Palestinian political rap attracts growing crowds

by Rachel Shabi
09 January 2007
Ramallah, West Bank - There may be slight variations in the dress code, but in any other sense they are your average, young hip hop fans, clamouring for spare tickets in a sell-out concert crush.

But in Ramallah, it is probably the most exciting and positive thing to have happened in a while: the adored Palestinian rappers, Dam, last month debuted their new album in the beleaguered West Bank capital.

Throughout the performance at Ramallah's Al Kasaba theatre, the mostly teenage crowd was euphoric, singing along to their favourite tracks, and erupting into giddy cheers each time the band so much as uttered the word "Palestine."

True to rap style, there is plenty of "bling" lighting up the theatre, but it is all silver - Muslim men generally are not supposed to wear gold - and the symbols are strictly region-specific: maps of historic Palestine and figurines of Handala, a cartoon boy figure that has become the emblem of Palestinian resistance.

"We love Dam, they are one of the most famous Arabic rap groups and they talk about our conflict through rap," says 15-year-old Hiba, one of the concert-goers. "Maybe if people don't hear our voices any other way, they will hear us through the music of Dam."

Raised as the first Palestinian rappers and praised as such around the Arab world, Dam, whose name means "blood" in both Arabic and Hebrew, rap about the daily realities of Israeli occupation, while also dealing with social issues such as drugs and women's rights.

So, for example, their track "Who's the terrorist?", a blazing challenge to the stereotypical view of the Middle East conflict, starts with a quote from former US general, Ramsey Clark, proclaiming the Palestinians, along with the Iraqis, as "perhaps the most terrorised people on earth," and then proceeds with lyrics such as: "We fight for our freedom, so you've made that a crime. And you the terrorist call me the terrorist!"

The band is from Lod, within the borders of Israel, but this geographical detail is of little concern to the fans in Ramallah.

"I don't consider them as being from Israel, they are Palestinian," says Sondon, 15, in the West Bank city. "They speak about me and about who I am."

It is this very detail that Dam impresses on the crowd at a performance in Tel Aviv a month later. Lod, a 10-minute drive from Tel Aviv, is a mixed-population city, a third of whose inhabitants are Palestinian-Israelis. This population struggles to obtain the most basic municipal services and is routinely denied housing permits - as a result of which around 2,000 homes in Lod are illegal and stand under threat of demolition.

"We want to tell them about our environment in Lod, the racism we get at the hands of the Israeli government, the situation for us that they don't see on Israeli TV," says 24-year-old Mahmoud Jreri who, along with brothers Tamar and Suhel Nafar, formed the band Dam in 1998.

And on an international stage - the band has toured widely - their message is more basic: "I try to explain to people that I am a Palestinian who stayed in his land and now this land is called Israel," says Jreri. "Then I try to explain this Catch 22: that the Arab world treats you as an Israeli, and the Israelis treat you as Palestinian."

The band says that this anomaly prevented them from being signed either by an Israeli or an Arab label. Their new album, Dedication, is released by the German Red Circle records. "We had to go outside just to get inside," says Jreri.

Dam is just one of an expanding number of Palestinian hip hop artists, young male and female artists rapping from Gaza and the West Bank.

"Once, people would laugh at us and say, what, Arabic rap?" explains Boikutt, one of Ramallah Underground, a collective of artists, DJs, producers, and rappers. "Now the scene is really growing, a lot more people come to performances, you hear people talking about Palestinian rap, and it is respected a lot more."

Boikutt, who wrote his first rhymes the first time he experienced life under curfew in Ramallah, says that Palestinian hip hop runs more in the tradition of conscious rap, as opposed to the girls, cars, and glamour style that you might currently see on MTV.

"Definitely, it is used for the same political purpose," he says. "It is the same weapon, just a different language, a different situation, and a different struggle."

The proliferation of rap artists in the region inspired Palestinian-American film maker Jackie Salloum to make a documentary, Slingshot Hip Hop, about the phenomenon.

She believes that hip hop for artists living in Palestine provides a platform and channels anger and frustration into a positive form of art. "Hip hop culture in Palestine, I feel, represents a new form of resistance," she says.

Dam, positioned both inside and outside Israeli society, perhaps uniquely succeeds in mainlining their message to the nation's centre.

"I'm not asking people to be pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli," says Dam member Tamer Nafar. "I just ask them to listen, read about the situation, and then decide. Chuck D [from the American rap group Public Enemy] said that rap music is the CNN of the streets - so in that case, we are the Al Jazeera."


* Rachel Shabi is a writer specialising on social justice issues. She was born in Israel to Iraqi parents and grew up in the United Kingdom. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Middle East Times, 2 January 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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