News Genius – Battle Rap: A Genius Contributor From War-Torn Syria
Tell us a little about yourself. How was your childhood in Syria, and when did you discover hip hop?
Nick Helou: Well I turned 18 in December, I live a pretty normal teenager life, in which school and music are the main events of my day throughout the week.
I grew up in Damascus in Syria, my childhood was an extremely relaxing one in which I could leave the house at relatively late times as a child due to the high level of safety within the country. As well as being really safe, Syria was really cheap, so getting by with pocket change from my parents was never an issue as a child.
I remember the first time I discovered Hip Hop was when 50 cent’s “In Da Club” music video dropped, in which I instantly looked up the lyrics, printed them and memorised them without understanding one bit of their true meaning, I enjoyed Hip Hop more than my parents’ 70’s-80’s music because it felt really modern, and most importantly it was completely different than what everyone else would listen to, for my sisters would be blasting Avril Lavigne in one room and I’d be jamming to “In Da Club” in another room.
How did you hear “In Da Club”? Was it looked down upon by Syrians, by your parents?
In Da Club was on every Arab TV station even the ones that usually only played Arabic music. My parents didn’t mind me playing 50 Cent until his lyrics got very detailed about his love towards women, which in that case I would have to turn the music down or stop playing it for 5 minutes until whoever was complaining would leave the room.
50 Cent was everywhere in Syria after In Da Club dropped, people who barely spoke English would be blasting 50 Cent in their cars due to how popular his song was and the fact that he has money in his name seemed to blow them away. I would always play 50 Cent in the car with my driver until he starts nagging that it’s just a bunch of noise. The kids and teenagers in Syria were playing 50 Cent everywhere despite parents protesting about the curse words or other things.
No one in Syria protested in Syria that 50 Cent and Hip Hop were American, they were welcomed by everyone, ignored by parents as long as they weren’t too loud and didn’t have any understandable profanity.
Where did you go from 50 Cent? Were there places you could go in Damascus (like music stores or clubs) where you could find out what other people were listening to? Did you read magazines, blogs, etc.?
I was stuck listening to 50 Cent, Eminem and all of the G Unit clique for around 3 years, it wasn’t until I heard Ghetto Gospel that I started searching Tupac on the internet.
In Syria we had this CD store that would download new songs online every week and make a mix and publish them every week. It was all pirated music because American goods weren’t allowed in Syria due to an American embargo on Syria and due to the young age of the relatively new technology, which were CD’s at that time, but the mixes made by that CD were so popular that everyone would buy them every week and listen to them on their Walkman or iPods and since that shop was the first of it’s kind, it took Syrian kids and teens a decent amount of time to branch out and discover their ability to download music on the internet and make their own cd mixes.
I used to read whatever I could find laying around in my house from the New York Times to the National Geographic magazines, I also used to follow up on rap news using the desktop applications that 50 Cent and Eminem used to have on their websites, in which they provided me with news and allowed me to download a video every week or so of one of their performances or videos.
What's in heavy rotation for you these days?
Been playing a lot of Big L recently as well as The Game’s Documentary album. Too bad he changed his rap style. 90’s West Coast is being played 24/7 in my room.
Speaking of The Game, the big news today in the rap world is that DMX is going to box George Zimmerman. Game was going to fight him, but the boxing promoter chose DMX. Do you know about the Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin controversy?
Of Course! I was really upset at the Jury’s ruling of Zimmerman being not guilty. Everyone in Lebanon was really frustrated with the Jury’s call. You would have people who were facing injustice here complain about injustice in America, and this was quite surprising. People here expressed genuine anger with the Jury’s findings and trust me everyone is very, very angry about it.
Is there a Syrian rap scene?
Syrian rap was always minimal, for the rappers attempted to combine Western music and their culture into one rap song, which was problematic for the rappers, for they would be considered unoriginal and fake.
An example is how can a Syrian rapper rap about the same thing 50 Cent raps about in a somewhat conservative country like Syria without being harshly criticised by Syrians who only listen to Arabic music and Syrians who only listen to Rap due to a feeling of unoriginality in his rap. But that was in early 00’s but nowadays rap is popular and accepted in Syria with some rappers rapping in Arabic and others in English about the situation in the country.
