In Lebanon refugee camp, “hip-hop is a school”

Yasin of I-Voice (Rasmus Bogeskov Larsen)

It doesn’t take a long walk from Yasin’s little, ingenious studio for him to make his point. Three teenage boys strolling up a narrow alley, cell phones in hand, share some scratchy beats.

“That is one of our songs”, Yasin points out.

Inside the dimly lit 10 square meter ground floor room of his family’s house, he had just been relating how it has become a common experience for him to be able to pick out his own music from the soundscape of the crowded Burj al-Barajne Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut.

When Yasin began writing down his thoughts as rap lyrics some eight years ago, hip-hop to most people was the realm seen in videos of bling-bling, women and fast cars — a world remote from the realities of camp life. But Yasin had traveled back to the roots of the genre in the impoverished black neighborhoods of the American metropolis where he discovered angry voices of disillusionment that resonated well with his own life.

At the age of just 12, when most boys are still boys, “but not so in the camps” according to Yasin, he began channeling his frustrations through rap. He entered into what he refers to as a school, a musical pathway that was to give him valuable lessons in the life of deprivation and how not to succumb to it.

Further down the street, another group of boys, older than the beat-sharing trio who passed earlier, sits on plastic chairs on the pavement smoking argileh, a tobacco water pipe. Had it not been for hip-hop, Yasin imagines he would have been sitting right next to them. At 20, he is part of the duo I-Voice, currently working on a second album and which has just returned from playing concerts in Spain.

“If I didn’t have hip-hop, I would only be thinking about having fun and in the camps where there is often no electricity, where there is no library, and no money to go somewhere else, I would most likely sit with my friends in the street smoking argileh all day wasting my time. Hip-hop made me. If you want to be a good rapper, you need to write good lyrics, and so you need to read and get an education. I know so much more about life, because I have been expressing my self and writing. Hip-hop is a school,” he explains.

Rap music remains in its infancy in the camps of Lebanon. But according to its pioneers it is slowly proving to have the same appeal among young people as among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and within Israel where rap has been gaining popularity for some time now.

Palestinian rap often expresses strong themes of resistance, a verbal intifada ignited by repression and discrimination, by corruption and betrayal.

In the camps the barrage of words targets everyone from political leaders, supposed to represent their people, to humanitarian organizations, supposed to provide much needed assistance, to the Lebanese, supposed to be the hosts and brothers of the Palestinians.

In one of I-voice most prominent tracks, the constant promises of revolution, inqilab, is chided as inkilab, which might translate as something akin to the ravings of a mad dog. In a new song, Katibe 5, another crew from Burj al-Barajneh, lambastes the UN agency working in the camps for pocketing funds while pretending to be the world’s benevolent hand for the uprooted Palestinians.

“When people hear our music they might find it loud and aggressive, but for us its normal, it’s made up of the noises and the oppression around us. You can hear the feelings in every word, the feelings of poverty and fighting and being caught in a box,” explains Osloub from Katibe 5, which means Battalion 5.

Katibe 5 (Courtesy of the artists)

But as the rappers stress, hip-hop to them is much more than expressing anger and frustration. Resistance can take on many forms in the camps where apathy and submission can be the most forceful enemy. One of them is by instilling hope.

“I can say that everything is fucked up, because it is. I can mention the 70 jobs Palestinians are not allowed to take, I can mention the electricity that comes and goes, I can mention how our political leaders are all corrupt. And we did that on our first record. But I don’t want to sound just like the news. I want my lyrics to reflect how I experience life, and you know, if you go to the camps you see the miserable surroundings people live in, but you will also see people smiling and having a good time. Palestinians have been placed all over the world and they have always found ways to be happy. We cannot resist without hope,” explains Yasin, who together with TNT, his partner in I-Voice, puts a particular emphasis on education.

“When I graduated from school we were only 12 left out of the 40 who began in first grade. TNT had to leave school at 13 to help support his family as he was the oldest one and today he really regrets that and tries to keep his siblings in school. We try to say to kids that it is not Israel or the United States that is the enemy. Ignorance is your enemy.”

And the youngsters seem to listen to the likes of Yasin, who are often approached by kids who want to get into hip-hop. By speaking about issues close to the heart of their peers and by incorporating traditional Arabic instruments and beats in their music, the rappers have succeeded in overcoming the initial suspicions towards hip-hop.

Today they play at schools and social events and have become acutely aware that they have a unique chance at fostering change through their music.

“Kids listen to us because we speak directly to their hearts. And so we feel we have a responsibility to bring back faith in our people, to continue to resist the oppression and not to give up,” says Osloub.

To him, hip-hop is therefore about more than just music.

“We don’t just see ourselves as rappers but more as community activists. If we were only musicians, we could not help solve problems. Classical music is great, you know, and it fits in great with a nice house and a glass of red wine. But we need to get the piano out on the streets, and be with the people, and make the piano talk to the people,” he continues with a big laugh.

Rasmus Bogeskov Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. This article first appeared in Danish in the music magazine Soundvenue.

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