Fear, threats and self-censorship among Syrian rappers
Syrian rappers are split about how to engage in the fronts of an uprising that have turned to civil war. President Bashar al-Assad’s fear-based society is making everyone think twice.
Refugees of Rap, a group of rappers from the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in Syria, has a new album ready for release about a Syrian revolution they thought would have materialised in 2011. But with the escalating violence, they hold back, afraid of retaliation from the Syrian government.
Al Sayyed Darwish from Homs has moved to Lebanon to release a pro-revolution album of his group Latlateh there. So has Assasi Nun Fuse from Aleppo, but he has his politics turned down, while Sham MCs in Damascus are attempting to party the war away.
BY JANNE LOUISE ANDERSEN • OCTOBER 2012 • [A4 PDF]
Refugees of Rap is four rappers of Syrian, Palestinian and Algerian background from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk Camp in Damascus. They began making music in 2005, have performed all over Syria and across the Levant, and have released two albums Laj2e Al-Rap [Refugees Of Rap] in 2007 and Face 2 Face in 2010.
I met them in Damascus in February 2010, and when I heard the camp was under attack from the Syrian army in August 2012, I began a series of skype-interviews with the 25-year-old rapper Yaser from the group.
When I log on for our first skype-interview on 3 September 2012, Yaser asks on the chat if we can postpone the interview a little. But when he returns and turns on his webcam, I can see that something is utterly wrong.
A rocket has struck close to his house and killed his uncle and grandfather as they are waiting for a taxi that will take them to Lebanon.
There is a shrill crying in the background, it comes from his aunt.
Through Yaser’s webcam I can see two children at the window looking down on the street, but their mother, Yaser’s sister, yells that it’s unsafe and pulls them away.
Yaser’s brows are furrowed and his shoulders sag. He is constantly distracted by his family around him and the sounds from the street. He answers my questions in a weak voice. Little resembles of the self-assured grinning rapper I met to years earlier.
Dissident songs in hiding online
The group has had an album ready for release for months.
“We have about 10 songs, all critical of the government, but we have so far not dared to release them anywhere,” Yaser says.
The rappers recorded the songs the past year in a brand new UN-funded studio in the camp, which they call Sout Al Shaab – The Voice of the People. Here, they have also held hip-hop workshops for the children of the camp. But since a rocket struck next to the studio, they are all just sitting at home with their families, following the news and writing rap lyrics.
Yaser has uploaded all their songs to a cloud server. “If the army comes to our house and finds the music, I don’t know what will happen,” he says and mentions the killing of Ibrahim Qashoush, a protest singer who in July 2011 was found in a river with his vocal chords ripped out.
“That was a message that if you want to sing about the regime, we take your throat. And you can go and die, but what about the rest of the family?” Yaser says and refers to the parents of pianist Malek Jandali, who were beaten a few days after Jandali performed at a pro-democracy rally for Syria in front of the White House in Washington D.C. in September 2011.
“Did you hear that?” he suddenly asks.
Another rocket hit the camp.
There’s new crying in the background. Then the connection is lost. The power is gone. When it comes back five hours later, Yaser says that another resident has been killed. He sends me bloody images of his dead uncle and the destruction in the camp.
“It’s so hard to feel what we feel right now. My heart is beating so fast and my adrenaline is pumping. All the streets are empty,” he says.
And then the connection is lost again.
The intense shelling and assassinations by snipers on roofs had been going on for two months since Syrian refugees started coming to the camp for shelter and treatment at the camp hospital. When the residents of the camp, mainly Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, accommodated them, the government saw it as siding with the opposition. They also claimed that the FSA was operating from inside the camp, and that’s when the rockets started dropping.
Yaser wants to share some of their lyrics and begins to recite:
The era of silence is over.
Why does injustice come from just one man?
You should stand up and say it straight from your heart,
and wake up from your nightmare.
There is nothing to fear.
You can say what you want,
the era of silence is over.
The message of the lyrics mostly seems like wishful thinking for Yaser and the group who say they are holding back their dissident music, until they are sure that their families are safe from government reprisals.
