How hip-hop brought this Syrian rapper around the world to live in Maine
By EMILY BURNHAM | Bangor Daily News, Maine | Published: October 5, 2019
The story of how Zakaria Assaf made his way from Aleppo, Syria, to Bangor is the kind of hip-hop origin story you hear on rap tracks – one that spans the globe and is packed with more twists and turns than the verbose, staccato raps that Assaf writes, records and performs.
From being the lone hip-hop fan in his neighborhood, to rapping on the streets of cities as far flung as Beirut, Kathmandu and Kuala Lumpur, to fleeing war and persecution, to finally ending up on Bangor's East Side with his Mainer wife, Assaf – who raps under the name Assasi – brings with him two decades of hip-hop devotion, wherever he goes.
"Since I was a kid, it's been hip-hop," he said. "That's been my goal and my dream."
In his home recording studio in Bangor, Assaf is surrounded by things that symbolize him, as both a rapper and as a man who has crossed the planet multiple times in the pursuit of personal and creative freedom. A painting of rapper Biggie Smalls, who has the iconic streets-to-stardom story in hip-hop. A poster of Bruce Lee, another icon he admires. And the red fez that he wears with a scarf when performing.
Back in the Middle East, people would tell him that his wearing of the fez was offensive – that it was a symbol of colonialism, of the west's cultural appropriation of Arabic culture. But Assaf says he's just taking it back.
"I'm re-appropriating it," he said. "And it just looks cool. You know it's me, when you see it."
Hip-hop without a hip-hop scene
Assaf was born in 1987 in Aleppo, Syria, the oldest of four siblings. From an early age, he knew he was different from just about everyone else – not just from his family, but from the Syrian culture at large.
"There's a lot of emphasis in the culture to be very manly, to bully, to be kind of aggressive," Assaf said. "I'm just not that. I don't care about that. I don't buy into that. I don't want to fight."
As a kid, his first exposure to western music was Michael Jackson – he loved the music, the clothes, the dance moves. At age 12, another idol would replace Jackson: rapper Eminem, whose first album came out in 1999. From that point on, Assaf was obsessed with hip-hop.
Unfortunately, in Aleppo in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the hip-hop scene was virtually nonexistent. Hip-hop wasn't played on the radio. Assaf managed to scrounge up cassette tapes of other rappers he would come to love even more than Eminem, such as The Notorious B.I.G., Tech N9ne, Xzibit and others. On his own, he would write and practice raps, though he was too shy to share them with anyone.
"I was the only one. I was the black sheep. Nobody liked hip-hop in Aleppo," Assaf said. "We had to build a hip-hop culture on our own."
By 2003, after four long years learning how to rap and recording rough beats in his bedroom, Assaf had discovered a handful of other Arab rappers around the region, including DAM, a Palestinian hip-hop group, as well as some friends who were also fans.
Then he discovered that a childhood friend, Musbah Jalkhi, not only was a hip-hop fan, but he also had become an amazing rapper who went by the name Liquid Dice.
"He asked me to rap for him, and I was so shy, but I did it," Assaf said. "He became my mentor. I trained with him basically every day. It was kind of like a master and apprentice thing. He really taught me how to up my game."
Though most western ears may not understand the words that Arabic rappers are saying, the content is in keeping with the sorts of things "conscious" rappers in the U.S. talk about: the issues that affect society and daily life. Artists and groups such as Public Enemy, 2Pac, Immortal Technique and Kendrick Lamar rap about social justice issues, racism, poverty and violence. Though the names, places, specific issues and musical roots are different, the spirit of much of Arabic rap is the same.
In 2008, Assaf joined another rapper, Khaled Arnaout, known as Big K, in a group called Bilad El-Sham, named after an ancient state that encompassed much of what is now Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It was around that time he chose his rap moniker: Assasi, which roughly translates to "essential" or "original" in English.
"I created myself. I am my own origin," he said.
Hustling on the street
After close to 10 years rapping in Syria, in both Aleppo and Damascus, Assaf ran into a series of troubles. He was dealt a major blow in 2010 when his partner in Bilad El-Sham, Big K, was killed. And in 2011, his world and the world of everyone he knew in Syria was turned upside down with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.
The United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 people, or close to 2 percent of Syria's population, have died in the war, which is ongoing and caused an international refugee crisis as people fled the violence. Some 3.8 million people have been displaced by the war, and Assaf was one of them.
In 2012 Assaf fled permanently to Beirut, just across the border from Syria in Lebanon. In Beirut – a cosmopolitan city with a thriving music and arts scene – he struggled to get by, working in restaurants and barely affording his rent before, eventually, living on the streets.
"I couldn't go back to Syria," said Assaf, who had already completed his compulsory two years of military service. "If I'd gone back, they'd have forced me back into the military."
At one point, he was sleeping on a concrete platform in Hamra, one of Beirut's major commercial districts. Lacking a formal venue, he and his fellow musician friends would just perform on the street. Though the players and rappers changed constantly, for Assaf, Bilad El-Sham became the unifying name for the Arabic-hip-hop fusion he was performing. In 2013, he released "Clinic of Bilad El-Sham," his first full album.
