The Ballad of Murder Eyez: In Germany with Syria’s Refugee Rapper
In peacetime, Abdul Rahman Masri became one of Syria's most celebrated rappers. Now a refugee in Germany, he's determined to speak for his home nation's lost generation.
This story appears in the November Issue of VICE.
On a drizzly Saturday this May, a small crowd of weekend shoppers gathered in the plaza outside Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church for the city's annual Peace Festival. With its incongruous crumbling spire jutting out over Berlin's lone stretch of luxury retail, the church is an abiding testament to the bombing campaigns that cratered the city during World War II. Around the church, the festival organizers had set up an arts and crafts tent, a "Falafel for Peace" food stand, and a modest stage on Breitscheidplatz. A lineup of amateur performers was playing to the half-empty picnic tables. At around 2 PM, after a woman in an obviously homemade butterfly costume sang a nature-themed cover of Pharrell's "Happy," Abdul Rahman Masri, better known as Murder Eyez, jogged onstage.
Masri is a rapper and native of Aleppo, the contested city that over the past four years of Syria's civil war has come to resemble the most devastating photographs of postwar Berlin. It looked as though he'd wandered in from some other festival entirely. Burly and bearded, he was wearing an old-school LA Raiders cap—a nod to the hip-hop group NWA—and a checkered kaffiyeh around his neck, signaling his allegiance to Palestine. Beneath a beaming purple photograph of Mahatma Gandhi, he decried all Arab leaders as "liars" and "bitches" and began the show with the classic Dr. Dre/Snoop beat from "The Next Episode" ("Hey, hey, hey, hey, / Smoke weed every day"). As he transitioned into his own tracks, the rain suddenly picked up, dappling the paper plates that were scattered across the picnic tables. Umbrellas ruffled open; the crowd began to disperse. Masri implored his audience to stand up, go crazy. He signaled the DJ to fast-forward to his next track. Then, just five minutes into his set, he thanked the audience, wished them peace (excepting, he said, any Arab leaders out there), and waved farewell.
Although few outside the region will recognize the name Murder Eyez, Masri is one of the most popular rappers in the history of Syria. He is also among the first, having recorded his debut single on cassette more than a decade ago, before most Syrians owned CD players, to say nothing of personal computers. During his rise to prominence, Murder Eyez performed weekly in posh Aleppo clubs, recorded tracks for Arabic hip-hop's leading impresario, Fredwreck, and rapped abroad for audiences in Dubai and Cairo—cities where it can be difficult for a Syrian to command cultural attention. In 2010, he was one of three finalists on a rap talent show called House of Hip-Hop, which was broadcast across the Middle East. In the months following the first anti-regime demonstrations in Deraa, in 2011, you could still find his music playing all over: on mobile phones, in taxicabs, and blasting from Aleppo's barbershops and cafés.
Back then he owned a recording studio, his own music label, Big Change Recordz, two clothing stores, and a graphic design business. Through a mixture of bluster, talent, and luck, he'd achieved a miniature version of the entrepreneurial hip-hop lifestyle he'd admired since childhood. He'd even become a kind of regional tastemaker: In the years leading up to the revolution, he'd used his studio to mentor scores of younger artists, who, on account of his large frame and status as the local capo dei capi, dubbed him "the Godfather."
Then the war came. He lost his studio, businesses, and family home. Since 2012, Masri's life has followed the familiar narrative of the refugee: a series of dangerous escapes punctuating long periods of agonizing idleness. He won asylum in Germany, where he is one of about 161,000 Syrians—a number expected to rise considerably over the next year. (From January through the end of July, 44,000 Syrians applied for German asylum.) But this figure accounts for only a miniscule fraction of the nearly 12 million Syrians—more than half the country's population—who have been forced from their homes since the war began. Seven and a half million are internally displaced; a little more than 4 million are registered abroad, the vast majority in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Though they command much of the media attention and invite the most political controversy, fewer than 4 percent of Syrian refugees reside in the European Union.