But they have been waiting for a long time and they are growing impatient.
“I feel like I want to say something. The regime is so f… evil. Now, no one goes to prison anymore, they just get killed. The chair is not forever, he should leave,” Yaser says.
During the shelling, he says, he puts on a beat, takes his pen and starts writing.
Dead people on the road, dead people under the road, the smell of death is all over my wall.
24 and the dead follow us everywhere.
We are citizens we don’t have weapons, so why are you killing us?
We shout for freedom, so why are you shouting with your gun?
We will get our freedom if you want it or not.
Shelling and rockets go down on our neighborhood, but we prefer to be free than to be a slave for you.
“Baba, baba!” It’s Yaser’s niece four-year-old Selina, who runs to the door where her father has just entered. Everyone is crying.
“We thought one of them had died,” Yaser says and joins them.
Censored on tv
Three days later, Yaser’s sister and her husband have fled to Lebanon. Yaser and his parents also want to leave but for now they stay with an uncle in Hamra area in Damascus, where Yaser says it’s safer.
Meanwhile his 18-year-old brother has been arrested.
“They took my brother from the university.” Yaser is upset. “We’ve talked to everyone to know where he is. He didn’t do anything. He wrote a lot of things on Facebook, but I write more than that.”
Before the uprising you were on Syrian radio and tv?
“Yeah, maybe because we were the first hip-hop group.”
Were you also critical of the government then?
“In 2006 we performed Lies, a song saying, ‘in this life there’s no mercy, our situation only goes backwards and it’s the past talking. In 100 years I will be as poor as now.’ The tv journalist asked us why we used those words. We lied and said that the song is about society, but the real critique is what’s happening on the political level.”
Yaser says that before going on air, the producer would give them a note saying that they weren’t allowed to talk about the Intelligence or about politics.
“We wanted to perform a song that included the words freedom and democracy and they put an X on it,” Yaser says. Mamnou3 – not permitted.
Your fans knew?
“They know we want to say something but that we can’t. On 29 January 2011 was our last interview. Since then we said we were busy.”
When was your last concert?
“We didn’t do any concerts since the beginning of the revolution, only two in the camp and one in Egypt. The shows here are all connected to the government and we don’t want to support that.”
He tells me that they’ve had fights with many rappers from Aleppo and Damascus and specifically mentions the group Sham MCs, who made a song praising the Syrian president at the beginning of the uprising.
“We used to work together before this situation. But they want to do concerts and bad things to support the president.”
Why do you think they would do that?
“I think because they want to be famous or want to get some money. I don’t know if they love him or if they are just afraid of him. “
You think they love him?
“No, I think they are afraid.
We wrote a statement on Facebook on 1 April 2011 saying that rap is not for saying good things about the president. Rap is to talk about what the people want, and the pain of your people.”
That caused uproar on Facebook. “You are liars. We hate you and your music,” people responded. But Yaser says he later received reconciliatory messages from many of them apologising and declaring support.
A month later, Yaser’s brother is still in prison. And the refugee camp Yarmouk has been taken over by government forces that patrol the streets.
Are you afraid that they will find out about your music and your sympathies?
“I think our names are out there because we were saying things on Facebook and participated in demos and concerts outside of Syria and so on. There are rumors that they are going to take over and start looking for people. It’s calm right now but I think there will be another round.”
The group is currently using their contacts to set up concerts outside of Syria, so they can leave and finally release their album.
“Before we were on our music all day, all night. Now everything has stopped,” and then, Yaser says, “I have to go, another rocket hit the camp.”
Sham MCs: Playing it safe
Sham MCs is a six rapper-large group from Damascus [Sham] that was established in 2007. They have been in the center of the online arguments about rappers’ loyalties in the ongoing conflict because of a series of YouTube videos that have Sham MCs’ songs set to glorifying pictures of Bashar al-Assad.
But 23-year-old Mic Son from Sham MCs says they never wrote songs directly to praise the president. In a skype-interview on 12 October 2012, he insists that people whom they have no relations to (the user called Rap4SyriAalAssad) created these videos and that these patriotic songs were written before the uprising.
