Transcending borders and genres, Syrian rapper Assasi brings Arabic music to Maine
What do Maine and Syria have in common? Neither is an especially easy place to launch a career in hip hop. But that is exactly what one Syrian-born rapper has done, through a winding journey that began on the streets of Aleppo and led, last week, to an album release concert in Portland.
In the greenroom at SPACE, an arts venue in downtown Portland, Assasi stood quietly next to a mirror, eyes half shut, as his wife and manager Stephanie Crosby did his makeup before the show.
Assasi is from Aleppo, Syria, and asked to be identified only by his stage name due to the risks associated with speaking out on political issues in his home country.
It was in Aleppo that Assasi first discovered American rap music while he was still a kid, and says he soon began writing his own lyrics about bullying, toxic masculinity, and other issues that he confronted as a child.
"I didn't have a very easy childhood," Assasi said. "I wasn't taken seriously for anything I wanted to do. So hip hop was like, the only alternative to write something and express myself."
As a teenager, Assasi said he connected with a few other Syrian rappers and was even able to make some money performing. But he didn’t see a future for his music career in the country, and by 2011 the political situation had deteriorated rapidly.
On stage in Portland, Assasi shared a story from some of his last days in Syria: sitting on the balcony with his brother, watching what they believed to be shooting stars arc across the night sky.
"And then after five seconds we hear the sound of explosions," he said. "And I’m like, oh, that’s not shooting stars. That's something else. We were seeing the bombing of one side of Aleppo to the other side."
The memory is captured in Sawareekh, which he said translates to "rockets," and is one of five tracks on his new album, Third World Wide Volume 1.
Around the time that rockets began flying over Aleppo, Assasi left Syria, on what would become a years long journey across multiple continents.
He went first to neighboring Lebanon, where he got a job at a restaurant in Beirut, sleeping on sidewalks for the first month until he got his first paycheck.
There, he met his future spouse Stephanie Crosby, originally from Millinocket, who was teaching near Beirut. When Crosby got a job in India, Assasi followed, but first had to go to Nepal and wait for a visa.
Then Crosby returned to the states and applied for a spousal visa on his behalf. Assasi went back to Nepal, then on to Southeast Asia, where he worked on music projects with Finnish rappers in Malaysia.
Finally, in 2017, Assasi was able to get to the US, where he reunited with Crosby in Millinocket.
"It was a total culture shock," Assasi said of arriving in northern Maine. "Where’s the people? There are no people here."
The couple lived in Bangor for a few years, then moved to Biddeford. Even as he moved from country to country, Assasi kept piecing together his next project – a three volume record that would combine old school American rap beats with Middle Eastern melodies played on instruments such as the sitar and the darbuka, a traditional Egyptian drum.
"The culture in [the] Middle East is rich," he said. "We have a lot of amazing traditional music."
On stage, Assasi cuts a distinctive figure. His head is completely shaved except for a tightly woven red braid down the center. He wears a red fez and drapes a multicolor scarf over his head. He says his wardrobe choices, along with rapping in his native Arabic, help him deal with the homesickness and sense of cultural isolation that come from living so far from his homeland.
"Performing here and making music, and be who I am and [wear] the fez, like it feels a little bit better," he said. "It helps me to feel good, like that I am actually representing where I’m from."
In the new track Yalalalli, Assasi confronts this feeling of being suspended between the US and the Middle East, and not feeling fully at home in either place. It’s a heavy subject, and yet, he says, the song is meant to be defiantly festive.
"I’m like yeah I don’t care, it’s still not good but I’m just gonna celebrate and be happy and make music," Assasi said.
"They forget," he raps in one line of the song, "that I’m passing through the world without a home."