Photo by Mohannad Rachid
While hip-hop in the West has evolved into a platform for radical political discourse juxtaposed with mindless party anthems, things are obviously a bit more complex in Syria. Centuries ago, Arabic poets held hijas, which were basically proto–poetry slams, and by extension, freestyle rap battles. But these roots never blossomed into much of a scene, mostly due to the constraints of the authoritarian Assad government. The lack of availability of decent tunes in the country is exacerbated by the fact that, in general, music is a touchy subject for Muslims (some interpret verses of the Koran as favouring a ban on music altogether). These extreme levels of censorship and sensitivity clash with the traditionally rebellious nature of hip-hop, and to violate them by recording a track with incendiary lyrics can be a deadly decision.
On July 4, 2011, the poet Ibrahim Qashoush’s body was found floating down the Orontes River, which flows through Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. According to residents, Qashoush’s vocal chords had been ripped from his slit throat. The poet was rumoured to have coined the mantra “Yalla erhal ya Bashar,” or “Come on Bashar, leave” – a battle cry demanding the ouster of the familial regime that has ruled Syria for four decades. This slogan, along with the Arab Spring’s famous rallying cry “Al-sha‘b yurīd isqa-t. al-niz. a-m” (“The people want to bring down the regime”), has inspired both revolutionaries inside the country and Syrians living in exile around the world to support the resistance. One of the most interesting examples is LA-based rapper Omar Offendum, whose anti-regime track “#SYRIA” got so much attention that he won’t be able to visit his homeland again unless Bashar and his followers are overthrown.
Omar has deep family ties to Syria (his late father was a native of Hama, and his mother currently lives in Damascus) and identifies as a Syrian American, even though he was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Washington, DC. “I’m American for all intents and purposes, but I’m very much connected to Syria,” he said. Omar’s early lyrics consisted of the typical party fodder and other bullshit embraced by most young MCs. Then, while he was in college, 9/11 happened. “I realised really quickly that all of a sudden I had this microscope on me,” he said. “I went from just being another kid on campus rapping to ‘the Arab rapper’ or ‘the Muslim rapper’ – people were questioning my Americanness after a show because I was against the war.”
For the next decade, Omar rapped about the many injustices in the Middle East and performed at fundraising events for Palestine and Pakistan. Then, last year, the conflict in Syria erupted, and he embraced the cause of the rebels as his own. His last visit to the country was in 2010, the same year he released his solo debut, SyrianamericanA. In 2011, he penned the one-off track “#SYRIA” and included the hashtag symbol in its title because “Syria was a trending topic more on Twitter than it was on any news site.” Its lyrics incorporated a powerful mix of recitations of the Arab Spring’s slogan and Qashoush’s chant, interspersed with lines like, “I have a dream the regime will fall/ And that what comes next will be better for us all.” Omar realised that releasing the track would jeopardise both his safety and that of his family back home. He only made it available to the public earlier this year, after his relatives in Syria gave him their blessing.
Omar had good reason to wait for their approval: The hip-hop scene in Syria is as sectarian as its politics, and the government listens to everything that’s released. The most famous rapper in the country is Murder Eyez, an Aleppo native who’s landed on Assad’s bad side in the past but now rhymes in support of the president. His competition includes Eslam Jawaad, a Syrian-Lebanese MC who lives in London and whose stance is also pro-regime.
Some might say it’s odd that some Syrian rappers have subverted a genre that has traditionally taken an antiauthoritarian stance, but Omar can explain: “It’s always been assumed that hip-hop would be the mouthpiece for the street and the struggle, but then in Syria for the first time you had this unique situation where all of a sudden it was also being used by the regime – but not really by the regime, by people who felt that this regime was something to be proud of. To them, they were standing up to the world superpowers that they felt were against Syria.”
Omar, however, is not alone in his musical support of rebel forces. Artists like MC Roco and the band LaTlaTeh combine elements of hip-hop and Arabic music while gently challenging the current situation in Syria. “What’s interesting is that the overwhelming majority of the artists either had to go into exile because they were threatened by the government, or they just straight-up disappeared,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people were jailed or disappeared. Every once in a while, they would hand-pick someone suddenly whom they would let get away with saying something, as a form of pressure release, maybe, and give off the impression that they were supporting the arts or the culture, but there were always lines that were drawn.”
While Omar acknowledges that rhyming about Syria from the sunny confines of LA is safer than doing so from within the country, he still receives plenty of death threats, especially online. And the potential danger of returning to his homeland isn’t the only thing keeping him away; the Syrian government formally notified him that he has been banned from entering its borders. “Until this stuff is resolved, I’m technically exiled even though I’m not really from there,” he said.
For now, artists like Omar and a few brave Syrian residents will continue to express their frustrations and political views through hip-hop, but what’s next for the country and the future of the art form there remains to be seen. Omar told me that he hopes he can return to Syria at some point in the future. “I love and cherish Syria, and insha’Allah [God willing], I’ll be able to go back and maybe have a house there and show it to my kids someday,” he said. “But right now, this is the reality of the situation.”
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin", our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria", a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural and religious complexities.