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Rapping for peace: Lebanon's youth find their voice

Rap music is a way for children to express how it feels to live in one of Tripoli's most disadvantaged neighbourhoods
Children are able to forget their tough surroundings and express themselves through the Sing for Peace project in Bab al-Tabbaneh (MEE/Sara Manisera)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon - As a glimpse of the sea sparkles in the distance, teenagers in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli stand in a semicircle, in a neighbourhood characterised by bullet-ridden concrete, rapping.

The Lebanese and Syrian children had requested the rap sessions as a way to distract themselves from their poverty-stricken realities, where unemployment is high among families and some children - particularly boys - are forced to drop out of school to work and help pay bills.

“When the kids come here, they forget who they are and where they come from. The music is loud and they just dance together,” said Muhamad Baarini, a street artist, teacher and president of the association One Voice Team, who trained the children in the project at the René Moawad Foundation (RWF) centre.

Inside the foundation, which works toward promoting dialogue between communities, as well as social and rural development since the 1990s, Luca Mascini from the Italian rap group Assalti Frontali (Frontal Assaults), known by his artistic name Militant A, was giving a three-day rap workshop to the children.

Thirty boys and girls sat in a semicircle as they each waited their turn to approach the blackboard where Mascini helped them write a rhyme.

'When the kids come here, they forget who they are and where they come from. The music is loud and they just dance together'

- Muhamad Baarini, street artist and teacher

The first one to stand up was 10-year-old Hanadi. A few watched shyly from the corner as they awaited her performance, while others were anxiously preparing their own verses. 

“My name is Hanadi, I like rapping, I sing for my district and for my country," she rapped in Arabic. Laughter and applause greet her finale, as others are encouraged by her ice-breaker moment. 

Thirteen-year-old Assian from Syria takes to the stage.

“I go to school with my Syrian and Lebanese friends, what we ask [for] is just peace and protection from weapons and drugs,” he chanted. 

Almost all of the kids rap about the feeling of exclusion, and the desire for protection and peace.

The children had asked for rap, breakdance and singing, art forms that allow pent-up emotions to be expressed and offer a new way to combat the soaring levels of illiteracy facing Lebanese and Syrian children who cannot attend school.

“At the beginning of the year, they [educators and social workers] asked us what we wanted to do. We said that we wanted to do rap,” said 17-year-old Wassim. “In this way we can say what we feel."

Channelling anger

The foundation is named after the late Lebanese president Moawad, who was assassinated in November 1989, after just 17 days in office. His wife Nayla established the foundation in his name.

Since the beginning of the year, the children have been meeting at the centre twice a week to learn how to write and compose music. 

"The first thing I did when we started the workshop was teach them to write positive lyrics that help them unveil their anger,” Borhan Arja, a Lebanese rapper and educator, told MEE.

Arja stressed the importance of creating strong links through common good.

“In this way they build a community based on peace and sharing, and not on hatred and violence,” he added.

'What we ask [for] is just peace and protection from weapons and drugs'

- Assian from Syria

"Conflict and war are always at the centre of the narrative when we talk about Lebanon or the Middle East," said Carla Cocilova, from Arci Tuscany, the Italian Cultural Recreational Association.  

Recent violence damaged many buildings in the area, a constant reminder of the heritage of violence and instability that plagues Bab al-Tabbaneh, one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Tripoli.

Creating strong links through common good is a goal of the projects (MEE/Sara Manisera)
The initiative fosters dialogue between communities in conflict and prevents children from becoming militants in these local wars.

“We work with kids but also with adults trying to dismantle some stereotypes, because rap and dancing are not culturally accepted by the most conservative families," explained the Lebanese artist.

Not a child's playground 

Bab al-Tabbaneh is no child's playground. Rusted tin shacks adorn the streets where bumper-to-bumper cars, buses and vans honk relentlessly and open-air dumps filled with domestic appliances frame the grocery stores.

Along the slope of the hill that leads from the main road, aptly named Syria Street, kiosks and stalls selling coffee fill the dense air with interruptions of cardamom; while locals craving economic freedom try their luck by buying daily lottery tickets. 

Today, a Lebanese military base controls the entrance of the main road while numerous checkpoints stake out the secondary entrances.

Bab al-Tabbaneh is one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Tripoli (MEE/Sara Manisera)
Following the start of the Syrian war in 2011, the Sunni-majority neighbourhood became a microcosm of the nearby Syrian war, as clashes ensued with the Alawite inhabitants of next-door Jabal Mohsen. It is a feud deeply rooted in the Lebanese civil war that took place between 1975 and 1990, and a large-scale massacre carried out by the forces of then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in December 1986. 

'Conflict and war are always at the centre of the narrative when we talk about Lebanon or the Middle East'

Carla Cocilova, from Arci Tuscany

During the recent clashes fuelled by militias, armed groups and politicians from different factions, many minors participated in the battles. And while stability was achieved through a widespread security plan conducted by the Lebanese Army in 2014, young people are drowning in social fragmentation, illiteracy, sectarian tension and violence.

'Singing for Peace'

To break the cycle of violence permanently, new projects promoting peace through the arts, music and dancing are giving children the support they need; and they are not limited to music only.

"I come here in the afternoon, I'm with other children and they help me with French," said 13-year-old Walid. Originally from the Syrian city of Homs, he fled to Lebanon with his family in 2013.

Together with the René Moawad Foundation, the "Singing for Peace" project being hosted at the centre is supported by Arci Tuscany, the Italian Cultural Recreational Association.

Students at the cultural centre attend a rap workshop (MEE/Sara Manisera)
Founded by the European Union, the Italian Cooperation development agency and from private donations, the day MEE visited the centre, music and song were reverberating throughout its walls.

Breaking stereotypes 

The Italian NGO is aiming to re-frame the narrative by bringing art and videos produced by the children back to Italy for the purpose of sharing them with Italian children.

“The project Singing for Peace wants to change this kind of narration, break the stereotypes, and create another culture that we bring back to Italy,” Cocilova said.

'Rap has helped me. I can say what I want, what I feel and think'

Mohammed, 16

Mohammed gave an ode to his hometown.

“When the sun goes to sleep, in the streets I hear the voice of the cars, I know that I'm at home and I love my family of Bab al-Tabbaneh," said 16-year-old Mohammed enthusiastically.

“Rap has helped me. I can say what I want, what I feel and think,” he added.

The Singing for Peace project aims to break stereotypes and give the children a sense of community (MEE/Sara Manisera)