“Our last show was in 2010. It’s dangerous to go anywhere. People would attack us,” says Mic Son who lives in what he calls of a ‘safe area’ of Damascus. When I ask him if they today regret haven written them in the first place, he says he can’t answer that.
Mic Son also refuses to declare any kind of sympathy with either of the sides.
In fact, Sham MCs latest song, an upbeat track called Die to Party — which made many people criticise them on Facebook for the message to party in spite of the war — carries a cover picture of a man loosing his mind with the flag of the regime coming out of his one ear, and the flag of the opposition coming out of the other.
He says that after its release many people criticised them on Facebook for the song’s message to party in spite of the war and violence. Mic Son says he feels misunderstood and that Sham MCs’ main mission is to cheer people up with their music, especially in the current situation.
“Many didn’t even take time to listen to it. People here don’t want to hear that,” he says.
The group would like to leave Syria to pursue their music carrier abroad in safety and where there’s an audience more forthcoming to their music and aspirations than what Mic Son finds to be the case in Syria today.
“When we leave I think we might do something related to the situation because of the different environment. We are dead here. Our talent is buried,” he says.
Al Sayyed Darwish: Circle of fear
The position of Sham MCs to stay neutral didn’t go well with Al Sayyed Darwish also known as MC Rage or simply Hani, a former member of the group.
“I think it’s the time to speak. Comparing with other people and what they are risking to protest the regime, it’s nothing to write a verse,” he says sitting at a café in Beirut, where he moved to a month before this interview on 2 October 2012. Hani is wearing a black t-shirt with an image of an alert dog and camouflaged pants.
“After the revolution I think hip-hop in the Arab world started getting respect. Also regular people are in need for someone to say what they think. It’s a must for an MC to talk about revolution,” says the journalist-turned-rapper who today is part of the group Latlateh, which also includes the Syrian rappers Watar and Bu Kolthoum.
Hani left Syria when he was informed his name was spotted on lists of the Syrian intelligence, which had been leaked to activists in Homs.
He got a phone call with the words, “Allah ysalmak.” That was his cue. His friend had been arrested and Hani was next.
“No one is putting pressure on you to pick a side; it’s my conscience that I should pick a side. I’m seeing all these things happening, I should pick a side. For me, whether you decide you are with the regime, at least you picked a side and you are willing to say the truth about it, but don’t be on the side.”
Do you understand why colleagues of yours are too afraid to pick a side?
“Yes. But when you are on the grey side, you are more scared about everyone. It’s a circle of fear. When they arrest you for two days and you experience the whole thing, you break down another wall of fear.”
Hani should know, he has been arrested a number of times, once by mistake. He was arrested, taken to the intelligence detention center and exposed to electric torture for two days, until the investigators found out that he wasn’t the man they were looking for.
“Just think of it as being your father or brother giving you a beating,” the officer told him before sending him home.
Then two months before he left Syria he was out walking with a friend in Damascus when a policeman stopped them. “Give us your ID and mobile phones,” he demanded. The officer then found videos of demonstrations on Hani’s friend’s phone.
“Do you stand with these photos?” the officer asked him. When the friend couldn’t give him a clear answer, the officer told him to give him his number so they could sit down in a coffee shop and talk about his political views.
Days later, the same policeman saw Hani in the street.
“Take me to the place you live in.”
“I have to call in advance then,” replied Hani who was staying in a house with many residents.
“Why, you don’t want them to think you’re a rat?” The officer asked.
“Well yeah, obviously,” Hani answered.
When the officer saw Hani wasn’t cooperating, he put him in the backseat of the car, blindfolded him and drove him took to a place where rockets were being fired on the Free Syrian Army.
“I am blinded, I can’t see. I don’t know what’s going on. No one is talking to me. The only thing I can hear is boof! boof! boof!” Hani imitates the sound of rockets being fired.
Then a guy sits next to him asking him if he fasts. [It was during Ramadan.]
