Syria's 'DJ Marshall B' Raps About The Pain Of Being A Refugee
In a gas station parking lot on Hungary's border with Serbia, smugglers offer illegal rides to migrants and refugees wanting to go north — about $1,100 per person to the Austrian border. They also have prostitutes lined up in broad daylight.
Hanging back inside the gas station mini-market is Basel Esa, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee. He's charging his smartphone and listening to hip-hop on his headphones, keeping one eye on the smugglers' negotiations outside.
"The smugglers? I don't trust them. I want to go [north] normally, legally — I don't want to cause any problems," Esa says, shaking his head. "We've already finished like 90 percent of our trip. I don't want to make it fail here."
Ten days earlier, Esa survived rough Mediterranean waters in a rubber raft for the hour-and-45-minute journey from Turkey to Greece. He doesn't want to risk his life a second time, crammed in the back of a smuggler's truck.
Behind the gas station, he agrees to an NPR interview, out of view of the smugglers. Grabbing the microphone, he reveals his true vocation.
"I'm a rapper, by the way. So I hold a lot of mics," he says, laughing.
"I was studying physical therapy at Aleppo University. I was planning to be a doctor," Esa says. "But my dream was bombed, just like everything in Syria."
So he turned to music.
"I was listening to rap music since I was 10 years old. That's how I got my English, by the way — a lot of rap and a lot of movies. I started to write raps when I was 16," he says. "I had many problems in my city, with people mocking me a lot. People are like, 'Oh, you're trying to be American. What's your problem?' "
Esa's hometown, Raqqa, is now the de facto capital of the Islamic State. He recorded eight rap songs there, in Arabic and English, before he and his mother fled to Turkey two years ago, after his father died.
Rap has helped him survive psychologically, he says. It's a creative outlet for processing his trauma from Syria and all he's seen on the road since — drownings in the Mediterranean, smugglers in Hungary.
"Syrian rap, in Hungary! Marshall B on the mic," he begins in fluent English:
"My pain, my heart... people have forgotten their good behavior.
Human adjectives are just some ink on the paper.
Treachery, hate, selfishness, back-stabbing.
For god's sake, all the religious want to know what has happened.
The devil's ideas are leading the brains of human beings...
Lost between heaven and hell ... I'm desperately trying to reach the light at the end."
As if addressing an audience at a concert, he ends his rap with a message: "I wanna say, 'Guys, we just want to live in peace. We don't want to cause any problems for anyone. We already came out from death in Syria. We just want to live a peaceful life. We don't want luxury. Please respect us, because we're humans.'"
Esa speaks several languages: Arabic, English, Turkish, Spanish, and even a bit of Korean he picked up from tourists while working in Istanbul's spice market. Next up is German. He wants to request asylum there and then bring his mother, who remains in Turkey for now.
"I don't understand it, but I've heard some German rap — it's cool," he says.
He explains his rap moniker, DJ Marshall B, which he doesn't want anyone to confuse with the American rapper Eminem, a.k.a. Marshall Mathers.
"It's not about him," he says. In Syria, "a marshal is the leader of the army. I chose this name to be the leader of the Syrian hip-hop army. And 'B' for me, Basel," he says. "I think I can get a lot of girls with this name!"
He thinks German girls will be impressed, he says, laughing.
A few days after our interview, I get a text message from Esa. He's arrived in Germany. " Frieden," he writes in his beginner's German: "Peace."
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