Now that he has settled in Rostock, a small city on the Baltic coast, Masri wants for work and friendship. His family is scattered across Syria, Egypt, and Dubai. To mark time, he fixes laptops for acquaintances and volunteers his computer expertise at a nearby Lebanese restaurant, all while keeping in touch with his legion of online fans: the Syrian youth diaspora, displaced but active as ever on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Every few days he uploads an intimidating selfportrait, a few words of wisdom, or excited plans for a new music video. But Masri's life in exile is often at odds with his pugnacious and upbeat public persona. "In Rostock I'm always alone," he said. "In my small apartment. Doing beats and things like this. My bad luck to be in a small town with a racist attitude so I don't have friends." He has health problems—he recently underwent surgery for a kidney stone—and he suffers from nightmares and feelings of alienation from German and even Arab neighbors. The thousands of likes and comments on his social media accounts have only clarified his solitude, not to mention his failure to find a receptive local audience. Even though it was summer-festival season, he couldn't get organizers in Germany to return his calls. The Peace Festival had been his first and only performance of the year.
"I have huge power," he told me, "but I can't turn it on."
Before the revolution, Aleppo was Syria's largest city and its economic hub. Its reputation as a resilient center of commerce predates the Hittites. Aleppines have prevailed over earthquakes, famine, plague, and an extensive history of imperial invasion from the Babylonians to the Ottomans and colonial French. The rise of the Baath Party in the 1960s brought stability to the region, but even peacetime in Aleppo could be turbulent. In March 1980, President Hafez al-Assad sent 12,000 troops to the city to quell protesters demanding democratic reforms, reportedly killing hundreds. Most recently, the city has seen some of the worst violence in its 7,000-year history: Aleppo has been balkanized by revolutionary armies, incessantly bombed by President Bashar al-Assad's soldiers, and abandoned by a majority of its citizens. Eighteen separate armed factions patrol the city in protean states of alignment. In many eastern neighborhoods, the destruction is absolute.
By contrast, the Aleppo of Masri's youth was a peaceful center of industry and culture. He was born in 1981, the eldest son of a government clerk and a schoolteacher. In high school he was a typical urban B-boy, breakdancing and lip-syncing over the imported hits of Ice Cube, Xzibit, and Dr. Dre. When he was 18, Masri gathered a group of like-minded amateurs ("Murder Eyez" originally referred to a trio) for his first live show—maybe the first hip-hop concert in all of Syria. He paid a local musician to record instrumental covers of his favorite songs and rapped over the tracks using his own carefully transcribed, if often imprecise, English lyrics. About 50 people came to see the weirdos who'd rented a restaurant for a rap show, but to him it felt "like five million."
"I was the first Syrian rapper. These guys rapping now—most of whom are aligned with Assad, or rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army or al-Nusra—grew up listening to me."—Abdul Rahman Masri
Masri studied information technology at the University of Aleppo, where his music remained a hobby. During his mandatory postgraduate stint in the army, he began recording lo-fi singles of his own and passing them out to friends and family. After military service he worked IT jobs to save money to start his own businesses, most of them hip-hop-related: fashion, graphic design, and production.
"I was the first Syrian rapper," he said. "These guys rapping now—most of whom are aligned with Assad, or rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army or al-Nusra—grew up listening to me." Yet from the start, Murder Eyez was working in a known tradition. Like other early Arabic rappers, notably the Palestinian group DAM, he began by trying on American hip-hop tropes. But soon he found himself focusing on the concerns of his country's youth: establishing the cultural identity of a small nation often overshadowed on the world stage by larger regional players, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Iran. At the time, the small hip-hop scene in Syria was dominated by the country's young bourgeoisie, according to Mohammad Abu Hajar, a Berlin-based, left-wing atheist rapper originally from Tartus. It was this group who knew English and had been exposed to Western media.