“I told him I did although I don’t.” So the officer grabbed a bottle of water, shook it and started drinking loudly.
After an hour they let him go.
“This experience for me was more terrifying than the other experience. This guy took me for nothing just because he could,” Hani says.
He also got arrested in 2008 for not voting for Bashar al-Assad.
A friend asked him if he wasn’t voting. “Come on, is that even voting, let him go fuck himself,” Hani replied. But his friend turned out to be an agent, so Hani got arrested for 12 hours.
He was sat in a chair in a big room where an officer drew a border around his body on the wall.
“Don’t even try to move,” he was told.
There was water dropping from the ceiling right unto his head.
“After 20 minutes you start feeling it’s like a big hammer banging against your head,” Hani recalls.
Every once in a while a guy opened the door.
“You’re Hani? You’re gonna get fucked.”
“You’re Hani? You’re in serious shit!,” and similar remarks.
After eight hours Hani decided he was going to sleep. When he nodded off, an officer opened the door. Hani was relieved, thinking; “Finally the guys are going to hit me and send me back home.”
But they didn’t. They sent him to the door and told him to go to the nearest place to vote – which he didn’t.
“So it’s been like that for a while. But the revolution broke the first wall of fear and then the other walls started to fall one by one.”
But obviously you wouldn’t want to experience that again?
“No. But if I got arrested at least I know where I’m going, what’s coming and what’s the mentality of the people there.
Hani still has concerns about his safety though.
“Maybe they will persecute us in three years like they did with the Muslim Brotherhood. They kept following them until 1996.”
It’s risking the lives of family and friends
In deed, Hani is still careful and requests that some information can’t go on the record – if not for his own wellbeing then for his family and friends. They are still in Homs.
“It’s their decision that we don’t want to leave to go somewhere else. And really, as a Syrian guy or girl you are in danger whatever your directions are.”
I didn’t start making music until six months ago when I was in Damascus. It was too dangerous, and I’d be jeopardising everyone. If they arrested me I know 70 names [of activists], and no one knows what you would or you wouldn’t say under torture. So it’s not something to test.”
He says since the uprising the authority made it illegal to perform in a public place without a permit.
What’s the risk?
“If you got caught they might arrest you. There isn’t a law really. You can stay like a month in one of the intelligence institutes without being charged with anything. For me that’s a big risk, not just for me, but for all the people that I know.
Now, it’s actually not the government keeping us from performing. There’s death, people starving. You can’t make an event and expect people to show up.”
An album on the way
Hani admits that he is also in Beirut for business. Latlateh is about to release their new album ‘Khatalid’ – Third Line – with the Lebanese label Strong Hold Music.
Hani explains that the album reflects on the past two years in the Arab World, the political conflicts and specifically about revolutions.
One of the tracks called ‘1,2,3’ is originally a song that children are taught in school. But the music and the lyrics of the group have transformed it to a somber and dark song where the three rappers explain why they are with a revolution of the Syrian society.
Isn’t it difficult to rhyme about something as abstract as revolution?
“It’s something you are experiencing everyday. Like, thinking 24/7 about the friends you lost, and experiencing what other people are experiencing, getting shot at, getting followed by the shabi7a [government loyalists], hiding in people’s places. The paper understands you more than anyone, because it doesn’t have another opinion, it’s healing, and writing is a cure.”
So Hani continues writing and he has the full backing of his family to pursue his music carrier while being vocal about his thoughts on the current situation. His mother who is an English teacher is even translating all his lyrics into English. Ya Deeb is one of them:
It feels like the first time I see her, broken, sad and lost she was,
I grabbed the chair to steady my hands, I don’t want to lose control of them.
My brain is improvising poems, my nerve-endings are damaged, I’m shaking.
I try to focus, to be calm, feeling like my body organs are committing civil disobedience against me.
My rage rode my shoulders like a demon.
But people’s faces allowed me to pull myself together. The beauty is breathless.
I’ll try to kiss her so she breathes again, because death is a tiny tale that doesn’t grow except in our mouths.
The darkness rolled a cigarette of worries for a boy to smoke, and while awaiting his parents, he signs adoption papers.
Evening arrives, intoxicated blood runs through my veins, shots on the right, cries on the left.
I remember the neighbor’s voice shouting at her children, shutting her doors because the war has neared the doors.
Listen, I’m not telling a story to amuse you. I’m stating a reality to wake your conscience.
I left the circle of death and lost was my face. I know where it is, I hid it with them.
If I could kiss their foreheads and write one line between their eyes it would be: ‘Al Saud’ are the old ‘qibleh’ [the Muslim direction for prayer], now Homs is the ‘qibleh’ Pray!
Assasi Nun Fuse: Don’t believe the media
In another coffee shop in Beirut I meet 25-year-old Zak from Aleppo – also known as Assasi Nun Fuse. He begins the interview by saying that he will not be talking about politics.
Zak was rapping on his own in Aleppo since 2002 until he met the Algerian raï singer Cheb Wahid and they formed the duo Bilad El-Sham.
‘Clinic of Bilad El-Sham’ is the title of their upcoming album to be released in October 2012, where they have sampled traditional and modern oriental music, raï and tarabiya songs by famous Arab artists such as Umm Kulthoum and Mohamed Mounir.
The songs on this album are, like the premise of the interview, focused on the social and daily problems of young Syrians – the lack of opportunities and the brain-drain of Assasi’s peers; customs and traditions in families; and the conditions for modern arts and the music scene – all issues that Zak has been struggling with and eventually lead him to leave Syria and settle in Beirut.
I ask him what impact the death of Ibrahim Qashush had on him. He answers that it isn’t even an established fact that Qashush was murdered by the regime. Syrian media all reported that the Syrian authorities had nothing to do with the death of Qashush. And simultaneously foreign media was saying the opposite.
“I don’t trust any of the media anymore,” Zak says. He has a song on the upcoming album called ‘The Media is Lying’ – a statement I have heard from most of the Syrians I’ve spoken to.
That same morning, the Old City of Aleppo was shelled, leaving big parts completely destroyed.
“I was crying when I saw the pictures, it’s where I grew up,” Zak says.
This is the first time during the interview he allows some emotion to shine through. Like so many other Syrians, he has learned how to navigate around the forbidden subjects – the issues mamnou3.
In an Al Jazeera documentary about Arab rap that features him and his friend and colleague Abdul Rahman aka Murder Eyez, Rahman says;
“There are a lot of things we are not allowed to speak about, because of what we call our ‘social limitations.’ […] Here, we are controlled by social, moral, security and family rules. We have to stay within these limits and never break out. […] Otherwise society will turn back on us. If I talk about a minister or an ambassador in my society, I’ll be at odds with … uhm,” the rapper is struggling to find a proper way of articulating what he is not allowed to say … “the big potato!” he says, referring to the Syrian presidents and then breaks out in laughter.
While Rahman speaks in the film, Zak looks uncomfortable.
Zak served two and a half years of military service – training children in basket ball in the military sports clubs in Damascus in 2007. His younger brother wasn’t as lucky. He is currently enlisted and is a driver for the intelligence. Zak doesn’t say it, but it’s not hard to tell that his primary concern is for his brother and his family in Aleppo.
Artists at the forefront of change
At the moment, no one knows if President Bashar al-Assad will succeed in defeating the Free Syrian Army, silence the opposition, and restore his law and order – what will then be the destiny of those artists who got carried away on the wings of change and broke away from their ‘social limitations’?
It might be that many of the walls of fear have fallen, but many are still erect.
What does it mean to be on the right side of history – morally or existentially?
It seems too soon to say if the ‘era of silence’ is in deed over as predicted by Refugees of Rap, but for every artist who finds the courage to break the silence, there is a fan base ready to be lead. And the Syrian hip-hop scene is targeting the generation that knows, that fear does not have to be the social glue of society.
Janne Louise Andersen is a journalist based in the US and the Middle East, and covers Arab art and culture primarily for Rolling Stone Middle East.
The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Freemuse.
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