap?

“That’s a good question. In the Arab world in general, anything that would represent the youth movement is basically the western music. Because the suppression that is taking place in those countries, sometimes does not allowed them to go further than what they are. So, the angle, or the concept of developing the country and spreading the awareness, is only one angle out of two. The other angle is addressing the third party which is the outside world, the international word in two international languages which is the English and the French language (G.A.B. uses these languages among Arab and Amazigh, CC). This was very important for us, because the third party is the one who give will help you to support your cause. So if you don’t gather the right people to stand behind your back and not to be honest with them, then you are doomed. So from this perspective, Gaddafi was representing Libya for 42 years from the concept of a jungle and a beast. We are humans, we love life, we love nature. We love everybody actually. But this man, he damaged the country spiritually, mentally and physically. Thanks to God some people managed to stand up for themselves and they managed to create their own world. Like you can take me as an example. I have never spent more than two weeks outside of Libya, but the thing is that I tried to develop myself and make a good outcome out of myself. I was thinking if I do something like this, I will raise the question ‘why can’t I do this?’ It is really easy; it is not a big deal. All what you got to do is hold a book and study, expand your horizons! This is the message my crew and me are trying to send, you know.”

How come your English is so good?

“I watched like 6000 movies by far. This is the main element that helped me. No, not at school. In Libya we don’t have a lot of foreigners. Even if we do, they don’t speak the American accent. I am so attached to this culture. Basically I am attached to the media and art in general. I can see that the United States and the American industry is taken the lead by all means. We were so attached to the movies, Star Wars, Batman, Superman, all the marvel characters. We used to listen to them speaking in English. It was like, ‘Oh my God, what are they talking about. Dad, dad! Can you tell me what they are saying?’ And the pity thing… dad doesn’t know how to speak English, because of the system. So it became like an educational revenge. Like, I want to break those barriers. I want to be like anybody around.”

But don’t you think that America imposes its culture on the rest of the world?

“I would say, the gun you can protect yourself with it and you could kill with it, at the same time. It depends on your concept and your skills on how you are going to apply and implement the good things you absorb from that culture. But if you apply the whole culture like a copycat, you are doing nothing. You will be lost in the mist, your character is lost.”

But what about your music?

“It’s not Libyan music, I would say, but it is like a cultural instrument. We try to combine (Libyan elements to their music, CC) the best we can. From the concept that we encourage people to play music. There is a college for teaching music, but only 10 people are studying there. We try sometimes to go there, we grab one of those guys to play on our song. ‘You see this is rap, this is hip-hop, we are trying to give a good image of the country. We are not talking about bling bling, alcohol… We are trying to make some good music we are not to mimic the other cultures’. You know, it’s like automatically and naturally he find himself encouraged to give the best he can. And believe me, there are some heavy talents there. That you would feel pity that they are still suffering.”

Is it still difficult to have a normal life and education in Libya?

“I was asked this question a thousand times. I consider, because I am more open to history and other revolutions. I see that my country, comparing to other revolutions and matter of recovery, it didn’t take that much time. Frankly speaking I would say that the fights or maybe the clashes that are taking place here. I wouldn’t take it differently than any other fight that is taking place in New Mexico, Chicago or … they both use guns, they both kill. So maybe the outside world sees it as something strange, because they never heard anything about Libya. While at that time of the Gaddafi regime, people were kidnapped from their houses. That man is saddest character that I ever got to know. Can you believe it? He killed one of his competitors, put him in a fridge for 27 years! Every year he has to go and look in his face and he goes back home. How could you imagine living under a leadership from this kind of ruler? So it is either, you make your own revolution inside of you and then you spread it around. Or you going to be like a zombie, like the rest of the zombies he managed to create.”

How long is G.A.B. together?

“Since 2004”

Was it difficult to express yourself at that time?

“It was extremely difficult.”

What were the lyrics about?

“It was all about having fun. But frankly speaking in a couple of songs we used hidden codes.”

Can you give an example?

“There is this main song called ‘Pain’. One of the verses says: ‘weed, became the main need, indeed, the more pain we bleed, the more smoke proceed’. We were trying to address the old regime as the pain. We were not able to explain or address, or analyze to people the system in the right way. But we try to explain the pain from the way we see it.”

Can you express yourself freely now?

“Definitely! We consider ourselves quite fortunate that the country is recovering in a speedy way. In about 3 or 4 months we will have our own constitution since 1952! It is like a dream finally coming true. The other positive thing is the exchange of authority. It’s all about election and democracy. If not, that what happened to Gaddafi, will happen to the one who doesn’t respect that.”

Where does G.A.B. perform?

“We built our own studio where my friends and me come together. The publicity in Libya relies basically on Social Media. We are still trying to create places that would be suitable for Libyan citizens to entertain themselves. Sometimes we perform at one of the main theaters, which was not made for performing, but we try to do our best. The last one we did was at the main square of the capital for approximately 1200 people. It was the biggest crowd we have ever jammed in front of. That was so cool!”

You guys have regular jobs beside the music, right?

“We do what we gotta do, you know, to bring food on the table. Like for myself, I work in the automotive industry at Toyota Motors. I am a Department Sales Manager. I also consider myself quite fortunate to work with an international organization such as that, because it is really difficult to get accepted. The rest of my colleagues work in different segments. One works in the oil industry, the other one is studying in Malaysia to upgrade his studies, and the fourth one works in a hotel. To get the studio financed I had to sell my car. Some of my friends had to sell some valuable items. You have to bleed for your dream, nothing comes easy… And the same way I managed to get my first car, I managed to get my second car, so you know. (laughs) I was quite fortunate in that too!”