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Libya's artists: We are the 'true' Libya

By Reza Sayah, CNN
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'Rebel rap' in Libya
  • A newfound freedom of speech has been embraced by Libyan musicians and artists
  • One Libyan rocker: "It's an amazing feeling I've never had in my life"
  • The artists say the Libyan rebels have weapons, but they're not terrorists
  • Libya
  • Moammar Gadhafi

Benghazi, Libya (CNN) -- Hip-hop artists don't often smile, so it was no surprise that Libyan rapper MC Swat scowled suspiciously when I first walked into his cramped, cigarette smoke-filled studio in a former government building in Benghazi.

This is where MC Swat, 23, has been writing scathing lyrics about the Gadhafi regime ever since Libya's uprising began in February.

Libyan musicians and artists probably have a right to be wary of strangers. For decades, they say, they feared agents and paid informants of Moammar Gadhafi's repressive regime who reported to the government any work they deemed hostile to the state.

When asked what would happen if he rapped his anti-regime lyrics prior to Libya's uprising, MC Swat said, "I would be shot to death like Tupac," referring to the American rapper killed in 1996.

But here in Benghazi, the opposition's de facto capital, there's no sign of Gadhafi's loyalists anymore -- or the fear that kept artists like MC Swat quiet for so long. A newfound freedom of expression has sparked an explosion in revolutionary music and art.

Much of it takes place in a five-story building -- a government building turned cultural center -- that is steps away from the Mediterranean Sea. The building's hallways are covered with art and anti-regime cartoons, and the rooms are often buzzing through the wee hours of the morning with dozens of young revolutionary artists at work.

"Tomorrow we will take over our land," MC Swat raps in his second-floor studio, his DJ and machine gun-toting friend by his side. "Moammar, we're coming with a mass revolution."

A few doors down, 26-year-old Saleh Dreisi sketches a giant caricature of Gadhafi.

On the third floor, the rock band Guys Underground practices its latest song dedicated to the revolution.

"When you get in this building, you're going to find yourself in another world," said Marrawan Gargoun, the lead singer for Guys Underground. "It's like being Alice in Wonderland. It's an amazing feeling I've never had in my life."

"It feels like we're touching freedom," said MC Swat, who often sleeps overnight in his studio.

The revolution's young artists say they represent the real Libya, and they bristle at allegations that Libya's rebels include elements of al Qaeda and Islamist extremists.

"You can find men with beards, but they're respectful Muslims," MC Swat said. "They're not terrorists. You can see they have weapons, but they're fighting for our freedom. They're not al Qaeda."

Gagoun said, "We were buried for 42 years, but this is the true Libya."

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