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Born Here

Born Here

Palestinian rappers are returning to hip hop’s political roots. Just don’t ask them to fix the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Tamer Nafar of DAM performing in New York City. Photograph by Thomas Anomalous.

In Jesus' hometown there's an underground hip hop studio. It's tiny, just the renovated basement of a house, with black eggshell foam glued to the ceiling as makeshift soundproofing. The only hint of the studio's existence is the colourful graffiti collage on the front door. A pit bull with a pink snout—the studio's unofficial mascot—is chained up on the veranda, standing guard over the city of Nazareth.

Inside, Adi Krayem is sunk low in his chair, his face illuminated by the glow of two side-by-side computer monitors. As a teenager, Krayem practised rhyming in front of the mirror and devoured Notorious B.I.G lyrics online. He was just sixteen when his group, We7, performed for the first time at a classmate's birthday party. Now, with one hand on the keyboard and the other holding a freshly-lit Camel, Krayem is mixing We7's new track. Like much of the group's music, it's dark and tragic, a mix of nineties rhythms and Arabic instrumentation. He runs a hand up and down his black baseball cap and bobs his head from side to side, cautiously, testing out the beat. "I think this is it," he says, pointing at the screen. "Just like that."

Turning his head, Krayem yells for Anan Qssem, his tall, bulky bandmate, to come back inside. Soon, a small crowd develops as the band's entourage hovers around the computer. Their eyes fix on the screen, following the moving sound waves. Then, just like Krayem, they start to bob their heads in an unspoken sign of approval.

Arab hip hop musicians from all over Israel-Palestine come to this basement to record—a burgeoning crew of MCs and DJs grafting an African-American art form onto the world's most high-profile territorial conflict. With its tiny microphone booth and mediocre sound system, the studio isn't what you'd call professional. Qssem, a sound engineer, did the renovations, and happens to live upstairs. But this is one of the few places Palestinian rappers can call home. Its modesty is exactly the point: owning your own studio is better than renting one by the hour from an Israeli.

Fifteen years ago, hip hop in Israel and the occupied territories was limited to MC Hammer videos on MTV. Then, in the mid-nineties, a kid named Tamer Nafar heard the late West Coast rapper 2Pac for the first time and became engrossed with the lyrics—that signature combination of gangsta attitude and black-power politics. So Nafar headed to his local record store, in the Israeli city of Lod, to pick up a 2Pac tape. "The guy at the store, all he had was a CD," Nafar remembers. "I didn't have a CD player. I didn't even know what a CD was." The record-store employee copied the album onto a cassette and charged Nafar an extra forty shekels. "That was my only way," he says, grinning, "so I took it."

Armed with his love for 2Pac and a penchant for writing his own rhymes, Nafar teamed up with his younger brother Suhell and his friend Mahmoud Jreri to form the group DAM. Today, along with the now-defunct act MWR, DAM are considered the founders of Palestinian hip hop. Though Arab rap was by no means new—groups like Intik and MBS were already established in Algeria—these groups brought it to Palestine. Whether it was freestyling at a friend's house party or playing at Israeli anarchist clubs, MWR and DAM took any performance opportunity they could get. Inspired by the novelty of the new style, dozens of other artists followed suit, and a scene was born. Today, from Akko to Gaza City to Ramallah, Palestinian hip hop is a genre to be taken seriously.

The music is rooted in the reality of life as an Arab in Israel—as a foreigner on your own soil—and nowhere is this clearer than in Lod's Arab quarter. On an overcast summer afternoon, Nafar offers to show me around the neighbourhood where he launched his career. Though less than a half-hour drive from the palm-tree paradise of Tel Aviv, these narrow grey streets are filthy and cramped with battered houses. The unpaved roads are riddled with potholes. Garbage, slabs of broken concrete and rusted metal lie everywhere. His hometown is even worse off today than it was when he was growing up, Nafar says. "Back then, if there was a fight, people used to stab each other," he remembers. "We used to feel unsafe because people were stabbing each other. Now they're shooting each other. So stabbing seems so safe."

