Everyone is talking about Palestinian hip hop. Suhell Nafar, Tamer Nafar and Mahmoud Jreri are described as spokespeople of their generation, following the formation of hip hop crew DAM in the late 1990s in the Arab quarters of Lyd on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The group has inspired a proliferation of Palestinian artists throughout the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, including G-Town (from Shu’afat refugee camp near Jerusalem), We7, short for Waled al-Hara, or Children of the Neighborhood (Nazareth), New Palestinian Resistance (from Gaza) and Arapeyat (the first Palestinian all female hip hop group, from Akka). Many of these artists are documented in the 2008 film directed by Jackie Reem Salloum, Slingshot Hip Hop, and the academic world is rapidly becoming saturated with interpretations of ‘meaning’ behind the proliferation of hip hop in the occupied territories.
The emergence of gangster rap in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, particularly through the West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur inspired the Palestinian hip hop scene. As Adi Krayem of We7 commented:
‘If I take you up here to Roum [a poor neighbourhood in Nazareth], you’ll find Tupac’s lyrics written on the walls and you’ll find that these people don’t even understand English! As a kid, I could identify with Tupac’s videos – seeing the cops lining up black guys on the street – even without knowing the words.’1
The emergence of hip hop in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) is intrinsically bound to a young demographic. Ordinarily this shouldn’t be of surprise, hip hop being a self-proclaimed music of disaffected youth the world over. But in a region where cultural heritage has become a guarded facet of identity, particularly in refugee camps throughout the West Bank, the popularity of hip hop is causing a generational disjuncture. Ask a child in a refugee camp to sing a song, and most often they will recite a folk song from the village of their grandparents. Details and memories of a passed life and the trauma of displacement are maintained through these folk songs, and it is unsurprising that the emergence of hip hop, seen as the invasion of an American musical genre has not been well received by older generations. The popularity of hip hop amongst young Israelis make connotations with the great cannon of Palestinian resistance song seem an even more provocative insult. Following the release of DAM’s first single online (which was downloaded over a million times) the director of a cultural organisation in Ramallah angrily responded: ‘I understand that they want to help us protest, but why can’t they do it in our own kind of music?‘2 A documentary film about G-Town was similarly criticised by adults in the Shu’afat refugee camp who urged young people to focus their attention on Palestinian folk songs rather than the aggression and negativity demonstrated in their hip hop. A binary has emerged between older Palestinians who see a potential for hip hop to remove the younger generation from their cultural rootedness, while Palestinian hip hop artists see their work as a contemporary representation of the Palestinian struggle, and a way to connect to the Palestinian Diaspora.
But perhaps hip hop is not such an alien musical idiom in Palestine. Story telling through song has long been present in the composition and performances of Palestinian Hadday and Zajaleen folk singers, and it is possible to see hip hop as a contemporary incarnation of this same idea. The performance contexts, aesthetics and subjects of song suggest the popularity of hip hop among young Palestinians follows a rhizomatic trajectory, rather than being merely the product of a globalised musical medium.
The urbanisation of folk music in the Middle East has been extensively documented, with much focus on the sung poetry of traveling storytellers, known as the Zajaleen.3 Often this poetry is performed through a mhawarah (debate), in which two performers participate and are accompanied by other musicians and dancers. This practice can often be found taking place in contemporary wedding celebrations following a debkeh (Palestinian folk dance) performance. Once the crowd of guests and onlookers have gathered in a circle following a debkeh performance, the Zajaleen singers occupy the space between the debkeh folk dancers and the audience as their stage, using microphones to engage in what rappers in the West might term a face off as they exchange verses of improvised rhyme. The performative situation engaged in a hip hop concert is therefore not entirely new in a Palestinian context.
Changes in the vocal style of the Hadaay during the period broadly spanning from the Six Day War to the disintegration of the Oslo Peace Accords. Perhaps the most significant change during this period was with regard to the subject matter of these songs. The once prominent genre of love songs disappeared almost entirely, replaced by songs that dealt with nationalist and public issues. The educational value of the lyrics of sung folk poetry is equally important to the artistic expression, for both performers and audiences, drawing an interesting parallel with the motivation of the Shuf’at refugee camp hip hop group G-Town in their production of socially integral music. G-Town expressed disgust at the popularity of popular love songs from Syria and Lebanon, describing such music as overtly sexualised and failing to challenge current socio-political realities.4 Rather, their hip hop seeks to educate their audiences through rhyme. A parallel shift between the integral expression of these story tellers of the past and present, in their mutual expression of reality is emerging.