Today's Arabic hip-hop can be roughly divided into two categories: mainstream stories of love and loss, and political songs concerned with the realities of the Middle East—oppression, women's rights, Western imperialism, poverty, and revolution. Absent the commercializing forces that changed the American hip-hop landscape in the 1990s, this latter branch has remained true to the genre's South Bronx roots as a medium for political musing, manifesto, and screed. But whereas some early Syrian rappers' work was explicitly critical of the region's power structures (Abu Hajar has been criticizing the state with songs about honor killings, oil subsidies, and illegal detention since 2004), Murder Eyez's early oeuvre hewed closer to mainstream sentiment, only occasionally veering into political territory to assert the importance of Arab unity. (From "Wake Up": "You must stop appealing against each other with tongues like knives / Enough to fill your pockets and forget the millions of poor.") For the most part, the Western media has covered Arabic hip-hop only when a musician fits the narrow mold of the impassioned Arab Spring–style protester, and even then the coverage is limited to political content. Murder Eyez's music, with its throwback 90s-style beats and boastful, often joyfully apolitical lyrics, would seem to have had little appeal for Westerners searching for palatable freedom fighters. But in Syria he found a receptive audience.
After a brief stint working in Dubai, Masri returned to Syria in 2010 to open his recording studio and start Big Change Recordz. He called it "the first record label in Syria," but it more closely resembled a collective of like-minded friends, including Omar, a young rapper he was mentoring. Masri gave away most of his singles and made money with Omar by charging unknown but moneyed amateurs for studio time. Virtually all popular music in pre-war Syria was DIY. The government afforded few copyright protections to artists, and as a result, there was no real professional recording industry inside the country. Just to record a song legally, a musician first had to register with the state-run musicians' union, which did not recognize rap as a genre of expression. "I would have had to register as a pianist," Abu Hajar said. "The state didn't consider rap to be art, so all the recording studios were underground." According to Masri, the music press—doubly important in a landscape where bootlegs abounded and record sales were nearly nonexistent—was largely pay-to-play.
A working musician attracted followers by performing in restaurants, clubs, and rentable event spaces. Masri traveled to Homs, Damascus, and other cities, building a grassroots fan base to complement his inner circle of Aleppo mentees. At home, he recorded new songs every few weeks. His fame spread slowly, until his appearance on House of Hip-Hop. After the show aired in 2010, he was approached by Fredwreck to represent Syria in an ensemble song showcasing the varieties of Arabic hip-hop. It was called "The Revolution." That year, Murder Eyez released an album by the same name, his first proper LP.
"These were the happiest days," he told me. "We would stay out all night, driving around the city, and in the morning I would check on my stores and head into the studio to work. I never slept."
Masri's revolution was musical, not political. Decades of arbitrary state censorship had molded a generation of Syrian artists who knew to tread lightly over charged topics. "The government would never accept me if I got too deep in my music," he said. It was well known that musicians working in neighboring countries such as Jordan enjoyed greater freedoms. In 2007, shortly after releasing a song critical of Assad's oil policy, Abu Hajar was detained by state police and expelled from university. He moved to Jordan to finish school, and he was amazed by the mature state of the rap scene there. "People actually knew how to make beats," he said.
Two years later, near the height of his fame, Masri had his own brush with Syria's capricious censorship. He and Omar had traveled to Damascus for a show at a bar called Amigos. While taping up flyers, they were approached by one of Assad's intelligence officers and asked to come into the police station the next morning. When they showed up, the officer announced, "These are the Satanists." As evidence, he pointed to their hip-hop fashions and to the flyer, which featured Amigos' logo: the skull of a horned steer.
The men were arrested and taken to adjacent prison cells, which were filthy and dark save the slot of brightness in the door where food entered. They remained there for 20 days, after which Masri was brought to a courtroom. The charge was "spreading Satan's music." A sympathetic judge asked him to recite some verses of the Qur'an to prove his devoutness, and both men were released with a warning to avoid political subjects. After the arrest, Omar, the son of a wealthy industrialist, grew increasingly disenchanted with the government. When the protests started, he joined the ranks of young Syrians gathering at Friday-night mosque meetings.