Syrians eventually started rapping about their own struggles?
Nowadays rap in Syria is purely about their struggles and in the past rap in Syria was always about social issues that the Arab world faces such as the Palestinian cause, in which rappers would flock to rap for Palestine and the Israeli atrocities being committed there.
When did things change in Syria? When did the frustration with Assad begin?
As a child growing up, I never noticed any frustration with Assad himself, but rather certain people in his inner circle such as his cousin Rami Makhlouf who many believed was driving business away from Syria due to his insistence on being part of whatever business was running, or making the owner’s life a living hell, but that was rarely spoken but looked like it was understood between the people of the country that corruption was rampant. I had never seen any frustration with the regime in Syria besides the hidden frustration with Rami Makhlouf, and that was mainly due to people adapting to the way the system works and going with the grain rather than against it.
Bashar was also viewed as positive change in the country due to his introduction of internet to the country, religious reforms, charity events held by his wife and allowing a slightly more liberal society than his father did. This is what surprised me in 2011, that this frustration with Assad seemed like it generated out of nowhere.
How would you describe the relations between Sunnis, Alawites and Christians?
Prior to 2011, religion was never a factor that affected our friendships with others, for as a Syrian whole, we never asked other people what religion they belonged to because we felt like it was insulting and as Syrians we are all brothers and sisters no matter our religion.
With that being said, the relations between the Sunnis, Alawites and Christians were extremely relaxed. Nowadays religion is a decisive factor in determining a person’s life in Syria. Sunnis are a majority in Syria and their existence in the region is guaranteed due to their huge numbers and having Sunnis in nearby countries. However the greater majority of Assad’s critics and opponents are Sunni, which led to the misconception that all Sunnis are against Hafez al Assad.
The misconception is partially true, for Sunnis are more likely to be opponents of Assad’s rule in Syria than any other sect in Syria. Alawites and Christians feel like their existence in the region is on stake, for the Christians and Alawites are both minorities, and only see radical islamists as the opposition due to the weakness/unrealism of moderate opposition of Assad, which are against him because of his policies rather than his religion. This leaves 90-95% of Christians and Alawites in Syria as either die hard supporters of Assad or moderate-strong supporters of him and that is due to the fear of a worse replacement than Assad for their religion or their country.
Despite Christian support of Assad, Christians remain peaceful supporters of Assad with a small number of them enlisting in the army or in defines legions to fight for their country and protect their homes rather than fighting for their religion. The greater Christian minority is silent for now due to fear of the unknown, but once they are certain that their presence is directly endangered, then I believe they will flock to the army and enlist. Alawites are the majority of Assad’s troops fighting in the field today and that is due to the apparent wish of radical Islamists to exterminate them from power and the country. Syria’s army is a relatively huge one with around 340,000 troops ready to fight but around 20-30,000 of them are deployed today due to fear of splits, but that is unlikely to happen when he deploys all of his army, because if the army opposed him, then he would have easily been disposed from the beginning but his staying in power is a sign of his support by the army and a large amount of the people.
What do you estimate the Sunni Islamist faction to be in the opposition to Assad? How many are foreign fighters?
I estimate the Sunni opposition to Assad to range anywhere from 40% to 60%, this estimate changes with the outcomes of battles, in the end this is a game of survival and when one side seems doomed, the people supporting it will instantly start finding ways to appeal to the winning side.
Foreign fighters in Syria dominate the battlefield, and that has been the case since the beginning, for Afghans, Chechens, Saudis, Yemenis… are being killed in Syria and that has been the case since the beginning, for many Syrians have stated that foreigners are being shipped to Turkey, where they receive training by the CIA before crossing the border to Syria to fight for the “Syrian people”, many prison breaks in Iraq and Afghanistan happened right after the fighting in Syria intensified, whether the US allowed that or facilitated the breakouts to cover up remains to be a mystery although many Syrians believe it’s true, for other countries have done it.
