Read Time: 7 Minutes
Libyan DJ Slim Kim talks about rapping under Gaddafi

‘My body is in Berlin, but my mind is in Libya’

Slim Kim
Slim Kim Photograph: zenith-Redaktion

The Libyan DJ, and onetime host of Tripoli’s longest radio show, Slim Kim speaks to zenith about the perils of rapping under Gaddafi, the pioneering station Radio Zone, and the healing power of music.

When did you first get in music?
I'm 33 now, so I started singing in 2003. As a teenager, I was influenced by rappers, like Tech N9ne, Eminem, but Bone Thugs-N-Harmony was my favourite, especially their track “Crossroad”. You couldn’t get hold of CDs like that in the 90s. I learnt from them how to flow, how to sing. My music was about me, my friends and the regular teenage problems we faced, like fake friends. I made my first album in 2003 with my friends from secondary school, Young C.J. and Slim Bone. It was really rare that you could record something like that at that time in Libya. We recorded the album with a simple mic, and shared it with our neighbours and school friends, because we didn’t have YouTube or Facebook back then. Later on, we posted our music in the Libyan section on Muntada Rap, a website based in the Gulf, so people would be able to listen to our music.


Was it dangerous to be recording music in Libya at that time?
Back then, everyone was afraid even to mention Gaddafi’s name. He had undercover agents, called the al-Lijan al-Thawria, everywhere. That's why the regime lasted 42 years without any collapse. If you talked about Gaddafi, politics, about the country in general or even mentioned the police, they would definitely get you. My friend Slim Bone and I were obsessed with conspiracy theories so we made a few songs together about the future of Libya and how it might be destroyed by war. This was 2008. He suggested that we could release the song if we changed the voices. And I told him that it wasn’t a good idea. I was scared. So, we deleted them. Before 2011 the country was safe and one of the richest countries in Africa, but we couldn’t talk about it freely. To talk about the country as Libyans, to talk about the truth. Not like in Tunisia or Europe, where you can sing about Angela Merkel until your last breath, and nobody will bother you.


Why was some music permitted under Gaddafi?
Gaddafi supported some well-known artists, who were not very famous at the time like Lebanese singer Julia Boutros, Syrians like Amal Arfta and Asala Nasri, and Tunisians like Dekra and Sawsan Hammami. Many of whom started off singing many Libyan traditional songs and some who sung about revolution in Palestine. Gaddafi supported them by staging festivals for African and Arab music because since the 70s he was keen to associate himself with the idea of revolution. He banned other forms of music.


How can I be happy and other people dying in and around Tripoli?


What is Radio Zone?
Under Gaddafi, there were no radio stations, so Radio Zone was one of two new radio stations that began broadcasting after the revolution at the beginning of 2012. It was started by a group of about ten young people many of whom didn’t really have any experience of running a radio station, but they shared a passion for music. We all did a bit of everything; producing, mixing, presenting. Lots of Libyan artists were there too both from outside the country like Khaled M and Idrissi, and those locally-based like the producer Big Seno and MC Swat. I like MC Swat, especially his song Aslak Libi (Your Roots Are Libyan) on the Libyan elections, because of the flow of his music, his style and the strength of his lyrics. Radio Zone broke the rules of media. We didn’t speak like other radio hosts. We spoke in slang which set us apart from the rest and made it easier to communicate with our audience.


What show did you present on Radio Zone in Libya?
My show, “On Air”, on Radio Zone was broadcast twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from nine o’clock onwards. Sometimes it would last for three or four hours. That’s the longest show in Tripoli! Music in English was banned on the radio under Gaddafi. Only Arabic music was allowed. So, on my show I played just English music and some French and Russian, but no Arabic. There wasn’t anything else like in the capital or in the rest of Libya. I had the idea of bringing Western music to the country, like electronic music and hip-hop. People could request songs via SMS. I also had a 30-minute section when people could phone-in and ask me about the music. We didn’t talk about too much else. Music was really the language of the show. Lots of people seemed to like it. My fans used to tell me that my show was special because other stations weren’t broadcasting shows like mine.


What did you do when Radio Zone closed down?
I was born in Radio Zone. It’s the radio where I first started and it remained my favourite station. The station ran into difficulties after Tripoli airport was destroyed by warring factions in 2014, and finally went off air in 2015 because the antenna was damaged, perhaps deliberately so. After that, I hosted another version of my show, “In the Mix”, on Waad FM and Libya Sport FM, both of which are still on air. For me though everything's stopped now. I had the idea to stream my show from Berlin to Tripoli using my laptop and microphone or even record my music show here every Thursday and send it. But the radio station I was talking to in Libya didn’t respond. If I was in Libya now, I wouldn't do the show because of the situation. How can I be happy and other people dying in and around Tripoli?


Why did you come to Berlin?
I had to leave Libya in 2017 because I received anonymous threats after I said that the country was unsafe and in chaos on one of my special Ramadan shows. I am one of many Libyan musicians, like MC Swat, who has had to flee the country. My body is in Berlin, but my mind is in Libya. That’s where my family and friends are. I think about them every day what's going to happen? I hear about friends dying every day. A lot of people I know have died in this war.


What is the hip-hop scene like in Libya?
There was a lot of rap music in Libya after 2011. There had been a few rappers making music prior to that, like Double Zero and G.A.B. who started in the mid-2000s. But, a lot of new rappers appeared after the revolution, who felt like they didn’t’ have freedom of speech under Gaddafi. Artists like Adamy Izzy, MC Mego, and Volcano they started making music and talking about problems. There wasn’t just rap but guitar music and pop. I would say there was a 70% increase in artists after 2011. Every city has their own artists; Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata. It was a revolution of music. Media production companies also began to appear which weren’t there before like Lu’lu’ run by Nabil Shibani and Ali Abbar. Now it is very difficult for people to listen to music, but for rappers and artists there is plenty to sing about. I think that the music will continue even in this bad situation.


Are particular groups using rap to convey a political message?
It’s not like that. It’s not like rappers from Benghazi are against those from Tripoli. It’s not a tribal thing. We don't have Islamist singles or something like that. But rap is definitely political, for example there’s an artist called Bad Boy whose songs talk a lot about politics. In one of his songs from 2014, Hardamisa (Chaos), he talks about exactly what happened in Libya politically since the destruction of Tripoli airport. Everybody in Libya listened to this song. I think it would be a great idea to make a song together to forget about our problems and be like one hand together. Something like this would give people comfort.


Interested in what Libyan rap sounds like? Find here a curated playlist with some of the finest tunes.

Calum Humphreys