Nasser Shorbaji, best-known as Chyno, has become a prominent rapper on the Lebanese and Middle Eastern hip-hop scene. After graduating from the Lebanese American University (LAU) and working some time as a banker in Damascus, this 33 years-old Syrian-Filipino came back to Beirut to live off his passion: music.
In very practical words, he shared with us his thoughts on the challenges of achieving a sustainable artistic career in the region.
How did you fall into hip-hop music?
Hip-hop is the art form I grew up with. I started listening to it in the early 90’s when I was nine or ten years old. I think it spoke to me as it was something different, like me because of my origins and how I looked. Leaving in the Middle East, I think I didn’t fit in. Hip-hop music gave room to my individuality because of the kind of people it was representing: African American who couldn’t also fit in the American culture. Even subconsciously, I think I found solace in listening to people with the same feeling of alienation.
What are your inspirations?
I like a lot of the famous guys like Nas, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Tupac… I have been listening to hip-hop music since the 90’s, so my inspiration comes more from the U.S.. There was no Middle Eastern hip-hop at the time. I was part of the movement that created it. I also listen to some newer artists. Even though they weren’t my idols, they influence me now. Some are coming from the region, which now has a really vibrant scene.
How did you decide to turn this passion into a career?
I started working as a banker in Damascus. This was the kind of career I had been studying for, graduating in finance from the LAU. But I realized I wasn’t happy with it. On the other hand, I always did hip-hop music on my free time. This was the thing I was most passionate about: write things in my mind, play with words and try to find really cool patterns… So I quit my job and came back to Beirut. I had the opportunity to join a theater group for which I started acting and singing. And around 2009, I joined my band, Fareeq el Atrash. Now I do more things on my own, apart from the band. I tour, I do shows, I organize rap battles… I do a lot in the hip-hop sphere here in Beirut.
How is rap as a profession perceived in Middle East?
Rappers who do this as their job and as a career path are really a handful. We’re kind of pioneering this lifestyle. And we still don’t understand how to create longevity with it. About me, we’re talking about a five-years span. We are not entitled to brag about a career yet. I have succeeded in making it sustainable but only for now, for a few years. Maybe other people being in the position I am would look at it saying this is a really great because I can make hip-hop music, live my life and travel the world. But the question is, how do you sustain this as a career? Success is very subjective.
Can you make a living out of it?
I’m 33 and I have been living alone for the past 15 years so I think I look at it in a different way than someone in his 20’s, living with his parents and not paying bills does. Plus I grew up in a business background, family wise and also because my studies, so I think about my career in a certain way…
All my activities gain me an income. I think I owe it to the brand I managed to create for myself. I’ve been doing hip-hop for a long time here and I’m known for it. Opportunities come with that. In 2016, I was contacted by Leo Burnett to do an ad for Dish Network, a U.S. television provider. I wrote the music and I produced it. The video was called “I say Arabi” and it went viral on Facebook. It won the gold medal for best music incorporation to an ad in the Middle East.
In the world of art in the Middle East, it has to be pure will, pure energy to go out and talk about what you do to everybody.
How do you juggle your integrity as an artist with the money-making side?
Unlike in Europe, there is no cultural funding here. There is no unemployment checks that artists really get a lot of benefit from. Over here it’s all about how smart you are with what you do and your ability to juggle that integrity with the money-making side as well. It’s a very important balance: your credibility is your brand. Whatever you do is going to stay forever in your career. You can do something for a company that you don’t really want to work for because it pays well. But doing so, you sacrifice your integrity. Personally, I never felt like doing so. I still do a lot of very conscious work that’s relevant to my environment.
Can you sing about everything? Are some subjects taboo?
I sing about whatever affects me at the moment. I never really censor myself. And my sponsors, like Redbull, support me and never told me what to say or not to say. Their support came because of the social commentary in my music and the brand that I have created by doing that kind of music.
But if you take religion for instance, I don’t like to speak too much about it. I don’t really feel I’m in a position to judge people’s beliefs. When my environment is very political it will also come out in my music. Though, the last EP I did [“Terminal”, featuring the Jordanian rapper Synaptik] was more about the freedom of travel we are given by the West and the fact that our freedom here would be Western, or seems like it, because of our cultural influence.
You will organize your fifth Middle East’s rap battle in October. Is the stage of “The Arena” open to new artists?
I invite them to come and enjoy it first. I get a lot of people who want to be part of it but I have to filter out a lot. People would like to join the battles, but they never put the time to prepare for it. They just have that feeling that they could do it. Being able to face somebody and rap in front of people takes is very tough. To be good, you really need to take the necessary steps.
From my part, doing something like that from my part is only pure love for live music. It is not as financially profitable as one might think because I pay the rappers and their travel expenses from abroad. I also have to rent the place, get the stage, the sound equipment… It takes two or three months to organize such an event.