We head to Berlin to meet rappers who have fled Afghanistan and Syria after being persecuted for their lyrics and political beliefs
She didn’t see it happen but Paradise Sorouri cannot remove the image from her mind of her young female cousins on fire, burning alive, aged just 9 and 12. Rather than be married off to older men, the pair decided to take their own lives. Devastated by the news, Paradise channeled all her energy into her rap lyrics and recording her music in Afghanistan. “I was sold as if I was dead out of soul… I wanted to talk but I was stopped for being a woman”, she spits on “Nalestan”. These words, from Afghanistan’s first female rapper, reverberated throughout the country. “But”, adds Diverse, Paradise’s fiancée and the other half of 143BandMusic, “the success of this song was good and bad. We couldn’t imagine it’d be the trigger to force us to leave and end up in Berlin”.
The conversation around creatives moving to Berlin borders on cliché, but it’s easy to see why Londoners do it – Brexit, the bulldozing of London’s nightlife and sky-high rents. It’s an understandably appealing alternative. But in the case of Paradise and Diverse it was the difference between life and death. Even prior to her cousins’ tragic death, Paradise was using her voice to stand up for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
The pair have been making music together for nine years. “In general, singing is a taboo in Afghanistan, let alone being a female hip hop and rap artist,” she says. “Nevertheless, I was sure that I could use rap for change because it allows me to speak about my internal feelings. Rap is like a weapon but loaded with words”. Yet the reaction to their music provoked more than a verbal response. Looking at the ease and poise of the pair now, it is hard to imagine that Paradise Sorouri was attacked in 2009 by a gang of men – in 2015, fearing for her life, she fled Afghanistan. All because of their music. Even at this point, they didn’t think about leaving for Europe.
But after receiving recognition from the United Nations and performing at bigger events in 2014, things took a turn for the worse. “Some strong religious sources started calling us prostitution promoters, Satanists and that we were running from the purpose of Islam,” says Paradise. “We received some physical attacks and knew that our lives were in danger every minute”. In 2015 they became two of 1 million refugees to head for Germany.
How did it feel to arrive in Germany? “Have you ever seen Frozen?” says Paradise. She says she felt like a bird cycling through Berlin for the first time, and even breaks into song remembering it: “For the first time in forever there’ll be music. For the first time in forever, I’ll be dancing through the night, here, we truly felt relaxed for the first time in forever!” But it seems as if Germany, along with the other EU member states, is changing its mind. Last year, the countries began to send back asylum seekers to Afghanistan claiming that the country is “safe”. Of course, these deportations pay little regard to people’s livelihoods and the contributions people may make to their new communities.
“In general, singing is a taboo in Afghanistan, let alone being a female hip hop and rap artist”– Paradise
Paradise and Diverse still express a deep dedication to their homeland, describing themselves as “never far away from where they belong to”. Yet, they bring something invaluable to Berlin too. While Islamophobia (particularly towards women) rises, its flames fanned by an aggressive rightwing media, their music provides vital cultural reference points. And if anyone wants them to take a Western values test, their heroes are Missy Elliott and Beyoncé. “Being in such an international city like Berlin allows new musical collaborations to form, some of which we have in the pipeline”. Their latest mix of Farsi, feminism and rap is a reminder how music and creativity can still (and needs to) flourish in politically dark times. Moreover, music like theirs carries a certain significance on account of where it’s come from to get made.
Similarly, Mohammad, one of Syria’s most well-known rappers is now settled in Berlin. First, we talk about rap and the genre’s relationship to resistance and then we get onto whether his new city is a good place to be for him and his music. Between drags on a cigarette and sips of tea, his friend and fellow rapper Omar says “despite Berlin having freezing temperature, it is wonderful compared to Aleppo”. Mohammad has a slightly different opinion. “There is no ‘good’ place to be a refugee as to be one is bad in itself,” he says. “Maybe we were going to die in Syria, maybe I was a coward to leave but I cannot blame myself for leaving”.
Under Assad’s regime, both were hunted down for their music. Hearing that he was about to face jail for the third time, where many face unimaginable forms of torture, Mohammad decided to flee. Although he first pursued a political economics degree in Italy, something pulled him to Berlin. “It seems to be the place where the main political discourses of Europe are happening and I feel like I can fit into these discussions and help them evolve,” he says. “In art, there are still a lot of prejudices, so we are working to decolonise creative practices here. For example, myself and the musicians I work with are trying to dismantle the concept of Middle Eastern music. Whenever I come to perform, people always think I am going to do something oriental and they are shocked to find that someone from Syria is rapping. I mean, someone from the West is playing the darbuka so I can do whatever I want!”.
Quick-witted and funny, Omar is bored with the harmful assumptions that weigh on young Arab men and Syrians. When asked about this, he instantly becomes passionate. “Writing lyrics helps get the anger out, I see it [rapping] as giving me a chance to stand in front of hundreds and thousands of people and tell them something about Syria. Something that is annoying me and that most others don’t give a fuck about. So, in a way, it is my part to tell people what I feel. When you are on the outside of your country, you can feel frustrated and just want to smash things. Instead, I take my pen and put words together and play it to a beat. It makes me feel like I have some power to control it and put it out there to other people”.
“Writing lyrics helps get the anger out, I see it as giving me a chance to stand in front of hundreds and thousands of people and tell them something about Syria. Something that is annoying me and that most others don’t give a fuck about” – Omar, Syrian rapper
As the snow fills the Berlin streets, Omar and Mohammad leave the house to join a protest organised by Mohammad and others against the forced displacement of the people of Aleppo. A purple sky sits atop the heads of the protestors and the flag of the Syrian revolution whips through the cold in one of the central areas of the city. Awakened by the unusual fusion of chants and song in Arabic, German and English, people stop despite the chilly air and open their windows to observe the scene. In an era where Arabic speakers are thrown off planes for speaking and people admit to finding the language intimidating, these moments are vital. Omar says of his decision to keep making work in his native tongue: “Not everyone understands the lyrics, but everyone can understand a beat”. Similarly, Paradise’s decision to rap in Farsi transforms something that people can perceive as fearful into something beautiful.
While Trump causes carnage in America, stories such as these are more important than ever. If one genuinely hopes to prevent extremism, we would do well to listen to those who have been on the frontline of the fight against it in their own homelands. Many people are feeling helpless due to what is going on in America. But, now, our own government has a choice. Either we roll out the red carpet for Trump or we resist. We reject his attempts at division. We can do this by listening to the songs of musicians such as these, we can share their words to combat hate. Rather than just labelling people as refugees, we need to celebrate their talents, fight for their place within our societies and place their contributions to culture above anything else. These musicians already have left extremist regimes – we should not force people them to experience another.