But Masri didn't believe his arrest indicated widespread problems in the justice system, even given the regime's documented history of torture and unlawful imprisonment. "For me it was funny," he said. "I knew someone would catch the mistake. So long as you have connections, everything is fine."
His attitude was typical. When protests spread from the country's southern regions in mid 2011, the cosmopolitan citizens of Aleppo were initially uninvolved. Masri's family moved in the city's elite circle of regime-friendly business owners, and Murder Eyez's most successful single, released that year, cautioned against divisive—that is, revolutionary—politics. Over a choppy and abrasive beat, he voiced the fear that youthful dissent might rend the country apart and pit brother against brother. Two days after the song's release, he told me, "It was in every taxicab in Syria, every mobile, every radio and TV station."
The surprise hit coincided with a pre-war surge in government support among a subset of affluent young Syrians. The single cemented Murder Eyez's status as the country's most recognizable rapper, while also occasioning anonymous threats against him and his family that hastened their eventual escape. He has since refused to align himself with either pro-Assad or rebel factions. To take sides now would be to incite further violence, he said. He is also worried about the safety of family members still in Aleppo: a sister, a brother-in- law, and several uncles and cousins, many of whom share his full name.
Assad's military responded to the early protests by arresting, beating, and shooting suspected participants. A few unwilling officers defected and founded the revolutionary Free Syrian Army. Armed skirmishes reached Aleppo in the first half of 2012, when security forces and state-armed shabiha fighters opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in the city. That year, on the third day of Ramadan, Masri was working in his recording studio when his mother called. "Don't come home," she said. "Your uncle's here, and we're moving everything." Behind her voice, he heard the rattle of gunfire. He thought of American war movies.
The family moved to a safer neighborhood, but violence followed as the city fractured into shifting zones of regime and rebel control. By August, opposition groups controlled eastern Aleppo. Meanwhile, Masri watched his diabetic mother's health decline. ("My father died before the war, thank God.") At the end of the year, shortly before the dramatic closure of Aleppo's airport, the family flew to Egypt, settling in Cairo for what they hoped would be a temporary stay. Masri was shaken by his sudden exile. He stopped recording music, put on weight, and watched his savings dwindle. Only after a year of silence did he write and record a new song, the mournful "Sigh of Aleppo." The video—in which he broods over scenes of the city's destruction—is his most viewed on YouTube.
After the military coup in Egypt, Syrian refugees there became frequent targets of abuse due to their perceived allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood. Masri found his family's future again uncertain, and he put his mother on a flight to Turkey. Thanks to a special visa exemption for elderly parents, she was able to go live with his younger brothers in Dubai, where they have worked for more than a decade. Masri had no chance of joining them—even now, the wealthy Gulf states have, with few exceptions, refused to accept Syrian refugees. But he knew of friends who had settled in Sweden, reportedly a haven for asylum seekers. Perhaps he could join them.
Masri decided to fly to Greece, where he paid the equivalent of $4,000 to get to Italy. He asked me not to publish the exact details of how he reached the shores of EU territory, but he showed me photographs taken on his cell phone that evinced a wearying and dangerous journey for him and his fellow passengers, one on which food and physical safety were at times uncertain.
Once the passengers reached Italy, authorities pressured them to claim asylum, as was required by the EU's Dublin Regulation. Masri says that the police beat detainees with nightsticks and that some people gave in and signed. Most new arrivals refused, however. Their eyes were on Germany and Scandinavian countries, where there is far more financial and structural support for incoming refugees. Those who refuse to claim asylum in poorer EU countries can be detained, but this is hardly a deterrent for desperate escapees. Many have heard tales of jobs and good welfare elsewhere. After three days in a repurposed gymnasium, Masri was released with the other holdouts, given food and a bath, and instructed to leave Italy within 24 hours. He then found transport into Germany, where he was arrested near the northern border with four other traveling companions. The cops were friendly and understanding, he said. The next day, he moved into a large refugee center near Rostock.
