THEO PANAYIDES meets the elder statesman of the local scene, whose concerts regularly bring people to tears, and finds a man who describes what he sees in the local dialect
Julio – or ‘Julio Komboloi’, to give him his YouTube handle – raps in Greek, actually not even Greek but Cypriot dialect. This is a problem for our purposes, since any attempt to quote his lyrics in English translation will inevitably lose his ‘flow’ – and flow is important for a rapper, indeed it’s the highest skill. The form, after all, is repetitive, the beat monotonous; the challenge is “to keep the other person in the same loop for three and a half minutes,” which is where the words come in – both the turns of phrase and compelling ideas but also the flow, how smoothly it all runs together.
There are tricks to the trade, like using extra words – a ‘man’ here, a ‘yo’ there – to round out the metre, but he’s not having any of it. “I try not to use extra words. I try not to use exaggerated Cypriot, where you’re straining to sound as Cypriot as possible. I try not to swear too much. Or rather –” he backtracks, chuckling –“I don’t [deliberately] try to swear in my songs”. How easy are they to write? He thinks about it: “By now, it comes easily. When I have the subject clear in my head – and how I feel about it – it flows like water. These days, the hard thing is not to get bogged down in my thoughts”.
There’s a secret truth in that last sentence, viz. that Julio – a graphic designer by trade – is a thinking man, and a thinking man’s rapper. At 35, he’s the elder statesman of the local rap scene – and, unlike many of his younger comrades, likes to dig deep in his songs, making work that’s “a little grey” (i.e. downbeat, depressing) and often socio-political. Songs on his YouTube channel include ‘To manifesto tou sklavou’ (‘The Slave’s Manifesto’), rapping angrily, over an airy mandolin riff, about life under late-stage capitalism: “This is modern slavery / They once had chains, now they just have money. / And you, wasting all day at work / So you don’t have any time left to think about this stuff”. You see what I mean about losing the flow.
His live concerts are apparently legendary. The fans are unusually devoted (though he doesn’t like to think of them as fans; more on this later), often sing along, and know all the words. It’s not just political songs; he sings about friends who’ve passed away, personal failures, thoughts of sadness and despair at the world in general (“Dry your eyes, darling,” he counsels on ‘Metrima’. “That’s what life is like, one step forward, five steps back”). He talks to the crowd, doing candid and emotional intros – “an exchange of feelings” as he puts it. Invariably, at some point in the concert, “I have people who are crying”.
His home life isn’t quite so dramatic, taking place in a first-floor flat in a solidly unglamorous part of Limassol. We meet on a Friday afternoon, after he comes home from work, sitting in a small TV room in the fading light. Posters on the wall include Antifa League, Kiss My Bass Party and a T-shirt for something called the ‘Barco Pirata Collective’, a 12-strong band of creatives (including Julio) dedicated to ‘keeping it real’. A cat shoots a startled look as I walk through the door then instantly flees at top speed, never to reappear. Julio – crew-cut, straggly beard, expressive blue eyes – lives here with his partner Paradisa who’s now a Cypriot citizen but spent decades in limbo, having arrived from Iran as a refugee at six years old. It may or may not be a coincidence (probably not) that the proceeds from his gigs used to go to children’s charities but are now donated to support refugees and asylum seekers in the camp at Kofinou – where he, along with other Barco Pirata types, also does volunteer work every couple of weeks. “We’re trying to do more than just talk,” he explains. “Not just try to solve problems with rap music. Get our hands a little dirty as well.”
Needless to say, if he’s giving all his proceeds to charity, it’s fair to assume that he’s not doing this for the money. (There’s also the problem that music seldom makes any money – being consumed for free on the internet – these days.) The local scene is still rather small, admittedly: Julio gets an average of 120-150 people attending his “lives”, ranging in age from teens to 50-somethings – he does about four gigs a year, half of those in his own name and half under Barco Pirata, though he’s often invited to guest-rap on songs or perform at festivals – indeed he only started charging admission a couple of years ago. Hip-hop often faces this disjunction, between the celebrity rappers, the Drakes and Kanye Wests raking in millions, and the genre’s origins in scrappy, impecunious “conscious rap” speaking truth to power. Julio views his ‘lives’, among other things, as a necessary process of demystification – and tells a funny story from 2013, when he was still giving free concerts:
On that night, he and a friend went out for food after the show, accompanied by a couple of youngsters from the audience (he always sits down with fans once the concert is over, meeting and mingling). “I didn’t have any money,” he recalls. “That was the time when I hadn’t even found a job, after coming back from the UK. And I tell my friend – the kids had sat down opposite us, they were from a village near Limassol, must’ve been 17 or 18 – I tell him ‘Mate, you’re gonna have to buy me dinner, have you got €10 you can lend me?’ and I see the kids, their jaw dropped, like this!” He illustrates, laughing. “One of them says, ‘Re, don’t you have any money?’. I say, ‘Why should I have money?’. The kid says, ‘You rap like that, and you don’t have any money?’.”
“How many of my songs have you listened to?” asked Julio.
“All of them, man! Everything you’ve ever done!”
“Did you pay for any of them?”
“Did you pay for the concert tonight?”
“So I say to him, ‘So how am I gonna make money from rapping, dude? I’m giving you everything for free, aren’t I?’.” He laughs at the memory – though in fact there’s no bitterness in the story (the point is simply how important it was to cut through the glamour and show the youngsters the truth), nor does he whine at any point about not making money. Rap means something more to Julio, in fact he’s been rapping (initially in Greek, then Cypriot) since the age of 18 – but he also spent a decade learning his craft, rapping only for himself, only starting to release songs to YouTube in 2011. The songs, I suspect, were a form of therapy (they’re still therapy now) after a turbulent adolescence – a time when money, incidentally, was also an issue, though of course he was just a kid and “never really understood how poor we were”.
