Fiercely Feminine Hip Hop: Tunisian Rapper Medusa TN on the Necessity of Afro-Arab Art
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
For Tunisian rapper Medusa TN, making music is more than just an artform, but a responsibility. In order for Afro-Arab women to fight against obscurantism, Medusa TN explains that her words have a duty to exist. Though she doesn't consider herself a political rapper, her poetry is shaped from the struggles and strengths of being an immigrant, an artist, a mother, and at the core of it all, a woman. In this interview, we speak with Medusa TN on the evolving Tunisian hip hop scene, and her commitment to paving the way for Muslim women to find their place in the world.
Let’s start by talking about your early roots in music and hip-hop culture. What was the hip hop scene in Tunisia like when you were growing up? I read that your brother was a break-dancer and your uncle was a rapper, so I’m curious to hear more about that and how you got your start in the scene.
Honestly, there wasn’t a hip hop scene in Tunisia when I was growing up. We only had traditional or Andalusian music; hip hop really emerged after the Tunisian Revolution [in 2010]. Before the Revolution, we used to idolize the American dream. A lot of us young aspiring artists would watch movies to learn moves from hip hop culture. We were learning to battle or breakdance, and then eventually absorbed techniques of movement, flow, and technique. We also were very inspired by the French hip hop scene, as Tunisia is neighbors with France and is heavily influenced by their culture.
My start, personally, was in breakdancing. I was doing that when I was ten years old, and then found myself writing poetry. It just came naturally to rap my poems to a beat, as I had already found a flow through dance. Rapping got more serious for me when I moved to the capital, Tunis, to get my bachelors degree. Before, I was living in a tourist city where there was no underground music scene or rappers, so Tunis provided a whole new world of opportunity. Plus, I was the only girl doing something like this, so I had a lot of support from men...and at the same time, a lot of harassment.
I love how you used to first practice breakdancing at the local mosque since the wood laminate made for perfect dancefloors. Your environment didn’t necessarily nurture a path for a young woman rapper, but you made your environment work for you. Could you talk more on taking control of your environment so that you could create your way as an artist?
You know, I’m now living in France with residencies in the U.S. I travel and facilitate workshops for young kids all over these areas and I always say to them, “You have no idea how lucky you are.” When I was younger, there were no cultural centers or no places to practice. The only place where the floor was slick enough to dance was the mosque! This is our story! [laughs] Now, of course, things have changed since my start nineteen years ago. Rap music is probably the most popular music culture in Tunisia. But damn, I lived that!
You’ve described your music and feminine rap as having a duty to exist. Could you talk about your music not only being a personal outlet, but as a necessity for Afro-Arab Muslim women to fight against obscurantism?
Absolutely. For me, as Medusa TN, it’s always been like that. Of course I have some songs just for entertainment, but I started writing poetry to talk about issues - mainly women’s issues. There weren’t a lot of Afro-Arab women able to speak up about these things when I was growing up, so I feel I must continue on my mission for years to come.
There are a lot of men rapping, telling the same stories, and have this copy-paste approach to their lyrics. Being a hip hop artist as a woman is inherently different. It’s not to say I have a problem with men at all, I collaborate with male artists all the time. But becoming a woman rapper is kind of a resolution. In the beginning stages of Tunisian hip hop, men would describe women like...a thing. My automatic response was to come out and talk positively about women and how strong we are. And I have so much pride in being a Tunisian woman, because we are so cultured and intelligent.
The Revolution became a really critical time for women rappers and artists to exist. The Islamic government has wanted to take away our rights ever since our first president in 1950, and we had to fight this new government [during the 2010 Tunisian Revolution] because they wanted us to go back in time with our rights, like how they’re doing in Iran or Pakistan. We had free education, free healthcare, and women’s rights, but they wanted to take that all away from us. (And we take great pride in our education. We have so many doctors and engineers because our education is free. I’m even an engineer alongside being an artist!) More than ever, we as Tunisian women needed to talk about our issues -- social, political, and issues of the heart.
I had never considered myself a political rapper, but I began getting contacted by female politicians to collaborate on flash mobs or write songs, because we had no choice but to fight to keep our rights. Rapping is my art, but it became my responsibility. I was writing a lot of angry songs, and it ended in threats from Salafist people to kidnap me or even kill me. But the more I toured in Arab countries, the more I would see women come up to me, many times in tears, saying they were influenced by my music. That’s when I really began to understand what rapping is actually about. It’s bigger than me, bigger than my thoughts, bigger than my feelings, it’s a movement.
The real hip hop culture in Tunisia is getting watered down. It’s more about entertainment value and viewership numbers rather than heart or meaning. I’m trying to continue on with my music. I have a family, my daughter, and an engineering job, but like I said, this is bigger than me. I still have more I need to say.
What I appreciate as even as someone that doesn’t speak Arabic or French, that message is still absolutely apparent in your presence. Do you feel that is why you've gravitated towards the very confrontational type of flow that you have?
Yes! I’m so glad when I hear this. I do concerts all over the world and it's a challenge because I’ll be rapping in front of people who have no idea what I’m saying. But it’s so great because people will be dancing and feeling my flow. It’s like magic. That kind of reaction is what keeps me going. And I’m very, very lucky to be invited to play all over the world (well, before the pandemic) to share my music. I’m not that famous and don’t have a huge audience, but my crowd is intimate and that’s very special for me.
I’m curious to hear about your move to Paris. You’ve mentioned this proverb before in another interview that “no one is a prophet in their own country.” How have you seen your impact change once you became a visitor? What was this emigration like for you?
