When the Syrian civil war began in the spring of 2011, fueled by the region-wide unrest of the Arab Spring revolts, it held a hopeful promise of political change. But that hope eventually turned to dread as the death toll and destruction rose. As of March 2015, it is estimated that half of Syria’s population—some 10 million people—have been displaced by the conflict. The humanitarian and political dimensions of this refugee crisis have unfolded across western media for over a year now, reaching the shores of America on election year. Yet little is said about the educational devastation visited upon the country. Forced out of the country, a whole generation of Syrian children are losing access to learning key skills. How can Syria ever hope to rebuild itself if its children are forgotten, becoming nothing more than photo-ops for temporary emotional rallies of support from the west?
French-Syrian rapper Tarafa J., known as Liqid, has never been, by his own admittance, “politically engaged” but the plight of Syria’s refugee children convinced him to use his artistic notoriety for good. Born in Lyon in 1982 of Syrian immigrants, Liqid visited Syria every summer until the civil war began. While there, he often stopped by a local record store in Yarmouk, outside of Damascus, to buy vinyl and cassettes to bring back as sample material for himself and his French friends. In the spring of 2015, the building that housed the shop was destroyed in the ongoing conflict. A few months before, thanks to his “militant” mother, who had been working as a teacher in Turkey’s refugee camps, Liqid discovered A Syrian Dream, an education and psycho-social support center for refugees in Antakya, a Turkish town on the Syrian border. The dual impact of losing the shop and becoming more aware of the refugees’ educational struggle sparked him into action.
Liqid has been active in the French underground scene for the past decade, first as part of Les Gourmets, a group aligned with the country’s alternative rap scene (think acts like TTC), and today as an independent artist helming the similarly-minded Mutant Ninja label. Speaking over the phone from France last week, Liqid says he always knew the reality of being a refugee thanks to his family's experience, he just didn’t know how to articulate it to others through his art. “I wanted to mobilize our [artistic] network to raise awareness about refugees and their suffering,” he explains. “I wanted to bring something concrete to the table to help people. When the shop was destroyed I knew we needed to do something at our scale, something worthy. That’s when I decided to create AMAL.”
“We’ve received a lot of positive messages from listeners. This is helping change people’s view of refugees and how we can help each other.”—Liqid
"Amal" is the Arabic word for hope. AMAL is a 21-track instrumental compilation released by Liqid’s Mutant Ninja label to raise money for A Syrian Dream. The compilation features existing and exclusive contributions from fifteen French producers, culled from the scene Liqid has inhabited for the past decade, such as TTC collaborator James Delleck, Nikkfurie from La Caution, and 20Syl from Hocus Pocus and C2C. “I didn’t want to politicize the discourse,” Liqid says of his choice to make AMAL an instrumental release. “I wanted it to be at the service of the cause. I worried that by inviting rappers I wouldn’t be able to control what they said.”
When French rap exploded in the 1990s, many of its best known names—IAM, NTM, MC Solaar—drew from their immigrant backgrounds, shining an often unpleasant light on the country’s colonialist history and the tensions it had created. This tradition continues today and in recent years the subject matter has been used as media fodder, holding rappers accountable for their words even as publications and politicians avoid engaging with the issues. “French rappers have always told their stories,” Liqid tells me. “But we want to unite people, and for this an instrumental works best.” For 20Syl, who contributed the track “Inertia,” instrumental music is a way “to raise questions rather than provide answers; it gives us the opportunity to feel emotions and energies that sometimes go deeper than words.”
“Instrumental music is a way to raise questions rather than provide answers.”—20Syl
The Syrian refugee crisis isn’t just a disaster of international proportions, it has also highlighted the limitations of—and cracks in—Europe’s humanitarian infrastructure. While the death of Aylan, the three-year old Syrian refugee who washed up on a Turkish beach last summer while his family was escaping the civil war, resulted in what Liqid calls “a wave of solidarity and empathy,” this wave soon crashed and “the status-quo returned.” The first round of France's December 2015 regional elections saw another rise of the Front National, the country's rightwing party. Tensions in the Calais Jungle, a decade-old refugee camp in the north of the country, flared again in January.
Despite the ongoing pendulum swing between fear and faith, Liqid remains hopeful: “Since we released the album in France we’ve received a lot of positive messages from listeners.” One came from a survivor of the recent terror attacks at The Bataclan, a live venue in Paris. “He knew of my previous work and told me that he hoped Syria would rise again,” he explains. “This is helping change people’s view of refugees and how we can help each other.“
The cover of AMAL depicts a fruit vendor waiting for customers in front of a destroyed building in the Shaar neighborhood of the city of Aleppo, northern Syria. It’s a powerful image; the fruits’ bright colors cutting against the grey rubble behind it. The photographer, Mohammed El-Khatieb, is a resident of Aleppo. I sent him some questions for this feature via Yannick Pierre, who co-runs Mutant Ninja. Two days before writing this I got a reply saying they hadn’t heard from him since a government coalition began to lay siege to the city at the weekend. Pierre apologized he couldn’t get me answers, ending his email: “we hope he is well.”