Friday, March 28, 2014

Cultures of Resistance: Hip Hop’s Place in Palestinian Resistance

Note: This is an essay I wrote a while back for the May 2012 "Cultures of Resistance" academic workshop at the University of Exeter. Many thanks to Dr. Sophie Richter-Devroe, Polly Withers, and their colleagues at Exeter for inviting me. I've updated my essay a bit and posted it here for you to enjoy.
 What is the Palestinian Hip-Hop Community?
The Palestinian hip-hop community encompasses Palestinian artists from Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, surrounding countries and the worldwide Palestinian diaspora. While marginalization, dislocation, and occupation form the thematic core of Palestinian hip-hop, Palestine’s leading rappers cast their gaze much further. To them, any successful Palestinian resistance must also fight the wider social, economic, and political systems that keep the Israeli occupation and the Middle East's status quo in place. They call for resistance against their own leaders and identify Palestine's struggle with the Arab peoples’ uprisings against their own governments. Revolutionary rappers throughout the Middle East and the world, in turn, are associating their fights against their own societies' social injustices with the Palestinian cause – a process that Palestinian hip-hop artists encourage and amplify. 

Who is Arabic Rap For?
Politically conscious rap dominates the Palestinian and Libyan hip-hop scenes and the forms the most prominent hip-hop sub-genre in Egypt and Lebanon as well. Every country's hip-hop scene is unique, so we must not conflate them or say that Arabic hip-hop is any one "thing." What Arabic hip-hop, like contemporary Arabic folk music, gives Arabs, though, is an unfiltered, accessible, popular medium for disseminating revolutionary ideas. While the uprisings that Mohamed Bouazizi sparked have given the Arab world a new level of political consciousness, they have failed to fundamentally alter the injustices and power structures that inspired them. The Arabic entertainment industry is still an intimate part of the corrupt, rotten structure of Arab state politics. The raw subversiveness of Arabic hip-hop scares the Arab world’s powers-that-be. Except where major revolutionary movements have opened up space for hip-hop (namely, Palestine, Libya, and Tunisia), Arabic-language media outlets rarely report on it or play it on rotation (Morocco and Algeria, where francophone-influenced hip-hop took off in the early 1990s, are the two notable exceptions). Western media promotes the genre unevenly but enthusiastically, but its reasons are not always completely honorable. These realities have made Arabic hip-hop an underground, uncommodified, do-it-yourself genre that survives through live shows and social media.
In an essay in Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender Among PalestiniansAmal Eqeiq writes of Palestinian hip-hop artists, “I consider these young artists ghetto intellectuals…" Most Arabic hip-hop comes from the intellectual, middle, and educated working classes. Producing hip-hop requires amenities and skills that remain out of reach for many populations in the Arab world: computers, Internet access, sound engineering, and English or French skills. While hip-hop is about giving voice to the voiceless, it can give a voice to the Arab world's poorest, most marginalized people only indirectly. Many schools and NGOs have begun to address these inequalities by hosting hip-hop and dance classes and workshops for Palestinian youth, but the programs are limited in scope and impact. 

The Palestinian Hip-Hop Scene
"Palestinian hip hop," writes Amal Eqeiq, "is an anthropologically rich site." When DAM, Rayess Bek, and other Lebanese and Palestinian MCs began rapping in the late 1990s, they had few, if any, easily accessible examples of Arabic hip-hop to emulate. Their inspirations were artists like Tupac Shakur and hip-hop’s roots in America’s marginalized Latino and African-Americans communities. When he began rapping in English in 1998, Tamar Nafar of DAM says in Slingshot Hip Hop, it never occurred to him to rap in Arabic because he had never heard anyone else do it before. At first, DAM avoided politics and focused on personal struggles, social problems, and the dire effects of the drug trade on their hometown of Lyd. The outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 popularized Palestinian hip-hop while transforming its content. DAM's 2001 song "Who's a Terrorist?," which was downloaded over a million times and replayed countless more, speaks to the sense of moral outrage that was sweeping across Palestinian society:

With all the times you raped the Arab spirit
It got pregnant and birthed a boy called the suicide bomber...
I mean, you hit me and I wept, so you beat me for complaining.
When I reminded you that you started it, you jumped up and said,
"You let the little kids throw stones.
Don't they have a family to keep them under lock at home?"

