'Ideas can't die': Syrian rapper drops beats on the frontline
“This is the playground of the Russian leader. Where you have to choose between the regime and Al Qaeda”
Amir Almuarri stares straight into the camera as he delivers the opening first verse of his track, “On All Fronts”, from the devastated remains of a bullet-ridden classroom. The 20-year-old rapper from Maarat al-Numan, just south of Idlib city, is unflinching in his style, whether his target is the Syrian, Russian or Turkish governments, or the hardline militants Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
“I only started rapping a year ago, but I was listening to rap for years before the revolution,” a soft-spoken Amir told Middle East Eye.
The Syrian uprising started when Amir Almuarri was just 12 years old. “I had no idea what was happening at the time,” he said. “But over time I experienced and saw so many things…”
Almuarri had relatives outside of Maarat Al-Nu’man in Aleppo and Damascus who he used to frequently visit, but found himself having to deal with internal displacement and refuge elsewhere.
“I didn’t know what it meant to be displaced or what it entailed until it happened to me,” said Almuarri, who briefly fled to Tartous in 2013, before eventually leaving with his brother to Turkey, where he “felt like an outsider”.
Idlib province’s population has drastically changed too since the uprising-turned-civil war; its population has doubled from 1.5 to three million people according to the United Nations, with many internally displaced Syrians.
Almuarri was very serious about pursuing his education, trying to make sure he went through high school and college despite the situation. “I was a college student, but school closed down and didn’t get the opportunity to study elsewhere,” he said. “I used to study journalism and media.”
Almuarri enjoyed rap music for most of his life, he told Middle East Eye. “Ever since I was nine-years-old, I was captivated by the beats and the way the words were phrased,” he said, adding that his music taste ranges from Mozart, Beethoven, Sia, and Adele, to acclaimed Syrian singers Lena Chamayan and Rasha Rizk.
It wasn’t until he returned to Idlib from Turkey last year, that he decided to give it a go himself. “I'd brought a microphone with me and some recording gear, so I started to compose, record, and upload music on YouTube.”
Following displacement and witnessing a war unfold in his country, Almuarri's life took a turn for the worse. “My brother was killed by Turkish snipers at the border,” he said. “So I had to come back to look after my parents… and [upon leaving] I was handed a five-year ban from entering Turkish territory.”
Almuarri’s YouTube videos had been getting between a few hundred to a few thousand views at best. But everything changed after "On All Fronts", which in a couple of weeks received over 32,000 views and international coverage.
The production on this track supersedes his previous uploads by far, with higher quality audio and cinematography. As Almuarri explains, this was a collaborative effort.
'They would ask ‘How are you producing a rap video while we’re being bombed'
- Amir Almuarri
“A group of Lebanese journalists reached out to me to get this project going,” Almuarri told Middle East Eye, adding that Lebanon-based Syrian Ghiath Ayoub helped direct the film, and acclaimed Lebanese rapper Mazen El Sayed, also known as El-Rass helped with music production. “They wanted to produce the first music video out of Idlib.”
To Almuarri, the video, which has more than 60 Syrians from various backgrounds bopping their head to the music as they look at the camera, is a tribute of civilian life in Idlib and the different people involved in its community. School teachers, students, barbers, shopkeepers, an ice-cream vendor, paramedics, and first-responders from the White Helmets all joined in.
“We tried to include everyone from our society to show that there is life here, and that Idlib isn’t [a] terrorist [entity],” he said. “Despite the destruction shown in the video, we are living, you know?”
But making the video was not without its challenges.
“We had a hard time convincing people to be filmed,” Almuarri told Middle East Eye. “They would ask ‘How are you producing a rap video while we’re being bombed left and right?’”
Along with a local videographer, they were able to convince many people to get involved. “We told them this video is going to shed light on your experiences,” Almuarri explained, but admitted that some people also declined “because of fear from the Hay’aa [Haya’at Tahrir al-Sham] and the factions.
“Some just felt too shy to be filmed.”
In the midst of international coverage of his song and work, Almuarri has been especially intrigued by some of the responses from within Syria.
"I did hear a lot from Syrians living in regime-held areas; many would reach out to me on YouTube,” he told Middle East Eye. “They would tell me to give myself up [to the Syrian government] and that I’ll be okay.”
The 20-year-old started laughing. “I mean what are they on about?
“They would also criticise or insult me…when I'd look at their profiles I’d see that they lived in Tartous or Hama, or somewhere under the regime control.”
Almuarri hasn’t been contacted by Haya’at Tahrir Al-Sham or any of the opposition groups in the area, but says the danger is still there. “No threats or anything, but sometimes journalists who correspond with them tell me to stop talking about them, or about politics in general, so that nothing might happen to me,” he said. “I guess you could say these are warnings.”
The situation across Idlib province is indeed dire, with air strikes primarily from the Syrian army and key ally Russia intensifying this past year. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, estimates that at least 1,000 civilians have been killed since late April. Save the Children and partner organisations documented the displacement of 440,000 people.
In addition, Human Rights Watch reported that the Russian-Syrian joint military operation in Idlib has violated international law by using “internationally banned and other indiscriminate weapons” in attacks on civilians, including cluster munition rockets and “rocket-delivered incendiary weapons”.
Coupled with a grim economic situation, Almuarri has seen many people he knows try to leave or join the war effort among opposition groups to make ends meet. These include groups backed by Turkey, notably in Operation Olive Branch, where Turkey and Turkish-backed forces have been operating in the Kurdish-majority Afrin district.
Yet Almuarri is still hopeful, and defiant.
“There is hope going forward, especially for this coming generation,” he said, citing a growth and solidarity in their limited arts and cultural scene. “We have graffiti artists, writers, theatre groups, dance troupes for weddings, and they all have received some coverage.”
But nothing has garnered quite the response as "On All Fronts", which Almuarri feels could be the much-needed morale boost for him and those around him in Idlib. And despite living between HTS and the Syrian government, as he says in his song, he feels the spirit of the popular uprising still lives on.
“The people are the revolution, the revolution is ideas, and ideas cannot die.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.