Since Lebanon’s uprising began, DJ Madi K has livened up the protest movement in Tripoli through his music, showing the world another face of the northern Lebanese city.
TRIPOLI, Lebanon- In a new neighbourhood of Tripoli, the largest city in northern Lebanon, it’s everyday business in a small cafe on a commercial street on a weekday. A few customers are inside smoking, chatting and drinking coffee.
In the far corner of the room, sitting at his laptop, Madi Karimeh greets us with a friendly smile. The 29-year-old, bright-eyed and looking confident, is keen on telling us what has made him an icon of Lebanon’s ongoing revolution. At the early start of the uprising last month, he turned the protests in Tripoli into a dance party with his captivating sound.
Known as DJ Madi K, he was born and raised in the capital of northern Lebanon. Playing music is what he’s passionate about. Otherwise he juggles multiple businesses, managing the cafe where we have met, as well as three gaming lounges he opened in the north.
“I love music. Since I was a kid, there’s no way I could sleep without it,” he said remembering his childhood when he would spend time sitting next to his father, watching him drawing and listening to all musical genres.
Soon he learned how to play various instruments, and years later embarked on music production. For his 18th birthday, his best friend offered him a DJ set. That’s when he started off as a self-taught DJ playing school and university parties, then hosting events in dance clubs around the country. While studying computer science, he made a name for himself playing in clubs in Jordan and Africa.
After he launched and built up his businesses over a span of three years, the young entrepreneur found the right time to go back to his old passion early this year. He bought upgraded music equipment and converted a small room of one his gaming lounges into his a studio.
In February, he made his official return as DJ Madi K. He co-organised the Festival of Colours in the summer, the first event of such kind to be held in Tripoli. Since the festival was successful in his hometown, he and other organisers decided to repeat it in October.
Then the revolution came.
“When I heard the news, I was driving back from outside the city. All the roads were closed, and there were so many people blocking the highway,” he recalled, “then I smiled, I thought we need this revolution because we are right, we have to rise up.”
He felt like he had to do something, so when he arrived home he posted a video on Instagram with his latest performance at the technicolour festival asking the followers: “I will be in Tripoli's Al Nour Square today. Are you in?”
His post got 66,594 views with overwhelmingly positive messages encouraging him to carry out his idea.
Though highly motivated, Karimeh was unprepared, his archives did not include revolutionary songs or the like. He knew he would have to improvise few hours before his very first live performance during the uprising.
Also, the logistics proved to be difficult. He made a quick inspection at the location to check out the surroundings, trying to figure out how to bring in equipment and what would make a good place to set up. He looked up and spotted a house with a balcony and people sitting on it with a direct view overlooking the square. Then he asked a man in the house, who turned out to be a friend of his father’s, if he could install his turntables on their balcony. It was a done deal.
With the help of his brother, friends and several other men, he managed to have his DJ gear taken to the square with speakers on top of a van that made it through the large crowds. Madi K was finally ready within an hour. After calling on an audience of 5,000 people to turn to the terrace, grabbing their attention with his phone lit up, all of them gradually held their mobile phones in the air with their flashlights on.
“From the beginning, I was aware that people may have disapproved what I was about to do,” he said taking a puff from his cigarette, “I was very afraid of that, but I decided to take a risk.”
He kicked off with Lebanon’s national anthem which he had downloaded on the spot then played a set of Lebanese songs remixed for about half an hour. The atmosphere at Al Nour Square on that first night of protests in Tripoli was exhilarating.
A video showing the DJ lighting up the town’s central square, which was shared on social media networks in and outside Lebanon, quickly went viral becoming a memorable scene in the recent uprising that has earned him the nickname “the revolution DJ”.
In the five minutes that followed his show, hundreds of cheering messages poured onto his Instagram accounts.
It was beyond Madi K’s imagination to gain such popularity among Lebanese crowds through a spontaneous act that very soon launched the trend of using DJs in the nation-wide demonstrations.
On the second night, he performed for two hours on an improvised upper stage of an old, abandoned building - the Ghandour building - facing the square which has now become the main spot from where the revolution in Tripoli is being led. His playlist featured the national anthem revisited along with patriotic songs mixed with techno and other hits he readapted making references to the popular uprising.
Karimeh has fond memories of that concert when during the breakdown of a song he addressed the packed crowd: “I swear to God, if the president saw this he would leave his chair in one hour.” He recounted what he had told the crowd, with a sparkle in the eyes, playing on his phone a video segment that captured the emotional moment with the DJ in tears hugged by friends after the short speech.
A week later, he made a comeback to Al Nour Square to re-ignite the party spirit in demonstrators - close to 100,000 from across the country. By then Tripoli was already a stronghold of the popular protests.
Confirming that his mix of music is bringing people together to chant and dance at a very difficult time, the revolutionary DJ highlighted the power music has in connecting everyone “whether Sunnis, Shias or Christians.”
Through his music, Tripoli has emerged as a festive focal point of Lebanon’s protests revealing its true face to the general public inside the country and abroad.
The conservative Sunni-majority northern coastal town has been long labelled as a hotbed for hardline extremists. From 2007 to 2014, Lebanon's second city was the scene of frequent armed clashes between Sunni residents of the Bab al Tabbaneh district, and Alawite residents of neighbouring Jabal Mohsen.
Hundreds of men from the Tripoli region have travelled to Syria to fight alongside extremist groups.
Marginalised for decades by the central government, Lebanon's second city is nowadays among the most impoverished in the country. Confronted by neglect and under-development, Tripolitans have shown their relentlessness since day one of the uprising through non-stop mobilisation after years of anger.
Madi K has helped change perceptions of the northern city. Pumping up the street movement, and injecting new life within the local community, his music has encouraged protesters from different parts of the country to join the Tripoli demonstrations, including Christians from neighbouring areas.
“Madi is among those who changed the bad image of our city, which is now seen as a place of peaceful living and enjoyment," commented Ely, a translation student, “for the first time we’re seeing Lebanese coming from everywhere to celebrate the revolution with us.”
“Before, people from elsewhere in the county were scared of coming to Tripoli, especially those from Christian areas. They had this idea that it’s a city of terrorists. But now they’re joining us here almost every day,” said a biochemistry student, Zaher, pointing to vans parked nearby the main square that brought groups of protesters from other different cities.
Both young men think that it has always been the government’s “intention” to leave Tripoli economically and socially deprived while giving it a negative portrayal so “to keep its population impoverished.” instead of enabling it to thrive as the capital of the north.
“I simply showed Lebanon and the world what my city is. It’s a peaceful town where we help each other, and welcome everyone,” the DJ uttered, “we love people, we love life."
With very few job opportunities, costly living expenses, poor public services and power outages lasting hours, the people of Tripoli face a tough daily struggle with rare moments to breathe. “That’s why I brought music in the revolution. We really need this,” he adds.
The young music producer believes that after the resignation of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, these days are the most crucial ones, and that the Lebanese need to be stronger than before.
Not politically affiliated, Karimeh is determined to be part of the Lebanese revolution through music and out of pocket.
“I’m just doing this for Lebanon,” he says with pride.