In the streets of old Tartus, where the cafes are filled with card players, the unemployed, and those whose conversations are woven with the echoes of the crashing waves, and out of the predominantly rural, mountainous area, Mazaj (mood), a rap band, was formed.
The birth of Mazaj band is not as strange as it sounds: Mohammad, Hazem, and Alaa met in 2007 and started playing music, putting together a sound that drew from rap and the traditional dabke music they grew up with. The three, who had mastered English early on, were drawn to rap because it allowed them more creative control and the ability to freestyle.
Through communication with other rappers in the Arab world, particularly from Egypt and Lebanon, the group developed their skills and were able to produce their own songs. Their first song, “Here is Tartous”, was a scathing social critique garnered them a great deal of respect from the citizens of the town.
In 2008, the group performed in the town’s first music festival, called “Summer of Tartus” where they released their new song, “Blood is Falling.” They utilized this success to perform at the second annual Summer of Tartus in 2010, and released a new song called “Untitled Society.”
The group has undoubtedly been affected by their environment and the daily suffering they witnessed around them; this is reflected in their songs, like “Nowadays” which is about the high cost of living and the suppression of freedom. “The members of the group have suffered from difficult circumstances, as this is considered a foreign art form by Syrian society. People consider it degrading and the music of devil worshippers, or the music of homosexuals, with strange clothing and habits. The majority view rap as a fad, however, this doesn’t mean that rap is an easy or superficial art. At the same time, rap is no more than a genre of music. It is not a way of life as many believe, but what sets it apart from other kinds of music is its association with social and political commentary,” Mohamad Abu Hajar, the lyricist, told SyriaUntold.
Rap was born in the United States of America in the 1970s as a response to racial discrimination. However, accusations that rap is only for the West or driven by a Westernization of society is incorrect, Abu Hajar told SyriaUntold. The art has become a part of the Arab World and has taken on the character of the various communities it has entered. Syrian rap, in particular, tackles issues related to Arab communities, such as honor crimes which the band tackled in their song “Love.”
Besides facing resistance from their communities, the group has also been prevented from performing at various cultural centers under the excuse of their being ‘security threats.’ Abu Hajar was constantly harassed and threatened with arrest; as a result, he fled to Italy in 2012. From there, he moved on to Germany, where he resides today.
Immigration has allowed Abu Hajar more freedom. He told SyriaUntold that he is now able to write and collaborate with other groups around the world. However, Alaa Odeh and Hazem Zghibeh have been unable to join. Odeh, who still lives in Tartus, has been subject to increased harassment, a lack of internet, and electricity outages. As a result of this distance and the difficulty of communication, collaboration between the members of the group has been hard to organize.
Abu Hajar sees rap as a way to share his experiences and emotions; to vent his anger and express his pain. “It gives me a lot of freedom, and I am not waiting for anything in return. I am not looking to be at peace with myself or to succumb to pressure without looking at my results,” he told SyriaUntold.
The recent events in Syria have been a source of inspiration for the group. In 2013, they wrote a song called “No Signal” about the increasing violence. In 2014, they released “The Notebook” and “Down with the Homeland” the latter of which was a response to all who have contributed to the war, from the regime to the opposition and the armed groups who hijacked the popular Syrian uprising.
The band is currently working on releasing new tracks, including a conversational song between a German citizen and a Syrian refugee called, “Up and Down” in collaboration with the German group, Backwood Bunch.