Archive for Politics

Update on Slingshot Hip Hop

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 2, 2009 by Jack

A quick update to what I wrote below about the film ‘Slingshot Hip Hop,’: if like me you’re based in Glasgow it’s showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre on October 28th.

The showing will also feature an introduction from Jackie Salloum, the director, and Suhell Nafar of DAM. Sounds really worth making it along, perhaps I’ll see you there.

Below I’ve embedded another short film by Jackie Salloum. It’s an edited together selection of portrayals of Arabs in movies, called ‘Planet of the Arabs.’

Planet of the Arabs is a powerful 9 minute collage of racist stereotyping of Arabs in movies.Out of 1000 films that have Arab & Muslim characters (from the year 1896 to 2000) 12 were positive depictions, 52 were even handed and the rest of the 900 and so were negative. A montage of Hollywood’s relentless dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims.

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Funkeiros and socialists defeat repression in Rio

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 26, 2009 by Jack

In 2008 the state assembly of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, passed highly repressive laws in an attemt to outlaw baile funk (funk balls) and stop the mainly poor and black citizens of the city’s favelas from being able to party freely.

For those that don’t know, funk as a genre in Brazil means something different than what it does in the UK or US. It’s a kind of electronic dance music that’s descended from Miami Bass. It’s very bass heavy, combined with percussive loops, nowadays often samled from Brazilian hand drums like those used in some forms of capoeira. Over the top of this you get a uniquely Brazilian kind of rapping.

The lyrical content of much funk can be justly criticised for misogyny, and many of the songs are highly sexually explicit. The other area it comes under attack for is for supposedly glorifying the drug factions that control most of the different favelas far more than the state does.

However, as a genre funk does in fact have a range of content and expression, and it shouldn’t be pigeonholed or stereotyped.

When you listen to how bass heavy the sound is, it’s obviously designed to be played at big parties with massive soundsystems. Outdoor dance music mega parties have been going on for a long time in Brazil, and the name funk derives from the late 70s, when imported US black music such as funk, disco and soul all came to be labelled as funk in Brazil.

The funk balls that take place now attract tens of thousands, and can go on for days. As that kind of partying usually does, it attracted the ire of the state. Last year, the Rio state legislature passed law 5265, which secifically targets funk as a genre in a way reminiscent of the UK’s Criminal Justice Act talked about the “emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, or more recently the Metroolitan Police demanded to know the racial background of people likely to attend an event.

The law stipulated that police had the right to shut down a ball, that organisers had to give 30 days notice to the State Secretary of Security, and that they had to record events for review by police up to 6 months later. It also made lots of petty restrictions, such as specifying numbers of toilets that must be available.

The laws were clearly motivated by immense prejudice. Brazil remains one of the most economically and racially divided countries in the world, and the political elite clearly just wanted to stamp on the rights of over a million poor, mostly black people who live in Rio’s favelas.

The effect of the law practically would have meant that the only party organisers that could have afforded to stay in business would have been the most commercial, profitable ones. (Again, much like the huge commercialisation of rave culture that took place after the state clamped down on its formerly largely free and autonomous status.)

However, the response of funkeiros was to get organised and fightback, forming the Association of Professionals and Friends of Funk, or Apafunk, spearheaded by MC Leonardo.

Apafunk have waged a year long campaign to have funk recognised as an official cultural expression of Brazil. They argued they wanted to see funk used as an educational tool in schools and the positive benefits of parties in the favelas, where there is virtually no state investment in youth, recognised.

The campaign had an ally within the legislature, Marcelo Freixo, of PSoL, the Party of Socialism and Liberty. Freixo’s background is a human rights defender. His party was formed by militants who broke away from Brazil’s traditional socialist party (the PT or Worker’s Party) when its leader, Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, was elected to the Presidency and proceeded to lurch to the right, abandoning the party’s previous left wing stance.

Freixo was also central to the efforts that led to the arrest for corruption of former Rio deuty governor Alvaro Lins, the man who originally wrote the repressive laws.

Although they’re not perfect* as a socialist party, the fact that a PSoL representative is at the forefront of defending youth culture from state repression is a real credit. However, the backbone of the camaign has been Apafunk.

The campaign came to a head on August 25th, when a mass demonstration descended on the legislature, and leading artists and performers testified to an open session inside.

Calling the laws “absurd” and “nonsensical”, representatives of Apafunk and other social movements vehemently demanded repeal of the repressive laws.

MC Leonardo, the President of Apafunk, said “This is a very moving and historical moment, especially to see so many people here for the first time.” He finished his speech by singing a political song including the lyrics “everything is wrong, it is hard to even explain”.


