BEIRUT - Armed with spray cans and paintbrushes, a local hip-hop group is bringing new life to the pockmarked surroundings in one of Lebanon’s most notorious neighborhoods.

In the city of Tripoli, the areas of Bab al-Tabbeneh and Jabal Mohsen have been the periodic scene of clashes for decades. The area is now quiet, but the marks of thousands of bullets that hit the concrete buildings, sidewalks and outdoor stairs are a constant reminder that violence is not far way.

Stairs were painted in Bab al-Tabbeneh and Jabal M
Stairs were painted in Bab al-Tabbeneh and Jabal Mohsen, and surrounding neighbourhoods.

In these poverty-blighted neighborhoods, a rap collective known as One Voice has decided that peaceful words alone are not enough.

Perched on the outdoor stairs that wind past his home, Adel Nashabi looked admiringly at a kaleidoscope of colors beneath his feet.

“This is something new and far from the problems of the city,” Nashabi told VOA. “They are doing something beautiful.”

The outdoor staircases that link buildings and neighborhoods in hilly Tripoli once were a theater of conflict between opposing fighters. Today the weapon of choice is paint.

The musicians' social activism led to creation of the One Voice Team, made up of the rappers and a loose affiliation of social activists. On this day, over a dozen team members were giving a makeover to the outdoor stairs that link buildings in Bahssa.

One Voice has painted 16 staircases in bright, bold colors since last summer and painted murals over scarred building facades, daubing geometric patterns over bullet holes.

“We’re trying to give these people hope,” said Sara Rahouly, a 20-year-old rapper, one of the original members of the One Voice team, "hope that when the youth grow up here they can change this environment and the community.”

From One Pain to One Voice

Formed four years ago, the One Voice rappers released their first album in response to a 2013 double bombing that killed 47 people. 

Sara Rahouly, a rapper and singer for the One Voic
Sara Rahouly, a rapper and singer for the One Voice Team, in the group's offices.

Named "Our One Pain," it sought to give a voice to an often-neglected city, attracting a legion of local fans in the process.  

“We thought we needed to do something more for them than just an album,” said Rahouly.  “We needed to help them.”

It was in the most damaged and neglected neighborhoods that their album resonated most and where they decided to take action.

“They could hear in our lyrics that we were talking about the pain of Tabbeneh and Jabal Mohsen,” said rapper Bob Arja. “They felt they were being represented.”

Widespread deprivation

A United Nations study one year ago said 57 percent of Tripoli's residents are poor or deprived. That figure rose to 87 percent in Bab al-Tabbeneh.

Clashes involving armed groups in mostly Sunni Muslim Tabbeneh and neighboring Jabal Mohsen, inhabited mostly by Alawite Muslims, began in the 1970s. 

Further fueled by the current Syrian war (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is Alawite), the violence has persisted, with the most recent bout coming in the form of a suicide bomb that killed nine people a year ago in Jabal Mohsen.

Since then, amid a security sweep, there has been relative calm.  But the area’s reputation is hard to shake.

“It’s not just economic, it’s social,” said Sahar Atrache, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

As well as stairs, the One Voice Team worked with
As well as stairs, the One Voice Team worked with locals to paint murals

Those from Tabbeneh and similar neighborhoods "are often looked down upon as second-class people, even within Tripoli, and associated with poverty and a lack of education,” she added, and the situation has contributed to the lure of armed gangs among youths “who barely have any prospects for the future.”

It is this lure, and sense of hopelessness, that the rappers aim to counter.

Cynicism and turf battles

Gaining acceptance and being allowed to work in such tight-knit neighborhoods has not been without its challenges.  Some in the community reacted cynically, while a number of youngsters were protective of the steps they considered their turf.

“But once they realized we were the musicians they sang along to, it helped,” Rahouly said. 

The hope is that painting the stairs will help dispel the specter of war and offer youngsters rare opportunities. 

“Painting the stairs also was like an icebreaker between these communities,” Rahouly added. “It has helped people from Jabal Mohsen and Tabbeneh interact with each other without fighting, and realize they can be friends.”