By Stephanie Harp
Portland’s Mayo Street Arts was almost full on February 10 for “Hakawati,” a fusion of Arabic hip-hop and Middle Eastern instruments and sounds by the Syrian-born musician known as “Assasi,” with a guest artist who is a member of his Bilad El-Sham ensemble. Elevating the tradition of hakawati storytellers, who invite audiences into folklore and fables, is the goal of his newest project.
“The song is very upbeat and dancy, and people can just dance to it and have fun. I’m celebrating life. I’m not miserable. I’m not sad. That was a difficult time I went through, but I made it safe. I’m not homeless any more,” he said.
“Music is like an international language,” Assasi said, “and also movement. When people come out to a show and see me performing, there’s a lot of body language. I use gestures with my fingers or my hands.” If he lets himself, he can get into a “blind mode” while performing and not see anything else. But he intentionally makes eye contact. “I feel it’s very important, especially when I’m rapping in a foreign language, to give eye contact to each one of the crowd. They’re part of the show. They’re involved.”
At Mayo Street, people tapped their feet to the music, although most could not follow the Arabic lyrics. “I perform the song – they have no idea what it is. They’ll get connected to it the way they feel it at the time, and then I’ll tell the story about it afterwards,” he said. As he explained the songs in English, Bilam El-Sham ensemble member Duncan Hardy played Qanun (pronounced “qanoon”), a traditional Syrian stringed instrument. “It gives this amazing Middle Eastern atmosphere. This is an experience,” said Assasi.
After having to leave his hometown of Aleppo in 2012 due to the conflict, his route took him through Lebanon, then Nepal, India, and Malaysia to Millinocket, Bangor, and now Biddeford. Last August, Assasi and Bilad El-Sham ensemble co-headlined, with Coyote Island, a mainstage performance at Biddeford’s River Jam Fringe Fest. “That was the biggest show I did in the U.S. so far, hundreds of people,” he said. “People loved it because we did Middle Eastern fusion with Arabic rap and singing. That’s something unusual here in Maine.”
His first solo show in the U.S. had been at the small Bangor venue Top of the Nine. “It almost sold out,” he said. And when he premiered the music video of his song “Damage” at the nearby Queen City Cinema, he didn’t expect many people. “But we didn’t have enough seats for everyone. Full house. Everyone wanted to see the video on a big screen.”
In Biddeford, he has more performance opportunities, especially through Heart of Biddeford and venues like Engine. “When they get the chance to do events, they book me and other local artists,” he said.
Being closer to Portland is important, too. He has worked with the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center and recently was hired to be immigration expert for a high school project about countries with conflict. “I’m doing more stuff like that,” Assasi said. “I like to be involved in educational stuff because hip-hop is all about education – it’s a tool. If you know how to make music, it’s a really good distraction for your mind. It helps me with my mental health. It sounds cliche, but music saved my life. My mom and my music – those are who just kept me alive.”
His song “Ghost of Sham” is about his alter egos as a ghost and a rapper. “The ghost of me is how I feel in every place that I go,” he said, “walking in a city that has no souls.” In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he waited for a U.S. visa, he noticed that after midnight the streets were empty. “That’s how I feel in every place I move to. I’m not seen. I’m like a ghost in this town. I can’t see anyone and no one can see me. That’s the experience of a lot of young Syrians who move and have culture shock. It literally feels like you’re a ghost – that’s what culture shock is.”
On his website, a post accompanying the “Ghost of Sham” video says, “Being a Syrian in exile can feel like a nightmare you can’t wake up from, like walking through the world as a ghost – invisible and cut off from humanity, or inadvertently haunting those around you who can’t understand your pain.”
He knows his feelings and experiences are not unique. “All of these things that I talk about in my songs, a lot of readers can relate to somehow. It doesn’t have to talk about something very specific. It’s kind of generalized how the youth are struggling, or how people of all ages have that same struggle at some time.” When he hears from listeners who say, “I really had a lot of feeling about this song. It made me cry,” Assasi wants to tell them, “I had a lot of feelings about this song ‘Fattoum.’ It made me cry when I was writing it. That makes two of us.”
Transitioning between Syria and Lebanon was a difficult time. “The concept of home, why I’m treated like this even though I’m so loyal, and trying to relate and be relevant to this country, my country. When I’m feeling emotional and I want to rap the song, I cry because the lyrics mean a lot to me and it explains my experience.”
At his first hakawati show, he almost cried performing “Fattoum” as the show’s opening song. “I almost cried also because of the tragic, 6.8-magnitude earthquake that affected my city Aleppo a few days before the show,” he said.
“It’s amazing. If you’re an artist, make clay. You want to do whatever you are good at. Just go about it and choose it, and it will help you with mental health and trauma and bad experiences at home. We can’t measure it and compare to each other’s experiences; we can relate.”
Despite the upbeat music, his lyrics address the tragedies and traumas of his homeland and his personal experiences. On March 10, he will release his first single, “Ya Nana,” which he premiered at Mayo Street. It is about trying to make it as a rapper in Damascus, but sleeping in the bus stop. He translated the song into English, but doesn’t want to explain too much. Instead, he wants people to feel it as it is. “The song is very upbeat and dancy, and people can just dance to it and have fun. I’m celebrating life. I’m not miserable. I’m not sad. That was a difficult time I went through, but I made it safe. I’m not homeless any more,” he said.
Assasi appreciates the support he’s receiving from many corners. For his first solo album, “Third World Wide, Volume 1,” SPACE Gallery in Portland held a release party.
“I chose something that I have so much passion about and I just did it. I started with a small community, one friend at the beginning. You start from somewhere,” he said. Now his YouTube channel has 14,200 subscribers and he is on many other platforms, too. “It’s amazing. If you’re an artist, make clay. You want to do whatever you are good at. Just go about it and choose it, and it will help you with mental health and trauma and bad experiences at home. We can’t measure it and compare to each other’s experiences; we can relate.”
This is a message especially to youth, but for anyone with negative experiences – which, of course, is everyone. “Just do what you’re good at – basketball, fitness, film videos – and it will be a good distraction to help you move forward,” he said. “The past will never go away, it will just stay there, but we just have to keep moving forward and celebrate life, when we remember the past. I want to make fun music that’s not dark, so people can celebrate life with me. We’re here, we made it. We’re not there, where we were before or what we experienced.”