‘Hip Hop is what gives us hope for the future’: interview with Jackie Salloum, director of Slingshot Hip Hop

Several weeks ago I stuck up a review of a truly original and exciting documentary, ‘Slingshot Hip Hop,’ which tells the story of the hip hop scene in Palestine. Against the backdrop of racial discrimination and occupation, Palestinian youth have since around 2000 built a vibrant cultural movement that expresses their frustrations and needs through the medium of rap in Arabic. Watching the film is inspirational, and reminds you of the very real social power hip hop as a movement has all across the world.

Jackie Salloum

This week I was very lucky to catch up with Jackie Salloum, the director of the film, following a screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre introduced by her and Suhell Nafar of DAM. Here’s what Jackie had to say about the film, the scene in Palestine, and what she’s working on next:

FCBF: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background as an artist, filmmaker and activist?

JS: I’m a 1st generation Arab-American, my Mom is Palestinian and my Dad is Syrian. When I was growing up we saw only negative images of Arabs in the media and popular culture. The message put across in the media is important, and when I was younger it had a negative impact on me-I didn’t want to be an Arab.

When I got older I became focussed on challenging stereotypes. I used pop culture references like bubblegum machines to put across a message. In 2002 I heard [DAM’s track] ‘Min Irhabi?’ [Who’s the terrorist?] on the radio and I flipped out, I was so excited. I went on the internet to find out more and discovered the arabrap site.

I made a video for the song, using images we never see in the US, of the intifada. It was very effective, and had a big impact on the people that saw it. People that previously had no interest or support for Palestine were moved, and when I asked them why they said, “Because it’s hip hop, it’s from the heart.”

My Professor suggested I should make a documentary. I thought it would be easy and take about a year! In fact it took 5! It was an amazing experience, and I learned so much I didn’t know about Palestine. My family are from the West Bank, I’d never been to Gaza.

FCBF: What difficulties did you encounter making the film?

JS: A lot of the problems were just more of a nuisance. I was typically held at the airport for 4-7 hours coming into Israel. You get passed from interrogator to interrogator, and you don’t know if you’ll be denied entry, which is something they do all the time to Palestinians from the diaspora. Once you’re in it’s not so bad, but you still have to get through checkpoints, and getting into Gaza is different, and more difficult.

In terms of the film, I wasn’t from a film background. Things were a bit unplanned, I just went in with a love for the subject. I didn’t wait until I got funding, I just went ahead and started. In some ways I think that was an advantage, but it meant I had to fund a lot of the film myself. I had to move back home and work in my parents’ ice cream parlour. That’s why I put Fresh Booza Productions at the end of the film; Booza is Arabic for ice cream, and it’s a tribute to them and their support.

I left cameras with some of the artists, and between us we collected 700 hours of footage, and so a lot of work went into editing.

FCBF: And what were the highlights of the process?

JS: Getting to know the artists; we became very close, like family. Before I met and saw them, visiting Palestine was quite a depressing experience for me. But seeing the hip hop scene in Palestine gives you hope, a small dose of hope for the future.

What was also great was meeting grassroots people who helped with the film, in the US and Canada as well as Palestine. Artists like Patriarch, The Narcicyst, The Philistines and Invincible came to help with the film, but have continued being involved and are a huge support to the artists in Palestine, for example by making beats. The Philistines made ‘Free the P,’ a compilation of hip hop and spoken word artists from around the world in support of Palestine, and all the proceeds helped fund the film.

I was lucky to work with Waleed Zaiter, who did all the graphics and animations in the film, as well as a lot of producing and editing. I was worried that if people didn’t know the background to Palestine, where Gaza and the West Bank were, they would be confused. But I also didn’t want to hit people with too many facts and statistics. The maps and graphics really help get the facts across.

FCBF: What differences are there between the hip hop scene in Palestine and other parts of the world? For example, there seems to be a lot more support from the older generation, and the position of women, both as artists and audience, seems to be much better than other places?

JS: The cross generational support is so nice to see, it’s one of my favourite things about the scene. They get into the lyrics, which lift their spirits. Because the lyrics talk about the occupation and the problems facing Palestinians, older people support it.

The groups get invited to so many different kinds of events. One event we see in the film is at an Eastern Orthodox Easter celebration!

My other favourite thing is the women’s involvement, and the way they are treated. Artists in Palestine don’t try to imitate what they hear coming from elsewhere, before they heard Tupac they weren’t into hip hop. There’s a completely different attitude towards women.

FCBF: It’s particularly interesting to see considering the main stereotype we are told in the west is that Arab societies are really oppressive to women.

JS: Right. I mean, there is oppression of women everywhere, but it takes different forms.

FCBF: Does the support for women’s involvement cause any problems within Palestinian society? We saw in the film how one female artist is threatened out of performing because relatives don’t think it’s appropriate.

JS: There’s absolutely no organised opposition to women’s involvement. Where there are problems it’s really internal to one particular family or local region. But other artists have very supportive families. Where there is opposition to hip hop, it’s on the grounds that it’s seen as something that’s ‘American’ and foreign.