At thirty-one, Nafar is a local celebrity. DAM—Arabic for "eternity" and Hebrew for "blood"—have earned international acclaim after putting out three albums, collaborating with artists like Chuck D and touring North America and Europe. But like so many successful rappers, Nafar's still got love for the streets. The music video for the DAM single "Born Here" was shot in Lod and pays homage to N.W.A.'s classic "Straight Outta Compton" video, beginning with Nafar stepping out of his car at the request of an Israeli police officer, then pressing up inches away from the officer's face and rhyming at him.

In another song, "Meen Erhabi"—which means "Who's the Terrorist?"—the group asks Israelis some provocative questions:

Your countless rapings of the Arabs' soul
Finally impregnated it
Gave birth to your child
His name: Suicide Bomber
And then you call him the terrorist?

Much of Palestinian rap is like this—harsh and unsubtle in its criticism of Israeli policy. Driving through the streets of Lod, Nafar laments the number of Arab homes that have been demolished over the years and points out untouched strips of Israeli-owned land. He falls silent for a few minutes. Then he mutters—like a lyric from one of his songs—"And they call this coexistence."

Although the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 track "Rapper's Delight" has gone down in history as the first hip hop hit, the genre is at least a decade older. In the late sixties, black artists like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron started blending poetry with music. Drawing influence from its jazz and soul precursors, the original hip hop had no DJ or MC. Instead, it was a mix of steady drums and political spoken word that echoed the sentiments of a frustrated generation. The Poets addressed racism and poverty bluntly:

Damn, I'm so poor
I don't know what in the hell
I'm gonna do anymore
Not from this day to the next
Cause the white man's got a God complex!

The best-known track of this era is probably "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Gil Scott-Heron's grim satire of black apathy and white pop culture; the Poets also took aim at their own community in songs like "Wake Up, Niggers." But hip hop eventually veered away from its civil-rights roots. Though political urban music continued well into the seventies and eighties with artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Public Enemy, it later succumbed to the rise of gangsta rap—grittier, more profane and more materialistic—or was relegated to the so-called "conscious" hip hop of Dead Prez and Black Star.

One gangsta rapper, however, managed to sidestep the conscious-commercial schism. Though more famous for his songs about sex and partying, 2Pac also penned tracks like "White Man'z World" and "Changes." Nearly fifteen years after his unsolved murder, he's still the artist that Palestinian rappers cite as their biggest inspiration. "The pictures that rappers like 2Pac were talking about," says We7's Krayem, "with the gangsters in the street and the drug dealers and the problems with the police, were similar to pictures that we see in our neighbourhood."

Hip hop seems to have a special resonance for Arab Israelis like Krayem and Nafar—Palestinians who reside in Israel itself, rather than the cccupied territories. Although hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled during Israel's creation in 1948, many remained, and today Arabs make up some 20 percent of the country's population. Arab Israelis hold citizenship rights, but they suffer from disproportionately high poverty rates and face widespread discrimination; a 2009 poll, for example, found that more than half of Israel's Jewish residents supported pressuring Arabs to leave the country, and Israel's current foreign minister has even tried to bar some Arab parties from participating in elections. This fall, the Likud-led cabinet approved a law requiring new immigrants to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state," infuriating the country's Arabs.

While the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are separated from Israel by massive security barriers—walls increasingly decorated with hip hop-influenced tags and graffiti—Arab Israelis live side by side with an unfriendly majority. They see themselves as second-class citizens and, like black Americans, they have found an outlet in music. Though it's stylistically reminiscent of nineties gangsta rap, Palestinian hip hop is, lyrically, a throwback to the genre's earlier forms—which also means that it isn't a peace offering. It's a rallying cry. "I'm not looking to change the mind of the Jews," Krayem insists. "Not to be naive, but it will not be changed by a song. It will be changed by people with money, with power, with connections. We are just saying we are one of you. We are confused. We don't know what to do."

Muhammad Mughrabi of the band G-Town is from Shu'fat refugee camp, a small area in the northeastern part of Jerusalem cut off from the city by part of the security barrier. Though the camp was built as a temporary home for displaced Palestinians in the sixties, it still stands, now plagued by overpopulation, a broken sewage system and a reputation for crime. "It's a jungle," says Mughrabi, "where your family is your only police."

