Calais, France – In a wooden shack at the edge of scrubland, just a few miles from the Channel Tunnel, Kasper raps about life in Baghdad.
“In my music I talk about my home,” he says. “I talk about the blood, the constant explosions, the poverty and the death.”
It’s been a long road to France from Iraq. Kasper fled his home a year ago and has spent the last few months in a refugee camp in Calais known as “The Jungle”.
He left Baghdad after he appeared in a music video rapping about the dangers of daily life. In it, he also accused the government of corruption.
After the video was uploaded to YouTube, he received anonymous death threats by text message. He knew he couldn’t stay.
Kasper’s just one of the talented musicians that British cellist Vanessa Lucas-Smith met when she began to visit the camp last year.
“The Jungle camp was always in the news and you only saw one side of the people here,” she says.
“So we went over with one aim: we wanted to try and meet musicians here. And if there were musicians, then we’d like to give them a chance to get their music out at a time when it would be impossible for them to make music or have a platform to perform.”
Lucas-Smith and her friends found so many musicians among the refugees living in the camp, that they began to record what they heard. After 11 months they had enough music to release a full album, which they’ve called The Calais Sessions.
The album features 20 refugee performers, supported by professional musicians from Europe, who spent weeks at a time volunteering in the camp. They brought equipment and instruments with them that were familiar to the residents.
“When we bring a Kurdish Daf or a Darbuka drum, it’s like food,” Lucas-Smith explains. “It’s the most valuable resource you can ever have and that’s just a small part that we can do. It’s really easy for us, but here it’s impossible. Life’s impossible.”
The album’s musicians, performers and engineers found ways to make do in difficult conditions. They painstakingly edited out the constant buzz of the generator that brings electricity to their improvised studio. They even kept recording as bulldozers drove past in February, tearing down half of the camp’s makeshift homes and facilities.
Despite the challenges, the album has been a huge success.
At the time of writing it’s No 12 on theiTunes world music charts, and is also a bestseller on independent music website Bandcamp.
Money raised from record sales will be shared among the refugee musicians and Citizens UK, an NGO currently working to reunite unaccompanied refugee children with relatives in the UK.
For Iraqi rapper Kasper, working on new music is now a priority.
“I want to make something really professional. I don’t just want to write any old thing,” he says.
He doesn’t rap about his experiences in the Jungle, and would rather not be filmed among its tents and tarpaulins, preferring to speak to us in the long grasses and flowers that grow at the edge of the camp.
Rapping and collaborating with The Calais Sessions has given him a focus during days that can otherwise feel endless.
“I’m always thinking about my home, my mum, my friends. I’ve been away from home for a year, and I have nothing. My mind’s very busy.”