From Syria to Paris, music provides haven for 'Refugees of Rap'

 18 Mar 2017 - 21:04

From Syria to Paris, music provides haven for 'Refugees of Rap'
"Refugees of Rap", brothers Yaser (L) and Mohamed Jamous, pose in Paris on January 19, 2017. AFP

By Simon Valmary / AFP

Paris: Staccato lyrics may be no match for Bashar al-Assad's military firepower, but two brothers, who fled to Paris from Syria and perform as "Refugees of Rap", find sniping with words a liberating experience.

Having grown up officially stateless in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, Yaser and Mohamed Jamous rap in Arabic about the war they have fled and their new life in France.

"We chose the name because for us, rap represents a country where we can say what we think," Mohamed, 28, told AFP.

"And we're seeking asylum there."

Over a pounding beat, solemn music blending high piano keys and low violin tones, the brothers "spit", or speak, the chorus in unison: "We have to wake up, stop dreaming. The time for silence is long gone, swept away by words."

The lyrics are from their 2011 song "The Age of Silence", one of the last they sung before fleeing Syria via Lebanon.

Performing their hip-hop at a Paris community centre, the brothers said the song had been the "first time we dared speak up openly against the (Assad) regime" despite the risk in doing so.

"One word, and you got 20 years (in prison) or death. Here, we wanted to say that the time for silence is over."

The duo were born and raised in the Yarmuk camp for Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Damascus, which was once home to 160,000 people -- including Syrians -- but has been ravaged by fighting.

Their grandfather fled to Syria from Haifa in 1948 when the state of Israel was created.

Yaser and Mohamed left Syria in early 2013 as fighting for control of the camp intensified. The rest of their family also fled and is in Sweden.

Inspiration in revolt

The brothers created "Refugees of Rap" in 2007 with two friends, an Algerian and a Syrian, and were one of the first such groups to emerge out of Syria.

It now comprises just the two of them -- the Syrian member refused to leave and the Algerian went to Germany.

Released in 2010, their first album recounts living in the overcrowded camp, as they advocate for the Palestinian cause.

Then, after 2011, the revolt provided inspiration.

They penned "The Age of Silence", "Haram" ("Forbidden"), which is about the horrors of the war, "Aysheen" meaning "We Live", and "Corruption in the Country".

They had completed eight tracks for the second album when they began receiving anonymous threats on social media.

Got touring

"We received two or three messages on Facebook," Yaser, 29, said.

"The messages said 'We know you're preparing an album and if you don't stop... it's over for you. We're going to destroy your studio, we're going to stop you. We're going to kill you.' "

It was not the only hurdle they faced.

During fighting in Yarmuk in 2012, the group's recording studio was destroyed in bombings. Their younger brother was then jailed for 40 days for an unknown reason.

"When he was released, he was in a horrible state," recalled Mohamed, who now works in a hotel. "He'd been tortured."

Shortly afterwards, they decided to leave Syria. They were granted refugee status in France, with the mention "nationality undetermined, Palestinian origin" a few months later.

"When we got here, there was no housing... no aid," Yaser said. "You had to wait for months to get set up, so we chose to book some concert dates and get to work."

They toured in Denmark, Sweden and France, where they completed "The Age of Silence" and released the album in 2014.

'Not from nowhere'

"In Syria, people understand (Arabic)," Yaser said. "That's what we miss here."

The brothers work on their language skills by listening to French rappers.

But on stage, they get around the language barrier by reading translated lyrics and then leading the audience in chants of the Arabic chorus before each track.

For their upcoming third album, the group will "tell the story of our time here in France, our exile," said Yaser, who now works in a souvenir shop.

But they have not forgotten Syria.

They have little hope of returning but "in exile, the future is never clear," said Yaser.

"We are exiles everywhere but we're not from nowhere," said Mohamed. "We are proud to be Palestinian because it's our history, and in Syria, we were made to feel like we were Palestinians.

"But we also grew up feeling Syrian because we were raised there. Now, we feel Parisian."