Morocco — Morocco's glittering
international music festival wraps up this weekend with
performances by Mariah Carey and
Lenny Kravitz, after nine days of
showcasing the North African kingdom's cool factor — even as dissident
Moroccan artists are imprisoned for their anti-establishment sentiments.
The 11-year-old "Rhythms of the World" festival in the capital Rabat
has always highlighted Morocco's contradictions as the country spends
millions to lure top world artists to perform at generally free
concerts, while much the country remains mired in poverty.
In past years the festival has been attacked by Islamists for
inviting gay performer Elton John in 2010
and by activists for the cost of attracting Shakira and other high
profile acts in 2011, but this year the theme of protest is freedom of
Just a week before the festival began, Human Rights Watch slammed
Morocco for sentencing a rapper to a year in prison for lyrics deemed
insulting to police — a common theme in rap music elsewhere in the
"Morocco hosts one famous international music festival after another
each spring, but meanwhile it imprisons one of its own singers solely
because of lyrics and images that displease the authorities," Sarah Leah
Whitson, Mideast director of the group said in a statement. "Morocco
should be known as a haven for world music, not for locking up singers
with a political message."
Moroccan rapper Mouad Belghouat,
known as El-Haqed, or "The Enraged"
was convicted on May 11 of "showing contempt" to public servants with
his song "Dogs of the State" about police corruption. He is known for
his political activism and vitriolic songs attacking social injustice,
the monarchy and corruption.
He was charged on March 30 with insulting public authorities in a
song that was posted on YouTube. A week later, dissident poet
Youssef Belkhdim was convicted of
attacking police — a charge he denies — at a sit-in he organized in
support of Belghouat and sentenced to two years in prison.
The two men belonged to Morocco's pro-democracy February 20 movement
that last year brought tens of thousands into the streets protesting
corruption and calling for political reform.
The extravagant sums spent on the Mawazine have been a mainstay of
the movement's slogans. Festival organizers maintain that the Mawazine's
estimated $7 million price tag is worth it because it improves Morocco's
image abroad and gives people at home access to music from around the
world. The festival is funded largely by corporate sponsors with strong
ties to the state.
"It's a celebration. It's a celebration of the city, a celebration of
Morocco and it reflects a bit Morocco's good life to the world," said
program director Mahmoud Lemseffer. "It is a vehicle to present the
image of our country, of its hospitality and tolerance."
Tens of thousands attend each of the festival's eight venues which
present Arabic music, Moroccan music, music from sub-Saharan Africa as
well as international acts, which this year included
Scorpions, Gloria Gaynor, Nigel Kennedy and
Most of the acts have free sections open to the public and on
Tuesday, families strolling along Rabat's Bouregreg river stopped to
listen to Beninian songstress Angelique Kidjo
belt out classics from South African diva Mariam Makebe and talk about
the struggle against apartheid.
But for critics, there is irony in punishing artists at home while
hosting international ones known for their support of freedom of
expression. Lenny Kravitz, for instance, has striven in song after song
to confront America's tortured attitude about race.
"I think that people should really say what they feel — everybody has
the right to speak their mind, you see how things change in places where
people were once condemned," said Kravitz at a press conference Thursday
when asked about politics in music. "When I was in Brazil a couple of
years ago, I was talking with (musician and activist) Caetano Veloso who
dealt with that same thing, who did jail time — and now he has made a
Salif Traore of the Ivorian band
Magic System said that for African
artists, speaking truth to power and freedom of expression is what their
music is all about.
"We in Africa, we say that artists, musicians and singers are the
eyes, ears, and mouths of the people," he told The Associated Press,
when asked about his views on the El-Haqed case.
Rachid el-Belghiti, who heads a
national anti-Mawazine campaign, also contests the government's
assertion that it's supporting culture in Morocco with this festival,
countering that it's really just about making the country look good
He said the Mawazine, which is run by a close confidant of King
Mohammed VI, eats up the lion's share of corporate sponsorship so that
little is left for other festivals around the country.
As millions are being spent to lure in big name acts, local theaters
and dance schools around the country are closing down because of a lack