Around that time, he met a young American woman: Stephanie Crosby, a Millinocket native teaching history at a high school in Beirut. A 2006 graduate of Stearns High School, Crosby had taught at schools in Somalia and Yemen before coming to Beirut.
Crosby happened to attend one of Assaf's gigs one night, at a tiny club in Beirut. A musician herself, Crosby was intrigued not just by the music but by the funny, piercingly intelligent young man on stage. She connected with him on Facebook, asking about local open mic nights, and he suggested they talk over a glass of wine – which turned into a first date.
"It went from a chat over wine to going to this amazing album release show and after party, where I met most of the entire Beirut hip-hop scene," Crosby said. "We connected right away, which I think was due to both of us being slightly off-beat people who feel most comfortable with radical honesty. I just love how he can jump in and make music with folks from any genre, culture or language background instantly."
Assaf and Crosby married in the spring of 2015, and not long after that, Crosby was offered a position teaching English in India. Assaf wanted to join her, but there was one big problem: few, if any countries, would accept a Syrian passport or grant visas to Syrians.
"A Syrian passport was basically worthless," Assaf said. "Nobody wants you. You can't go home, and basically no country will take you. Nobody wants refugees. You're truly homeless."
One of the only countries in the world that would offer a visa upon arrival to a Syrian was Nepal. Assaf figured that Nepal was a lot closer to India than Lebanon. So when Crosby headed to her new job in the Indian state of Punjab, Assaf set his sights on Kathmandu, where he again found fellow hip-hop fans and kept making music under the Bilad El-Sham banner.
With Assaf unable to get a work visa in India or Nepal, Crosby came home to Maine in the fall of 2015 so she could work and send money back to her husband. After his travel visa ran out in Nepal, in 2016, he headed for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he continued to write rhymes and make music in between interminable paperwork and countless phone calls to see if he could be granted entry to the U.S.
Dismayed by the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Assaf was dealt a double blow when on Jan. 27, 2017, the Trump administration enacted Executive Order 13769, which effectively banned entry into the U.S. by residents of six countries, including Syria.
"I woke up that morning and didn't know what had happened, and my friends kept looking at me like something was wrong," Assaf said.
Assaf sunk into a deep depression, knowing that his chances of being reunited with Crosby were getting increasingly slim. At that point, he had not seen his wife in more than 18 months and had been unable to work or travel freely.
By March, however, many of the provisions of the ban were reversed by several court decisions, and at the end of that month, Crosby flew to Malaysia, and Assaf was finally, miraculously, granted a visa to come to the U.S.
Elated, Assaf and Crosby decided to finally take a honeymoon, but they encountered one more barrier delaying Assaf's arrival in the U.S.
On the bus to the ferry terminal to get to Malaysia's Perhentian Islands, where they were set to spend a few days in a tropical paradise, the bus was stopped at an immigration checkpoint. Assaf was pulled off and detained, due to his recently lapsed Malaysian visa.
Assaf was held in a 20-by-20-foot room with 40 other detainees, with hot sun beating in from the closed windows. Guards took all his belongings and removed his shoes. His feet burned on the pavement. The food was stale and full of insects. There was no bathroom.
Assaf did not know how long he would be detained, or even if he would ever be let out. Luckily, after a week, he was released. He and Crosby ditched the honeymoon idea.
"I didn't even want my shoes back," Assaf said. "It was just like, 'Let's get the hell out of here.'"
From Malaysia to Millinocket
During the car ride from the airport in Boston to Crosby's hometown of Millinocket, Assaf watched out the window as signs of civilization began to fall away. Having spent most of his life in large cities in warmer climates, April in northern Maine was a far cry from Kuala Lumpur.
"I kind of wondered what I'd gotten myself into," Assaf said. "It was like driving into the wilderness."
After a few weeks at Crosby's father's house, the couple moved into an apartment in Bangor, with Assaf starting work at a local coffee shop and Crosby continuing her job in administration at the University of Maine. That summer, Assaf began doing what he does best: meeting musicians and bringing them into his Bilad El-Sham fold.
Maine's hip-hop scene is not the broadest or most diverse, but given that Assaf has spent his life as a rapper building a music community wherever he goes, he's already found collaborators. In Bangor, he's played shows at places including the Queen City Cinema Club and Top of the Nine with Portland rappers Desmo and Words of Phrase, Bangor rapper Boss the Poet, Bangor DJ 2Phat, and with Crosby, who is a singer and guitarist. He's also been collaborating with rappers and DJs around the world, trading beats and rhymes online with musicians based in Finland, Germany, Malaysia and Syria.
In 2018, he released his second album, "Third World Wide," a collection of tracks that tell much of his life story, and how love – for his wife, his people and especially for hip-hop – got him through the hardest times.
He remains hopeful that someday, in a future where the war has ended and peace returns, he can go back to Syria and see his family and friends. For now, however, he is focused on his art.
"Hip-hop saved my life," Assaf said. "I went to school for disappointment, tragedy and exile, and I graduated. I made a commitment to hip-hop a long time ago, and I'm not going to stop."
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