The Connection between Music, Politics, Gender, and Sexuality: The Mawazine Festival in Morocco

Joel D. Parker and Laura Brantley analyze gender issues in Morocco.

The annual Mawazine Rhythms of the World Festival held in Morocco this June provoked a heated discussion on social networking sites (SNS) regarding gender issues in Morocco in particular and the Arab world in general. The festival began in 2002 as an event initiated by the Moroccan government to support and promote local artists. [1] This year, in keeping with King Mohammed VI’s intention to give the festival cosmopolitan feel, international stars like Usher, Sean Paul, and Jennifer Lopez were also invited to appear, in addition to local bands, traditional divas from Lebanon, and famous singers from the Arab diaspora, like Swedish-Muslim pop star Maher Zain. The resulting cultural encounter at once reflected the Moroccan concept of Naydah (which means “up” in Moroccan Arabic, and is identified with the revolutionary musicians of the Moroccan hip-hop scene), [2] demonstrated how internationally-based cultural activism can be misunderstood by local authorities and grass-roots activists alike.

Artists at the festival expressed multiple approaches to sexual expression. For example, the Moroccan hip-hop star Soultana appeared onstage wearing her typical fashion, inspired by international male hip-hop artists, in order to divert attention from her body and tangibly transfer the emphasis to the messages of her songs. [3] At the opposite extreme, Jennifer Lopez did not spare her gigantic audience of 160,000 spectators of all ages from around the Arab world explicit sexual gestures. Lopez’s appearance was not the only provocation at the festival. The English rock band Placebo caused a storm when one of its members came on stage shirtless, with the number 489 crossed out with an “X” written on his chest (pictured below), to express of band’s protest against Article 489 of the Moroccan Criminal Code, which defines homosexuality a criminal offense.[4]This display echoed the protest of the European feminist organization Femen, whose activists denounced the law earlier in the day, when members kissed topless in the historic Minaret Square by the Hassan Mosque in Rabat, with the slogan “In Gay we Trust” written on their torsos.

The defiance of Femen triggered outrage and criticism in the Moroccan public and also on social media. [5]In any case, the Moroccan police made it clear that such acts would not be sympathetically received. The day after the Femen demonstration, two local men were arrested for kissing at the same location. For this act, they were sentenced to two to four months in prison. The sentence led to only limited criticism on Twitter and Facebook, mostly from the Moroccan social organization Aswat, [6] which launched the hashtag #Love_is_not_a_crime. As of this writing, the online protest has only served to delay the trial, and the two men are still in jail.

In light of these protests by some of the artists performing at the festival, thousands Moroccans took to the streets chanting slogans like “No to attacks on Moroccan values!” and “Freedom means respect for others.”[7] Even the liberal French-Arab newspaper Orient XXI criticized the Femen protest, stating “Their message is alien to local reality.” [8] These voices expressed both conservative reactionaries' views and grass-roots activists' frustration with lack of media attention to issues that still plague women in Morocco, like polygamy. However, among those who are able to engender fanfare on SNS, the tone is largely laudatory with respect to the broader cultural trends seen in and around the Mawazine Festival. For example, young journalist Nancy Fakhoury, who boasts a Twitter account with more than 40,000 followers, headlined the glamor and significant social change in Morocco that is clearly reflected during the festival. Thanks to famous personalities like Fakhoury, the festival received increased attention from the media establishment in Lebanon, as well as users from elsewhere in the Arab world.

The exposure provided by the Festival and echoes of the civil war in Syria helped undermine the apolitical image of the prominent Lebanese singers who participated. For example, the Lebanese singer Majida ElRoumi was accused of expressing support for Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of her performance, but rushed to deny it publicly, according to Aks al-Sir, a news site affiliated with the Syrian rebels. The singer herself claimed that her only intent was to express regret for any Arab blood spilled, especially the blood of children, and that beyond this she has no interest in politics. [9] This incident was preceded by a storm on social media, which was ignited by a Tweet posted by Al-Jazeera reporter Faisal al-Qassem. He hinted that the Lebanese army had been reduced to killing Syrian refugees and producing music videos in collaboration with Lebanese divas like Najwa Karam, Elissa, and Nancy Ajram (each of whom have Twitter accounts with millions of followers).[10]

Although the Mawazine Festival purports to create an artistic space seemingly disconnected from day-to-day issues, this year’s festival highlighted the contested space surrounding public expressions of sexuality in Morocco. Nevertheless, it would also be wise to see the glass as half full; the ongoing success of an annual festival providing a venue with widely varying modes of sexual expression stands in stark contrast to violence and instability elsewhere in the region. This is further validated by social media, where the important discussions raised by the festival can move beyond the physical boundaries of its compound to include other parts of Morocco and the Middle East.



[1]  Almeida, C. M., “Unravelling Distinct Voices in Moroccan Rap: Evading Control, Weaving Solidarities, and Building New Spaces for Self-Expression,” Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (September, 2013), p. 322

[2]  On the hip-hop scene in Morocco, see A. Boum, “Youth, Political Activism and the Festivalization of Hip-hop Music in Morocco,” in Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Daniel Zisenwine Eds., Contemporary Morocco: State, Politics and Society under Mohammed VI, Routledge, New York, 2013, p. 161.

[3]  Ben-Layashi, S., “Feet on the Earth, Head in the clouds,” Contemporary Morocco, p. 152.

[4]  Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Moroccan Gay Men to be Tried for Violating ‘Public Modesty’ over Photo,” The Guardian, June 15, 2015. 

[6] The organization’s Facebook pages has received approximately 13,000 “likes” and it has more than 1.200 followers on Twitter.

[7]  “Thousands of Moroccans Protest Against Femen in Rabat”, Morocco World News, June 5, 2015. 

[8] Soraya el-Kahlaoui, “A Message to Femen - Don’t Hijack our Struggle,” Al-Araby, June 18, 2015; “Moroccan LGBT Rights Group Distances Itself from Femen,” Morocco World News, 12 June, 2015. 

[9]  “Al-Fanana al-Libnaniya Majda El Roumi Tanfi Ta'aydha li-Nizam Bashar al-Assad,” Aks al-Sir, May 31, 2015.