MC El Rass: Finding a Voice for Tripoli through Hip Hop
The city of Tripoli is, to a certain extent, shrouded in media-fabricated illusion. Whenever it’s on the news, it’s often bad news: from the ongoing armed clashes between supporters and detractors of the Syrian Revolution, to unspeakable acts such as the burning of a library carrying various rare and precious works. Despite this, the city’s inhabitants know what life in the city is like first-hand and have their own unique perceptions and memories of Tripoli. Such is the case with Mazen El Sayed, 29, better known by his stage name, El Rass.
El Sayed is an Arabic MC who currently resides in Beirut but hails from the northern port city of Tripoli. His music is typically characterized by highly opinionated, thought-provoking lyrics dealing with everything from politics to society, philosophy and religion, recited over experimental beats. The sound is something more akin to alternative electronica than to standard hip hop. Topics have ranged from critiquing Orientalism, in the track E-stichrak (Orientalism), to the taboo subject of a woman’s honor, in the track Bi Sharafak (In Your Honor), to singing the praises of the penguin metaphorically, in the track Al Batriq (The Penguin).
One subject which often recurs in El Sayed’s work is his hometown of Tripoli, which serves as the topic of his latest music video for Min Kawkab Al Fayhaa (From the Planet Fayhaa). In it, he discusses Tripoli as he sees it, and praises all those who are able to see it their own way. He states in the song: “This song’s for the people of the city abroad. Smiling faces, sad hearts abroad. This song’s for all those whose life is difficult. Who were able to go beyond the walls of the box. This song’s for those hanging out, chilling. With or without religion.” At the time of El Sayed’s upbringing, Tripoli was under Syrian occupation: it was a city suppressed, inhibited, and in the MC’s own words “gloomy”. But perhaps the state the city was in only served to encourage curiosity and defiance in El Sayed, who recalls: “We wanted to live the city in a way that was different than the way we were expected to live it.”
When it comes to his rhymes, El Sayed remarks, “to me, the act of writing is an explosion.” El Sayed does not regard Tripoli as a purely political, social or religious object, instead, he describes it as a multi-dimensional entity, not unlike a person: “It’s like you’re talking about somebody you truly love, but see in them all their different sides, those you might love and those you might hate; depending on the moment, depending on the emotion that was born as a reason to write at that moment, you’re gonna go in different directions,” explains El Sayed.
Case in point, the tracks Fi Qal’at Tarablus (In the Citadel of Tripoli) and Min Kawkab Al Fayhaa (From the Planet Fayhaa). In Fi Qal’at Tarablus, El Sayed tackles the social, political, and religious facets of Tripoli with tones of anger and frustration, personifying these issues as a literal beast that inhabits the famed Citadel of Tripoli. On the other end of the spectrum, Min Kawkab Al Fayhaa sees him taking a more personal laid-back approach, relating the experiences of a day spent out and about in the city.
Despite his music’s relevance to Tripoli, El Sayed does not have as great a following in the city itself as that of his Beirut audience. He attributes this to two things: a lack of venues in Tripoli and not enough openness to different kinds of music. El Sayed feels the tides are turning: “a segment of the youth have recently liberated themselves, choosing to engage more with reality, be active, do things. When they took that step, they found me.” Another factor that may have contributed to the popularity of El Sayed’s music in Lebanon as a whole might be his even greater popularity in neighboring Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. “We have a mentality, sadly, that when you prove yourself outside, people start getting curious about you inside,” comments the MC.
Despite his ever-growing popularity, locally, regionally and abroad, El Sayed is not concerned with where he is most popular or how many fans he can win over, and still appreciates those who were with him on his musical journey since day one, which kicked off with the launch of his debut album Kachf El Mahjoub (Unveiling the Hidden) in 2012. “The model in my head isn’t to get to somewhere where a million people listen to [me]. I’m looking for core fans, people who really interact, who really think.”
El Rass’ second album Adam, Darwin, wal Batriq (Adam, Darwin, and the Penguin) is due to be released in the next few months.