G-Town's lyrics tell the Palestinian story from a different perspective: life in the refugee camps. Their style, too, diverges from that of their contemporaries, drawing inspiration more from late-nineties Atlanta-style hip hop and R&B. When we meet at a recording studio in East Jerusalem, the group is working on a song that samples Craig Mack's 1994 track "Flava In Ya Ear." Their version, however, is infused with political lyrics, and G-Town's flow has created a name for them in Shu'fat—quite literally. "'Do you want to come and do G-Town?' That's what kids in the camp say when they get together to rap," Mughrabi laughs. "They don't know it's called rap and hip hop."

G-Town even run rapping tutorials for kids in the camp, and it's fair to call hip hop a form of schooling here. Unlike Palestinians who live in the occupied territories, Arab Israelis attend state schools whose curricula are dictated by the Israeli government. What frustrates rappers like G-Town is that, as they see it, everything from history to culture is taught from the Israeli perspective, while the Palestinian narrative is excluded. In July of last year, the Ministry of Education banned the use of the word nakba—Arabic for "catastrophe," and the term Palestinians use to describe Israel's creation—from school textbooks. The Palestinian hip hop duo DMAR, composed of two teenage girls, even have a hit song called "The School," which sounds like a juvenile complaint about dull teachers until you realize it's actually a take-down of the Israeli education system:

We are the new generation, we want to rebel
Because we are sick of the teacher's boring routine
They are coming in and out of the class without reaching us
So what are we waiting for, let's change this!

Israeli education effectively ignores Palestinian history. "I never knew anything about Palestine until I was twenty," says DAM's Nafar. As a result, he grew up unsure where he belonged. In history class, he says, he was taught that when the Jews arrived in the British Mandate for Palestine, the land was nothing but desert and a few backwards tribes. For Arabs in Israel, hip hop has become a kind of informal education, a cultural response to occupation that binds them to fellow Palestinians in the territories and throughout the Middle East.

Rap in Israel-Palestine is its own animal, tied up in all the complexities of the region's larger conflict—including, for example, discrimination against Palestinians from Arab countries. The Middle East's Arab nations have historically been loath to allow Palestinians to settle on their soil, in an effort to force Israel to recognize the refugees' right of return to their ancestral lands. Arab-Israeli artists complain of another prejudice: Middle Eastern record companies won't sign them because they hold blue Israeli identity cards and passports.

"Living in occupied Palestine, having the blue ID, we feel like we don't have an identity," says Safa Hathoot of Arapiat, the first all-woman Palestinian hip hop act. "Here in Israel people treat us like a Palestinian, and outside Israel, they treat us as Israeli." American and European companies, for the most part, aren't interested in Palestinian hip hop because of the language barrier; while many Arab Israelis are fluent in English, they usually rap in their mother tongue of Arabic. Most Palestinian hip hop artists also scoff at the idea of signing with an Israeli label, as if it were some sort of twisted joke. "People in the Arab countries won't even listen to us, so why will the Israelis do it?" says Mughrabi. "It's a lose-lose situation."

Despite ever-present political tensions, Arab hip hop in Israel does have an audience, made up of everyone from progressive Palestinian-rights activists to average hip hop lovers. Some artists, like DAM and Sameh "Saz" Zakout, are well-known musicians among Jewish Israelis. Zakout tells me that he's done more than fifty Israeli television interviews. A few days after I interview G-Town, they appear on an Israeli music television station. The members of We7 say that Israeli media outlets have contacted them in the past, though they usually decline these offers.

The interest is there, even if it's just from a niche audience. The problem is that Palestinian hip hop artists quickly dismiss their own music as inaccessible to Israeli audiences because it's in Arabic. But the language issue doesn't always stop Jewish Israelis from coming to shows. "We performed once in Haifa a long, long time ago, and there were a lot of Israeli people," recalls Mughrabi. "After the show, people came to us and started asking us, 'What are you talking about, what are you talking about?'"

