'Whether you are from Syria or Marseille, you’re still going to love and hate'
Born to a Syrian father, Filipino mother and living in Beirut, Chyno's music reflects his transnational roots, eclectic influences and devotion to story
Chyno in a shot from the video 'OPP' (Photo courtesy of Chyno/Facebook)
Published date: 4 December 2016 09:02 UTC | Last update: 4 years 10 months ago
“Hip-hop is my culture more than any other. I'm more hip-hop than Syrian. I’m more hip-hop than Filipino.”
So says Chyno, the Beirut-based MC who released his remarkable solo debut Making Music to Feel at Home last year. Born Nasser Shorbaji in the Philippines to a Syrian father and Filipino mother, Chyno embodies, as much as any contemporary artist, the transnational nature of hip-hop in 2016. Raised in Manila, Damascus and Saudi Arabia, he currently resides in Beirut, where he wrote and recorded most of his debut album.
“I think I just had a need to make music,” said Chyno, explaining his motivation behind the album. “It had become a necessity, an urge. I was looking for a sense of individuality because I didn’t fit in."
For Chyno, also a member of Lebanon-based trio Fareeq al-Atrash, this solo LP is the latest milestone in a musical career the roots of which lie in his first encounter with hip-hop, around 1992.
His first LP purchase was 19 Naughty III by New Jersey trio Naughty by Nature and their single O.P.P. is consciously referenced in the Chyno track of the same title. Whereas the NBN track is a light-hearted ode to infidelity, the Chyno track explores the situation and motivation of a potential suicide bomber driven to the brink by political and economic exploitation.
“They f***ing with OPP / Other People's Property/ How they gonna promise me peace / When freedom a monopoly? / They sell me my house to the highest bidder / Walls outside but the spies within us / I can’t cry gotta hide these rivers / Show my wife there’s still life within us..." (O.P.P.)
In the accompanying video, directed by close friend Pedros Temizian, Chyno plays out the stresses of his own previous life as a banker, prowling a buttoned-down office environment, with a veiled threat of violence ever present, before a comedic and unexpected climax. It is far from your average contemporary rap video. However, Chyno pointed out how this cinematic approach sits within his understanding of hip-hop culture and its growth. It is about evolving and progressing rather than dumbing down.
“I don't want to make traditional music. Things change dramatically in my music. If you've been listening to hip-hop all your life, you can see it [the culture] is moving and move with it and not just have a typical video... Having the main character (played by Chyno himself) be so clean-cut, it changed the message. If it had been an Arab-looking guy, we would have got a lot of flak.”
An authentic voice
It would be safe to say that Chyno is not afraid of a little nuance, complexity and technicality in rhyme. Nonetheless his main focus is on finding an authentic voice, which sometimes means easing back on technical proficiency and concentrating on emotion and meaning.
I Don’t Feel Like Talking, another stand-out track from his LP, deals with two very personal disconnections in his own life: an estrangement from his younger brother in the Philippines and the break-up of a romantic relationship. The first verse starkly underlines the divisions and pain in his familial connections.
“Nasser, phone calls feel less important / Got pops and moms divorcing / 19 with a baby no one supports him / My big bro role model’s always out touring / You been in Europe, giving me sermons / While I'm kicked to the curb in the Philippines third world / Living, my only luxury’s what the good Lord giveth / But what he’s given me is a poor man's wisdom." (Don't Feel Like Talking)
Chyno has said he draws upon Kanye West as an inspiration for wanting to stay honest on record at all costs and put himself, flaws and all, out for the audience. “You have to get into writing the character so that you seem like a real ***hole,” he explained. “Your first instinct is to justify why you did wrong. You have to break that instinct.”
Separation and distance are two of the themes that emerge time and again throughout the album, which has been produced against the background of the Syrian Civil War, and personal change and disruption for Chyno, exemplified by tracks like Fight or Flight and its stellar video featuring the Damascus-founded Sima Dance Company.
A complex identity
It is no wonder that the complexity of his identity, and sensitivity to the politics of race and religion in the Middle East and the wider world, speaks through his work, even when it is at its most personal.
