Hip Hop in Syria Is Deathly Serious Business
While hip-hop in the West has evolved into a platform for radical political discourse juxtaposed with mindless party anthems, things are obviously a bit more complex in Syria. Centuries ago, Arabic poets held hijas, which were basically proto–poetry slams, and by extension, freestyle rap battles. But these roots never blossomed into much of a scene, mostly due to the constraints of the authoritarian Assad government. The lack of availability of decent tunes in the country is exacerbated by the fact that, in general, music is a touchy subject for Muslims (some interpret verses of the Koran as favoring a ban on music altogether). These extreme levels of censorship and sensitivity clash with the traditionally rebellious nature of hip-hop, and to violate them by recording a track with incendiary lyrics can be a deadly decision.
On July 4, 2011, the poet Ibrahim Qashoush’s body was found floating down the Orontes River, which flows through Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. According to residents, Qashoush’s vocal chords had been ripped from his slit throat. The poet was rumored to have coined the mantra “Yalla erhal ya Bashar,” or “Come on Bashar, leave”—a battle cry demanding the ouster of the familial regime that has ruled Syria for four decades. This slogan, along with the Arab Spring’s famous rallying cry “Al-sha‘b yurīd isqa-t. al-niz. a-m” (“The people want to bring down the regime”), has inspired both revolutionaries inside the country and Syrians living in exile around the world to support the resistance. One of the most interesting examples is LA-based rapper Omar Offendum, whose anti-regime track “#SYRIA” got so much attention that he won’t be able to visit his homeland again unless Bashar and his followers are overthrown.