How could Palestinians not love hip hop?

By Kim Bullimore in Ramallah
Occupied Palestine

It’s a Thursday night — the beginning of the Palestinian weekend — and the Ramallah Cultural Palace is packed. There are young Palestinian men and women in their late teens and 20s, as well as parents with their pre-teen children streaming into the large auditorium. Joining them are a few dozen non-Palestinians, who either work with the NGOs based in Ramallah or come to Palestine as solidarity activists. As the lights go out, the energy and excitement already filling the auditorium get ratcheted up a few more notches as Jackie Reem Salloum takes the stage to introduce her much anticipated documentary, Slingshot Hip Hop.

Salloum’s feature-length film, her first, is an 80-minute high-energy political documentary about Palestinian rappers in besieged Gaza, the occupied West Bank and Israel. The film, which explores the genesis of hip hop in Palestine, also gives voice to the politically charged conditions that the young Palestinian rappers and their fellow Palestinians engage with every day. Focusing on both groups and individuals, Salloum takes her viewers on a journey that explores poverty, racism, colonialism, occupation and apartheid, as well as women’s rights, national identity and nationhood.

The film is narrated by Suhell Nafer, one of the members of DAM, the first official Palestinian hip hop trio. DAM, which stands for Da Arabian MCs and also means “immortal” and/or “blood” in Arabic, began to perform in the late 1990s. Tamer Nafar, Suhell’s older brother and the front person for DAM, has become known as the unofficial father of the Palestinian hip hop movement. Influenced by US political rappers such as Tupac, Tamer Nafar began recording in 1999.

At the time, still very naive and more interested in becoming famous than in politics, he and Suhell believed they had to perform in English. At one point in the film, Suhell jokes about his brother’s first recording attempt, saying that if Tamer had realised how bad he sounded in English, they might have given up on their dream of becoming rappers. Suhell goes on to explain, however, that the eruption of the Al Aqsa intifada (uprising) in September 2000 was the catalyst to become more strongly focused on political rap and activism. The intifada “was a reality check”, he says.

In 2001, DAM released what was to become its unofficial anthem, “Min Irhabi?” (“Who’s the terrorist?”). The song became a street anthem around the Arab world, being downloaded from the internet more than 1 million times in less than a month. “Min Irhabi?”, like DAM’s later songs, gives voice to the Palestinian struggle and life both in Israel and under occupation. Hitting like a sledge hammer, DAM asks, “Who’s a terrorist? I’m a terrorist? How am I a terrorist when you have taken my land?” and “Democracy? I swear you’re Nazis, with all the times you raped the Arab spirit. It got pregnant and birthed a boy called the suicide bomber.”

Throughout the film, the members of DAM and the other featured rappers talk not only about the importance of being politically active in their communities but also about national identity and what it means to be Palestinian. As Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, the members of DAM describe feeling like “strangers in our own country”.

This sentiment is reflected also by Mahmoud Shalabi, another Palestinian rapper with Israeli citizenship. At one point in the film, Shalabi describes how Palestinian artists would never speak Arabic on Israeli public transport for fear of being harassed by police and security. Shalabi explains, however, that he now does this because he is proud of his Palestinian identity. Shortly after this exchange, Salloum films Shalabi being stopped on the streets of Tel Aviv by two Israeli police officers, who demand his ID. When Salloum asks why he is being stopped, Shalabi points out that it’s because he is speaking Arabic.

Slingshot Hip Hop also documents the developing rap scene in Gaza, profiling the first Gaza rap trio, PR (Palestinian Rapperz). Highlighting the excitement of PR’s first public performance, Salloum also reveals the impact of the Israeli occupation, checkpoints and the wall on the everyday lives of all Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, as PR attempts to make it to the West Bank to meet DAM and perform together.

One of the most exciting aspects of Slingshot Hip Hop is the focus on female Palestinian rappers. Salloum profiles Safa and Nehua, who make up the first female Palestinian rap group, Arapeyat, and Abeer, a soloist, who is a cousin of the Nafer brothers. Like Shalabi, Arapeyat hails from Akka and has begun to make a name throughout Palestine and the Arab world. Safa and Nehua not only seek to give voice to the Palestinian struggle but also to challenge gender roles and stereotypes about Arab women. The two recount that it was initially difficult for them “because we are Arab girls and we’re Muslim. It was difficult for some to accept us, but we won’t let anyone stand in our way. And even if someone stands in our way, we will continue. We won’t stop for anyone.”

Throughout the Ramallah screening, the atmosphere was electric. When DAM, Shalabi and Safa from Arapeyat appeared on stage to perform at the conclusion of the screening, the audience, young and old, were on their feet singing, dancing and cheering. It was clear throughout the film and during the live performance that DAM’s and its fellow rappers’ popularity was due not only to their charisma and sense of humour, but also to their political activism and ability to give voice to the experience of so many Palestinian youth being forced to live like “strangers in their own land”. As one of the Nafer brothers asks early in the film, given the political conditions under which Palestinians live, “How could you not expect us to love hip hop?” The answer is, of course, you couldn’t.