III. Rai and Sexuality

  1. Like rock of the 1950s, rai lyrics alarmed many conservative factions in Middle Eastern society. Those who grew up with the noble poetic verses of the malhûn (traditional Algerian love-songs) and the qasida tradition struggle against lyrics that lack poetic rhyme and the highly symbolic text of the Arabic literary tradition. In all respects, rai violates not only the genre’s own traditions, but also abandons the traditional religious and private domains to embrace mass production, capitalism, and distortion through fusions with Western pop. In contrast to the bluntness of pop-rai, traditional rai addressed controversial desires of sex and drinking by disguising its narratives. Modern rai, on the other hand, celebrates pleasure without inhibitions using explicit lyrics that many would not dare play or sing in the presence of their parents. Hasni, an Algerian fan, explains:

    I cannot listen to music in front of my father, except for Ahmed Wahby, Blawi el Houari, and Abdelhalim, Umm Kulthoum, Warda (artists who sing in the ughniyah tradition). But the rai people, Boutaiba Sghir, no, because of the words…. It is not considered very appropriate unless there is a wedding…. It is used for drinking, to get drunk, to smoke hashish, to get a woman, to forget the future. (qtd. in Schade-Poulsen 82)

  2. Cheikha RimittiDespite her comparative old age, Cheikha Remitti (born in 1923) is distinguished by her low voice and her command of the learned Oranese tradition. As a young orphan, Chaikha Remitti (her real name was Saadiah) was forced to work as a dancer and singer in local taverns. Her repertory reproduced a synthesis uniting prosodies of the maddahat (religious entertainers who sang before women only) with sensual themes of love. Singing in the 1930s, Remitti’s lyrics were graphic and daring. In one of her songs, “Habib el-Khater,” for example, she explicitly described a night with her lover by singing: “It was a single bed and my lover and I slept in it. He scratched my back and I gave him all of me.” The lyrics must have brought an outcry of shock from the rest of the society that Remitti defiantly ignored. Remitti further denounced forced marriages between older men and younger women and encouraged women to enjoy their sexuality, to indulge in its pleasure, and to “break the fast.” (Mezouane). Remitti’s song “Wayn rak tergoud?” (“Where will you sleep tonight?”) embodies most of the rai traits: its hot lyrics are complemented by her low voice and strong sense of presence, which give her an unyielding appeal and asala (authenticity).

    Cheikha Remitti, “Wayn rak tergoud?
    (Musiquess et chants d’Algérie: Cheikha Remitti, Aux sources du rai, Blue Silver Distribution 1994)

    Show me where you will sleep
    So I can come and join you
    I was sleeping all alone and tonight
    God has favored a meeting
    I was sleeping alone in my room
    When I saw him holding a teapot
    Getting ready to serve a delicious brew.
    The eye that drives me crazy and excites me
    Is in front of me and I do not dare approach it.

  3. In the current musical scene, no other rai artist matches the rebellious spirit of Khaled.Album cover of Khaled's "Sahra" Like many of his Western counterparts, Khaled lives the image of a rebel by violating and advocating (without contradictions) his culture’s moral guidelines according to his wish. Many pop stars use their controversial image for the sake of generating publicity and attracting attention, and Khaled is no exception: his dress, videos, lyrics, and music are considered by many Arabs as inappropriate because he crosses the boundaries of socially acceptable moral codes. Schade-Poulsen summarizes his reaction to Khaled’s image:

    While I was in Oran, people closely followed his appearances in Central Park in New York on French television. They were uneasy when Khaled was presented with a bag from Tati (the low-budget Parisian warehouse), a big bleach-blonde, and a bottle of red wine on a “smart” music program on Canal Plus. (129)

  4. Schade-Poulsen’s assessment of early Algerian articles about rai claims that rai artists shatter the concept of an ideal Algerian society by bringing forth the social and sexual problems of daily life. Not surprisingly, some Algerian journalists see rai as a disruptive force that encourages perversion through the promotion of Western values and Western culture—a “cultural imperialist force attempting to destabilize Algerian society and secularize the second generation of immigrants in France” (Schade-Poulsen 26). Khaled has stirred and challenged Algerian society with songs like “Nabghi s-slam l-ragba w yhawwad z-zdar” (“I love kisses on the neck that go down to the breasts”), “Ditha lil ghaba w khla’aha el dhib,” (“I took her to the woods and she got scared of the wolf”), and “T’aanagna fi r-rushi w kasset kulshi,” (“We embraced on the rocks and she took everything off”). The explosion of youth culture following Algeria’s independence seems to demand more of everything: more freedom, more choices, and less taboos. Khaled’s “Hada Raykoum?” (“Is this your opinion?”) exemplifies the sexual energy conveyed through rai.

    Cheb Khaled, “Hada Raykoum?
    (Le Meilleur de Cheb Khaled, Blue Silver Distribution 1991)

    The young girl wants to get married
    The divorced woman wants to break loose
    The married woman wants a divorce
    The married woman wants to break loose
    The married woman wants to go wild.

  5. What Khaled accomplished in “Hada Raykoum?” through the text, he achieved in “Didi” through rhythm and energy. “Didi,” a word without definite meaning, was Khaled’s first mega-hit that earned him international acclaim in 1992. The song, which addresses unrequited love, explicitly describes his lover’s short skirt and young “sleepy” eyes. The piece begins as if it were a traditional rai song. A muted horn, perhaps imitating the original sound of the gasba, plays a short sequence over the Arabic rhythm of the darbuka, a skinned and hollow drum that is held across the lap. Following three lines of text the music drastically shifts to disco, punctuated by an animated bass sequence. The actual melody remains almost static, not extending beyond a minor third, answered by a twisted figure from the keyboard. The main interest lies in the setting of the word “didi,” the hook of the piece. The instrumental interlude elaborates on the opening horn melody played by the keyboard and a saxophone. The song’s intensity reaches a climax with a saxophone solo, which extends the range of the piece to the upper octave. This solo section extends and embellishes the instrumental interlude, performed in a freer improvised fashion.

