Nasser Shorbaji wasn't necessarily looking for the spotlight.
The Filipino-Syrian rapper and producer, who performs under the stage name Chyno with a Why?, played a major behind-the-scenes role in developing Lebanon's hip-hop community.
On the ground, he co-founded The Arena, a battle rap series for which regional hip-hop acts spar it out at various locations across Beirut.
In the studio, he mentored and managed a series of promising talents, including Jordanian-Palestinian rapper The Synaptik.
It was the latter who, unknowingly, was responsible for allowing Shorbaji to shine in his own light.
After completing a solid set at Dubai hip-hop, streetwear and lifestyle festival SoleDXB in 2018, Shorbaji was due to meet with executives from Warner Music Middle East.
With The Synaptik's debut album Om Al Mawjat making waves in the region at the time, Shorbaji figured his client would be snapped up as Warner Music Middle East's first official signing.
But it turned out they wanted Chyno with a Why? to be the label's flagship artist all along.
“This all came as a surprise,” Shorbaji tells The National. “I was totally focused on getting my artist a deal. I continued working with Warner Music on other things until one day they said, ‘Well, what about you?’”
A one-man band
It may sound serendipitous but the record executives knew what they were doing.
By signing Shorbaji, they secured the killer combination of an experienced artist, producer, manager and promoter.
More importantly, they could kick off Warner Music Middle East’s launch into the Arab world with a talent that represented the dynamism and tenacity coursing through the regional music scene.
These qualities are all over Shorbaji’s new record Mamluk, the first official album to be released by the label.
It is a vibrant and taut collection of Arabic and English songs in which Shorbaji tackles pertinent issues that range from discrimination and mass commercialism to his own multicultural background.
While these topics are discussed in his debut solo album Making Music to Feel at Home, released in 2015, as well as in his work with respected Lebanese hip-hop crew Fareeq El Atrash, Mamluk stands out for its polished production and anthemic tracks.
“I didn’t necessarily change my art form because I signed with the label,” Shorbaji says of the more accessible sounds. “I was already working on the album when that happened and the direction I was going in had me working with different producers. I just wanted to add a couple of bangers to the album.”
They might sound club-ready, but these tracks aren’t hedonistic at their core.
Powered by slinky beats and spidery strings, the bouncy Fresh Money is tempered by lyrics detailing how cash has increasingly become one of the racial fault lines across the Middle East.
“I talk a lot about money in the album, more than I ever did before. It’s not because of a personal interest, but down to how it always was the objective of a lot of migrants all over the world,” he says.
“This goal created a superiority complex in many parts of the Arab world. People see migrants working lesser jobs and that creates an arrogant attitude of being lesser than them.
“But a lot of the time, we Syrians and Lebanese do the exact same thing and travel to the West to find work to feed our families. Fresh Money is me trying to connect the dots.”
A complicated relationship with Lebanon
Born in Damascus to a Syrian father and Filipino mother, Shorbaji lived in Saudi Arabia, where his father found work, before moving to the Philippines to escape the Syrian conflict, and then Spain to study. The rapper now lives in Lebanon, where he works as an independent artist.
Now in the seventh year of his stint in Beirut, Shorbaji hails the city’s creative energy – in spite of suffering casual racism because of his mixed heritage.
It is all laid out in the powerful Russian Roulette.
With an accompanying music video that was shot in the Philippines, he claps back at ignorance with the searing wordplay that made The Arena so thrilling.
"I don't rep any country, I rep this whole continent," he sneers in Arabic verse. "Syria's in my blood, racism is in your blood. Always knocking on wood, [you] might as well be a carpenter."
But how does Shorbaji reconcile his lyrical attachment to Lebanon, a place offering him opportunities, even though some may view him as an outsider?
“I have a lot of love for Lebanon, especially Beirut. And if you don't have love for something then you don’t feel anger towards it, you just feel indifference and I don’t have that,” he says.
Besides, Shorbaji says, there is no Chyno with a Why? without Beirut.
“You know that stereotypical phrase ‘hip-hop raised me?’ Well, for me, it is literal because I couldn’t assimilate in any environment without being from that environment.
"I always made friends and connections through hip-hop and I have a certain appreciation for Lebanon for embracing me as who I am on that level," he says.
“I have a core group of people here that love me, regardless. I always keep them in mind and that keeps me motivated.”