Can His Rap Return to Syria?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s inspiring a new generation of artists.
By Mat Nashed
Nasser Shorbaji had just moved from Beirut to Barcelona when he received a voice message from a friend in Syria letting Shorbaji know that a Damascus milkshake shop where the two used to hang out had been bombed. He feared he wouldn’t survive the war.
It was early 2012, and Shorbaji, who raps under the name Chyno, was working on his first album, Making Music to Feel at Home. It gave voice to the guilt he felt for following his girlfriend to Europe while his friends struggled to survive back in Syria, or as refugees across the Middle East.
Only after leaving did the half-Syrian, half-Filipino rapper realize that the Arab world, where he had never fit in, was home.
Chyno set the standard for battle rap in the Middle East.
Ahmad Shahin, Egyptian rapper
“There is a saying in hip-hop that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, but it matters where you’re at,” Shorbaji tells me at his home studio in Beirut. “My music was speaking about the Syrian war, and I felt that what I was saying resonated more in Beirut than it did Barcelona,” he says. “So, I came back.”
Since returning to the Lebanese capital in late 2013, the 34-year-old has become one of the best-known rappers in the Middle East, releasing three albums and performing in Jordan, Lebanon and Dubai. With Syria’s war winding down, he hopes to be able to return and help nurture the scene there.
Born in Manila, Shorbaji grew up speaking English and Arabic but says he feels much more comfortable rapping in the former. It wasn’t until he was 14 that he moved to Damascus, where his father ran a tourism company. It was there that he met a Syrian-American breakdancer who called him “Chyno,” a racial slur in Latino culture to refer to all Asians.
He embraced the nickname as a stage name, and by 2009 he was ready to pursue a rap career. He first had to quit his job in Syria at Bemo Saudi Fransi Bank, where he’d landed a position as a junior treasurer after obtaining a finance degree from the Lebanese American University the year before. Shorbaji realized that he hated banking, so he returned to Beirut to join the Lebanese rap group Fareeq El Atrash.
In hindsight, it was the smartest move he ever made. The Syrian war erupted two years later, forcing his family to return to Manila. Rather than follow, Shorbaji stayed in Lebanon to focus on his music. “From the beginning, Chyno was never jealous about rappers on the rise,” says Mazen El Sayed, a young emcee who collaborated with him and became a close friend. “For him, it was always about the music.”
But when Chyno released his first album in 2015, some Arab rappers thought he was a foreigner expropriating the struggles of Syrians. To some, he sounded like an American emcee rapping about suicide bombers, child soldiers and exile — in English. Yassin Zahran, one of the founding fathers of hip-hop in Egypt, says that could hinder the music from truly resonating with young Arabs.
“Arabic rappers need to produce music in Arabic,” says Zahran. “Why would I listen to English rap from Saudi Arabia or Morocco when there are tons of English rappers in the States and elsewhere? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Shorbaji hears that criticism often. But he says he wins over critics when they realize Shorbaji’s music reflects his most authentic self. “I felt like I was well equipped to tell the stories of Syrian refugees and migrants and their struggle to adapt to their new communities since I’ve been doing that all my life,” he says.
His ambitions go well beyond performing and recording. In 2015, Shorbaji launched Arena — Al Halaba in Arabic — the first battle-rap contest in the Middle East. He even convinced Lebanese-American rapper Dizaster, a pioneering rap battler in America, to fly to Beirut and take part. The battle, sponsored by Red Bull, was filmed and screened online. Its success led to repeat tournaments; the sixth event was just held this month.
“Chyno set the standard for battle rap in the Middle East,” says Ahmad Shahin, a 26-year-old Egyptian rapper who watches the competitions online. Several Arab rappers have followed in Chyno’s footsteps by organizing and filming battles in their own countries. None of the productions rival Al Halaba, although the event generates just enough money to cover its costs.
“The real value of the Arena is that it helps young Arabic rappers build their brand,” Shorbaji says, lighting a cigarette and scratching the stubble under his chin. Calm and collected, he often wears a graphic T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap to the side.
Today, Shorbaji is helping Jordanian-Palestinian rapper Synaptik build his own reputation. The two collaborated on a new album that was launched on SoundCloud in June, just before they set off on a tour of Europe.
The album, Terminal, addresses the predicament of youth who grow up with hip-hop in the Middle East. In Shorbaji’s view, many of them feel too Arab for the West and too Western for the Arab world. Shorbaji, who grew up between worlds, says he is committed to promoting Arabic rap.
“The one thing I tell young rappers is to just live life and have something to say,” says Shorbaji. “Hip-hop may have been exported to us, but we’re making it our own thing.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Nasser Shorbaji
- What’s the last book you read? Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh.
- What do you worry about? I’m usually stressed about renewing my residency papers, which I have to do every year. For Syrians in Lebanon, maintaining legal status can be incredibly difficult, since most require a Lebanese citizen to sponsor their stay.
- What can’t you live without? Basketball. I follow the game, and I play once a week. I love it.
- Who’s your hero? At the moment it is Kylian Mbappé, the French professional football player who helped France win the World Cup.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To perform in either the U.K. or America. I’m an English rapper, but I have never performed in any English-speaking countries. I performed elsewhere in Europe and of course the Middle East.
Read more: An atheist metal musician gives Libya a new song.
- Mat Nashed, OZY Author Contact Mat Nashed