When the Libyan revolution began in February 2011, 26-year-old Khaled M was a rapper from Lexington, Kentucky, who was mainly performing at universities and the occasional charity event. By the time it ended, more than nine months later, he had become one of the American media’s go-to Libyan commentators, had toured the U.S. and Canada, and was a well-known MC in Libya.
For Khaled, the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi didn’t start in February last year; it began before his birth, with his father’s and grandfather’s involvement in the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (the NFSL). Both men were Amazigh, a Berber minority in Libya, and both were jailed for their activities. When Khaled’s father, Mohamed Ahmed, managed to escape his cell before his planned execution and flee to Tunisia on foot, it was with Libyan intelligence chasing him. So Khaled spent most of his childhood on the run from Qaddafi’s hit men, until the family settled in Kentucky among a community of around 100 other exiled Libyans.
When his father drowned in 1994 while saving his sons from a strong undercurrent, Khaled learned how important his father was to his fellow countrymen. “All the Libyans from across America came to Kentucky to visit,” Khaled recalls during a break at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York. “I’ve kept in touch with everybody since then and have always been active for the cause.”
When last year’s uprising first began, Khaled seriously considered going to take part. But relatives, whom he’d last seen in 2004 when they snuck out of Libya to meet him and his mother on a trip in Tunisia, dissuaded him, saying, “To stay in America and help raise awareness is better for us than for you to come here and go to the front line.”
And so he put the release of his usually upbeat, positive songs on standby and turned his Twitter profile into an anti-Qaddafi information channel. Then he wrote “Can’t Take Our Freedom” with Iraqi-British rapper Lowkey and the hard-hitting video quickly went viral on YouTube. The web giant removed the clip for several months, but eventually gave in to public pressure and re-hosted it.
“If you watch it, it’s obviously about Libya, but if you just listen to the audio I don’t mention Qaddafi or Libya,” Khaled says. “I did that so people from any country could relate to it.”
When he finally went to Libya in December to visit relatives in Nalut, none of them had any idea that Mohammad Ahmed’s son was a rapper. So he put on the video for “Can’t Take Our Freedom.”
“They liked it,” Khaled says. “But it was a lot to take in for them. Some of them had never heard hip-hop before.”
During the rest of his time in Libya, Khaled walked in the footsteps of his father. He went to Qaddafi’s compound, Bab Al Azizia, where his two uncles and 13 others were killed in 1984 as they tried to assassinate the dictator. He also visited Abu Saleem prison, where more than 1,200 prisoners were killed in 1996. His uncle Sami showed him around. “It was surreal,” says Khaled. “He was telling me, ‘This is where so-and-so was tortured and so-and-so died.’”
The most poignant moment of his trip was when Khaled ran his hands over an engraving of his father’s name carved into the mountainside where he had hidden during his escape to Tunisia. “He was younger than I am now,” says Khaled.
Before he set off to Libya, Khaled told me he almost felt embarrassed going there: “People in Libya say they can’t wait to meet me, get my autograph and watch me perform. But I feel I’m in the opposite boat, I want to get their autographs. It seems almost arrogant to put myself on a stage and perform.”
He got the chance to tell people how he felt when he was invited to a local hip-hop competition in Benghazi on December 25th. “I am proud of everyone who persevered, if not by fighting, then by cooking or volunteering at a hospital or cleaning the streets,” he said from the stage.
It was a trip that re-energized the rapper. “While I was there my mind was racing 3,000 miles an hour. I felt more creative than I have in a long time,” Khaled says. As a result, he has a bunch of new releases on the way, including a track he originally wrote before Qaddafi’s death, and later reworked, called “De-Throned,” and “Ana Libi” (I am Libyan), a “unifying song for all Libyans, an anthem” on which he collaborated with Ibn Thabit and MC Swat, two of Libya’s best-known MCs.
He’s also revisiting those upbeat songs he put on hold a year ago. “Light’s Out” and “Follow My Lead” are already out and “Cloud Conversation” is the next to be released. Khaled anxiously awaits the feedback from his post-revolution fan base. Now that he’s made a name as a political rapper, he feels a weight of expectation that he’s not accustomed to. “I will never make music that is about clubs and popping the bottles. But I am looking forward to showing my fans another side of my personality,” he says. “I’m from the South; I like to joke and have fun.”