The ongoing conflict in Syria has created the largest wave of displacement since the Second World War, contributing to the record-setting 60 million people currently scattered by war around the world. About 800,000 people will enter Europe this year as refugees or migrants with virtually no way of doing so legally. Many cross the Mediterranean by boat, a dangerous passage that has killed more than 2,000 people this year. Few Syrians have the means to risk the journey into EU territory, and fewer still manage to reach the haven of Germany, where they find a supportive state apparatus and a high standard of living. In this sense, at least, having made it to the refugee center, Masri was among the luckiest of exiles.
In June—two months before the influx of refugees into the EU would capture worldwide attention—I visited Masri in Rostock, where he has lived since 2013. The German government had granted him asylum status, allowing him to receive welfare from a job center, rent an apartment on his own, and work if he could find employment. He met me at the train station at Lichtenhagen, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. "This is it," he said, gesturing to the deserted street and towering residential dominoes. "There're no crowds here."
Rostock was once East Germany's largest port and one of the major trading hubs of the Eastern bloc. After the fall of the Wall, the shipping industry collapsed. Years of high unemployment and poverty followed. Since then, the name "Rostock" has entered the national consciousness exactly once. On the walk to Masri's building, we passed the occasion of the city's infamy: a large apartment complex known as the Sunflower House, decorated on one side with a floral mural. In August 1992, a mob of right-wing extremists attacked the building, which was being used as a reception center for mostly Vietnamese, Sinti, and Roma asylum seekers. The rioters shouted racist chants—"Germany for Germans!" "Foreigners out!"—and threw rocks and firebombs. Even as the housing complex went up in flames and residents scrambled to the roof, police and firefighters stood idly by alongside several thousand cheering onlookers. After the blaze was finally extinguished, justice moved slowly. Rostock's mayor was forced to resign, but only a handful of the 300 or so rioters were sentenced to time in prison. Across the country newspapers speculated on the meaning of this frightening return to 1930s-style unrest, and today mentions of Rostock can still conjure the specter of xenophobia. More than one German expressed surprise that I was visiting a Syrian refugee there.
He had a plan. He would become the rapper to speak for his own lost generation: young Syrian survivors who have had their homes destroyed and ambitions thwarted, if not by sniper fire and shrapnel then by displacement and uncertainty.
By chance, it was virtually in the shadow of the Sunflower House that Masri had found the one-room flat that held his twin bed, his couch, and the desk on which sat his large secondhand computer monitor. Above the bed hung a poster of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone.
"There are a few neighborhoods I was told to stay out of and not rent an apartment there," he said after making me a cup of Nescafé. "And two or three times a drunk guy has yelled something in German at me and a stranger has explained that it was against immigrants." Otherwise, Masri has been left undisturbed. He spends his days looking for work, writing songs, or else cycling to the small cobblestone plazas downtown. He avoids the company of others, even other Syrian exiles, although he had a hard time explaining why. Eventually, he found the words: "My uncle has been killed. Two cousins have been killed. A lot of places from my memory have been destroyed. There are too many things," he said. "Syrians in Germany have lost their emotional side."
Remembering Aleppo could occasion in Masri sudden feelings of helplessness, but more often he was jocular and exuberant. Decades of watching the world's biggest hip-hop stars had taught him the importance of self-aggrandizement, and he took pleasure in describing his rap and beat-making skills. For online fans he curates an unflappably tough persona: posting photo montages in which his eyes glower over the Aleppo skyline, and writing bombastic missives about current events and his own streetwise worldview. "Some ppl playin HardCore," he wrote on Facebook last year. "** I AM HARDCORE ** .. that's how I grew up n this is who I AM."
