When a genre is born, it is molded by its surroundings in its crucial developmental stages. Metal was without a doubt born in a Western-centric environment, though it has since transitioned into a global phenomenon that spans from South America to deepest parts of Asia. Metal also touched the lives of those in Middle Eastern countries, and Lebanon was a leading figure. One of the bands who have consistently made a name for themselves since the 90s – and whose frontman Bassem Deaibess has become something of a spokesman for the scene – is Blaakyum. The thrash metal band have locked horns with local authorities over the years – with Deaibess being arrested on two separate occasions for being a metal fan. In the run-up to his talk at Chatham House on the topic of Art as Defiance in the Middle East, we had a chat with him about the band and situation in Lebanon.
We kick off with the origins of the band’s name – something which Deaibess is surprisingly reticent to discuss. There are two reasons behind the name, and he reveals one of them: “The name is in two parts; one is a colour and the other is a reference to metal. It’s like taking a colour and metalising it, so ‘Blaak’ is the colour black, and ‘yum’ is the suffix ‘-um’ used in chemistry to describe the different metal elements such as platinum, uranium… etc. As to why it is written Blaakyum and not Blackium, well one reason is the original meaning of Blaakyum, the one we do not disclose, the other has to do with the fact that BLAAKYUM just looks more menacing visually.”
While Blaakyum are arguably the most famous metal band to emerge from Lebanon, the genre has been in the country since the 70s. Although most bands played covers, a lot had original songs as well, “for example in the 80s there were two major bands I knew about called Red Hell and Electric Warriors. So the country has always made its own noise. It’s that no one from the international community really noticed,” Deaibess recalls – a topic we will be returning to later.
We also discuss why bands from Lebanon so rarely tour abroad – and it becomes apparent that the odds are stacked against them. Though the band have completed tours through the UK and Europe, they are in the minority in the Lebanese metal scene. “We have few resources to go abroad, no support from the international community, and a major factor is that we are seen by the authorities of the Western world as second-class humans who need to be screened and processed before being allowed into Western countries.” He describes the visa system as “humiliating and disgusting, and discourages a lot of musicians to even try.” And that’s before we even get into the situation in his own country.
Metal and religion have had a troubled history, particularly when religion becomes intertwined with governmental procedure. There has been a history of anti-metal witch hunts in Lebanon, flaring up coincidentally according to major events. The first anti-metal wave in 1996-1999, the second wave in 2002-2005 and the third wave in 2012. “It was just an imitation of the anti-metal movements in the west especially the USA during the time of the Judas Priest trial in 1990!  Also we need to always remember that politicians and religious leaders rule through a common strategy: “Fear”. As Iron Maiden put it, ‘Fear is the Key’.” It was apparently “a complete coincidence that the first wave of oppression started just a year after Blaakyum did,” in 1996, although it has certainly been a contributing factor to both the identity of the band and the struggles they have overcome.
I ask whether Blaakyum’s music would have come out differently if Lebanon had a more receptive view of the metal genre, and his response is both candid and thought-provoking. “Definitely [it would have come out differently], I believe the Middle East is a fertile ground for metal creativity. We do not write music and sing about things from a third person perspective but a first person one. We live in a perpetual war zone, that today is infested with radical Islamist terrorism after having suffered from other religious terrorism in the past and from political oppression.” He is practically vitriolic about the decline of the society around him. “It’s a society that has regressed, it once was the beacon of civilisation and now refuses to even accept the basic principles that makes us civilised as humans. Definitely, where we grew up defines our musical edge and colour.”
In a show of solidarity, Blaakyum’s music was played during a performance of Iraq: Out and Loud – part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “We were very happy to contribute,” Deaibess states, but it goes further than that. In their latest album Line of Fear, they incorporated an Iraqi folk song into the track ‘Freedom Denied’ – “we do feel kinship with those facing atrocities, and Iraqi metalheads have faced atrocities we never can even start to fathom! They are superheroes who have endured conflicts and targeted executions. There is no bigger atrocity in this world! We think that our anger at religion is totally justifiable when idiotic superstitious people cause others to be stoned to death!” It’s a stark reminder that life in the West may have its hardships, little can compare to your music taste being a life-or-death choice.
Branching out of Lebanon has been hard for metal bands, but online global communities have been instrumental in accessing an international audience. “It was the only way we were able to finally connect with the international metal communities and actually tell them that we exist. It was the only way we were able to put out a record and communicate with the industry and the fans outside of our small secluded circle.” Even as a fan it’s been tough to get hold of records from overseas. “It [the internet]was also the only way for us to listen to metal and get music and news, since up until now the majority of the metal bands were banned in Lebanon and the few who were not banned had no CDs for sale in the stores.”
Even in the last few years, the situation is still very tense. Since the release of their first album Lord of the Night, there has been a witch hunt – “which inspired the theme of our latest album Line of Fear: freedom of artistic expression and freedom of speech.” The country is now in limbo; Deaibess states there isn’t an active witch hunt at the moment, but “we are hearing rumours that this might change very soon… to the worst.”
So what can be done to make the situation better? Change must come from within and without. “What can be done is to separate religion from law, keep the bigots in the churches and mosques from influencing laws on the basis of superstitions, and acknowledge the right we have as artists to push the envelope, to be offensive, to be overcritical.” And what can we – the international metal community – do to support the Lebanese scene effectively? “Let us feel that you are with us, heart and soul, this is what we need the most, to be encouraged. We have so much talent and many bands, from all metal genres; we invite you to discover these bands and help them get their music and voice heard by inviting them to perform internationally. It is not enough for the international community to talk about bands in the Lebanese scene from a distance, encouragement needs to happen on a practical level too.” And soon Broken Amp will be joining in this cause – watch this space.
The last point is a parting shot against the religious authorities. “In the end this is art, it has no limits. Only when we are protected by the law from the bigotry of an uncivilised, unsophisticated and idiotic rotten society can the tide turn.”
Deaibess is actively involved in raising awareness – as mentioned earlier, he is involved in a talk at the renowned think tank Chatham House – chaired by Dr. Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the institution. 
Thanks to Bassem Deiabess, Dr. Khatib and Tom Brumpton for the interview opportunity. You can follow Blaakyum on Facebook and buy their releases here.
1. Judas Priest were famously taken to court under the charge that one of their songs was promoting a pro-suicide message. Wikipedia article here.
2. Event details are on the Chatham House website here.