  6. Becoming one of the most popular rai songs to-date, “Didi” topped the French disco chart for weeks, creating hysteria among rai audiences. Similar success was achieved in the Middle East, though many initially received it with caution. Those who “feared” the effect of rai and its domination over the musical scene questioned the connotation of the title. Unable to define the actual meaning of “Didi,” many feared that it might well violate the code of decency by promoting explicit lyrics disguised within the ambiguity of the word. The song’s power is enhanced by its metaphorical and yet lucid meaning. The fact that its title has no “exact” meaning sends its listeners wondering as they make their own interpretation. Capitalizing on multiple and fluid meanings of words has been one of the trademarks of the genre that allow rai artists to use “hidden,” “symbolic,” and “interpretive” meanings to market their lyrics and to get by social and political censorships within a totalitarian government.

  7. “Didi” marked the beginning of a new era that launched rai into the orbit of “World Music” and made rai an influential genre in the modern Arabic musical scene. By being elusive and controversial, the lyrics and tempos of Khaled’s songs penetrated through the hearts of the rai audience, stimulating the body and daring it to indulge in the expression of desire.12 Nasser, an Algerian fan of rai explains:

    When you play rai, people really get into the dancing. When you play Western music, there are fashions to follow. There are new dances coming up, where you have to learn the steps [Macarena for example]. You are not free. With rai you lift the arms. You make the hips move and you go for it. It’s natural, we’ve been raised with it. (qtd. in Schade-Poulsen 78)

  8. Capitalizing on both Arabic and Western traditions, “Didi” combines the two without contradictions or reservations into one artistic entity. Khaled’s singing style relies on his powerful deep voice, which soars over heavy drum beats and funky bass. His melodic phrases are long and mixed with wailing, typical of Arabic folk music. Trumpets and keyboard often shift from improvisation to repeated riffs. The harmony varies as well from sustained drones to blues and jazzy sequences (Pareles 13). This diversity embedded in rai causes the genre to resist categorization; it is this characteristic that has constantly pushed and refined boundaries through its celebration of sensuality and pleasure.


  9. Issues surrounding identity, reception, politics, sexuality, and rai remain complex and contested. They are not limited to the identity of the music itself, but include diverse audiences and their various political and social affiliations. Politically, rai does not claim to endorse either assimilation or separation from one’s society. But rai consistently voices its critique against restrictions and censorship, thus taking a stand against tyranny, oppression, and social constraints. Through their resistance, rai artists affirm their identity as Algerians while embracing the international community. Their music is constantly initiating dialogue by mixing different styles that assert universality and refusal of cultural exclusivity. Rai’s ability to draw attention to political and social problems, both inside and outside Algeria, to capture the attention of a multiethnic audience, even non-Arabic speakers, testifies to its immense power and influence.

  10. As an artistic and cultural movement, rai is rooted in the Algerian past and actively participates in its present. In this respect, it is not a static phenomenon, rather one marked by persistent changes and contestations. Its complexity allows it to be fluid as well as fixed, dynamic as well as determined, and not simply a matter of isolated aesthetic choices (ideologies) or a direct reflection of political and social issues. Rai, therefore, is continually transforming, renovating, and re-evaluating itself. As Hall argues, the ideological field is “articulated to different social and political positions, its shape and structure do not precisely mirror, match or ‘echo’ the class structure of society” (22). In its newly adopted form, rai is not a substitute or imposition of its former model or a reaction to it, but rather one of continuation and variation.

  11. No matter how we identify with rai, it stimulates us to take an assertive stand. Rai is compelling and challenging in all its facets: ideology, lyrics, and music. In its rebellion against the establishment, whether Algerian or French (Western), rai artists negotiate and appropriate issues regarding tradition, originality, authenticity, universality, identity, and sexuality. As a musical genre and a cultural youth movement, rai has had to travel through the tremulous terrain of cultural transformation and adjustments. Through the process, it has gained support and opposition from a variety of groups both inside and outside Algeria. Its reception in Algeria is unique: some groups use it as a tool of resistance while the government promotes it as a part of its national and cosmopolitan heritage. An artist like Khaled, for example, emerges as a hero and an enemy, Arab and French, a rebel and a model citizen.

  12. With its infectious groove, rebellious nature, and appealing popularity, rai most likely is here to stay; to document, to contest, to bridge gaps, and to participate in the creation of a better future for its Algerian citizens and music fans all over the globe. Rai artists reveal their social, political, and moral identity through lyrics of pain, anger, frustration, sexual desires, and quest for freedom. In the process, they will continue to challenge laws, shatter conventions, and overcome standard musical national classifications, further articulating complex issues of authenticity, identity, and social boundaries.





12. Compare this, for instance, to the dance hysteria created by Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” which gave rise to a new style of soul that engaged with physical gestures and the body through an insatiable and intoxicating groove. See McClary 84–85.


Table of Contents
Top of article
WWrite to ECHO



The Musical Number and the Sitcom

Politics, Identity, and Sexual Narrative in Algerian Rai

Review Essays

Carson: El Niño

Courtier: Long Road to Freedom


Grigg and Murphy: Opera’s Second Death

Niebur: The Film Reader

Jorritsma: Amandla!

Conference Report

Garrett: Criss Cross