‘Like a flame in the darkness of a cave,’: Hip Hop in Palestine

Yesterday I finally got the chance to see a film I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a long time, the documentary ‘Slingshot Hip Hop.’ The film documents the emergence and growth of a strong and impressive hip hop movement among the Palestinian communities, both living inside Israeli territory and in the occupied territories.

The fact that hip hop has taken root in Palestine is testament to its power as a voice for the oppressed. Few peoples in the world face the same level of violence and domination as the Palestinians, and the fact that in the midst of that Palestinian youth have turned to hip hop to express themselves and attempt to bring positive change to their situation gives me a lot of hope and pride for the future of hip hop, and what it could be capable of.

The movement in Palestine really began with a group called DAM (Da Arabian MCs). They formed in 1999, and, in a story that’s familiar from the beginning of many hip hop scenes all over the world. They originally rapped in English, with lyrics that imitated the mainstream US hip hop they’d heard.

What changed the situation for them was the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Ariel Sharon, leader at the time of Isreal’s right wing Likud party and a war criminal and mass murderer, visited the third most holy mosque in Islam, located in Jerusalem, in an act of deliberate provocation. This act crystallised the anger of thousands of Palestinians who had failed to see the improvements in their lives promised by the peace process. A huge uprising began, both in the occupied territories and by Palestinians living with in Israel itself.

The massively disproportionate and violent repression that followed at the hands of the Israeli military politicised and angered a whole generation that were to then turn towards hip hop as a means of resistance.

DAM come from Lyd, a town in Israeli territory, and so are part of the community known as ’48 Palestinians. Originally, pretty much all of the land now occupied by Israel was home to Palestinians. With the declaration of Israeli statehood in 1948, the Palestinians suffered what they call the Nakba, or disaster. Now, inside Israel, Palestinians are a minority who are constantly harassed and racially discriminated against.

DAM and the other rappers from ’48 talk about how they feared that Palestinians living directly under occupation would think them privileged. But in fact you get to see the discrimination they face on a daily basis. At one point Mahmoud Shalabi, another ’48 MC, is stopped in the street by a cop. When the filmmaker asks why, is it simply because he was speaking Arabic?, the cop aggressively replies “Yes!”

Following the outbreak of the intifada, DAM turned away from making pretty vacuous music in English, and towards engaging directly with their social and political situation in their own language, Arabic. Their song ‘Meen Erhabi,’ (“Who’s the terrorist?”) tackles a lot of the issues head on, and became a major source of inspiration to other MCs and artists throughout historic Palestine. Within a month of its release in 2001 over a million copies had been downloaded from the arabrap site. It has become a hit throughout the world, especially in France where there is another oppressed Arab minority, and the lyrics have been chanted on demonstrations. Musically, they fuse hip hop with Arabic percussion rhythms, song and poetry, and they clearly have a great love for Arab literature.

We see DAM doing more than just rapping about their politics as well, leading demonstrations against house demolitions by the Isreali military and going to a children’s camp to talk about Palestinian history and identity. As they tell an interviewer on Israeli TV, they believe they need to be in the streets, and politically active.

Watching it, I thought it was particularly interesting how, yet again, oppressed people around the world look to the US and the struggle of black people to what they themselves are going through. As one of the members of DAM, Tamer Nafar, puts it:

“Hip hop is a weapon, and depending where you come from it will have a different velocity. If you come from Beverley Hills, its like a water gun, ta ta ta. If youre from Compton its like BAM!”

DAM also take a progressive attitude towards other issues besides just the occupation, as we see from their support for female MCs and singers. Women have been prominent with in the Palestinian hip hop scene from early on, and some have faced sexist attitudes with in their own society as well as from the occupation. This has led to some being threatened from their own families attempting to intimidate them out of performing.

However, what comes across is that, both as performers and a participating audience, women are far more involved in Palestinian hip hop than many other scenes around the world.

Tamer Nafar was really on point again when he says:

“Today the Arabs face the most discrimination. Palestinians even more. Plus the difficulties in our own society. What could be tougher than that? And who gets it worst? A woman. An Arab woman. Doesn’t get tougher than that.”

The women featured in the film are really impressive vocally, and their music definitely shows the influence of more traditional Arab song. One artist in particular, Abeer, really had a story that blew me away. Abeer was sacked from McDonalds for speaking Arabic, and went on to successfully sue them for discrimination. In her home town of Lyd she helped found a youth club to try and give Palestinian youth somewhere to break the monotony and boredom in a town where there’s nothing to do and no support from the state. And as an artist she’s really talented. Since the film was made she’s emigrated to the USA, and is still recording. Here’s a video of her performing in Baltimore:

My personal favourites in the film though came from a place that recently has suffered the worst brunt of the occupation: Gaza.PR (Palestinian Rapperz) are brilliant. They had a really engaging flow even for a non-Arabic speaker, and when you see their lyrics in translation in the film they’re really powerful.

PR are from the Gaza Strip, and at the time of filming had never been allowed to leave by the Israeli authorities. For those that don’t know, Gaza is a strip of land surrounded by the Israeli wall, and filled with Israeli military bases and checkoints. In this gigantic open prison 1.5 million Palestinians are incarcerated and kept under siege. It’s extremely difficult to leave.

The Israeli wall

Mohammed from PR tells of how he decided to become an MC-during the second intifada he narrowly escaed death when he turned just in time, meaning an Israeli bullet hurt his arm rather than penetrating his heart. At the time he was listening to hip hop, and in his own words he “started to think about another way to resist.”

In the film, PR’s greatest dream is to be allowed to enter the other parts of Palestine and meet DAM and other members of the Palestinian scene.

Although they have never been able to meet in person, like so many other places in the world they embrace new technology to break through state barriers, staying in touch with other groups by phone and internet. The fact that in a place so besieged as Gaza digital technology can help break down walls and segregation is obviously very positive.

What ‘Slingshot Hip Hop’ brings home is that in many parts of the world, hip hop is the natural expression for opressed youth. The Palestinians in the film identify with the struggles of the oppressed in the US, and want to use their voices to try and bring about positive change to their situation.

Their successes in doing that are proof of the ongoing social power of hip hop as a movement, something that movements for progressive change in the US and UK have barely scratched the surface of.

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One Response to “‘Like a flame in the darkness of a cave,’: Hip Hop in Palestine”

  1. Andy Bowden Says:

    DAM are awesome.

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