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How Electronic Producers Around the World are Responding to the Refugee Crisis

From Syria's Hello Pyschaleppo​ to Turkish-German DJ Ipek, producers are finding new ways to express the inexpressible.

Anna Codrea-Rado

Anna Codrea-Rado

EPA/Balazs Mohai

Over a million people sought refuge from war, violence and political turmoil by fleeing to Europe in 2015, and according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, those numbers will keep climbing. Most are escaping the cataclysmic Syrian civil war, but others are also fleeing ongoing unrest in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Kosovo. The European refugee crisis has also led to mounting tension within the European Union; with governments unable to agree on a solution, we are left to grapple with the resulting horrors, such as recent news that more than 10,000 refugee children have gone missing in the last two years.

Increasingly, musicians from every corner of the world are tackling this issue with their work. The most prominent examples come from politically-inclined pop stars like M.I.A. and PJ Harvey, who use their lyrics to convey powerful messages. At the end of last year, M.I.A. dropped her self-directed video for "Borders," in which she sings in solidarity of the refugees: "Yeah fuck 'em when we say we're not with them / We solid and we don't need to kick them / This is North, South, East and Western," as imagery of what refugees go through plays out behind her with dozens of people running across a wasteland and then scramble up wire fences.

In "The Wheel," PJ Harvey draws attention to the "revolving wheel" of history, and how we're once again seeing mass movements of people fleeing oppressive regimes. The track, off her forthcoming album The Hope Six Demolition Project (due April 15), was inspired by her visits to villages in Kosovo and Afghanistan gutted by ethnic cleansing in the 90s. The song's power lies in Harvey's ability to poignantly conjure images of missing children: "Now you see them, now you don't / Children vanish 'hind vehicle / Now you see them, now you don't / Faces, limbs, a bouncing skull."

Like these pop stars, electronic producers around the world are also responding to the crisis with their music. Without the descriptive and emotional power that lyrics afford, dance music's capacity to deliver powerful political messages is often overlooked—despite the genre having deep political roots. Yet, Syrian-born Hello Psychaleppo, Canada's Poirier, and the German-Turkish DJ Ipek provide stark examples of how electronic producers are finding new ways to express the inexpressible, capturing visceral responses to this humanitarian disaster in ways that are perhaps more abstract—but just as moving—as their pop contemporaries.

While the media focuses on foreign policy disputes over how to stop the war, Hello Psychaleppo (AKA Samer Saem Eldahr) provides a more human perspective, illustrating what's actually happening on the ground. Eldahr left his native city of Aleppo in Syria for Beirut, Lebanon in 2012. At that time, protests in the country against President Bashar al-Assad's oppressive regime escalated to violent clashes, eventually resulting in full-out civil war. In an interview with the Subbak blog, Eldahr explained why he had to leave, saying that "the situation there just kept getting worse and worse." Eldahr was among the 170,000 Syrians the UN estimated to have left the country that year as a result of the war. Since then, approximately 11 million Syrians—half the country's population—have been displaced, according to Amnesty International.

The disjointed, frantic, yet strangely comforting music Eldahr's produced since moving to Lebanon, and then resettling in the US a year ago, captures what it feels like to live in a displaced state. On "Beirut," a single he independently released in March 2015, a diced-up beat sets a frantic pace, like a puppy running around in loops. An Arabic chant drives the track, but it's pierced by twisted synths that disrupt its flow. You're left not knowing what to feel—uplifted, then agitated, then uplifted again. By synthesizing Arabic vocals with quaking bass and wheezy synths, Eldahr reflects the cultural traditions of his country, while also using the electronic element to look—often with hopeful eyes—towards its future.

One thing that can't be said about Eldahr's music is that it's downtrodden. It's infused with moments of hope, touches of lightness. Even on a surface level, his mashing together of traditional Bedouin melodies with dubby electro beats is a nod to electronic music's utopian roots—and how this music can bridge gaps between genres, cultures and philosophies.

In the same way that PJ Harvey connected past moments of civil unrest with what's happening today in "The Wheel," Canadian producer Poirier explores this idea of the cyclical, interconnected nature of migration in his work. Over 5,000 miles from Syria, the Montreal-based musician is making records that play with themes of movement, cultures melding together and how people have to work together in order to incite change.

Poirier told THUMP over email that he wrote his latest album Migration, which came out in March, in the summer of 2015 when shocking headlines about the people trying to reach Europe were rolling in thick and fast. The event deeply affected his state of mind, and even the fact he called the album "migration" makes a statement—there's debate around how to refer to the people coming to Europe and whether "refugees" is preferable to "migrants." And so calling it Migration instantly politically charges the record because the word no longer just means the movement of people from one area to another, but now carries the weight of decades-old prejudice about the perceived threat of outsiders. "My album is just a little piece, a little brick in the system, hoping it helps building a better knowledge, a better understanding of the people around us, about our neighbors, shutting down prejudice," Poirier said.

Upon first listen, it's not screamingly obvious that Migration is about the refugee crisis. In fact, the most overt influence is Jamaican—with heavy dancehall, joyful soca, and dulcet reggae overtones. But in many ways, Jamaica is a poster country for international migration, as it's a key part of the Caribbean country's culture and identity. And so by using Jamaican sounds on an album about migration, Poirier again makes the point that migration is more than just the moving around of people, but rather the building of new cultures. In a previous interview when the album dropped, Poirier told THUMP that part of his interest in migration is to do with its effects on the places the immigrants move to. " You can hear the effects of people moving from one country to another one through the music," he said.

The album is rich with guest production, including long-time collaborator Face-T, dancehall dependable Red Rox, and American producer Machinedrum. This speaks to the point that the creative process is a cooperative effort, nodding to the idea that progress involves bringing together different types of people towards the same goal. "Music is a dialogue between people and culture, and not ignoring what's going on around us, around the world is already significant," Poirier said.

Another artist raising social consciousness through her music is DJ Ipek (AKA Ipek Ipekcioglu)—who differs from Poirier and Eldahr in that she is not only inspired by, but making direct, charitable contributions to the crisis. Ipekcioglu was born in Germany to parents of Turkish origin, and grew up between the two countries. Her music is heavily influenced by the traditional Middle Eastern music, and she told THUMP that she's one of the first to spin Middle Eastern, Turkish and Kurdish dance music in Germany.

A musical activist for many years and member of female:pressure, an international network of women electronic musicians, Ipekcioglu sees music as a political tool with the capacity for instigating change. "If I don't like the system," she said, "then I should change it, instead of always complaining." To that effect, Ipekcioglu and 11 other members of female:pressure, put together a compilation of tracks about the crisis released on March 8, with proceeds going towards a women's resistance movement in northern Syria.

Ipek specifically seeks to challenge the stereotype that dance music isn't concerned with politics. "When we think of the EDM scene, it is very much oriented on consuming," she said over email, explaining that the electronic community is in reality very diverse. "I would like to show on the one hand that electronic musicians are not just behind their computers and have no interest in anything, I would like to show our diversity also in cultural ways."

As the refugee crisis continues to lacerate the world, it leaves behind wounds that will take decades to heal. These artists are stitching together an image of what the scars look like for future generations to examine them. The fact they were expressed not with lyrics, but through the synthesized tones of electronic productions takes nothing away from their significance. Instead, it emphasizes that sometimes in order to give voice to something, you must find something that goes beyond words.

Anna Codrea-Rado is THUMP's News Editor. Follow her on Twitter.