When we met he was wearing his standard hip-hop ensemble: a flat-brimmed baseball cap, sunglasses, and a shirt that read "Hustla King" amid an explosion of hundred-dollar bills. Hip-hop lifestyle was about appearances, he told me. As a practicing Muslim, he didn't drink or smoke. He also occasionally displayed the vestigial conservative values of his religious upbringing. When the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality this June, he posted a virulent message to Facebook that began, "Fuck the #LGBT Fuck the #Rainbow_ Flag." But when a gay man later confronted him about the post, he felt chastened. "He showed me I was selfish with my own opinion," he said. "It's against my society and my religion, but Europe is different, it's normal here." Above all, he hated violence, especially now that he knew what it was to be shot at. He said the name Murder Eyez was meant to imply a gaze filled with strength and resolve, and that he regretted the violent implications. (Before the revolution, he'd been invited to perform at the US embassy in Syria, where it was agreed he would rap under his birth name in order to avoid the potential scandal of a State Department performance that featured a devout Muslim rapper named "Murder Eyez.")
Of those rappers who stayed behind in Syria, some are now soldiers for either Assad or the Free Syrian Army. Even those who don't actively fight are often paid propagandists, Masri said, adding that he'd received offers from both groups but that he accepted none. Since the war displaced him, his music has avoided the sort of patriotic partisanship he'd embraced in what became his largest and most troublesome hit; instead, he has focused on the country's suffering and its future, on odes to friends and family, and on standard hip-hop braggadocio. His most recent single, "Arab Mud," excoriated Arab leaders for their indifference to Syria's suffering. He'd filmed the music video in his kitchen, against a blanket backdrop, a fact effectively masked by jittery post-production effects. "I did the music, the editing, the mixing, the video editing, and the graphics," he said. "I did everything myself here in the apartment."
This was another development that had slowed his work. In Aleppo, Masri worked with half a dozen regular collaborators. In Rostock, he was alone. The opportunities for a musician of any background were limited, and for a minority even more so. He longed to live in a larger, more youthful German city, such as Berlin or Cologne, where he might find more support for his music, including both fans and collaborators. "I need to move out of Rostock, to make my own recording studio again," he said. Moving wouldn't be easy, though. He would have to work his way through Germany's famous bureaucratic machinery and, if successful, forfeit his welfare checks.
By raw numbers, Germany accepts more refugees than any other country in Europe, although it trails several EU neighbors, notably Sweden, in refugees per capita. All of them lag far behind Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, whose refugee camps are beyond overcrowded. (Syrian refugees make up more than a quarter of Lebanon's population.) In the first half of 2015, close to 180,000 people applied for asylum in Germany, about 34,000 of whom came from Syria. German chancellor Angela Merkel has invited all needful Syrians to apply for asylum in Germany, effectively suspending the EU's Dublin Regulation, which some pundits fear has created a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. While most Germans support their country's role as a haven for desperate asylum seekers, a steady reactionary impulse has taken hold in some regions. PEGIDA, the anti-Islam party whose name stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident, attracted thousands to its rallies last fall, and this summer, its candidate Tatjana Festerling won nearly 10 percent of the mayoral vote in its eastern stronghold of Dresden. In her campaign speeches, Festerling criticized asylum seekers who "left family and home because here there's somewhere nice to live and you get dough from the state."
Meanwhile, arsonists set fire to renovated shelters in Tröglitz and Vorra just weeks before migrants were to move in. Hate crimes have increased sharply over the past few years and intensified especially in recent months, even in liberal Berlin. Abu Hajar, the leftist rapper, described physical encounters with racists on public transit in the capital, where he has been threatened by locals with fierce-looking dogs and taunted with calls of "Moslem."
As the day waned, Masri and I took the train inland to eat at the Lebanese restaurant where he had offered his services as a graphic designer and IT consultant. Over the past few weeks, the restaurant had become a meeting place for the local Arab community. He introduced me to our waiter, an Iraqi barber who'd fled his country shortly after the US invasion and who quietly told me that things had been better under Saddam Hussein. An old man who'd lost his ring finger fighting for Yasser Arafat joined our table and asked me, in my opinion as an American journalist, whether it was true that the former PLO chairman had been poisoned. A group of Germans sat down and ordered a hookah. Arab families stopped in for tea, and Masri teased several of the children he knew.
