With his latest song, singer-songwriter and U of T student Adham Assaad has attempted the impossible: releasing a song about a highly political topic while remaining politically neutral. The result, “White Helmets,” is written from the perspective of a young boy in war-torn Syria who is forced to endure an array of unthinkable atrocities.
Assaad moved to Canada in 2005 and is currently entering his second year, studying Political Science. Having always had an interest in modern politics, he says his studies are an important part of his musical inspiration. “I like the fact that I get to use some of what I learn in making my music. I’d be sitting in my classes with a notepad just writing lyrics, with absolutely no intention to record any of it or even showing it to my closest friends or family,” writes Assaad.
His studies are not his only source of inspiration. “Anytime something starts to consume my thoughts, it usually ends up as a verse on a notepad somewhere, usually that’s how I deal with a lot of things in my life.”
Throughout his childhood and teenage years, he was often drawn to songwriting and would challenge himself to produce something better each time. Last May, he decided to record and release his debut song, “Now Playing,” and in doing so, he felt like he had broken the ice. He waited for his next moment of inspiration to begin another project.
Assaad paid attention to the Syrian civil war from its beginning stages. “After an airstrike earlier in the year, I was looking through pictures of the aftermath,” he says. “It really started to hit me that there are people living in these conditions daily, and have no choice but to live every day trying to survive.”
Assaad notes that his Egyptian background has a role in his connection to the crisis in Syria. “Being from that part of the world, it definitely hits home,” he says. “This part of the world is pretty unstable so you never know what might happen, and I think Egypt narrowly avoided a similar fate. I just found myself thinking, ‘Wow, this really could’ve been my own city that’s destroyed.’”
The experiences of airstrikes, fearing for safety while walking to school, living among the rubble, not having clean water, and the horrors of having to dig a parents’ grave are all mentioned in “White Helmets.”
“I tried to paint the picture as clearly as possible,” says Assaad. “Unfortunately, it is based on a true story. But I wouldn’t say it’s based on a single true story, it’s more a combination of real experiences. Everything I wrote about in the song has actually happened to someone during this conflict.”
Assaad felt an increased sense of urgency writing this song because so many people in Canada are removed from the atrocities and violence that are occurring in Syria on a daily basis. The goal of Assaad’s song is to present a small piece of a much bigger picture from a different perspective.
“A lot of people in North America may not be exposed to what’s going on in Syria and take the lives they live for granted, so I wanted to offer up a different lens to look through and see how others are living across the world.”
The perhaps cryptic song title “White Helmets” is a reference to the Syrian volunteer organization that operates in many of the most dangerous areas of Syria and Turkey. Assaad had decided on the title even before writing the first word.
One of Assaad’s goals was also to make the song as politically neutral as possible. “At the end of the day, the ones paying the price of this conflict are these innocent kids who have had their lives and futures ruined, regardless of who caused it,” he says. “The song isn’t meant to be political whatsoever and I made an effort to not favor one side over another… The title raised a few eyebrows, but I think that’s good because it sparks a conversation, which is important.”
Assaad does not have concrete plans for the future of his music but hopes to continue improving himself while making a positive change in the world. “I’m donating the proceeds [from streams] of the song to try and help alleviate the suffering in the area, I hope it reaches as many people as possible, that way we can help save as many people as possible,” he says.
When asked what he hopes for the future of the Middle East, Assaad simply says peace. “Every day there are innocent lives lost and I don’t think anyone wants that to continue for any longer. Honestly, I hope that there is no ‘future of the Syrian conflict.'”