Right now it seems like an opposition victory would lead to an Islamist state due to the lack of presence of modern opposition whether on the ground or at conferences. Whatever opposition that claims to represent the Syrian people such as the Syrian National Coalition are posers to the Syrian people whether pro or Anti Assad and that is due to the fact that a lot of them never lived in Syria for a extensive amount of time, the fact that while the Syrian people are dying they are in 5 star hotels in Turkey and while Syrians are starving to death they are laying out buffets filled with Lobster and Shrimp. Islamist victory would be certain if Assad is defeated because they are the ones who have the most presence on the battlefield. An example of this is the overrunning of the FSA by the Islamist Front before clashes with ISIS broke out.
Is that why you left, the potential for a Sunni Islamist victory? Did your whole family leave? When did you leave?
I left in the very early stages of the Syrian crisis, prior to the existence of the Free Syrian Army or all of those rebel brigades and that was due to my dad predicting that the what the future holds isn’t any better for us or the country, so my mom insisted we move to Lebanon rather than America or Canada due to it’s relative proximity to Syria, in which my mom believed that she would be free to travel back and forth between Lebanon, which is a 2 hour car ride, and that all my dad’s predictions weren’t true but everything he said happened, and that left us in Beirut away from Syria.
My family from my dad’s side never did live in Syria, they grew up there and left to Dubai, France, Canada, America… in order to establish a family and business there.
My family from my mom’s side all reside in Syria, and that is due to them being unable to secure an alternative educational future for their children. While my parents are ready to assist them financially without being worried at all financially speaking, they refuse it because they believe it is too much to ask for and that they can provide their families with a relatively financially comfortable life in Syria rather than live outside of Syria in a very expensive Lebanon on someone else’s income. They do know however that if anything serious breaks out in the capital, that they will have to come to Beirut until it cools down.
Leaving Syria was never easy, that sense of attachment a person develops to his country is the strongest emotion anyone can ever feel, for I loved my country for everything it stood for, despite being portrayed as a terrorist supporting nation, my country represented a beacon of hope for the mistreated and the weak, Syria was the only country to unconditionally support the Palestinian refugees, for they gave a lot of them citizenship, while allowing them to keep their Palestinian identities, whereas other nations would grant them citizenship but under the condition of giving up their Palestinian nationality.
Having lost almost every encounter with the Israelis, Syria still stood proud and strong after, it had rebuilt itself and developed constantly after facing problems, it symbolised Hope for the weak. My country was a place where murders such as rape or kidnapping were of rare occurrence, and if murders were carried out, then they would be solved within a matter of days due to the high level of security within it.
I always wish I knew that one day this would happen to my country, because I would have learned to appreciate it when I was there, for when I lived in Syria, I deeply appreciated and loved my country but always yearned for more of what America has such as better traffic laws, more franchises… I would forget to appreciate my country.
Even 3 years of being separated from my country, 2 years of not being able to go to Damascus, 1 year of not being able to visit my village, my love for Syria remains unchanged, it only grows more as time passes, and my inability of being there with my people throughout their struggles is what hurts a lot, I would give up all the luxuries I have in life in order to go visit Syria and be able to live there, I guess it’s different when you are forced to leave your country than when you leave it by choice.
The hardest thing about leaving Syria is that other nations’ inhabitants believe that you are below them because you are in their country, for in Lebanon graffiti on walls has been spotted in many places calling all Syrians to leave the country, people think that you are in need of them, and the difference of treatment is what is the most disturbing.
Curfews have been set up in Eastern Lebanon banning Syrian families of leaving houses after 9 pm accusing all of them as being potential rapists, claiming streets are safer with Syrians off the streets. You hear on Lebanese tv stories about Syrian workers being beat up by Lebanese people for simply accepting a low salary job in order to feed their families, for many Lebanese have been unable to find jobs due to Lebanese contractors hiring a cheaper workforce, which happen to be Syrians.
The difference in Syrian treatment to fellow Arabs and other Arabs towards Syrians is obvious. This is something I posted on Facebook following an extremely racist video filmed by a Lebanese Newspaper regarding Syrian presence in Lebanon. Truth is, Syrians are the only reason Lebanon’s hotel sectors and tourism sectors are active.
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