For the Record: Behind Beirut SCUM Week

El Rass shows a cohesive range of influences on his music which in turn distinguished him in the Beirut and Middle East Hip Hop scene.
by Chiri Choukeir

27 August 2019 | 19:00

Source: by Annahar Staff

  • by Chiri Choukeir
  • Source: Annahar Staff
  • Last update: 27 August 2019 | 19:00

From left to right Magali Douiehi, Chyno and El Rass. The organizers of Beirut SCUM Week.

BEIRUT: This week, something different is taking place in the capital where electronic music is usually the star of the music scene. This time around, the Beirut Street Culture and Urban Music is taking over.

Prior to Beirut SCUM Week, which is kicked off Tuesday, at 6 pm, Annahar got to sit down with organizers, Mazen El Sayed (El Rass), Nasser Shorbaji (Chyno), and Magali Douiehi for a behind the scenes look on Beirut’s first urban music festival.

We asked these producers/rappers about their in-depth journey to organizing an event of this scale for the first time, and how the underground music scene has evolved and grown over the years.

El Sayed, also known by his rapper name El Rass, is originally from Tripoli. He studied and worked in journalism in France, but pursued a different life path. His work involved a socio-political theme that spanned from the Arab spring and revolutions, religion and religious critiques and of Islam in Islamoleogy.

Highly influenced by the modern-day politics of the Middle East, his music went even deeper with themes of postmodern politics such as decolonization and language.

El Rass shows a cohesive range of influences on his music which in turn distinguished him in the Beirut and Middle East Hip Hop scene.

Shorbaji, also known as Chyno, is a Syrian-Filipino rapper and producer who co-founded the first official rap battle in the Middle East, The Arena. Rapping in English, Chyno’s verses carry anti-war, anti-racism, and anti-dispossession messages.

In his latest track, “Mbappé” which was released on Sunday, August 25th Chyno’s chorus repeats “They don’t like you, cuz you don’t look like them”, which he dedicated to “Everyone who is made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in the environment they live in.”

- How did the idea of Beirut SCUM Week start initially? What was the generator?

El Rass: I think we’ve been having this discussion for years now, on when to take that step towards making it bigger and more organized. Also, we’ve been as rappers, experiencing the problems in what is already established. So, we’ve been talking about this for years, and a few months ago with all the developments in “The Arena” that Chyno has been organizing for years now, and the battle scenes, and all the developments on the recording scene, album scene, in the region, we thought it’s about time and we started from a conversation at my house and here we are.

Chyno: It's a big push for us, and it’s also a big risk. We feel now it’s more mature for where we can call out all the favors that we have, and we are here so we hope it gets to a really big place because it’s risky for us to do this. It’s also a very mutual thing that we have, which is focusing on the development of culture before the business side of it. That’s why I was talking about the risk assessment of this situation, you have to have a certain maturity in the scene to push it that way, and we feel this is the time right now.

-As organizers, what were the challenges or roadblocks faced with organizing an event of such big risks?

Chyno: There were some failures, to a certain extent, but we were also expecting those failures. So we were hopeful and once we reached the roadblocks and jumped over them and we still make it happen. I think it shows our perseverance regardless of our environment and I think that’s the most important thing in support of the artists and musicians that wanted to help us. All those little things, it shows that there’s a lot of positivity involved.

El Rass: We’ve been at this for years, we grew up in this environment . Everything we do grows in that context, we were already used to it, expecting it, when we took this initiative we knew very well that we are gonna face obstacles. We really learned to keep pushing forward and eventually, things are gonna happen and pragmatically a lot of obstacles like financials were on the top of the list.

We are not capital owners or people that can take financial risks, we are already proud of just being able to live out of being rappers. This has always been a dream for us and we are still in a stage of being grateful for that. We don’t have enough accumulation of capital to take risks, but because we believe in it and because we learned how to go around things and how to find weird solutions to things and go forward.

- Why was Beirut chosen as the home for the SCUM Week?

El Rass: We didn’t grow up around trees and nature, we grew up around cement and tall buildings with gloomy realities, and this shaped our music and thinking. This is the place where we actually belong to scene wise, all these venues that we played in are here, it’s very relevant for us too. It was in the very early discussions about SCUM Week, it’s also a tribute to Beirut. In the context of Arabic rap and international rap to say that this city has offered this to Arabic rap for decades.

Chyno: There are a lot of rappers that started their careers here, even from outside. They come here and regardless of how small we are as a country, it is definitely a stepping stone to something bigger. There are street culture and urban music, and the way we perceive it here is also going to be very different from how the West perceives it. Me not being Lebanese, I’m still very thankful of Beirut and what it provided me in terms of experience and social/political awareness. Also freedom of artistry to be here, so this is just the least I feel we could do for what Beirut gave me.

El Rass: This is one of the things that Beirut offered us, the ability to be connected to other genres of music, and people who do other things. Still, we can have that happen in the same part, what we are doing here is part of showing that too. That we are very proud of our culture and very proud of our scene, but we are not closed off on ourselves and we want to create bridges with everyone.

-As one of the most influential and prominent figures in the Lebanese Hip Hop and Arabic Rap scene, how would describe the scene and its evolution throughout the years in Beirut?

El Rass: You see people from younger and younger generations, become instinctively talented and seeing younger generations that can now discover the whole rap thing from the door of Arabic rap instead of American rap. Aesthetically and creatively, it gradually became independent and created its own aesthetics in very diverse ways. Super exciting ride, it was super hard for everyone, and I think one of the drivers for Arabic rap is to make it easier for the rapper coming next because this is what it means to build a culture. If there’s no accumulation, if we aren’t making things easier then the culture won’t establish itself well.

It’s diverse, that's for sure, it’s super diverse, especially if you factor in the different artists. This is really what’s nice about the scene. Different artists are resonating with different audiences. At the same time, it’s as dynamically evolving as the scene itself, constantly growing. We see that every time, we still are at a stage where it takes to do a concert at a certain community or certain place, and then this community is going to discover you and be one to the case, they are going to belong to the culture, they are going to resonate with it.

Chyno: That’s the link, how different Mazen and I are as artists, and where we connect in ideas still with the diversity of our fanbases, we still get together and make something like this and also acknowledge each other’s ideas as very useful, and that just shows you the evolution of the scene and the diversity of the scene.

-How important is freedom of speech to both the culture and soul of Arabic rap, and how does it take place?

El Rass: If I’m speaking for myself, I think the general culture we belong to which is very much linked to rap and hip hop, it links up to the point differently than rejecting oppression. We think of it in a more pragmatic way, I think we are more interested in gaining people’s ears and minds than putting ourselves in direct conflict with public power. We are way more interested in actually gaining ground than just making the point of being rebellious.

Chyno: With “Arena”, it’s a little different. Obviously freedom of speech is very important, and then the Arena, it is the father of all. We are bringing all these regions, and the beauty of having them in Beirut is that you have that certain idea that you can above other countries. In Arena, we still maintain the freedom of speech, because if you bring someone from Jordan to say something about Lebanon, and some Lebanese rapper says something about Jordan, where do you draw the line?

You don’t draw the line, you just give them the platform and let them understand the responsibility of their speech. I think that’s what we are, we have enough experience to know that we are responsible for what we say, we say them, and then we take full responsibility ourselves. There’s no platform that requires taking responsibility for that freedom of speech, but we definitely advocate it.

El Rass: Even in battle rap, which is supposedly the most aggressive context of rap it’s rare that you see very clearly people from very different backgrounds and very different opinions cannot actually interact in a very civilized way. 

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