MC Leonardo singing on an Apafunk demo.

Also attending the session were anthropologists and cultural critics such as Hermano Vianno and Adrian Facina.

Following this session, the state legislature voted to repeal 5265 on Setember 1st. In its place are new laws authored by Marcelo Freixo, that aim to protect funk, and take all regulation of it out of the hands of the police in favour of the government Deartment of Culture.

It was a massive victory for a grassroots social and cultural movement of the poor against the corrut and racist political elite. Funkeiros celebrated by singing Rap de Felicidade, or Rap of Happiness, a political song that shows how funk mustn’t be stereotyped:

(For some reason I can’t get the news video to embed, watch it here)

The lyrics are below, helpfully translated by Otra Luna (thanks!)

Rap of Happiness

My only wish is to be happy
Go peacefully in the favela where I was born
And be proud and know that the people have their place
Faith in God… DJ!

My dear authority, I don’t know what to do
With such violence, I’m afraid to live
‘Cause I live in favela and am very disrespected
The sadness and the joy walk here side by side
I do a prayer to a protector saint
But am interrupted by shots of a machine gun
While rich live in a big and beautiful house
The poor are humilated and told off in the favela
No longer do I stand this wave of violence
I just ask from the authority a little more competence

Amusement today, we cannot hope for
Since there to bailes they come to humiliate us
There in the square everything was so normal
Now the violence is a fashion in the place
Innocent people who have nothing to do with it
Are asking today for their right to live
Never saw a post card that pictures a favela
Just landscape, very nice, very beautiful
Who goes by the favela feels sadnesses
The gringo comes here and doesn’t meet the reality
Goes to Zona Sul to meet the coconut water
And the poor in the favela have a hard time
Change of the presidency, a new hope
I suffered in the storm, now I want the calm
People be strong, all you need to see is
if they do nothing there we’ll do it all from here

Looking for more funk downloads? Try this site, scroll down a bit and you’ll see what they’ve got.

*As some who know me may be aware, I’m not the world’s greatest fan of the CWI (the organisation that wrote the article), and I don’t necessarily agree with everything they say here, but it was the best up to date piece I could find on the situation in PSoL in English. Sorry!

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

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on September 24, 2009 by Jack

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.

All the President’s MCs in Gabon

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 18, 2009 by Jack

Over at africanhiphop.com there’s a great article about the recent Presidential election in Gabon.

Since independence from France in 1960, the equatorial African nation has been ruled by the same regime, and from 1967 until 2009 it had the same President, Omar Bongo Ondimba. Bongo, who died this year, was the longest non monarch to remain in power continuously.

Bongo instituted one party rule, crushing opposition. In the 1990s multi party democracy was supposedly introduced, but this was after many of his opponents had been killed or co-opted, and he continued to win several highly dubious elections with high majorities.

Bongo, his family and personal circle, stand accused of monopolising Gabon’s massive natural wealth for themselves. He managed to stay in power all this time only with the support of the former colonial power, France, who in the past have sent troops to quell opposition to his regime.

This year Bongo died, and there was perhaps finally a chance for some change in Gabon. The existing regime of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG in French) was represented in the Presidential elections by Omar Bongo’s son, Alain Bongo.

The interesting thing musically is that in Alain Bongo had a previous career as funk musician. His 1977 album ‘A Brand New Man,’ was produced by James Brown’s former manager Charles and featured Fred Wesley of the JB’s, Parliament and Funkadelic. The album was supported by a massive tour of Africa. Over at the original article on africanhiphop they have a song off the album and it’s pretty damn good!

And then this year it seems Bongo managed to co-ot a number of Gabonese hip hop artists into performing for his Presidential camaign, even appearing on stage himself to rap along with his campaign song:

One of the few artists to stand up to Bongo and refuse his money is Lord Ekomy Ndong, one half of the biggest selling hip hop act in Gabon. He has released tracks attacking the history of the Bongo regimes and the massively unequal distribution of wealth in Gabon, as well as talking about the long history of electoral fraud and corruption in many African countries.

In the event Bongo won the election, sparking protests by many who claimed there was corruption, and is now the President-elect. But who has the better track, the government and the rappers it paid to perform for it, or Lord Ekomy Ndong and his principled stance of opposition? You decide for yourself.

Pro Bongo song:

Lord Ekomy Ndong (my personal favourite):

Incidentally, Omar Bongo’s first wife and Alain Bongo’s mother Patience Dabany is a singer as well, and has been one of the biggest in Gabonese music for a long time. Here’s one of her tracks: