Syrian Rappers Find Their Voice

Young musicians are expressing themselves with their own take on rap and hip-hop.

Syrian Rappers Find Their Voice

Young musicians are expressing themselves with their own take on rap and hip-hop.

Friday, 10 April, 2009
With a swift move, he brings the microphone close to his mouth.

“Brothers in Gaza, my microphone is your cannon. You kneel down only to God, and no one can force you to surrender,” blares out Hani al-Sawah, as if on stage in front of a huge audience.

But Sawah, 20, is performing with friends in his bedroom and makeshift recording studio in the city of Homs.

Sawah’s head is shaved – his only obvious fashion statement, though he’s no ordinary young man. He sees himself as a poet, writing and performing rap songs with two other friends.

Set up three years ago, his band, Street Art, is now beginning to win over other Syrian youngsters.

Sawah is one of a growing number of rappers and hip-hop performers in Syria who sing about politics, social change and the problems faced by Syrian youth. Most of these homegrown talents, like Rap Refugees, Wrong Way, and Sons of Rage, are gaining popularity among teenagers and university students.

They perform on the street, in parks and college campuses all over Syria, mainly in cities like Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Lattakia.

“At first, we started imitating foreign rap singers,” said Sawah, recalling that he used to dress and perform like famous artists, such as Latin-American performer Immortal Technique whose lyrics are highly political and often call for revolution.

But he gradually created his own style inspired by life in Syria. He now sings in Arabic with western rap beats.

“We started singing about domestic issues that fit the reality we live in,” said Sawah, who every Thursday meets with his friends on the corner of a street in Homs to exchange ideas and improvise new lyrics.

“Through Arabic rap, we found a great style to express ourselves. Simply, it is a matter of letting off steam.”

Most rap groups haven’t the means to record tracks and produce CDs. They rely on Facebook and other websites to publicise their songs.

Very few get to perform on stage because of the total lack of support for their music, which is considered marginal by record companies, said Imad al-Helou, who works as a sound technician and helps a number of rap bands.

Helou, who also owns a CD shop in Homs, said that local rap songs are downloaded from Syrian websites or passed from one person to another via flash discs. One song was downloaded 50,000 times only hours after it was put online, he said.

The Song of an Exile, performed by Khalid Gailani, obviously hit a nerve in a country where many youngsters dream of leaving – even though many of those who do so and then come back are often disillusioned and disappointed.

“It is a lie to say that abroad everything is great, everything is sweet and good. Take it from me, it is all fantasy. Here, life is decent. Abroad, you are humiliated, so it’s not worth it,” said Khalid, 21, who is one of Syria’s best known rappers.

Khalid wrote the song based on the experience of one of his friends who went abroad but had no luck.

Lyrics that relate to the day-to-day issues of young Syrians seem to be key to the success of local rappers.

Some manage to record their songs in big studios in Damascus by splitting the fee of roughly 100,000 Syrian pounds (2,000 US dollars) between them.

But most produce their songs at home, using simple sound mixers.

“This is the story of my life from birth to death. I hear the sounds of my ahs (used in Arabic to express pain) but still resist,” sings Firas Maasarani, a rapper with the band Underground Pound.

Massarani believes that his songs have a “purpose and a meaning”, that each song is a piece of art, like a painting, trying to convey a message and make people think.

In the first place, they want to express themselves.

But of course, there is also the hope that they will some day be able to make a living out of it, move from the bedroom to a professional studio – a dream that still seems very far away.

“Our music is often looked down upon,” noted Massarani.

So far, though, the authorities have not tried to ban any of the music. This is perhaps because most rappers – either consciously or subconsciously – know the red lines.

Their lyrics mostly deal with social issues or with political topics that are considered acceptable to discuss.

In the aftermath of the Israeli incursion in Gaza in December last year, for example, many rappers devoted their songs to the plight of the Palestinian people.

In the song I Call on You, Khalid criticised Arab regimes that did not come to the aid of Palestinians in Gaza.

“A nation on whose forehead shame we write. There are men under fire who defend themselves by stones,” he sings.

Lyrics like this, he feels, cannot be sung in baggy American pants like most US rappers wear. He prefers to perform in the Kefiyeh, the black and white headscarf that has become the symbol of the Palestinian cause.

In another of his successful songs, The Coffee Has Boiled, he criticises the Syrian youth’s growing obsession with western looks and fashion.

“I have a headache,” run the lyrics. “I feel my heart is hurting when I see my country’s young men and women good only at imitation.”

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