As the conflict in Syria barrels into its fifth year, some exiled musicians are using their craft to promote regime change in the country.
Yaser Jamous and his brother Mohamed have been rapping about their homeland since the revolution began there in 2011.
“Before 2011, we always had the problem that we couldn’t say things directly in our lyrics,” explains Yaser, the older of the two. “We always had to write something as a metaphor.”
The duo began as a quintet in 2005, rapping about their lives in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
They started recording songs that addressed the challenges facing young Syrians and quickly built up a following in the community.
“We found rap was a way to say something about our thoughts and our generation,” says Yaser.
Inspired by their heritage – the Jamous brothers are Palestinian, and another founding member was Algerian – they decided to call themselves Refugees of Rap.
“The main idea came from [the fact] that we find that rap music is a land where we can ask for asylum,” explains Mohamed.
As demonstrations calling for regime change swept across the country, the group refrained from explicitly criticising Bashar al-Assad’s government.
As the government’s response grew more violent, the Refugees of Rap faced a turning point in their music; stay silent about the oppression, or challenge the government’s mistreatment of its people.
“There was a sniper in Yarmouk, and four young guys were killed,” says Yaser. “We saw real violence. So [we thought] why should we stay silent?”
The brothers felt compelled to write lyrics that were critical of the government.
“We didn’t choose [to do this] – we felt we had to do this,” Mohamed explains.
Other members of the group gradually began to disassociate themselves from Yaser and Mohamed. The brothers started to secretly record protest songs in a studio in Yarmouk, eventually compiling eight tracks.
Despite taking precautions, such as regularly changing their mobile phone numbers, the brothers started to receive death threats against them and their relatives via Facebook. The messages included details such as family members’ names and addresses.
“We began to feel like we had a lot of enemies,” says Yaser.
“It wasn’t just affecting us – it was affecting our family. Every time we wanted to write something, we thought about our family, so there was a lot of pressure.”
The final threat they received was from someone who said they were in Yarmouk and would kill them as soon as they found them. The brothers decided it was time to leave Syria.
Songs of freedom
They contacted a French friend to help them. He told the brothers’ story to a non-profit organisation advocating for refugees, who in turn wrote to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Within a week, the rappers received an expedited visa to France to request asylum.
“The French government considered this as a real situation that is really dangerous,” Mohamed explains. “They wanted to have us in France to continue our project.”
When the Jamouses landed in Paris in March 2013, they were excited to begin freely recording music with messages they could only dream of conveying in Syria. They felt their new city was buzzing with energy.
“My brother and I said to each other: ‘We are reborn’,” Yaser recalls.
“We feel like we came to life again. This is a special emotion [that] I don’t know how to explain.”
In November 2013, Refugees of Rap officially released their first anti-regime song, Haram, which quickly found popularity among Syrians living in their homeland and abroad.
The music video features scenes of war from Yarmouk along with clips of the rappers describing the atrocities civilians have suffered during the conflict.
But just a week later, the song disappeared from Facebook and YouTube. The brothers have no proof, but they suspect it may have been removed as a result of repeatedly being reported by supporters of the government or the government itself.
“This reaction kind of makes us laugh,” says Mohamed. “Even if we are outside [Syria], some people are still trying to turn off our music.”
Yaser and Mohamed re-uploaded the video onto their Youtube channel and Facebook page. Fans decided to show their support by also uploading it to their YouTube channels.
The Syrian government’s disdain for revolutionary musicians is well documented.
Singer-poet Ibrahim Qashoush was killed after publicly singing lyrics that mocked Assad and Syria’s ruling Ba’ath party. His body was later found in the Orontes River, with his throat slit and his vocal chords ripped out.
“[Qashoush’s murder] was a message to every musician: you do not want to be against the regime,” explains Yaser.
Refugees of Rap eventually recorded ten more songs in Paris for what would become their second album, The Age of Silence, released in 2014. Combined with the tracks recorded secretly in Yarmouk, it features 18 songs.
Music as politics
Rap is the Jamouses’ weapon of choice.
“Politically, rap music can create change and make people think and remember,” says Yaser.
“I see music as writing history, especially in war.”
Charis Kubrin, an expert on rap music, sees this as a continuation of rap’s origins.
“When hip-hop and rap originated in the 1970s, it was generally seen as a way to combat a lot of crime and violence that cities were experiencing, particularly New York City,” she explains. “The origins of rap and hip-hop were really as an alternative to violence.
“One of those global aspects of rap is that even if you look at the different local expressions, there’s a general theme of challenging the system or raising awareness about the problems or speaking out about injustice.”
The brothers decided to rap in Arabic, which they say was uncommon at the time because they needed to use the language of their public, the Syrian people.
“We thought: ‘Nobody will understand what we say if we speak English’,” explains Mohamed. “We said: ‘Our audience is the people we love and our message is for them’.”
Rapping in Arabic has since become the norm in the Syrian rap scene, promoted by other artists including Abo Hajar and Murder Eyez.
Message to the people
The brothers have also run rap workshops for young people. In 2012, the duo spent a month teaching children in Yarmouk about rap as a tool for expression, hoping to provide some respite for the war’s youngest victims.
“We cannot make them safe with music, but we can show them another way of being,” says Yaser.
There was one 10-year-old the brothers cannot forget. When asked what he wanted to do when he was older, the boy replied that he hoped to become a sniper.
“It was shocking for us to have this answer from a 10-year-old,” says Mohamed.
When asked why he wanted to become a sniper, the child said he was inspired by images he’d seen on television.
“He told us: ‘We are at war and I have to choose my weapon. If I shoot it, I can kill people from a distance without being seen’,” Mohamed recalls.
But after the month-long workshop concluded, the boy decided he wanted to become a rapper.
In Europe, the brothers had continued to train young people – holding day-long workshops at public schools in Denmark, where students learn to use rap as a form of expression, as well as learning about why Syrians are fleeing their homeland.
“The kids write lyrics and perform their rap in front of everybody,” explains Mohamed. “In each school we visited, there was a lot of energy and the message was really powerful.”
While their main message is political, Refugees of Rap will be shifting their focus to their personal stories for their upcoming album. Yaser hopes to challenge the stereotype of refugees living in perpetual sadness.
“I’m a human being,” he says. “Being a refugee doesn’t mean my life should be miserable and always sad.”
“I don’t want to live always afraid of something,” Mohamed says of his hopes for Syria. “I want to live in peace. So if there is peace, I will be one of the people who will go back.”