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Jamal Ali: Bringing Dissidence Back to Azerbaijani Rap and Rock

Azerbaijani rocker-rapper Jamal Ali first became famous in March of 2012, when he was arrested by the police at a youth protest rally several months before Eurovision took place in Baku. He was kept behind bars for 10 days. 

After his release, he was forced to emigrate as it was too dangerous for him to remain in Baku any longer. Since then, he has been living in Berlin and continuing his activities.

The government saw the Eurovision 2012 contest as an important propaganda campaign for the Aliyev regime. This line of propaganda was later continued by the 2015 European Games – which were specially thought up for this purpose – the Formula 1 races held in Baku in 2016 (despite the already-crippling financial crisis) and the so-called Islamic Games, which are to be held this year.

The opposition, by that time practically eliminated, attempted with its feeble strength to oppose the ostentatious ‘festivities’ put on by the government, which ever so delightedly tossed about millions of dollars for propaganda demonstrations against the backdrop of a fairly chaotic social situation in the country. 

As was reported, President Ilham Aliyev personally oversaw the preparations for Eurovision 2012, and the government didn’t particularly look after their expenditures for these preparations. 

Eurovision 2012 in Baku became without a doubt the most expensive in the contest’s history. Then, information was published by journal, Transitions Online, which analyzed decrees from the president and the government of the republic, regarding the organization of the event. The journal concluded that a total of 721 million dollars were spent on Eurovision 2012.

On March 17, 2012, a youth rally was planned in Baku, organized by opposition youth organizations. During a speech at the rally, young rocker and protester Jamal Ali let slip several obscenities addressed at the president of Azerbaijan, for which he was arrested (along with guitarist Natiq Kamilov) by the police and imprisoned for 10 days. 

Jamal’s protest took place in archaic Azerbaijan, where obscenities are punished very severely. At that point, only a miracle could save him. And just such a miracle took place.

The rocker spent all ten days of his imprisonment in a one-room cell, where the cops beat him regularly, on a daily basis, placing a bag on the rocker’s head and accompanying this with wild shouting and promises that he ‘wouldn’t leave here alive’. According to Jamal, these same cops were also in a sort of aggressively bewildered state, clearly not knowing how to act in such situations. 

In between the beatings there were ‘instructive talks’ with their superiors on ‘the greatness of the country and the president’s well-chosen path’, accompanied by questions about “why you might be discontent”. At the slightest wish to reply, the musician’s beatings continued, sometimes with five to seven cops participating at once, shouting “If you don’t like it, then get out of here”.

But it was clear that this was merely a ‘ceremonial ritual’ in awaiting a final decision from ‘above’.

After ten days of waiting like this, he was released all the same; clearly the decision was made up above not to ‘spoil the festivities’ so eagerly awaited by the regime. Before his release, some old major hinted to him, with a suggestive facial expression, that “it would be better for you if you got far away from here by the time that Eurovision takes place”.

But Jamal didn’t just leave, that wouldn’t be fitting for a real, troublemaking rocker. In leaving, he needed to slam the door hard, and he did just that. After leaving the police’s world behind the looking-glass, Jamal’s new clip “Vermişel” (“Vermicelli”) was created in a very short time as part of the Sing for Democracy campaign, launched on the eve of Eurovision in Baku.

Jamal Ali

Jamal Ali

The composition “Vermişel” (“Vermicelli”) was on the topic of outrageous demolitions of whole neighborhoods by the Baku municipal government, which destroyed thousands of homes in the run-up to Eurovision in order to construct a glamorous show-case for the Aliyevs’ oil-and-gas sultanate: new buildings in the capital, Crystall Hall in particular, where the contest itself took place.

The clip “Vermişel” was released several days before the start of Eurovision, on May 16, and made quite the splash: on social networks it noticeably outshone the government’s propaganda ‘about the latest victory’ and the upcoming Eurovision. During this time the song’s creator was already in Berlin, since for him to stay any longer in Baku would have entailed great danger.

But Jamal’s ‘relationship’ with the Azerbaijani government didn’t end there.

In the days immediately preceding the 2017 new year, a video from Jamal Ali appeared on YouTube, in which he criticizes human rights violations and persecution of citizens for expressing their opinions: “D W A Heykəl Baba Censored” (“Grandfather monument”), tells of the monument to Heydar Aliyev that was ‘desecrated’ by youth activists Qiyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov last spring, as a result of which they were arrested, subjected to torture and sentenced to ten years (!) by a municipal court.

Several days later, Jamal’s mother and four more of his relatives were taken to the Baku municipal police department, with demands that the clip be deleted from the web. The rapper flat-out refused to do so, as he stated on Facebook. 

“Mother has been taken to the Main Police Department of Baku City. She’s there now. Other relatives are being taken there as well.

Yesterday they came from the Sabunchi Police Department and took her there. They said, your son wrote a song, we can’t catch him, and so we’re detaining you. They give verbal warnings that I should remove the song from YouTube. Today they came again, and this time took her to the Main Police Department of Baku City.

I don’t plan to remove anything. Let Ilham Aliyev resign, then I’ll take it down. I’ll do it again! And I’ll continue my activities until justice triumphs!”, wrote Jamal.

Azerbaijan’s opposition online community came out in support of the rapper and stood in his defense. Several users re-uploaded the clip to their YouTube channels in solidarity with Jamal, in order to reduce pressure on the musician from the repressive apparatus, disregarding the danger of persecution on the part of the government.

Finally, on the evening of January 6, the rapper’s mother and six relatives were released. This was clearly done because of the obvious senselessness of the repressive actions and a desire not to let this story go global.

The saga of Jamal’s New Year’s ‘gift’ to the government lasted several more days, discussion online didn’t quiet down. During that time the clip, to which nobody paid any particular attention at first, gained a broader and broader audience.

Interestingly, several days before this event, on December 29, 2016, Radio Liberty published an extended interview with Artemy Troitsky with the headline, “Rock is no longer an incisive force”, where the musician asserts that, “Music has occupied a tranquil place among other aspects of culture: theater, film, literature, and so forth, it has ceased to be the eye of the hurricane”.

In this instance, the musical expert is not really wrong: in almost the entire modern post-soviet space, both rock and rap have almost ceased to exist as protest music. The reasons for the events around our hero must clearly be found in the authoritarian, estate-based anatomy of modern Azerbaijani society, where protest is so necessary against the backdrop of the ‘silent majority’, and especially the so-called ‘intelligentsia’.

It must be that because of this there is such a great demand in Azerbaijani society for similar acts on the part of musicians, where each word and intonation, like a gasp of fresh air, resounds with the very depths of society and is called for by its most active segment: the youth. 

In the The Rebel, Camus says that “sooner or later there comes a time when a choice must be made between contemplation and action. And this is called becoming a human being.”

Buradaykən …

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