FCBF: Something that’s really interesting in the film is seeing people use the internet and digital technologies to overcome the checkpoints and barriers of the occupation. What difference has the internet made for hip hop in Palestine, and how limited is it?

JS: It’s made a huge difference. It’s what made me aware of the scene, and when I went to shops asking for this music they kept giving me rai, which wasn’t what I was looking for! The only place you could find it was on the internet.

In Palestine, as you see in the film, people are separated by the occupation. People that may live only a short distance from each other are never able to meet because of the boundaries of the occupation. But they are able to connect online. It’s what made the scene possible. It’s not really smooth, but it is doable, and that’s what matters.

FCBF: Obviously the situation in Palestine forces artists to be political. But how far has hip hop crossed over from being a cultural movement to a political one? How much time do artists devote to politics vs. their music, or do they not see a distinction between the two?

JS: To be in Palestine, everything is political. What separates the good from the crap is talent, and the popular artists in Palestine are really, really good. The scene there is so huge, and is so saturated with political content that talent really makes the difference.

The music appeals to hip hop heads, as well as activists as a voice of the oppressed. It’s more attractive to many than classical Arab music because it’s in a form that people all over the world can recognise.

The film holds a special appeal in the Arab world, it’s won best film awards in film festivals in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. In some ways that’s a more difficult audience because they already know the narrative of the Palestinian, it’s not new to them. They like it because they’re not allowed to go to Palestine, and so it’s the first time they see different aspects of daily life there, it’s the first time they see Palestinians happy. They love to see Palestinians smiling and happy instead of just images of suffering, and it lets them learn about daily life in Palestine.

FCBF: Is there an influence from traditional Palestinian music and poetry on Palestinian hip hop?

JS: Definitely. The lyrics reference poets like Mahmoud Darwish. And the artists are always aware of incorporating Arab musical influences, and use Arab instruments live on stage.

FCBF: From early on in the film I was impressed with the quality of the beats. What kind of beatmaking facilities do people have access to? Who’s doing the production?

JS: It’s different in different places. In Gaza for example there’s no access to beatmaking facilities, and the beats are downloaded off the internet. This made it difficult for us to find beats to put in the film, because many of those used by the artists were originally very well known ones. But after 6 years making music, DAM started making beats, and a lot of the ones used in the film are theirs. DAM produce for a lot of others as well, but now other groups like WEH and Arapeyat are producing beats for themselves as well.

FCBF: Is there a strong hip hop scene in all it’s different aspects? We saw a bit of graffiti, but what about DJs, breakers etc.?

JS: Graffiti is a really strong part of Arab culture, but it’s not necessarily hip hop graffiti, it’s political. People have been using graffiti in Palestine for a long time to express their political frustrations, and the artists are not necessarily hip hop.

There’s an increasing amount of breakers, especially in Gaza. As for DJing, in the occupied territories it’s mostly using CDs as people just don’t have access to records and record playing. In Israel itself there is access to that kind of stuff because it’s popular with Israelis as well, but the key issue is whether you can afford it.

FCBF: So you’re still in touch with people from the film, what’s been happening since it was made?

JS: Since the film hip hop in Palestine has just been expanding, there are more and more people performing. DAM are working on their second album. PR [Palestinian Rapperz] are separated by the occupation, but they’re continuing to use the internet to make music. Arapayat are still making music, and Mahmoud Shalabi is playing the kawala, a traditional Arab flute now, and incorporates it on stage with DAM.

FCBF: How can we in other countries help and support Palestinian hip hop and the Palestinian people?

JS: Support the artists, support oppressed people! I think that art and culture are more effective at opening many people’s eyes than purely political activism. So get the artists out to perform, and buy their music. If you’re part of any kind of institution that has funds to bring people over or to send people to Palestine then use them. Even recording one song is so expensive for these artists, and they’re still working and struggling financially. Just bear in mind no major music corporation is going to invest in Palestinian hip hop any time soon, so they depend on grassroots support.

FCBF: What are you working on next? I heard you’d like to make music videos for Arab artists?

JS: Suhell and I just now are writing a children’s film. I’m not going to make the mistake I made with ‘Slingshot’ and tell you all about it before it’s made. I would like to make more videos, and make them available through youtube. A lot of the artists now are making videos, like the Letters video by Suhell [see below]. Abeer is making a documentary as well, she’s making videos as well as music.

I don’t want to do another documentary for a while, I’d like to work on something a bit more structured with a script! I’m sure that will come with it’s own set of problems, but I look forward to finding those out.

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3 Responses to “‘Hip Hop is what gives us hope for the future’: interview with Jackie Salloum, director of Slingshot Hip Hop”

  1. It’s really nice to listen to hiphop in a language I don’t understand and not have to worry that the lyrics are about how rape is awesome or some bullshit – I can never really fully enjoy foreign language hiphop because of that worry.

    Great interview, well done!

  2. The Son Of Heaven…

    …a good post over at . . ….

  3. hey jack, this is really good, would you be cool with it going in the new leftfield?! might need to cut it down a bit cause it’s quite long, i’ll give yr blog a shout out though! thanks, let me know.

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