In the essay "Liberation Songs: Palestine Put to Music" from the book Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture, Joseph Massad writes, “Nationalist songs for Palestine not only reflected popular sentiments but were also instrumental in generating such sentiments…The popular nationalist song is therefore not…subservient to the political, but is generative of political sentiment in many domains." Arabic hip-hop, with its rap battles, call-and-response elements, free online distribution, use of sampling techniques, and tendency towards multi-artists collaboration, facilitates this generative process of national consciousness with a force that few, if any, other genres can match. 
The Second Intifada and the occupation have given Palestine what is probably the world’s most single-mindedly political hip-hop scene. Ayman Meghames, a member of Gaza's first hip-hop group PR: Palestinian Rapperz, told Electronic Intifida, “Most of our lyrics are about the occupation. Lately we’ve also started singing about the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. Any problem, it needs to be written about...Most of the world believes we are the terrorists and the media is closed to us, so we get our message out through Hip-Hop.” Palestine’s diaspora and international connections give its hip-hop fresh currents creativity and vitality. Many leading Palestinian rappers have spent some or all of their lives within the diaspora, including Katibe 5 (Burj al-Barajnah, Lebanon), Torabyeh (Amman), Shadia Mansour (London), Sabreena Da Witch (Baltimore), and Boikutt and Stormtrap of Ramallah Underground (all over). Palestinian hip-hop has become a mélange of pop, R&B, gangsta rap, trip-hop, and traditional Arabic music that possesses its own distinctive style and identity.  David Peisner of SPIN told me that, “Tunisian rap culture is not mere appropriation of American rap culture but rather something closer to its own messy invention.” His words are quite applicable to Palestinian hip-hop as well.

Calling For a New Political Paradigm
The damage that Fatah and Hamas's slow-burning civil war has done to the Palestinian cause has led many Palestinian artists to repudiate these groups and challenge their legitimacy. Boikutt and Stormtrap, formerly of Ramallah Underground, reject not only the occupation but the entire political and economic system that makes it possible. As Boikutt told Electronic Intifada, “There’s the Israeli apartheid wall, resulting in an open-air prison. Then there’s the rule of the PA and its police forces...They’re constantly controlling us, even though we’re just roaming within our own prison.” In “Prison within a Prison,” Stormtrap raps, "Leaders masturbate for one another / while settlements multiply, grow, and expand. / Want to solve the problem? Dismantle our government! / Maybe then we can start something." Boikutt calls for a third intifada that would "disrupt the colonial machine and all of its pieces" by targeting Hamas, the PA, and the occupation all at once. “Maybe the only way to actually reach the colonizer," Boikutt says, "is to get rid of the one who’s holding you back." Palestine's loosely organized and overlapping March 15 and Heerak al-Shabab Movements, whose pro-unity demonstrations in early 2011 directly led to Hamas and Fatah's official reconciliation, make many of the same criticisms. Yet movements' leaderless nature, uncertainty over goals, and sustained repression by Hamas and Fatah security forces have left them rudderless and adrift despite the Palestinian public's exasperation with the ruling political class. “The PA has allowed the protests to happen as long as they were under control," says Boikutt. "That’s the maximum to where you can go.”

Taking on the System:
Arabic rappers often rap about how institutions and power structures can casually destroy the lives of an individual or a community. In "A Letter from Boikutt," Boikutt raps

I’m reading in the paper about roads newly paved,
speed bumps removed, and a lot of other useful stuff (yes, very!)
Certain individuals benefit. Funding from here
and there. Organizations are plentiful but freedom is far away.
A boycott of settlements around the West Bank?
A propagandistic, exclusivist nationalism.
But what about historical Palestine?
I thought Jerusalem was supposed to be the “capital of Arab culture“?

But it’s all political speeches for the people.
We put up with the work and the exhaustion and the situation is tough.
Try to convince us that everything’s fine.
and that I can lead a normal life like in the movies.
On MBC, one, two, three, four, et-cetera.
Be good and money will rain down on you.
Advice from one brother to another: stay independent
because the games are being played, so steer clear of the trap.

Let them wait for foreign aid until they die.
Spinning in circles within the apartheid wall until they enter
into unlimited mazes with undefined spaces
that are reinvented to fit settlement expansion that's un-threatened.
Violation, occupation, but not for everyone!
There are people here in Palestine living “the good life.“
I don’t know what he’s thinking. It seems like he doesn’t know
that one day we’ll be gone and all these shops will close.

Here, Boikutt attacks the Palestinian elite's complicity in the Israeli settler movement’s ongoing dispossession of West Bank Palestinians’ land and property. By saying "all these shops will close" in his final line, he seems to suggest that the events of Hebron, where the Israeli Defense Forces barred Palestinians from using the town's main commercial thoroughfare, will be replayed throughout the entire West Bank if the Palestinian resistance fades away. 

