Ahmad (19) and Hussein (18) had been in Gateshead less than one year when they began making music on ‘Dispersed Belongings’ a project delivered by Gem Arts in collaboration with Durham University and Gateshead Council Resettlement Team. Our initial sessions were based around the concept of belonging, identity and feelings of home. The young men had no previous experience of music making and we were working with an interpreter during those first few months together, exploring band work, lyric writing and percussion with GemArts music leaders Izzy and Pav.
Ahmad and Hussein were progressed on to GemArts East by North East project (funded by Youth Music) and found that they shared an interest in hip hop, and both felt passionately that music could be a powerful tool of communicating their lived experiences of the war in Syria, forced migration, love, and lost love. They continued working with music leaders Pav and Izzy, and soon began writing lyrics together and bringing new material to each session along with musical references and songs that would later inspire beats that they would create during the sessions using Logic Pro and a MIDI keyboard. Their lyrics are often in Arabic and sometimes fused with English but always reference their real, lived experiences.
During autumn 2018, internationally acclaimed artist/anti-war activist/Iraq war army veteran Aaron Hughes was selected to receive The Baltic Artist Award at The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Aaron’s art focuses on the traumas of war, displacement and human connection despite pain. Aaron was interested in collaborating with local people who’ve similar experiences and was put in touch with GemArts to learn more about the creative work involving resettled Syrian youth living in Gateshead. The plan was to reimagine Wilfred Owen’s War Requiem alongside several award winning poets and music maestro, Karim Wasfi. This was an ambitious project for all of us and the beginning of The Syrian Kings journey.
Although there are 13 young people who attend our music session regularly, Ahmad and Hussein are consistently keen to create new material and up until recently they were the only two in the group who considered themselves lyricists. In winter 2018 they worked hard demonstrating determination and discipline to create two pieces ‘Doomed Youth’ and ‘Permanent Stars’ for the performance with Aaron at the Baltic and decided to call their musical duo The Syrian Kings.
During the process of creating lyrics, tracks and raps for Permanent Stars in response to Wilfred Owens’s poem ‘But I was Looking at The Permanent Stars’ the group talked about what bugles represented in the war, how they were mournful and often associated with the death of soldiers. They discussed what could be used as an equivalent sound in Syria and asked the group if there was a similar instrument. They told us the sounds of ambulance sirens, radio signal, shattered glass and bombs were all the sounds the associated with the sadness and trauma of war in Syria. These sounds can all be heard throughout our track (the explosion sound became a useful tool for us to mark every 8 bars for rap verses).
The group resonated with the lines in the poem “Voices of boys were by the river-side. Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad” and have echoed this with lyrics in Arabic about ships that were supposed to keep people safe but did not, and left bodies of children on the shore.
Collaborating with international artists for their first performance was challenging and the thought of performing with people who you’ve never met is a daunting prospect for any musician but they worked hard and the performance was a huge success.
Aaron Hughes said on working with The Syrian Kings “Ahmad and Hussein had brilliantly related their experiences to Owen’s poems. Connecting the political situation in Syria and the lack of responsibility for the war to the needless violence of World War One. One section addressed their feelings of displacement, “ I already feel like I’ve lost my place, my hometown is gone without a trace, looking for something I can’t replace…” However, unlike Owen’s poems, Ahmed and Hussein expressed a bit of hope and determination “I’m never going back, I’m here to stay got to keep trying to find another way.”
The opportunity to connect two emerging artists with internationally recognised artists was invaluable and raised the aspirations and self-esteem of The Syrian Kings. They were treated as professional artists throughout the process and experienced the empowerment of collective creative endeavour.
This year, The Syrian Kings have been invited to perform at multiple hiphop and spoken word events and continued to write, record and perform original material, spreading their message and raising awareness of the political situation in Syria. Hussein and Ahmad are powerful role models and nurture and encourage other young people in our music session to write and create songs that are important to them.
“I am here because I have a message. It is my responsibility to tell people what is happening in my country. I have freedom to say whatever I want and I need to use this. Syria is a beautiful place and the words come from the heart, I know that I will always want to write lyrics and make music, it is something I will carry with me my whole life now.” Hussein
Co-authored by Izzy Finch and Vikas Kumar