Elaborating on this point, it is possible to link engagement with notions of masculinity between these story tellers. The purpose of the songs of the Hadday was fundamentally to express the social and psychological worlds of men, and it has been argued that it is no mere coincidence that the aesthetic qualities found in the work of an admired folk poet singer are the same qualities that are admired in Palestinian men in general, such as the sawt qawi, the powerful nature of his voice. Zajaleen were similarly dominant in masculine performance arenas, as the practice of sung poetry debates would only ever be found at the pre-wedding party for the groom, while the bride and her family and friends would be entertained by popular musicians. Although one all-female hip hop group has recently emerged in Palestine, the genre is overwhelmingly dominated by young men. Like the Hadday, Palestinian male hip hop artists have described their music as crucial to the assertion of their masculinity, and drawing upon the performance spaces of the Zajaleen, the messages of Palestinian hip hop are also directed specifically towards young men.5
Not only can Palestinian hip hop be located in vernacular folk traditions, but the new genre has also relied on national musical heritage to establish popularity in the oPt. Musical poetics always need to adapt to local requirements to mediate the specifics of locality. Records of DAM’s first West Bank performance back in 2005 in Ramallah suggest that making obvious links to Palestinian folk traditions was vital for the success of the performance.6 Few members of the audience attending this concert had come across hip hop music before, but understood that Dam were a political group, and therefore presumed the concert to be something of a political rally. The first song the group performed was a recently composed track during which the band encouraged the crowd to shout “Ramallah!” between lines (in translation):
I said where you at?
Where we going?
Who you with?
One of the most well-known Palestinian folk songs is the song Wen? al- Ramallah (Where are you going? To Ramallah). While there was little in common musically between the two songs, the similar beat, lyrics and repeated phrases was so evocative of the famous folk song that a group of shabab (young Palestinian men) formed a small debkeh close to the stage. The success of this opening performance arguably contributed to the overall reception of Dam during their first appearance as a band in the West Bank, success that was indebted to engagement with the consciousness of Palestinian folk traditions.
The inspiration and motivation behind the evolving Palestinian hip hop scene was to provide a contemporary contribution to the cannon of Palestinian resistance music. Procured as a real, and anti-nostalgic medium, hip hop can still be seen as a natural development from already urbanising folk traditions, providing a fresh and engaging music to young Palestinians. Suggesting links between musical genres to the past as delineations of local contexts that help embed hip hop in the existing canon of resistance music suggests that while hip hop has become a worldwide phenomenon, it remains deeply connected to roots and localised issues. The Iron Sheik, a Palestinian hip hop artist living in the United States supports these links from a transnational perspective, suggesting “…the question of cultural influences in not an either/or one. [but a response to] both the global popularity of hip hop and to Arab musical and poetic traditions they have grown up with and are incorporating into a new cultural form”.7 Palestinian hip hop is an amalgam of musical and political identities, offering a familiar content through an unfamiliar medium. Musical change and development in Palestine has often, if not always in recent years, arisen as a direct consequence or reflection of pressing socio-political change. The generation of emerging hip hop artists in Palestine, were too young to remember the First Intifada, grew up during the peace process, and became motivated to contribute to the cultural resistance movement having witnessed much of the Second Intifada. Considering hip hop’s contribution within the framework of the rhizome enables an understanding of the rootedness of aspects of hip hop in Palestinian musical traditions, long before the Western cultural medium was proliferated globally through the media. Culture is contradictory and changeable, and always capable of being re-articulated: rather than loss of heritage, Palestinian hip hop might perhaps be seen as just such a re-articulation of the continuing struggle.
1 Oor, Y. 2011. ‘Legitimating Narratives in Rhyme: HipHop and National Identity in Palestine and Israel’. Unpublished thesis, available via http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=uhf_2011 p.28.
2 McDonald, D. 2009. My Voice is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism and the Poetics of Palestinian Resistance. Durham: Duke University Press.
3 Sbait, D.H, 1993. “Debate in the Improvised-Sung Poetry of the Palestinians”. Asian Folklore Studies 52:93-117.
4 Greenburg, E. 2009. “The King of the Streets”: Hip Hop and the Reclaiming of Masculinity in Jerusalem’s Shu’afat Refugee Camp. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 2(2): 242-247 (243).
5 Greenburg, E. 2009. “The King of the Streets”: Hip Hop and the Reclaiming of Masculinity in Jerusalem’s Shu’afat Refugee Camp. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 2(2): 242-247.
6 McDonald, D. 2009. My Voice is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism and the Poetics of Palestinian Resistance. Durham: Duke University Press.
7 Maira, S. 2008. We Ain’t Missing: Palestinian Hip Hop – A Transnational Youth Movement. CR: The New Centennial Review 8 (2): 161-192 (165).