Facing Up:
Arab rappers also use hip-hop to confront their own societies' failings and pathologies; in doing so, they create new opportunities to find solutions for them. That is why I believe Arabic hip-hop’s most important legacy will be its social impact. In "Freedom for My Sisters" (English translation here), Tamer Nafar of DAM and Safa Hathoot of Arapeyet strike at patriarchy by attacking their own society’s double standards:

Tamer Nafar: You know, Arabs, if we discriminate against each other
Then others will discriminate against us too.
These words go out to all our mothers and sisters
Who got lost in our customs, primitive and stupid customs.
(It’s in our faces but we never chose to face up to it)
This is for you, wherever you are,
Imprisoned, strangled, cut off from your dreams and ambitions.
Keep your head up sister, just keep your head up…

Safa Hathoot: The Arab woman’s life is written
What should she do, where should she go, it’s all written…
Imprisoned in her own house, thirsty for freedom
While she can drink nothing but her own tears…

Tamer Nafar: I apologize. You were saving yourself for the right one.
I came and took that from you and then I just left you.
Now I am being called the "Don Juan" even though I was the thief
And you are being insulted even though you were the victim.

Hip-hop is giving Palestinian women a new venue for public discourse and engagement about gender issues. Sabreena Da Witch begins her chronicle of her worst experiences with discrimination as an Arab woman growing up in Israel by writing, “Men from the West: get the fuck out of our lands! Men from the East: get the fuck out of our minds!” While Shadia Mansour rarely raps directly about the issues facing women, her strong, fearless persona gives Palestinian women a powerful example to follow. TAR, Arapeyet, and many up-and-coming female MCs mean that Palestine can boast more successful female hip-hop artists that any other Arab nation. 
       Additionally, Hip-hop provides a forum for male allies to express solidarity with feminist causes. In this vein, the debate between Maya Mikdashi and Lila Abu Lughod and DAM in Jadaliyya is very much worth your time (see part 1part 2part 3, and Bethlehem Blogger's response here). Mikdashi and Abu Lughod attack "If I Could Go Back in Time," DAM and Amal Murkis's story song about a Palestinian woman whose family murders her in an "honor crime," for feeding into neo-colonial narratives by ignoring the Israeli occupation's role in gendered violence in Palestine. DAM responded with a tour-de-force essay that led Mikdashi and Abu Lughod to back down and, in so many words, to apologize, but the exchange and the comments about it were all very instructive.  

Uniting Palestine's Struggles with Those of the Arab World:
      Arab rappers in Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, and elsewhere use Palestinians' anti-colonial language and themes to depict their own governments as illegitimate, occupying powers. Palestinian artists encourage and participate in process. In their song "Prisoner," Palestine’s Shadia Mansour and Egypt's Arabian Knightz depict every Arab country's individual struggle as part of an Arab world-wide struggle.

             Rush: The media is backing up murderous propaganda
             While we fight eternally like immortal highlanders
             Al Durrah, Sheikh Yassin, the pains unseen
             Forging your own stories for the blind to see
             Want to draw your own opinions bout the bombs we face?
             What’s your opinion if you’re enslaved and your mom is raped?
             Shadia Mansour: We walk with dignity and self-confidence.
             We crushed your laws with our steadfastness and blood.
             If your conscience was giving you peace,
             You wouldn’t be communicating from behind a gun.
             Tell me: who’s the one not getting sleep at night?
             While you build your checkpoints, we raise our children.
             Our numbers will keep increasing.
             We are the reason you don’t dare to blink.
             There's a big difference between a man of resistance and decision-makers.

In his 2011 song “Ignite” (wala’), Boikutt explicitly presents the post-Bouazizi uprisings and the Palestinian cause as one single struggle.

             Raise the fist of resistance up in the air             
             A first and second Intifada, but the third is sprouting... 
             The sound of revolution is everywhere, we make it heard 
             Ignite...see how many dictators we’ll uproot 
             Line them up in turn,  one after the other, and defame them
Many international hip-hop outfits, including the world-touring Existence is Resistance project, raise awareness about the Palestinian cause and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Boikutt's stage name refers to the boycott both in English and Arabic (مقاطعة). The Palestinian struggle is the single most salient feature of the (currently retired) Anglo-Iraqi rapper Lowkey's album Soundtrack to the Struggle, which reached #1 on the UK iTunes hip-hop chart in 2012. Palestine has perhaps the most internationally connected Arabic hip-hop network of all, as the lineup of Lowkey's "Long Live Palestine Part 2" – which is sung in Farsi, Arabic, and English by  rappers of many nationalities – demonstrates. In the chorus, Lowkey sings, “This is for Palestine, Ramallah, West Bank, Gaza / It’s about time we globalized the intifada. / Listen close. I’ve got six words for Obama: / Long live Palestine. Long live Gaza.” The American rap superstar Lupe Fiasco draped himself in a Palestinian flag during the BET Hip Hop Awards. In “The Show Goes On,” Lupe links Palestine’s struggle to the aspirations and struggles of young people who face oppression and resist it in all parts of the world:

I would give up everything, even start a world war
For these ghetto girls and boys I’m rapping round the world for
Africa to New York, Haiti, then I detour
Oakland out to Auckland, Gaza Strip to Detroit
Say hip-hop only destroy, tell ‘em look at me, boy
I hope your son don’t have a gun and never be a d-boy


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