I moved to France because of my music, actually. I was invited to sing once at the French embassy and they suggested I move there to have better career opportunities. So my husband and I sold everything in Tunisia and arrived in France with only three bags, forreal! Like every immigrant story, it was filled with many difficulties, but thankfully I had my degree so it was easy to find work. But that also resulted in a short hiatus for making music. I had a new home, a new daughter, and had to focus on those first and foremost.
The idea that no one in their country is a prophet is really too true. Last time I was in Tunisia, I had journalists, photographers, film makers, and TV personalities asking to take pictures with me. It was so strange. They were talking to me like I was a diva! I said to them, “Yo, you can talk to me, I’m the same girl!” They all think that because I’ve moved to France I have a lot of money and a big production team, but they don’t know the reality! The reality is struggle, struggle and more struggle. I appreciate that they’re all so supportive, though, and welcome me back with open arms.
You’ve been staying really active with collaborations from artists all around the globe, like your recent single with Iranian rapper Salome MC. Since I also saw you’re a trainer in ethnomusicology, I wanted to tie these ideas together of studying music from around the world and how cultures musically relate to one another. What’s a common thread you’ve seen between your ethnomusicology studies and the outcome of your collaborations with artists from around the world?
Yes, so with ethnomusicology, I’ve been invited to a lot of universities in France, the US,, and here in Tunisia to help students understand the relationship between music and history. I talk about the evolution of hip hop in Tunisia, and do some storytelling since I’ve had my fair share of adventures! [laughs] I love being able to teach and share, because ethnomusicology tells us a lot about who we are.
Similarly, I love to collaborate with artists because it really helps you discover who you are, and to see yourself through the eyes of other people or other cultures. My first collaboration was with the Swedish electronic group The Knife. They’re not hip hop in nature, but I rapped over their music and it worked! We had like three million streams of our song in a week.
My best friend and rapper, Audry Funk, who is a Mexican immigrant living in New York, once told me that every time she meets a woman, she feels stronger. I think about that quote all the time. I feel stronger every time I collaborate with a woman, whether it’s through music, workshops, or whatever. I feel blessed to have such a big community of female artists here in France, but there’s obviously a lot of work to be done worldwide. I’m tired of seeing festival lineups with only a handful of underground women rappers. I’m tired of hearing men rappers talk about the same shit, calling us bitches. I swear to you, shit is crazy! But I’m grateful for every woman sharing their struggle and putting their work out there.
I want to talk about your features on Nafada last year. Your delivery is, as always, absolutely savage, but it has this extra primal and dark quality when backed by Konqistador's industrial music. How did exploring in that sort of industrial, dark electronic realm allow you to express yourself in a new light, or give you a new angle to push your lyrical messages?
Konqistador are friends from Detroit that reached out to me because they had an idea to make an industrial album featuring all Arab female artists on vocals. None of us had done industrial music before, and I loved that idea. It was just so different, and it ended up being a bigger hit than what we had aimed for. We were lucky enough that Sony Middle East showed interest in the project.
The album has a very dark sound. We wanted to show something different than the typical image of the Arab barbie doll. In the song “Eden, Woman’s War”, I’m dissecting this idea in my religion that a woman is a “half-man.” So I’m saying that I’m not a half-man, in fact, I’m better than one whole man! Or two, or three! The second song I’m featured in, “Kahina”, is about the ancient North African queen of the same name. This queen existed thousands of years ago, and ruled the land before there was any notion of women being a half-man. This general idea of reclaiming our identity as women is really the theme of the album. We know that a lot of people wouldn’t appreciate this message. In fact, Sony released the album but it was not delivered to any publications because it was banned from Arab media. They said the music video was filled with Satanic imagery, which is of course false. I’m so proud of that project, and more so am so happy to now have a family in Detroit.
That explains why I always see pictures of you wearing that shirt that says “Detroit vs. Everybody”...makes sense now!
They really are family out there! Even during COVID, they invited me to be a part of an internet festival full of local artists. They consider me a Detroit artist, which is just amazing.
Speaking of collaborations, it was such a wild surprise to see you just did a song with Chahrazed Helal! How did this come about?
How can I say this... this is not at all my type of music, to be honest [laughs]. I’m not very traditional, but she is an incredibly inspiring woman. For people that don’t know, Chahrazed is very, very famous in my home country. She’s been dedicated to her music and her teachings for so many years now. She contacted me about collaborating, and I couldn’t believe it! I recorded in France, and she recorded in Tunisia.
My other recent collaborator, Salome MC, and I did a similar recording process since she is living in America. We have similar stories, she’s an immigrant in America and I’m an immigrant living in France. We called the track “Home” because it works with themes of immigrant women struggling to feel at home. The whole process was very personal; even the cover for the single is a house drawn by my daughter.
Perhaps the reason I don’t have a big fan base is because some find my music to be too personal. But I will never write songs to appeal to just anyone. I feel a small community is better than just talking to everyone, commercially, for entertainment. I hope by sharing personal stories, I can make people find a positive outlet for understanding their own stories. That’s my ideology.
You’ve made some posts that you’ll have some upcoming news about your new album. What can you tell us about it so far? What will be some of the themes, features? Have you recorded it already?
Yeah! I just dropped the first music video. The theme delves around fighting harassment as a woman. The album will drop in April 2021, and it's going to be 14 tracks. In the meantime, I’m working with a friend of mine who’s a filmmaker. She’s been shooting me for two years and documenting my life. We want to show the life of an immigrant woman, the cycles of work, art, life and family. We want it to empower everyone to know that you have a place in the world. Whatever you want to do, wherever you are going, you can have your place and do your thing.
Due to coronavirus, we had to cancel our first ever US tour. But I’m taking this time to rehearse and write new music. I’ll be so ready for next year.
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