As rebel forces close in on Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, even diehard loyalists are talking truce, and the struggle for Libyan independence has reached a decisive turning point. When the rebels celebrate their hard-won victory, the soundtrack at that mother-of-all-parties will surely include a few cuts by F.B. 17, the hottest new group out of Libya.
This hip hop band is not just a bunch of studio gangstas—they bust their AKs, throw Molotov cocktails, and they’re mean with an RPG. Complex correspondent John Cantlie risked life and limb to bring you this exclusive report on F.B.-17, Libya’s rebels without a pause.
Written by John Cantlie (@JH_Cantlie)
Listen to F.B.-17's music
F.B.-17 “Day After Day”
F.B.-17 “Come Back 2 Home”
F.B.-17 “Thuwar Bladi”
F.B.-17 We Have A Dream”
F.B.-17 “Kan Zman”
We arrange to meet at 10pm in downtown Misrata, about the only place in this besieged city that hasn’t been blown apart by guns and missiles. The whiplash crack of automatic AK-47 fire still echoes around the town, but that’s ‘happy fire,’ overjoyed inhabitants shooting victoriously into the air.
The rebels have won, Gaddafi’s troops have been forced out and Misrata is free for the first time in 42 years. But freedom has come at a terrible price, over 1,500 killed and half the town reduced to rubble. Some journalists refer to the place as Misratagrad (a reference to the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest of WWII). Not one person here doesn’t know a friend or loved one who was killed or wounded in the fighting, and yet they are all agreed on one thing: it was worth it.
F.B-17 stands for February 17th, the day the Libyan Revolution began in Benghazi, eastern Libya. Fuelled by events in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, the revolution grew exponentially until the whole country was up in arms. All the members of F.B-17 fought in some way during the war, guys as young as 18 who had only seen action in Hollywood films learned overnight how to fire an assault rifle, how to move under fire, and how to kill—or be killed.
“We’ve all lost friends,” says 22 year-old Mohammad ‘Modee’ Derraija, the lead vocalist who worked as a translator before the war and speaks perfect English.
“Just last week our best friend died on the battlefield in Tripoli. But we are proud of him and others like him because of what he’s achieved. He was a funny guy with a huge heart, and he lived and died like a man.”
During the Battle of Misrata, Modee made Molotov cocktails and set car tires on fire in the streets, the black smoke blinding Gaddafi’s troops. Haq, the quiet, brooding guitarist, was a dead shot with an RPG who used “to launch grenades into the windows where snipers were shooting to blow them out.”
Islam Ahmed Almadani, just 18 years old and going by the name of ‘Covo,’ is the group’s recording and computer tech. He set up a rebel Facebook page featuring the band’s music to help fan the flames of the revolution from his bedroom.
Rap music is traditionally about oppression, hardship, and change for the better. But instead of living in a free democracy, these young men have actually lived through and fought their way out of a brutal dictatorship. That experience is reflected in their music, a mix of ballads and angry rap. And while the lyrics are often clichéd and the melodies simplistic, there is a rawness and absolute passion to their music that makes it all so very real.
“We only started recording as a group when the revolution began, never before,” continues Modee. “Such things were not allowed during Gaddafi’s regime.”
“If you wanted to make music it could only be traditional and you had to sing about how Gaddafi was a great man,” adds Covo, “all this shit. The very idea of Libyans making rap music was completely forbidden, so we had to play at home in secret. If we’d been found doing this, Gaddafi’s secret police would have beat us. If any of the songs were about politics you’d probably end up in jail. You couldn’t say ‘we hate Gaddafi,’ you’d be killed or go missing immediately. Everything had to be done in absolute secret. It was an unbearable way to live.”
They name their inspirations as a bizarre mix of Take That, Metallica, Tupac and Wu-Tang Clan. Haq the RPG man says James Blunt is his favorite vocalist. It’s a smorgasbord of the most unlikely musical combinations you can imagine.