Refugees of Rap Seek End to Silence
Hip-hop group look to escape Syria and release latest album
When I first met 25-year-old rapper Yaser Jamous in Damascus early in 2010, he was a happy, self-assured young man. Two and a half years later, I log on to Skype for our scheduled interview, and he asks if we can postpone for a few minutes. When he comes back online, his brow is furrowed and his shoulders sag. A rocket has struck close to his house, killing his uncle and grandfather. The Syrian uprising against President Bashar Al Assad – which began in March 2011 – has made such news a common occurrence in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, where Yaser, his brother Mohammad, Ahmed Zarouk and Mohammad Jawad grew up together before forming their band, Refugees of Rap, in 2005.
The group quickly gained popularity across Syria – even the state-controlled Syrian media often featured them in the papers and on TV. But with their Arabic lyrics focusing on street life, poverty, and a lack of education and opportunities, they soon learned there were limits to their freedom of expression.
In 2006 they performed on TV. “In this life there’s no mercy/Our situation only goes backwards and it’s the past talking/In a hundred years I will be as poor as now,” they rhymed in the chorus of the song “Lies.”
When a journalist questioned them about the lyrics, they answered that the song was a critique of society. “But,” Yaser added, “the real critique is what’s happening on the political level.” Before going on air, the producer told them not to talk about politics or Syrian intelligence. A song about freedom and democracy was censured.
Still, the group continued to write and release new material. Their debut LP, Laj2e Al-Rap [Refugees Of Rap], came out in 2007, followed by Face 2 Face in 2010. Since the start of the Syrian uprising, though, the Refugees have been silent. “[Our fans] know that we want to say something,” Yaser says. “But we can’t.” Their last interview with Syrian media was in January 2011, after which they rejected any requests. They’ve only performed three gigs since then as well. “Two in the camp and one in Egypt,” says Yaser. “The shows here are all connected to the government and we don’t want to support that.”
Their third album, Era of Silence, was completed over a year ago (it was recorded in a U.N.-funded studio in the camp). So far, though, no one’s heard anything from it. “We have 10 songs, all critical of the government,” Yaser says. He recites a verse from the title track: “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.” Then he adds, “We haven’t dared to release them anywhere.”
Ever since the shelling started, the camp’s creative spark has been extinguished. “Before we were on our music all day, all night, now everything has stopped,” Yaser says. “I feel like I want to say something. The regime is so f***ing evil. The chair is not forever. [Al Assad] should leave.”
Then the connection is lost. Another rocket has hit the camp.
Three days after our Skype conversation, we speak again. Yaser and his family have now left the camp to stay with relatives in safer parts of Damascus. Meanwhile, Yaser´s 18-year-old brother, Ammar, has been arrested at university. “He didn’t do anything,” Yaser says. “He wrote things on Facebook, but I write more than that.”
Yaser has uploaded his band’s music to a cloud server to avoid the army finding it in one of their raids. “I don’t know what would happen,” he says. But there’s a very real possibility it wouldn’t be good. In July 2011, Ibrahim Qashoush, a protest singer, 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,” says Yaser. “And you can go and die, but what about the rest of your family?”
Ammar was released after 40 days in jail, where he received so many beatings and electric shocks to his face that – as Yaser describes it – he looked like a “mistreated animal.” The intelligence service wanted to know if he had participated in demonstrations against the government. He was told that if he gave them the names of other activists, they would let him go. He gave them false names, which – once discovered – only served to intensify the torture.
“I feel so bad,” Yaser says. “But I’m glad he’s alive.”
In January, Yaser and his cousin returned to Yarmouk in order to collect some items from the family’s house, and pick up the group’s recordings from the studio. To do so, they had to zigzag between the buildings to avoid fire from Free Syrian Army troops and government snipers on the rooftops. “It was,” Yaser says, “a very scary situation.”
They got the recordings just in time. A few days later, a bomb completely destroyed the studio. The camp has been abandoned by most of its inhabitants. Those left, including Jawad and his wife, are living under constant fire from the two fronts. Zarouk’s house was bombed. He is currently living in Iraq with his wife’s family.
There is, however, some cause for optimism. All the band members have recently been granted asylum in Europe. Yaser and Mohammad managed to escape to Sweden, where they now await Zarouk and Jawad And once they are reunited, Era of Silence will finally be heard.
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