BEATS OUT OF ALEPPO
Syrian hip-hop performer Murder Eyez explains to Julian Tompkin why it took him a while to find his groove after relocating to Cologne
It begins with a disturbingly wonted montage: a bomb condemning a building to ash and memory. Then, emerging from the rubble and billowing cinders, the methodical exodus of the dispossessed begins — each solemn face rendered with the vacant gaze of an Edvard Munch sketch. Then the beat snaps in, like buckshot. An Arabian ney, or flute, wavers enigmatically, finally surging to a discordant crescendo. The screen shudders violently, as if reeling from mortar fire: “The gates of hell have opened up,” the rapper spits caustically in Arabic to a backdrop of freshly smoking romanesque ruins, coupled with a barrage of textbook hip-hop hand gestures. “The laughter of the children is dead.”
Abdul Rahman Masri — better known by the somewhat sinister musical nom de guerre Murder Eyez — is both Syria’s progenitor and reigning maven of hip hop. At least he was until the beats were muffled by mortar fire. “There comes a point you gotta stop and just run for your life,” he says, starring deep into his coffee cup. “You ask yourself, ‘ What’s the point of all this? What’s the point of music? Am I willing to die for it? Or is it worth staying alive for?’ ”
Until the war arrived on his doorstep (and through his roof) Masri was a seemingly tenacious force in Syrian cultural life — the son of a government clerk who had built up a modest empire that spanned a record label and studio (Big Change Recordz), plus a couple of fashion stores in his hometown of Aleppo. “Life was good,” he explains. “I had it all. And now I got nothing … just a few euro in my pocket.”
Briefly imprisoned twice earlier in his career for proselytising “the devil’s music”, Masri learned to keep his ruffian alter ego in check and his flows clean, and was soon embraced as the soundtrack of contemporary Syria. In 2010 Murder Eyez even went on to become a panArabian star, appearing in the somewhat salubrious Middle Eastern television talent quest House of Hip-Hop — finishing third as the tinder of the Arab Spring began to smoulder in Tunisia. In the words of another Syrian asylumseeker I meet at a gig in Berlin: “He was Jay Z in a keffiyeh,”
The Syrian civil war came late to Aleppo, but when it finally arrived in July 2012 it showed no mercy — as though the seven-headed serpent slain by Ninurta in Sumerian mythology had returned to settle the score once and for all. The war had by then disintegrated into a Faustian inferno of creed, tribe, power and retribution, pitched between the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah, Islamic State, al-Nusra and a ragtag assortment of Sunni and Shia militias — and their international paymasters. No one was safe.
Today there is scant left of the fabled Levantine city, renowned for its elaborate poetic and musical tradition known as Qudud Halabiya — a folk form Murder Eyez borrows heavily from, mashed up with swaths of South Bronx brouha- ha. “I was in the recording studio,” Masri remembers of what the history books now refer to as the cataclysmic Battle of Aleppo.
“I almost lived in the recording studio in those days. We would record all night and then go out until dawn and then record again. My mum used to call just to check I was alive, as I never came home. But then one day she called saying, ‘ Don’t come home — the war is here.’ I could hear the shelling in the background down the phone, like a Bruce Willis action movie, you know?” He laughs nervously at his analogy and then wipes the smile from his face. “And that was it — we started running and never stopped.”
Masri’s flight took him to Dubai, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and finally Germany, where he arrived in early 2013. He implores that the details of his traumatic journey from Egypt to Italy not be printed: “It was beyond hell, man, that’s all that needs to be said.” From Italy he set out overland for Sweden (“I’d been told we had a good chance to work there”) but was stopped by police while travelling on a local bus near the northeastern German city of Rostock.
Granted political asylum, his next two years in Rostock would prove excruciatingly silent: “I couldn’t find my power within,” Masri explains of his time in the gritty port city, which was the central stage for Germany’s 1992 anti-immigrant riots.
“I’d lost my home. I’d lost family and friends. I was depressed and alone. I lost my voice.”
Masri is a staggering statistic: one of the more than nearly 2.5 million refugees who have sought asylum in the EU in the past three years, the largest proportion in Germany. In 2013 the country officially overtook the US in refugee applications — fuelled by the Syrian exodus — eventually prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel last year to temporarily waive the Dublin Regulation and effectively open the country’s doors to more than one million asylumseekers, largely from war-torn Middle Eastern and African nations. It would prove an act of mass compassion that, while wounding her domestically with the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party in recent state elections, has nonetheless rewired the country’s cultural landscape for good.
I meet 34-year-old Masri at a cafe in central Cologne — his home since late last year, and the city where he hopes to rebuild his life and career. He barely resembles the intimidating character in the press photographs — a stocky and unassuming man, constantly and needlessly apologising for both his nostalgic anecdotes of life in Aleppo (“There was no city like it anywhere in the world”) and his English (“I learnt it from Ice Cube”).
In January he released his first Murder Eyez single in years, Syrian Speech — a vitriolic riposte denouncing Arab leaders and international agents with self-serving agendas in Syria: “They are all trading our souls,” he admonishes
Iranian-born publisher Madjid Mohit