| The Columbus Dispatch
And as a future pharmacist, I know I’ll face some fires, so I’m watching out for arsonists. I’ll kill the flames with kindness — I’m a servant to the people. And if we learn our history, we can write some better sequels, he rhythmically delivers during the second verse of his first single, released last month — “War on Drugs”.
In the first verse, he lays out the historical context of how someone becomes addicted to opiates and the role health-care providers have played in the opioid epidemic.
(‘Fore you know, you start to note it’s not as potent as before.)
The song is the first of an entire album full of thought-provoking, well-researched anthems about the opioid epidemic that he’ll produce under his pseudonym, King Rx.
“It’s not really music you expect to be viral or very happy music,” said Barayan, 26. “A lot of it is meant for you to listen to it a couple times and then, you go do your own research. It’s more of a public service.”
That’s not to take away from Barayan’s poetic and musical talents nor how he’s managed to take the stigmatized topic and turn it into an easily digestible message set to the tune of hip-hop.
More: Study involving Ohio State could help ID genetic markers for opioid addiction
The native of Saudi Arabia — he moved to Montreal when he was 9 and to Toledo at 17 — has always been musically inclined, putting his writings to beats since he was a teenager.
In fact, he began penning “War on Drugs” during his first year of pharmacy school in 2017, but life got busy and he stopped working on the song.
Then, the issue got personal — more than simply his chosen profession.
On his way to the airport in May 2019 to visit his family back in Saudi Arabia, Barayan got a call that his younger brother Abdulmohsen had had an accident and was in a coma. Upon landing 28 hours later, he learned that Abdul was brain dead from a laced heroin overdose.
“War on Drugs” and the subsequent album have become a way for Barayan to create a legacy for his brother, who died at 21.
“It’s something he would be proud of,” Barayan said. “I don’t think that he would want to just be forgotten as just another person who died.”
The rhymes, although they honor his brother, also serve as a promise Barayan has made to fight — through his practice of pharmacy and music — for the prevention and treatment of addiction.
More: Franklin County Public Health launches campaign to fight the stigma of addiction
The hip-hop beginning
As a youngster in Saudi Arabia, Barayan wasn’t exposed to much music. However, that changed when he and his family moved to Montreal, where his father was a surgeon.
Hip-hop became a way for the young Barayan to make friends and assimilate into Canadian culture.
The eldest of four boys (the two younger siblings are 13 and 8), Barayan began penning poems and little ditties in middle school when he was bored.
Jules Aukerman remembers meeting him on his first day at Sylvania Northview High School near Toledo during their junior year. (Barayan’s family moved back to Saudi Arabia after he graduated high school.)
“He became super-popular, super-fast,” said Aukerman, 26, who is also an Ohio State pharmacy student. “Lo, and behold, he’s in the running to be student council president the next year.”
It was a title he won.
More: Ohio State medical students perform virtually with national orchestra of health professionals
Aukerman, a close friend, said Barayan exuded confidence, especially when performing, whether that was on stage, at a pep rally or simply dancing on a cafeteria table.
“He’s such an entertainer,” Aukerman said. “He was never afraid to put himself out there.”
Those qualities, Barayan said, have allowed him to be a bit fearless in performing and releasing his unique music.
“I was never really afraid of getting embarrassed,” he said. “The shame element is kind of weak in me.”
Plus, he knew the greater good of using his talents to spread awareness was worth the risk.
More: Volunteer-run Columbus low-power radio station boasts diverse programming
Putting his talents to good use
Dr. Kenneth Hale, a recently retired professor from Ohio State’s School of Pharmacy, said it’s not uncommon for pharmacy students to want to work toward solving the opioid epidemic.
“It’s not a leap for them to say, ‘These drugs we’re studying are a big health crisis,’” Hale said. “They ask questions like, ‘What can we do in our practices to change that?’”
Barayan was no different, and several of his class projects, including creating a program for education majors to learn about opioids, underscored that passion.
However, what Hale hadn’t seen before is the “remarkable product” put forth by his former student in “War on Drugs.”
“It’s unusual — not the normal thing a student pharmacist would do, but that makes it even better,” Hale said. “It’s not academic — it’s pop.”
More: Violent summer in Columbus rips families apart: ‘I hated that my mom’s life ended this way’
An amateur musician himself, Hale said he encouraged Barayan to put his words to music and even arranged for him to use some of his studio time to record.
Barayan set to improve his rapping skills and stage presence by entering open-mic night contests and taking judges’ critiques to heart.
And though confident in his words, he practiced — in front of the mirror, in the car, with friends.
“From the intricacies of where you put the pauses in your song,” Barayan said. “How much movement can I do before I run out of breath? There are a lot of subtle things that, if you don’t pay attention to, you can really flub your performance.”
Much of this work — Barayan says the song was about 90% finished back in 2017 — happened before he lost his brother.
His passion for the cause amplified when Abdul died, solidifying his choice to become a pharmacist and defining his role as one.
“The scientific community would like to see this stigma erased and move people to recovery,” Hale said. “That’s what Tork is trying to do.”
More: Family builds house of hope after tragedy
Reducing stigmas surrounding addiction is one of the main reasons Barayan put out the song: In the days following Abdul’s death, few talked about the real cause.
Although Hale, 67, acknowledges that rap isn’t his favorite genre, he more than appreciates the poetry and younger audience his former student is trying to reach.
“Peer education is the most powerful around topics like this,” Hale said. “Tork is a hip-looking guy. He’s cool, but he’s intense and he’s had some traumatic things happen in his family.
“He’s suffering from that and you can tell that in his music.”
A promise to do better
Ignorance is bliss I wish this pain was never known. And if you’ve been afflicted know that you are not alone. This is for my brother laying prone beneath the stones.
Barayan changed this verse of the song to include what happened to his brother, the class clown who helped their younger siblings with homework. He released “War on Drugs” on Sept. 7, what would have been Abdul’s 23rd birthday.
“Addiction is such a horrible thing,” Barayan said. “It can sneak right under your nose … the way that people express their suicidal ideations, their depressive thoughts, that can be subtle sometimes.”
The reaction to his music has been remarkable, he said, from classmates and professors coming up to him on campus saying they’ve lost a loved one to addiction to people halfway across the world in Europe and Asia streaming his song.
A stranger in Kentucky offered to provide instrumentals for an entire album, which Barayan said he’s basing on Sam Quinones’ 2015 book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”
High school pal Aukerman isn’t surprised Barayan has channeled his grief into music, but she’s nearly speechless at the emotional lyrics and delivery.
“Everyone needs to listen to this,” Aukerman said. “To bring so much light to it — to such a delicate topic — I can’t explain it. It’s so matter of fact but still given in a heartfelt way.”
Barayan decided to become a pharmacist because he loved chemistry, but he’s realized the profession suits his outgoing personality and drive to serve others.
In the future, he wants to own his own pharmacy in a rural area, where he can be an accessible and trusted health-care expert, answering questions for residents in between doctor’s visits.
And he wants to be the last line of defense warning people about following medication labels and disposing of pills when finished using them.
“I understand the public’s frustrations and their inability to trust health care from its mistakes in the past,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s our responsibility as future health-care experts to not only acknowledge those mistakes, but also kind of make a promise to the public that we’re going to do better.”