The Azerbaijani authorities detained several members of a rapper’s family after a video, in which he sharply criticized the government, went viral.
The song, called Heykel Baba, or Monument Grandpa in Azeri, was released on December 31, the International Solidarity Day of Azerbaijanis. It is devoted to Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov, two young activists now serving 10-year prison terms after spray painting “Fuck the System!” on a monument to the late president, Heydar Aliyev.
“They are in jail for nonsense, a fact that most people see but can’t express in Azerbaijan out of fear,” the rapper, 29-year-old Jamal Ali, told EurasiaNet from his home in Berlin. “As a musician, I wanted to give voice to the existing silence via my raps.”
The video became an instant hit, quickly amassing over 100,000 views on YouTube (viral by Azeri-language standards). “Jamal Ali is a role model for people like me and I hope he never changes what he does,” Aydan Mammadova, a 24-year-old fan in Baku, told EurasiaNet.org. “There are so many people here who try to limit what you do – not inspire, like he does.”
Shortly after the video was released, Ali’s mother, uncle, and two cousins were arrested and detained for four days in Baku’s Sabuncu police station, Ali said. There, police officers told the relatives that unless Ali took down the video from YouTube, as many as 40 family members still in Baku would lose their jobs, face arrest and be banned from international travel, the rapper recounted.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs has told local media that they do not have any information about the incident. Azerbaijani authorities also deny that Ibrahimov and Mammadov went to prison over the graffiti incident, insisting instead they were sentenced on drug charges that international observers have called trumped up. Amnesty International has classified the pair as “prisoners of conscience.”
Ali has been performing politically pointed rap for 10 years, and has lived in exile since 2012. In the run-up to the Eurovision Song Contest, which Baku was hosting that year, he performed at an opposition rally. Afterward, he was arrested and repeatedly beaten, but was set free before the Eurovision competition took place. The government was worried about the image of “holding an international song contest and simultaneously having a singer jailed over his thoughts,” Ali said. After that, he fled to Berlin.
Underscoring the difficulties of Azerbaijan-based artists, several prominent rappers declined to comment on the events around Monument Grandpa. One, Uran, wrote a supportive, albeit diplomatic, message on his Facebook page, quoting the Azerbaijani constitution’s provisions on freedom of speech, and arguing that if anyone should face consequences over the contents of the song, it should be the performer, not his family.
At first, Ali resisted the authorities’ demands to take down the video. On January 6, he posted on Facebook (sic):
my mother and some other relatives are in Baku state police department now. the police is trying to pressure me to delete the latest music video track from youtube. i told them yesterday and today that i’m not going to delete anything until the reasons that create the content of the song are "deleted".
i will not stop writing, singing, saying what i think if they want "changes", let them do it first.
Ilham Aliyev, resign! or fuck off! whichever you prefer!
By January 9, though, he had changed his mind and took the video down. “The track has done its job,” Ali told EurasiaNet.org. “There was no point in hurting people at home. We have agreed that the safety of my family and their freedom to travel will be restored.”
And he said that the authorities told him that if he refrained from using profanity in the future, there would be no further problems.
Despite the fact that Ali has taken the video down from his own channel, several other users have posted the video on YouTube.
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani reporter.
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani journalist.