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From outspoken rapper to refugee, the turbulent life of MC Swat

Youssef Ramadan Said, a popular rapper known as MC Swat, fled his native Libya after exposing violence and injustice
Youssef Ramadan Said, also known as MC Swat, is a 30-year-old Libyan rapper (Photo courtesy of MC Swat)

GOTHA, Germany - “The situation in Benghazi was crazy, like judgment day - nobody trusted anyone, people got arrested, people burnt houses, it was chaos,” Youssef Ramadan Said told Middle East Eye. The 30-year-old is well-known on Libya's rap music scene, yet his fame could not save him from the turbulent turn his life would soon take.

According to Youssef, his life in Libya had become a nightmare, with militant groups threatening him because he rapped against their atrocities and violence. Whether they were armed groups linked to General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), or other militant groups, his disapproval condemned the whole corrupt system. 

Nobody trusted anyone, people got arrested, people burnt houses, it was chaos

- Youssef Ramadan Said, rapper

On 2 August, Youssef was rescued along with 16 other Libyans from a boat stuck in the middle of the Mediterranean sea by the French NGO Doctors Without Borders, in partnership with SOS Mediterranee. The group was attempting to flee Libya and get to Europe.

Today, Youssef is still facing uncertainty. His request for asylum in Germany has been denied and he is expected to be deported from Gotha, in the district of Thuringia, back to Italy in April.

'I was against Haftar'

MC Swat began his musical career in 2007 focusing on themes rooted in the social and economic issues that plagued his country. On 20 February 2011, he released This Is Revolution, a song in which he encouraged people to go onto Libya's streets and rebel against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

During the revolution, Libyan rap music grew in popularity, with artists such as Ibn Thabit gaining a huge following. The popular Libyan rapper and MC Swat worked together on various projects such as Victory or Death in 2012.

After the revolution and Gaddafi's downfall, MC Swat continued to record songs, but his lyrics struck too many nerves for most of the factions involved in the civil war. In Freedom of Speech, which was released in December 2011, MC Swat raps:

You were made to believe that the revolution has succeeded, but it has failed because of corruption 

They all accepted the "green" [Gaddafi's colour] and left the scene as it is

The mind is still green and today they've let them become empowered

What else would you call these opportunists grabbing guns and saying that they're the police?

Patrolling the streets, stopping people, and acting like a gang?

In his most recent rap song Exploitation, released in 2017, he denounced crimes committed by different factions. 

Back in 2012, Youssef was arrested briefly and beaten up by one of the militias. On another occasion during Haftar's 2014 Operation Karama (Dignity), which was against rival militants blamed for a wave of bombings and assassinations in Benghazi, as well as former anti-Gaddafi rebels, Youssef was arrested for five days by a group which supported Haftar called the Salafi Madkhalists.

"I was against Haftar because he was similar to a dictator, but people thought I was against the system, but I was against the Dignity operation."

I was against Haftar because he was similar to a dictator

- Youssef Ramadan Said, rapper

Pressure was mounting on him and he no longer felt safe. In 2015, after returning from a brief trip to Tunisia, Youssef moved to Tripoli.  

Returning to Benghazi was too dangerous, especially after his brother had gone missing. Youssef's mother was terrified something would happen to Youssef as well. To this day, nothing has been heard of the whereabouts of Youssef's brother, or whether or not he is still alive. 

Youssef set out on a plan to get to Europe legally. Yet in order to do so, he needed to save some money and obtain a new electronic passport which was being rolled out to end the growing trade of forged Libyan passports and visas. Older passports were handwritten and easy to replicate.  

Working as a rapper did not provide much financial security for Youssef, as Libya's rap music market did not attract lucrative investments as in the USA or other Western countries. Most of his tracks were posted on YouTube for free and he has never been able to produce an album. Youssef was also afraid for his family's safety after his brother went missing, so he decided to get a more stable job.

He managed to secure a job at the general register office, a government office that provides birth and marriage certificates, along with other services. During that time, he attempted to apply for a visa to France, but his application was rejected.

“The situation in Tripoli was crazy, like in Benghazi, and I had no more money,” he said.

Youssef Ramadan Said, aka MC Swat, says he doesn't have the energy to rap currently (Photo courtesy of MC Swat)
Encouraged by many people, MC Swat could not stay away from rapping for long. In 2017, he released his last track, Exploitation, in which he describes the suffering of the people of Libya, who are exploited by militants, foreign countries and all groups involved in the civil war:

Take the oil and the money and the government

Take what you want

We don’t even want incomes

The only thing we want is for you to leave us be.

Greeted by a man with a Kalashnikov

In Tripoli, once again Youssef felt that his life was in danger. While he was out, his home was broken into and his laptop was stolen. 

“After Exploitation, people started to tell me that I should watch my back. After a while, in May or June 2017, someone slipped into my flat and took everything, even my laptop,” he said. 

Although he was hesitant to blame a specific person or group for the burglary, Youssef believed it was a message because of Exploitation, his most recent song. 

That was the moment he decided he had to leave Libya and go to Italy illegally. He started to look for smugglers, but because of his popularity, a smuggler found him. According to Youssef, a man in his late 30s approached him in a cafe in Tripoli, where he was a regular.

“I know you, you do rap music. My cousins listen to you,” the man said.

I wish every day that everything ends in Libya and I am able to go back home and stay with my mother and father

- Youssef Ramadan Said, rapper

The smuggler requested $2,000 to take him to Italy. After Youssef sold his car and other possessions, he managed to raise $950 and convinced the smugglers to take him on board.

Youssef said he was greeted at the shore of Tripoli by a man with a Kalashnikov who was shouting at him.

“Do you have the money?” the man yelled out. 

After paying him and waiting for around one hour, the smuggler came back with a small yacht. Youssef boarded it with other passengers who appeared at different parts of the shore.

The smuggler abandoned them in the middle of the Mediterranean and they were left alone for two to three hours before they managed to send an SOS signal to another ship through the boat's radio.

The ship was rescued by the NGOs and Youssef landed in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Local authorities registered his fingerprints and after two days he was transferred to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Syracuse. In Italy jobs were hard to come by, so Youssef decided he would have a chance for a better life in Germany.

'I'm not trying to be a hero'

With only $63 in his pocket, Youssef went to Rome from Syracuse by bus and then continued to Milan. From there he went to France, and then to Switzerland, where he was caught by local authorities and held for three days before they realised he was registered for asylum in Italy and released him from custody.

By changing trains frequently, Youssef was able to avoid passport control in different countries until he finally made it to Germany. 

Today, Youssef is living in a refugee camp in Gotha, Germany, in a room with seven men from various countries.

In December, his application for asylum in Germany was denied and he was told that local authorities would deport him back to Italy in April 2018 under the EU asylum rules that require refugees to remain in the country they are registered in. 

Drained by the instability and confused about his future, Youssef is struggling to get by. He says he doesn't have the energy to rap any more. With his family still in Benghazi and his brother missing, he fears for their lives if he were to continue to rap. The stakes are too high.

“I wish every day that everything ends in Libya and I am able to go back home and stay with my mother and father," he said.

“I am not trying to be a hero right now."

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