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'What can we do?': Minneapolis music school Slam Academy reaches out to refugees

Samer “Zimo” Saem Eldahr and J. Anthony Allen
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Syria-born musician Samer “Zimo” Saem Eldahr and Slam Academy founder/CEO J. Anthony Allen.

For five years, Slam Academy in northeast Minneapolis has been teaching eager students how to program beats, write songs, and record tracks as professional musicians. Now, with the world in an ever-changing state of flux, with sanctuary cities being put on red alert, with immigration bans being implemented and shot down, and with refugees being turned away from America’s and other country’s borders, Slam is specifically reaching out to refugees. 

Starting Saturday, the school will offer a free three-week course in music-making that’s open to any and all refugees, all of whom will learn from a couple of masters — Aleppo-born electronic music star Zimo (nee Samer Saem Eldahr) and Slam founder and CEO J. Anthony Allen

“The logical thought was, can we do something? And that’s true with everything we do,” said Allen. “We have another program that we’re involved in, called ‘Beatz By Girls,’ which is to encourage women and girls to get involved with electronic music. It’s the same kind of thing: We look at the world and there are all kinds of stories about women and girls not being treated fairly, and what can we do? I have a little electronic music school, so I can try to do something, you know?”

The new program, Music Unite Minneapolis (inspired by the similar refugee music program Music Unite Berlin) is flying under the radar at this point, with the duo trying to get the word out through social media and contacting organizations such as the Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project

“We’re trying to get the word out and having people share it through social media, because we know that the target person for this is probably not already in our social media network,” said Allen. “But we don’t know what’s going to happen with the first class on Saturday. It’s free. It could be nobody, or it could be a ton of people. We’ve gone through preparations for both situations. If it’s nobody, it’s a pilot program, and we’ll figure out how to gain more interest in it next time.”

In addition to Music Unite Berlin, Allen was inspired by the good music therapy work being done by the Guitars For Vets program. 

When he read a City Pages story on Eldahr and reached out to the 28-year-old Syrian refugee, the idea took root.  

“I’m originally from Aleppo, Syria,” said Eldahr. “I left in 2012 after all the mess started, and I moved to Beirut, Lebanon, for about three years. That’s where I started working on my music more. I’m a fine art graduate, from the University of Allepo in Syria, and music became my side project, but in Lebanon, it took off and became my career. They’re very open to electronic music. I met my wife there; she’s from Minneapolis, that’s why I’m here.”

His parents, family, and homeland are never far from his thoughts, though.

“It’s like a dark cloud that follows you everywhere,” he said. “You’re always thinking about people back home. It’s just a constant worry for you.”

“My personal mission is to let these people know that, maybe not the entire world, but as far as Slam is concerned, not only are these people welcome here in our city, but their music and their art is important and makes the culture of the Twin Cities what it is,” said Allen.

“You know, we just wanted to say you’re welcome. There’s people talking shit about how they don’t want you here in the politics. That’s not true for us. We want you here and we want your art and we want you to make art because it helps all of us have a better art world.”

“From my personal experience, music is a very positive thing,” said Eldahr. “Lots of people get busy with all kinds of negative stuff back home. You can get involved in war in just like this (snaps his fingers), so you just have to have something that keeps you busy, something that’s positive. Music has really been an escape for me, like, ‘I don’t care about what’s going on outside, I’m just going to work on this, this is what makes me happy.’ It’s kind of therapeutic without even realizing it, just having it as a practice.

“If you can put your culture into music, you can feel more comfortable in any society. When you maybe have some troubles with your language, music is an international thing that people everywhere can relate to. I believe it’s an important thing for refugees everywhere — just to keep creative, keep on being creative for sure.”

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