His parents both worked in hotels, Dad a receptionist, Mum a cleaner. They moved from Limassol to the Paralimni area, where the tourists were – and Julio, an outsider saddled with a funny name (his real name is indeed Ioulios; he doesn’t divulge his last name), was a misfit from the start. “I rebelled, I rebelled against everything,” he sighs – though not his family, who supported him throughout, just against school and his peers. “Always sitting in the back row,” he recalls in ‘Thimoume’ (‘I Remember’), his biggest YouTube hit with 150,000 views. “I remember the teachers wanting to kick me out / Which they did in the end, for my own good they said. / The excuse was graffiti, I don’t know the real reason / Guess they just didn’t like me being a foreign object / Guess it bothered them that I laid into everyone / And told them to their face that they were just rich peasants”. (We’re still missing the flow, of course.) He was the classic teenage smart-aleck – and a stoner, so the song implies – getting into arguments with teachers about history lessons being biased. “I can’t stay silent over something I consider unjust, or a lie,” he protests. “I love truth. It’s my goal, both in music and life. To live the truth, to speak the truth.”
He was finally expelled, like it says in ‘Thimoume’ – though he did later go to university on borrowed money, doing a BA in Graphic Design and a Master’s in Fine Art at Wolverhampton. (“I didn’t want to study Music,” he explains, “because I didn’t want my music to become commercial, if I had to live off it.”) The same song speaks scathingly of being part of a generation that “believed in magic” – the magic in question being the bit of paper (actually two bits of paper) which he came back to Cyprus clutching, only to get swallowed up by the economic crisis. (35-year-olds are the age group with most to complain about in this regard.) Rap often comes from an angry place, I point out; does he ever have trouble accessing that anger as he gets older? Julio chuckles: “In the first place,” he replies, “as I get older, I get poorer”.
Isn’t Limassol doing well, though?
“For others, sure. But I’m not the one getting the rent, I’m the one who has to pay it!” He laughs again, pointing to the T-shirt he’s wearing – a Nike top, emblazoned with the inevitable ‘Just do it’. This is probably the most expensive T-shirt he owns, he says wryly, chuckling at the irony of inadvertently promoting a big corporation in our photo.
But here we are talking about money again – and it’s not about money, Julio makes that clear again and again. It’s not about money, nor about celebrity, nor about being a star – nor does he see them as ‘fans’, the people who follow him on social media and come to his gigs. “I’m no superstar, I don’t want to be. All I’m doing is describing what I see – and if I have a gift for saying it clearly, so people understand, that’s no reason to think I’m special. So, for instance, almost everyone who talks to me on Facebook, I reply. And there are days when there’s so many of them, and it’s like – I can’t, man, like a kid will come along and say ‘I have this problem, I don’t know what to do’.” But it’s hardly his job to give advice, I point out. “No, of course not – but I’m a human being. And I’m trying to stay human, and have human contact with the people who listen to my music.”
That, it seems, is the crux of being Julio – a basic human decency (it’s not just posturing: he does volunteer at Kofinou, and does donate his proceeds to good causes) that’s also, however, a way of connecting for a man who never felt like he belonged, growing up. “Your country is where your lover wakes up / And it doesn’t matter where your bed is,” he sings – and ‘home’, for him, is indeed wherever he feels surrounded by the people he loves. (He’d have no problem leaving Cyprus, though he doubts he could ever rap in anything but Cypriot; it’s taken too long to master this particular flow.) His concerts – his music in general – are a conscious way of feeding that love, which is why he thinks of fans as friends and is always a bit wary of being recognised in cafés and so on. “I feel uncomfortable having someone come along while I’m sat having coffee, saying ‘Let’s take a photo’ – I’m like ‘Sit down and let’s talk, it’s much better than a photo’.” The idea of a celebrity rapper really doesn’t agree with him.
Simply put, I liked talking to Julio; even his politics aren’t simplistic ‘celebrity politics’. His ideas are a bit “black and red” (i.e. anarchist-Communist), he admits – but his real fealty is to the truth, and the truth is that Communism probably wouldn’t work any better than capitalism. (His personal choice is the so-called ‘Venus Project’, a vision of the future propounded by one Jacque Fresco; look it up.) Doesn’t sound like he has much faith in human nature, I tease.
“Yeah, well – c’mon man, you see what’s going on around us. I dunno, maybe I ought to have kids at some point. Maybe then I’ll see the light!”
Or maybe he’d feel even guiltier, bringing kids into such a world.
“Isn’t that why?” he agrees, laughing merrily. “I’m 35, and I’m not even thinking about it.”
Is that all? Almost – but not quite. We have time for one more story, the story of Filippos, a fan (or friend) who became an actual friend. Julio was approached by the young man’s buddies at a concert and told of Filippos, who was battling leukaemia; Julio was touched by the story and penned ‘Stin igeia sou’ (‘To Your Health’) for Filippos, inviting him to come and meet up after he got better – which he did, the two of them becoming close friends for the last two years of his life. Sometimes he’d come to concerts unannounced, recalls Julio, and the whole audience would sing his song (they all knew the words, of course). “At his funeral, when the priest had finished, they took out their phones and played the song. And not just anyone – his family. His sister, his best friend, his brother, his mother. That, for me, mate, was the greatest honour I ever received”. Julio pauses, reflective: “And this, for me, is the real power of music”. Love over gold, human contact over celebrity. And the flow, of course.