Now led by Aleppian MC Assasi (Zac Allaf), Bilad El-Sham was originally founded in Damascus by Khaled Arnaout, AKA Big-K. Khaled and his proteges, hailing from various cities across Syria, sought to share a message of unity, peace, and open-mindedness while celebrating the best of Arab traditions. They hoped to revive the historical relationships and rich culture of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan) and project a positive image on behalf of Arab youth, hip-hop, and the Middle East.
It was an uphill battle. Bilad El-Sham struggled for opportunities and recognition in a society in which youth enjoy few opportunities, traditional and pop music dominate the airwaves, and the hip-hop genre receives very little attention or respect. Khaled, Assasi, and their cohorts worked hard to prove their commitment to social concerns shared by all. In 2010, tragedy struck. Khaled died, the victim of a senseless violent attack. His family and friends were devastated to lose such a vibrant, positive, passionate young man. Assasi vowed to carry Khaled’s legacy forward by taking the reigns.
Assasi joined forces with Cheb Wahid, an Algerian Rai singer and fellow Aleppian, and producer Mahmoud Kelani, AKA Sayyed Jad, to produce Bilad El-Sham’s first album. Fully self-supported, Clinic of Bilad El-Sham tackled heavy subjects such as dishonesty in the media, youth emigration, and treatment of the handicapped in Arab society. The disc would be published with a dedication to Khaled, in hopes that a small part of his dreams could come true. Indeed, his prized microphone was traded in exchange for studio time to record the songs.
Opportunity and hardship precipitated Bilad El-Sham’s relocation to Beirut in 2011. As Syria descended into civil war, Assasi traveled to the Lebanese capital to audition for Arabs Got Talent and seek broader publicity for the movement. He had only enough money and clothes for two days, but he ended up staying for the next four years. The street corner where Assasi temporarily slept became a gathering place for talented musicians from Syria, Lebanon, and beyond. Many were avowedly disinterested in hip-hop – until finally Bilad El-Sham was reborn as an eight-piece live band! From a first gig at Ta-Marbouta, the movement performed at various venues and on LBC throughout 2012-2013. Audiences enjoyed the unique fusion of hip-hop and familiar Oriental heritage songs. In 2013 Bilad El-Sham finally released Clinic of Bilad El-Sham. The group then teamed up with Hanouneh and the Awakening Band (Sweden) for a stunning reggae/hip-hop/Qudud Halabiyyeh fusion track, Issue/Ishu? on the Tawasul EP.
Despite continued setbacks due to the deteriorating situation for Syrians in Lebanon, Assasi continued to seek out collaborations with various Arab and foreign musicians and producers throughout 2014 and 2015. Ranging from acoustic blues to electronic/rock fusion, these jam sessions and performances demonstrated Bilad El-Sham’s truly global and versatile character. To date, Bilad El-Sham has presented eight official live shows and featured in more than twenty other performances and events.
Assasi has recently relocated to Malaysia, where he continues to collaborate with new acquaintances and old friends. As the Syrian crisis enters its fifth year, Bilad El-Sham will carry on its mission to both preserve and develop the Levant’s rich culture.