He explained that he feels English is the appropriate language for his solo work, although his verses for Fareeq Al-Atrash are in Arabic.
“My parents don’t speak each other’s native languages. And at home we all speak English to each other… I get a lot of flak for writing about Arabic politics in English. That somehow this makes me an orientalist. And that I’m just doing it to appeal to a market. I'm not. Being Syrian is not something I can run away from. When I talk about [for example] visa issues, it’s the down and dirty truth. I have a Syrian passport. I get stopped in every airport.”
'Being Syrian is not something I can run away from. When I talk about visa issues, it’s the down and dirty truth. I have a Syrian passport. I get stopped in every airport'
He is unapologetic about speaking to a Western audience with the album and seeking, through his personal narrative, to give voice to the alienation and loss that many Syrians feel, in the hope of fostering more connection and communication. “This experience has become almost therapeutic.
"Coming back to Beirut and feeling alienated, my personal experience has become universal. Whether you are from Madaya, Syria or Marseilles, you’re still going to love and hate. We all have our fears and anxieties. The goal was to create narratives about where I’m from that would reflect how we are similar down to our emotions on a human level.”
Living and working in Beirut, Chyno is never far from political turbulence and change. He first came to Lebanon, currently home to around 2 million Syrians, to study, and returned two years ago after a stint in Barcelona. The draw for him is personal. “It's where I could become who I am most comfortably. There is a good balance of liberal ideas and being free to do what you need to do,” he said. “At the same time there is a lot of chaos and the push to make you understand your world. It's where I developed my interest in religion and politics.”
That interest notwithstanding, whilst his base is currently in the Levant and his content reflects his own situation and identity, Chyno draws from a wide range of sources musically.
“I listen to jazz, funk and soul because hip-hop introduced me to them. I find inspiration in Vietnamese funk, Japanese jazz, lots of things. I try to find different starting points, not so much in Syrian or Filipino music."
Finding a voice
On the status of hip-hop in the Middle East, whilst he has warm words for artists like Asifeh (AKA Stormtrap), El Rass and Edd Abbas, Chyno sees a lot of room for improvement in the scene overall. He wants rappers in the region to find their own voices, and to channel the kind of radical honesty he sees in the work of artists like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, without trying to copy their style.
“We've got a long way to go. There are a lot of musicians doing really cool stuff. At the same time they are making very American-sounding music,” he said. “You have an advantage being different. Use it. You can’t play it technique for technique. You have your own authenticity and culture. The biggest hip-hop rappers, we know their stories. It’s character-based. They suck you into their world.”
His own work is definitely a conscious attempt to embody that authenticity and integrate different cultural strands into a cohesive, entertaining and unique whole. Even as he continues to tour, expanding his live show with the use of drum machines and samplers to extend and reconstruct the album tracks, Chyno is already looking for the next step on his musical journey, a collaborative project with producer Al Rajul al-Hadidi.
Merchants of Menace will draw on his love for the lyrical acrobatics of groups like the Wu Tang Clan (for evidence of that see his fantastic rework of Shimmy Shimmy Ya by the late great rapper ODB) and solo artists like Lupe Fiasco.
If the fruits of their labour released so far, like the eccentric, catchy Zam Zam are anything to go by, then their upcoming projects will have fans running to Google to unpick the layers of meaning.
This project gives the full rap genius geek in Chyno room to flourish and thrive. He wants to stimulate that same immersive listening and learning in his audience.
"It's nerdy hip-hop Middle Eastern style; not just video game and movie references, but historical and cultural ones. It’s got Bukowski and Murakami references too,” he said. “I've already written eight songs. I like that whole spirit and mystique. I like researching different things. I go online and go crazy and get lost in research and find my zone that way.”
Politics run through Chyno’s work and it’s something he feels artists should not shy away from.
“Artists have an obligation to reflect the world. I don’t know about politics. You just have to reflect your world honestly,” he said. “If you are politically charged, then that should be reflected. It’s about asking how does the character in the narrative feel? Rather than regurgitating what’s in the news. It’s a universal feeling. Everyone wants to feel belonging.”