Language barriers in the country are also shifting. A new government initiative, announced in August, will see 170 public and religious schools make Arabic language a compulsory fifth-grade class. (In most Israeli schools, Russian, French, Amharic or Arabic are offered as second languages, but are not mandatory.) The new program will, in theory, increase the number of Israelis who can understand the country's second official language. If enough Jewish Israelis want to listen to Palestinian hip hop, an Israeli record company—in the business of profit, not politics—just might sign an act.

Still, many Palestinian hip hop artists deem Arabs who do sign with Israeli labels (like actress and singer Mira Awad) "puppets" or "good Arabs"—non-controversial and palatable to a wide Israeli market. But signing to an Israeli label is a chance to pursue music as a full-time career, rather than working the two or three other jobs that most artists hold down just to support themselves. It would be a way to spread the Palestinian narrative—unmediated by corrupt leaders or well-meaning foreigners—in a mainstream Israeli forum. Whether hip hop can help bring peace to the Holy Land, however, is another matter entirely.

Samir's Restaurant, in the old city of Ramle, is famous for its killer hummus, and also for being eight hundred years old. Inside, the restaurant is cave-like, its stone walls covered in carvings. A small chimney hole, now cased in glass, remains in the ceiling, a remnant of the restaurant's original use as a bakery. Samir himself, a rotund man in his sixties, sits out front smoking hookah in ironed dress pants, sleepily welcoming patrons inside.

Sameh Zakout, a.k.a. Saz, is a regular at Samir's. The first time we meet, he strolls into the restaurant's kitchen, sends the chef into a fit of laughter with a joke, and comes back with an elaborate platter of food he put together himself. Zakout is infectiously confident. From his trendy black aviators to his Brooklyn slang, he looks and talks the part of a hip hop star. His accomplishments include a collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah, a spot on the FIFA 2010 PlayStation soundtrack, a documentary biopic and a shout-out on a Chuck D song. But he doesn't have a record deal—not since the European label that signed him went bankrupt a few years back. "Until now, I'm not getting noticed. But it will happen eventually," he says. "It's not if you're gonna make it; it's when."

Zakout's music is a striking mix of Eastern melodies, two-part vocal harmonies and straight-up hip hop lyrics. His flow is clean, his lyrics tight and, of course, political. "Falasteenee"—Arabic for "Palestinian"—is the most outspoken song on his latest record. Its chorus is simply two numbers, repeated over and over: "242, 194," the numbers of the two UN resolutions that call for the return of all Palestinian land captured in the War of 1967, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, respectively.

For all his straightforward politics, though, Zakout is reserved about the potential of his art to answer the question of Palestine. Like Krayem—like nearly every Arab rapper I spoke with—he doesn't believe music will end the Arab-Israeli conflict. "We have to be realistic," he says. "I'm not going to free Palestine or free my people with my microphone in my hand."

We like to think that art can influence politics. In North America, there's an emphasis—perhaps an overemphasis—on the role of the arts and media in, for example, ending the Vietnam war; photographs of village massacres and protest songs wormed their way into mainstream consciousness, helping shift the public debate. The music of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron reflected the struggles of the day, while dance clubs were loci of demonstrations in the early days of the queer-rights movement.

Israel, however, is not 1970s America. The protests the United States faced at that time came from minority populations pressuring a democratic administration. Israel may be a parliamentary democracy, but the right-leaning government of Benjamin Netanyahu hardly has Palestinians' best interests at heart. (Netanyahu himself once described Israel's Arab population as a "demographic problem.") Arabs may be a minority in Israel, but there are millions of Palestinians throughout the Middle East waiting to return to their familial homes—something Israel will never let them do. Unlike blacks or gays in the US, Palestinians in Israel are not just a troublesome minority. They are an existential threat to the state. It will take much more than a few powerful hip hop songs to change the minds of Israeli politicians. "I'm not a freedom fighter," says Zakout, uncharacteristically modest for a moment. "I'm a musician." 

See the rest of Issue 38 (Winter 2010).

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—A Nakba of Olives
—Books Not Bombs
—Canada's Divide-and-Rule Aid Politics in Palestine

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