Syria: Refugees Rapping for Social Change

Af Emilie Henriksen

The Syrian population are living in a war zone for more than two years, 80.000 people have already lost their lives – more than half of them civilians. According to the U.N., more than 4 million Syrians have fled their homes and have escaped Syria to live a life as refugees on the run.

The members of the Palestinian-Syrian hip hop group Refugees of Rap suffered the same destiny. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the band performed in various venues in Syria and even Egypt. But after receiving numerous death threats due to their political statements, the band decided to escape from Yarmouk, a refugee camp in Syria where they grew up. Yaser Janous says in an interview:

“We have been sent death threats and had our studio destroyed by groups loyal to the Syrian regime because of the band lyrics that speak of human rights and freedom, justice and equality and how to stop the war machine”

Their freedom of expression, a basic human right, was being suppressed every day in Syria – also before the current civil war.

In 2001 the members of Refugees of Rap found a voice in hip hop. They quickly understood the power of hiphop and how it could be used as a tool to bring about change. Refugees of Rap started their mission: teaching youth to express their opinions through music and, thus, empowering them to use their voices in order to be heard. It all started in Yarmouk. Yasar Janous explains:

“We did a big workshop in Yarmouk Camp for the kids and for the youth. We wanted to give them the full picture about hip hop culture and rap music. Hip hop is the music of revolution. Through the art of hip hop we are trying to spread the awareness and meaning of freedom, peace, justice and equality”

Refugees of Rap lived raptivism and breathed raptivism. Every single day when they lived in the refugee camp in Syria, they worked to engage and inspire children to use their voice by facilitating hip hop workshops. Unfortunately, Refugees of Rap was not able to continue the workshops. The government attacked the Yarmouk Camp with mortar shells, leaving the group in fear for their own safety and the safety of the young people and children in the camp.

Special bond with Denmark

RAPOLITICS visited Refugees of Rap in Syria in 2010 before the situation exploded in the country. We wanted to include them in RAPOLITICS Bokra – a project focusing on empowering youth and promoting raptivism througout the Middle East. Unfortunately, we did not manage to the get the sufficient papers for them to go to Jordan and participate in a ToT with fellow raptivists from Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Denmark. Since then, a wave of demonstrations and uprisings – the so-called Arab Spring – swept thoughout Tunisia, Egypt, Libya to Yemen in late 2010 and arriving in Syria with a devastating force in the form of a civil war. Today, two of the team members are in Sweden applying for asylum. Not by choice, but by necessity. The third member is on his way to Sweden, while the fourth member has reached Iraq.

Recently, two of the band members visited Denmark where they performed at venues in Copenhagen and in Aarhus – invited by the Danish organisation “One World“. Here, they were given the possibility to use their freedom of expression by rapping about the terrible political situation in Syria. A right they were denied in their own home country. RAPOLITICS was fortunate to get a visit from Refugees of Rap while they were here, finally reconecting with our raptivist-friends from Syria. Gazan rapper Khaled Harara from the rap groups Palestinian Unit and Black Unit teamed up with Refugees of Rap for a concert in Copenhagen and for a studio session. Currently, Khaled is staying in Denmark after participating in a RAPOLITICS project earlier this year.

Raptivism is a step towards change

The track has just been released and is a cooperation between Refugees of Rap, Khaled Harara and RAPOLITICS-coaches showing that revolutionary rap has a legitimate and important position on the musical genre map. By rapping about life in a war zone, critiquing the government and expressing the hopes and fears of the Syrian people, the track gives a voice to people whose voices are beeing suppressed by the government and the elite in Syria.

Raptivism is not the only step towards a more just and democratic society – far from it. But it is a small step on the way in order to fight for a better world, create awareness about injustices and to empower people to use their voices. Hopefully, the voices of the Syrian people will grow strong enough to demand the social and democratic change they desperately need.

We have invited Refugees of Rap back to Denmark in July in order to participate in a series of activities in the project Tomorrow Today. They will participate in dialogue workshops, perform and record with Danish youth and rappers.

About the blogger: Emilie is a communications volunteer at RAPOLITICS. She holds a master’s degree in Danish and Film and Media Studies from University of Copenhagen.