Maaret al-Numan: Between the blighted buildings of war-torn northwest Syria, 20-year-old rapper Amir al-Muarri rails against regime bombs, but also shuttered universities and jihadist domination.
“I chose rap because the genre is political,” Muarri said.
“It speaks out against dictatorship, tyranny, government corruption, and social issues.”
Muarri’s home region of Idlib is the last major bastion of opposition to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, which over the past years has also seen an influx of refugees squeezed out of other areas by the war.
Now home to some three million people, Idlib has been pummelled by regime and Russian bombardment in recent months, with around 1,000 civilians killed since late April.
While a Russian-backed ceasefire has largely held since August 31, there have been sporadic strikes.
With the help of friends and the internet, Muarri last month put out his first music video, titled “On all fronts”.
“It conveys what’s in the hearts of people here,” he said.
It tackles not just Syria‘s civil war, but also day-to-day complaints in the bastion dominated by the country’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The video, posted on YouTube, shows Idlib residents from all walks of life bobbing their heads in slow-motion to the beat.
There is a rescue worker in a hard hat, a member of the so-called White Helmets who have been pulling bodies and survivors from bombed-out buildings.
But it also features some of the ordinary people who live in Idlib: a man watering his plants, a barber, and two young boys on a balcony playing chess.
– Tupac and Beethoven –
In the room where Muarri lives, on the top of a high building, a guitar he one day hopes to play hangs on the wall.
Standing in a corner with earphones on, the young rapper spits rhymes into a tiny microphone booth attached to the wall, padded with soft foam and ordinary egg cartons.
Muarri said he returned to his hometown of Maaret al-Numan from Istanbul last year, equipped with a single microphone, after his brother was shot dead by Turkish border guards while trying to illegally cross the border.
He had been living intermittently between Turkey and Syria since 2015.
He had little experience mixing tracks, but he soon learned with the help of friends found on the internet, including many based in neighbouring Lebanon.
“Sometimes I send them tracks and they do the mixing,” he said.
When he is not making music, Muarri works in his father’s small shop selling cleaning detergent and other household supplies.
Between customers, he whips out a phone and listens to his favourite artists: El Rass, but also fellow Syrian rapper Bu Kolthoum, and Shiboba from Saudi Arabia.
From the West, he said he likes Tupac and old school rap that denounces racism and oppression — but also Beethoven and Vivaldi.
For his next tracks, he said he might write about the tens of thousands made homeless in recent fighting, or even the endless conferences that have failed to end the conflict.
Above all, he just wants to be heard.
“I wish my lyrics to be understood as words, not just music to shake your head to,” he said.
– ‘War and blood’ –
Idlib’s inhabitants are supposed to be protected by a year-old deal between regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey although intermittent bombardment has continued.
In his new song, Muarri denounces “systems that feed on war and blood” eight years into a civil war that has killed 370,000 people and displaced millions.
Half of Idlib’s population are Syrians who have been displaced by fighting in other parts of the country, many living in camps.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, in charge of all Idlib since January, has been criticised for shutting down universities in a bid to bring them under their control.
“They closed the entrances of schools … they are closing the door to our livelihoods,” the rap continues, in a jab at HTS.
“Throw away the curriculum, the university has been sealed with red wax.”
Despite his critical lyrics, the young musician said he has so far escaped any reprisals from HTS or other rebel groups still present in the area.
Last year, vocal activist, cartoonist and radio presenter Raed Fares was shot dead by unknown gunmen.
“I get warnings from journalists linked to rebel groups or organisations that I should tone it down or not talk about such and such organisation or group,” Muarri said.
But he largely ignores them.
“I want to express what I’m seeing,” said the rapper. “The people all support me.”