Sharing a Hip-Hop Dream in Beirut

Af Pelle Møller & Emil Ske

This is a travel journal from RAPOLITICS-coaches Emil and Pelle. It was made during their visit in Beirut in August 2014, where they were invited by GAME Lebanon to participate as rappers and coaches in the project entitled “Democracy Makers“.

Day 1: Preparing to play the GAME!

Emil: As soon as we get out of the plane there’s no doubt: We are definitely a long way from Denmark. The temperature must be at least 40C, and the humidity is like nothing I have ever experienced anywhere else. We are in Beirut, Lebanon, sent on a mission to kickstart a recording studio for the urban sports & arts organization called GAME. They have asked RAPOLITICS if we could supply a couple of rap coaches to help get their new studio going. And here we are! At the airport, with almost no sleep, early in the morning, ready for action! We are picked up at the airport by our contact, the chairman of GAME Lebanon, Ibrahim. He greets us with a smile, and takes us straight to the GAME office, where the new studio is also located. Ibrahim shows us around, and we have a brief meeting with him and we take a good look at the studio. A part from some acoustic treatment needed the place is ready for recording!

Pelle: We take a cab to Tezkar bar, were we are going to perform tomorrow! When we get there a girl is sitting in the middle of a small tag-covered room, playing off key on her Guitar. After a quick look around and our first taste of Lebanese Beer, we take a stroll around the block to get Water-pipe (shisha) and something to eat. We enter a beautiful restaurant and soon get a table full of Lebanese Meze and Shisha. During the next couple of hours we discuss the political situation in the Middle East and how the last couple of years with conflicts in Syria and Palestine have affected Lebanon. It’s a sad and very emotional experience to hear how the coming of Syrian refugees to Lebanon have created huge racism, but I’m glad to get some inside knowledge the day before we are doing workshops with refugee youth from Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.

Day 2: Reality Kicks in

Emil: We arrive at the GAME office, ready for the workshop. The participants come way earlier than expected. We were told that everyone are usually late for everything in this country, but to our surprise all participants showed up half an hour before we were even set to start! WOW – these kids must really be into Hip-hop! Everything goes according to the plan, we are over 17 people crammed into one room. We explain to them how rhythm works, how to rhyme, and the basics of rap. Afterwards we start a discussion about the state of the country, and ask them what they would be interested in writing about. This is where reality starts to kick in. This is not Denmark, these kids come from many different places in the world, including Syria and Gaza… Some of the subjects chosen are: corrupt leaders, safety for all children, the way we influence the world, war and peace, and gender equality. Damn… I have no doubt that some of these people will be coming back to the studio over and over, to make sure their voices are heard. And that’s what this is really about, isn’t it?

Pelle: We head over to Tezkar bar to perform. The joint is very low-key without the guitar girl, but we head up to the bar and try to stabilize our body temperature in cold beverages! Slowly people begin to pop up, and Emil and I hang out with Bassem Mady, a rapper we met last fall in Denmark during the RAPOLITICS Raplab MENA-DK project, where 15 rappers from the Middle East came to Denmark. Just like when I visited Revolution Records in Alexandria, its a great experience to get a better understanding about a hip-hop culture and environment so different from the one we are used to. We play a low-key show with a couple of golden moments, among others the crowds reaction to our song 7 Colors, a song about world peace, which we did with Palestinian rapper Khaled Harara. Once again, it becomes apparent that the Lebanese people have a lot of sympathy and similarities with the Palestinian people.

Day 3: Sharing a Hip-Hop Dream

We arrive at the studio - This is a big thing for a lot of the kids. They are going to record the stuff they had written the day before! Many of them are going to be on their first track ever! One of the groups had a lot of trouble with the beat they were given, but we’d had a great time the day before, rehearsing the song with my beat box instead. So i’d promised them to record some for the final track, and use that as the underlay for their vocals. Most of the recording sessions went really great. It’s always hard to record people that have never rapped before, and I think it gave us some extra challenges that Middle Eastern music is very different from the stuff that we know. Some of the kids had a hard time grasping the concept of 4/4ths that we are so used to in Western music. But overall, I’d say that they did a really great job. There were a couple of participants that really shined through. A girl named Nora, who lives in the US but has roots in Lebanon, was very talented, and really shined on the beat box track. On the other track, Fathi really stole the show with his quick on-point flow, and a lot of attitude. I was told that he had been rapping for years, but had a long break, which was in no way noticeable. This boy could RAP!

Pelle: All pumped up after a great session with the cool young rappers, it was time for us to have some fun and write some bars! We had Fathi and Bassem in the studio, and we put on the BANGING beat Emil had made and started discussing the topics of the track. Bassem comes up with an idea individual and common dreams for the world, and off course I had to make a tribute to the late Martin Luther King Junior and his “I have a dream” speech:

I have a dream about kids playing safely In Palestine
that means enemies reach peace by any means
And be the humans they neglected to be
And finally create a world free of racism, we have a dream

I feel a rush when I discuss Fathis lyrics with him after he translates them from Arabic to me, and it hits me like a train to learn about all the pain and struggles a 20 year old refugee have had to endure! During his verse he mentions how” massacre isn’t an unknown thing for a Syrian/Palestinian refugee” , and I’m left in awe over his willpower and almost inhuman emotional strength! This is why it’s so important to listen to people’s stories and capture every opportunity to learn new things about the world we share.

Day 4: This is the Day I never will Forget

Emil: This is a day I never will forget, and I think it’s safe to say that non of our rap students will forget it either. The plan was simple: go to the Sacre Coeur Gemmayze School, where GAME Lebanon was having its biggest event to date called “We are the World”. They managed to get together 420 Kids, 60 Volunteers and 22 coaches for this big event. An event where kids from Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon came together to enjoy lots of different sports activities and games for the sake of getting together, breaking barriers and having fun. The schoolyard was an amazing big space with lots of room, surrounded by huge trees. The mood was high, it was a beautiful sight. Oh, and did I mention? There was over 400 kids! We did some sound checks when we arrived, and I got the privilege of taking over the role as the DJ. I was representing RAPOLITICS in one of the best ways possible; through the music we have made throughout the past years, with rappers from all over the world, mainly the Middle East. While the sound system blasted some RAPOLITICS tunes out through the schoolyard, Pelle got everyone together, and after a little planning and rehearsing, we were ready to perform! I am happy to say that all rappers did a great job, and the crowd were cheering like there was no tomorrow. I think we made a couple of local heroes that day, too! Me and Pelle ended up rapping two songs, surrounded by kids jumping up and down. It must have been one of the best crowds I have ever experienced.

Pelle: Later Ibrahim picks us up at the hotel and take us on a ride out of Beirut, to a beautiful restaurant on a mountainside. We spend the next 5 hours drinking Arak, a traditional Lebanese, anise-ish liquor, enjoying meze, and talking about the differences and similarities in European and Lebanese culture. The sun disappears in the distance and creates a ocean of flickering lights as the city turns to one with the Mediterranean Sea, creating an almost dream-like setting of lights combined with the constant flow of smoke from the shishas. We arrive late back at our hotel and spend the next couple of hours telling endless tales from our trip, almost like a two headed Shahrazad, while Emil arrange the track we recorded with Bassem and Fathi, so that it’s ready for tomorrows video shoot.

Day 5; Music Video, Bar Fights and Homeless dude with a flow

Pelle: We get picked up by Ibrahim, Fathi and Aras, the photographer/camera man of GAME, and drove to the beach to get some good first shots for the music video. The sun is burning down on us as Fathi does a take where he is crouching down behind a barbed wire fence, a painful but true statement about his life in refugee camps. We then proceed to an old cinema, that was bombed in the 80’s, and get some incredible footage from the deserted building that is filled with tags, trash and long-but-not forgotten memories. We pick up Bassem and drive to an alley right next to the Beirut Center for Art. In the beautiful settings created by local graffiti artists, we get the final group shots, before Bassem runs out in the middle of the freeway to get some urban high-danger pictures to round off the video. We then head over to Radio Beirut to be part of their weekly radio show/open mic jam called “Bar Fights”

Emil: When we arrive at Radio Beirut there is a feeling of relief in the air. We are not relieved because of the fact that we are going home soon, but because none of us could have imagined this trip going any better than it did. We are now officially done with everything we had planned for the trip, which means everything beyond this point is purely for our enjoyment. A couple of days before, Baseem had arranged for us to be on this radio show called “Bar fights” which is a radio show mainly about Hip-hop, politics and comedy. The show itself was a fun experience; it was mostly a comedy show, we talked a little bit about our work with GAME and RAPOLITICS, and then we went on to rate newspaper/internet articles that they had found for us to discuss. After the actual show itself, there was an open mic which was also radio broadcasted. Most of the open mic show that night was run by Pelle and his Arabic equivalent, a local freestyle rapper/hero, who was really talented. But all good things must come to an end. So at godknowswhat time, we got outside and got ready to leave. But this night wouldn’t have been the same without some street culture, and almost as soon as we got out the door, a homeless guy selling roses came up to us and wanted to battle Pelle. They had a 10-15 mins long freestyle battle, and I felt that we’d just experienced a part of the Lebanese street culture that not everyone gets to see.

So this is where our story ends.

We went to the hotel, packed the last of our things, and Ibrahim drove us to the airport. We said goodbye and all agreed that we would love to make more projects together in the future. We were now ready to head back to Denmark with our backpacks filled with great memories, new friends, and new songs.