TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Optimists can be hard to come by in Tripoli. Neglected and impoverished, Lebanon’s northern capital has been the site where Syria’s conflict has had the greatest resonance, routinely disrupting the civil peace.
Outsiders tend to see the city in terms of it sporadic outbursts of sectarian violence, followed by spells of “cautious calm.” Most recently, car bombings adjacent to two Sunni mosques claimed the lives of at least 45 people.
Yet for 200 or so hip-hop enthusiasts, the fractious situation has only made them more determined to represent another, more peaceful, side to the city.
“We have to make some change,” explained Aysa Naaman, a wiry rapper from Beddawi. “Because everyone speaks about [Tripoli] in the media as a city of war, a city of terrorists, and we are not. We prove that in our hip-hop, our rap.”
“We can say what we like, what we love. We don’t like war and everybody shooting everyone. ... We like to live. ... We try to change, we try to say, stop it. We are here.”
Naaman, aka Evil DJ, is a proud member of Tripoli’s Hip-Hop Revolution. This loose collection of rappers, graffiti artists, DJs, break-dancers and b-boys come together under the aegis of the Cross Arts Cultural Association to hone their skills, perform and compete.
The Revolution was started two-and-a-half years ago, around the same time a revolution of a different nature was beginning to sour in neighboring Syria, exposing Tripoli’s sectarian and political fault lines.
For Kamal Abbas, Cross Arts’ co-founder, fighting between the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen sparked an idea to tap his lifelong passion for hip-hop.
“All the organizations were on the streets saying, ‘We don’t need war, we need peace in Tripoli,’” Abbas told The Daily Star. “So I had an idea, I went to every [hip-hop] group and told them we should come together.”
Western hip-hop culture appears an individualistic thing, and would seem ill suited to the sort of cultural activism Cross Arts pursues. The organization’s engagement is rooted in Lebanon’s Civil War.
In the 1980s, Abbas was trying to learn about hip-hop and teach himself to rap, but there was very little to go on. With no Internet and the conflict raging, he had to wait for videos, tapes and movies to glean what he could about the cultural phenomenon taking off in the United States.
The chance to give the next generation the opportunities he had missed out on was too good to pass up. It also coincided with the aims of Cross Arts: to foster arts-based youth initiatives that trade violence for dialogue and promote co-existence over sectarian divisions.
Abbas and Cross Arts co-founder Barrak Sabih managed to convince all but a few of Tripoli’s hip-hop crews (most comprising people under 25 years) to put aside their differences and start collaborating.
The idea, as the Revolution’s President Jean Hajjar explained, was to integrate training and gigs with education.
“Tripoli needs this space for young people to gain skills,” Sabih said. “The basic value we give [participants] is that we are all human.”
But the bait remains hip-hop culture and its promise of creativity, respect and possible fame. According to a U.N. report last November, some 51 percent of people in Tripoli live on less than $4 a day and work opportunities for young people are scarce. Most welcomed an alternative.
One of the biggest tasks was getting marginalized youth to rap about things that matter, rather than petty gang feuds and guns, sex and bling – the perceived hip-hop triumvirate.
“I have to go softly,” Sabih explained. “I tell them some things, they reflect, and then they come back with questions. Our work is not to trap people and force them to change.”
“Before it was, ‘Hey girl, I love you,’” Abbas added. “Now they talk about the environment, child’s rights. ... They need this education.”
For rapper Naaman, getting involved in the Revolution gave him new direction. “Before I was lost,” he said. “Truly, I was lost.
“Cross Arts found me. I was speaking about drugs, girls. Now I speak about real situations, anti-drugs,” he said, “but not anti-girls.”
Abbas said he realized that the power of the project lay in the message that the vulnerable youth would spread among themselves.
“They can make war if they want,” he said. “They can also make peace if they want. If they make a song of hatred against Alawites, for example, all their friends will sing it. If they make a song about Alawites being their brothers, then all their friends will sing that instead.”
The project includes a wide range of people: Alawite rappers from Jabal Mohsen, Sunni break-dancers from Bab al-Tabbaneh, Christian DJs from Abu Samra. At least 40 members of the Revolution are Syrian.
They’re unified in their fight for a different Tripoli.
“Hip hop gives me a chance to send the message from my people in Tripoli to all around the world,” explained Amani, of the girl group Mawlati.
“And that message is completely for peace.”
This message is at the heart of “Lebanon,” an English-language song by The Rocketeers.
Ammar Bashar, Zein al-Alameddine and Sophie Fahd came up with the group’s name.
“Rocketeers go to space,” Bashar explained. “They have no limits in what they do, and we have no limits what we do with our lyrics, our beats.”
In the midst of an interview at Beirut’s City Mall, Bashar and Alameddine suddenly burst into rap.
“Awful sight, people thrown on the right / sounds of bombs, I hear every single night / eyes full of tears, mothers down on their knees / God please bring peace, may the souls rest in peace.”
“What’s killing us down inside deeply is that sometimes everything is cool. Everything calms down,” Bashar said. “If two people on the street have a fight, it is now too easy for people to take out a gun.”
Tripoli’s aspiring young rappers have more than just politics, violence and social inequality to struggle against.
“My dad is a very Muslim guy with a beard. He doesn’t know anything about me rapping,” Bashar said, then added with a laugh, “but Zein’s mum gives him problems every day.”
“‘Stop rapping, rap includes bad words,’ they tell me,” Alameddine said with a shrug. “‘Don’t care for rap. Care for your future, for your studying, but not rap.’”
This wouldn’t be the first time parents expressed reservations about rap, and Tripoli’s Hip Hop Revolution seems set to continue its mission of disinfecting the minds of the young. Organizers say they are not put off by periodic bouts of violence in the city.
“We will still up the revolution more and more after what happened,” Abbas said referring to twin car bombs that exploded in Tripoli in August. “All the crews are more united in front of the terrorist [threat], and our voices [are] gonna be stronger.”