BEIRUT (Reuters) - “Battalion 5” might conjure up images of the next big computer game, but in Lebanon it’s a group of musicians who express the misery of life in Palestinian refugee camps through rap.
Inspired by the likes of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the five 20-something men scatter their lyrics with references to badly built houses, a lack of electricity and bad schools -- all part of daily life in a Palestinian camp.
“As young Palestinians, we reach a point where we stop school and there’s nothing in front of you. No work. You reach a level where your mind is lost,” said 22-year-old Amro, who goes by the moniker “C4” (a type of explosive).
The men wear western clothes, some use gold chains, and a couple have Afro haircuts. They all use nicknames, like Yousri “Molotov” or Tarek Jazzar (Tarek the Butcher in Arabic) and Nader “Moscow”.
“You can’t really speak to your parents, your friends can’t help you, so you feel like you have no choice but to express something in a moment. So I expressed it,” Amro said amid the din of constant car horns and the stink of overflowing garbage on the rooftop of one of the member’s homes in the camp.
The sprawling Bourj al-Barajenah camp in southern Beirut is one of 12 overcrowded camps scattered across Lebanon that house over half of 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees.
Like many young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, most of the men are not educated beyond middle school, and are poor and unemployed.
They went through school listening to famous hip hop artists and said they got interested in rap because the music was angry and tackled problems of discrimination and unemployment, so works well to reflect their feelings.
“This art is performed by people who are fed up, who are suffering. So we felt it was really similar to the lives that we are living,” Amro said.
Though the men speak little English, they occasionally incorporate English choruses in their songs -- which like most rap songs contain plenty of profanity.
“I‘m sitting, watching, can’t do nothing. My world is a fucking competition. I‘m thinking if God is gonna make it up for us in heaven,” they rap in a song called “This is Atheism”.
It makes for a surreal situation: a group of young men in Lebanon who know all the English swear words you need to make an authentic hip hop song.
Bobo Samir, half Lebanese and half Sierra Leonean, is the only non-Palestinian in the group. He said growing up with dark skin in Lebanon was difficult: this was partly how he came to relate to rap, music dominated by African-American artists.
“Lebanon is a sectarian country, it won’t skimp on some racism,” Bobo, 20, said.
“WELCOME TO THE CAMPS”
Amnesty International recently released a report urging the Lebanese government to do more to improve the lives of the refugees who they say are treated like second-class citizens.
That’s what the group sings about. They compiled a demo album last year called “Welcome to the camps” and were recently approached by a Lebanese production company to record their first main album.
“Look at the sky, there are electric cables, if you don’t steal a cable how will you see? How?” the group sings, launching into an impromptu rap with Amro “beatboxing” -- a form of vocal percussion used in hip hop.
“Young men are drowning in unemployment, no work, money, children without school, God thank you for UNRWA and the (Lebanese) presidency,” they sarcastically sing, referring to the U.N. agency that cares for Palestinian refugees.
“They solve our problems with a Panadol pill from the camp, welcome brother to the camp.”
On the rooftop reached by a rickety staircase, the men share Turkish coffee and heatedly dispute who killed Tupac Shakur, a successful American rapper who was shot in 1996.
But they don’t miss a beat when it comes to the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
“We’re saying that the camps look ugly, we didn’t want to be in an ugly place, it was imposed on us to be in an ugly place,” says Tarek.
They have little patience with Arabic pop, the most mainstream form of music in the Middle East, with its declarations of love that are so far removed from the refugees’ lives.
“Do you think that the Palestinian situation is doing so well and I should sing about ‘you love me and I love you’ and everything’s great?” asks Amro.
“No we’re not doing well, and our situation is ugly, and we’re disgusted. And we want to tell people to rise and protest against this filth. I want their heads to explode with what I‘m trying to tell them so they can rise up.”