"This generation is lucky," he said as he hoisted up a laughing girl by her overalls. "Because they escape from Arab rule and grow up in Europe. They will study in the best schools. They will get the habits of the European." The restaurant owner, a buff Lebanese-Palestinian man who'd lived in Rostock for 12 years (and who had married and fathered a child in the meantime), shook my hand and gushed in fluent German about the country's tremendous hospitality. In Masri's circle, pro-European sentiment was more or less universal, but other Syrians were willing to criticize EU policy and conservative German beliefs even as they praised the country's openness toward foreigners. Abu Hajar spoke of the condescension he'd witnessed in the "Refugees Welcome" movement, in which he said even well-meaning liberals often took their nationalism and ethnocentrism for granted.
The traumas of exile include both physical dangers and the alienation that attends language and cultural barriers in a foreign land. But there is a further trial, less often discussed: the exile's sudden abdication of power. Even the poorest citizen commands some influence in his homeland. On landing in Rostock, Masri found himself without a lifetime's worth of knowledge and cultural acumen. Upended in exile, he retreated inward. Knowledge of his sacrifice became an integral part of his self-image, even to the exclusion of other exiles, and he seemed determined to bend neither toward assimilation nor toward homesick resentment. "I don't have friends, especially Arab friends," he told me. "I'm trying hard to be away from the Arab mentality. I don't want to talk about the war anymore." I thought of a line of Edward Said's: "Clutching difference like a weapon to be used with stiffened will, the exile jealously insists on his or her right to refuse to belong."
A few days after I left Rostock, Masri emailed me to tell me he had concocted his most ambitious project since the war began. At the start of Ramadan, he assembled a group of seven Syrian rappers and producers, including both hard-line Assad supporters and revolutionaries, to film a music video promoting peace and unity for Syria. He spent the better part of a month editing the files sent to him by collaborators, and he released the song, "Upside Down," just in time for Eid. He had a plan. He would become the rapper to speak for his own lost generation: young Syrian survivors who have had their homes destroyed and ambitions thwarted, if not by sniper fire and shrapnel then by displacement and uncertainty.
He started a hashtag, #Syrian_Hip_Hop_Unity, which he began appending to his releases as well as those of other rappers. When we spoke again in October, he said that dozens of Syrian rappers had offered to support the hashtag, agreeing to set aside their sectarian differences in order to propagandize for a speedy peace.
"It's very hard to reunite people who used to hate and attack each other for 5 years hahaha but it seems it works," he wrote to me on Facebook. The small success had emboldened him, and he'd since swung back from misery toward his most natural state: busy optimism. He had about six other songs at various stages of the production process, most of them collaborations with Western rappers from the US, Germany, and France, and he was just finishing up a track called "Foreign," about being a stranger in another country. The best news of all, though, was that he was getting ready to leave Rostock. After months of searching for a job and an apartment in a more vibrant German city, he'd finally gotten lucky. "I met a German girl, amazing friend," he told me. "We started chatting online, and now she's helping me register at her apartment in Cologne." He would have to forfeit his payments from the job center, but he seemed pleased about this fact. "It's a big shame to be a young man and getting help from the government," he said.
Meanwhile, an anti-fascist group in Rostock had asked him to perform at a demonstration—his first concert since the Peace Festival—and other organizers were returning his emails about the 2016 festival season. He was back in business, making long-term plans and reviving a dream that could keep him in Germany indefinitely. He wanted to get an IT job in Cologne and save money in order to resurrect Big Change Recordz as soon as he could afford to open a studio. He'd already researched the whole process. "Before, we were an underground record label, but here I'll make it official, get the copyright, and make it legal."
In Rostock, when I had asked Masri when he thought he might go home again, he cut me off. "Of course I would love to go back today, but there's nothing there, no opportunities," he said. "Let's be real. Maybe my grandson will live in Syria."