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.
Produced to a remarkably high standard on a six year-old PC running Windows 98, the 13 tracks on their album "No More Lies" move from the deep-rooted fury of "Kan Zman," a rap of pure hatred towards the outgoing regime, to the piano ballad "Day After Day," a song about forgetting and moving on:
For a better tomorrow
We have to end this horror
We have to purge our motherland
And together as one
We raise our hands.”
It reads like strong cheddar when written down in black and white but you only have to look around at what’s left of Misrata to see where the sentiment comes from. And they can sing, too. Many of the choruses are in English while the high-speed Arabic raps flow off the tongues of brothers Abdullah and Akim Elwafi, good-looking black guys from Zlitan who are cranked with energy.
Libyans are now buoyed along by a wave of excitement never before felt by this generation. You can feel it everywhere you go and F.B-17 are plugged into that—for better and for worse.
In 2007 Abdullah was chased by secret police for weeks because of a song he wanted to record about life under Gaddafi. He made the mistake of showing the lyrics to somebody in a Tripoli recording studio and they telephoned the wrong people. He ran from Tripoli, changed his name and stayed in Misrata for two months to avoid capture.
“It wasn’t until now that we could record that song, ‘Come back 2 Home,’” he says of the track that nearly landed him in one of Libya’s political prisons. “It’s about a family that had enough of Gaddafi and left Libya for 10 years, and how when they come home they find the whole country turned upside-down by what he has done.”
Does he know this family? “Of course,” he replies. “They are mine.”
FB-17’s instruments amount to an old electric guitar, a Yamaha 1000 keyboard and a sackload of riffs and samples pinched from the internet. Sometimes they had to stop recording when the bombs got too close or they were involved in the fighting themselves.
“It was a strange place to make music,” says Modee with a laugh. “We recorded the first five songs at Covo’s house in his bedroom. It’s only four metres square, like a phone box, so when we were all there we couldn’t move. At times Grad missiles were falling very close to the house. We recorded some of the impacts and tried to work those as a beat into the music.”
“Nothing was easy,” says Covo. “The power was often down and we’d lose whole sections of music if I didn’t frequently save them. But thank God for the internet; that’s how we learned to play the guitar, watching seminars on YouTube on how to play the chords. It was the only thing the old regime couldn’t control, and it’s been every Libyan’s window into the world outside. In 1983 and also 1993 the Libyan people tried to revolt, the rebels started fighting like they did this time but without any connection to each other or the outside. Gaddafi squashed the revolutions, killed many people, and nobody even knew. The internet changed that this time around, and it’s important to us now as a band, too. It’s difficult to get our music played on the radio so we post our music online.”
I’m not an entertainment journalist but F.B-17 have to be fairly unique in the world of modern music. Five young men—some of them teenagers—who just a few weeks ago were actively engaged in fierce fighting, have witnessed the toppling of a foul regime and, during all this, spit rhymes about their first tastes of freedom. You wonder what it feels like, what it really feels like.
“Freedom with a new taste,” says Modee. “We can’t even explain how this feels. In Europe and America you are so lucky to be born with freedom of speech. It’s your right, but for us this is a whole new feeling. Now we can speak however we like, and it’s an incredible sensation.”
“We are very proud of Libya now,” says Covo. “Our pride has been stepped on too many times in the past, but what the Libyan people have achieved here is something to be proud of. Of course we are angry about what happened in the past, but now we look to the future. The new Libya is going to take time and we have to start from the beginning. We want our music to reflect the people of new Libya, to tell them to have pride and live in peace. The fighting is over now, Gaddafi has gone and there is no need to have a gun. We committed acts of violence during the revolution, but if someone enters your house with a tank what are you supposed to do? We had to defend ourselves.”