In much of the hip hop music world the constant threat of menace and violence is simply a given. Few would argue that a large part of the music’s appeal is deeply tied up with the sense of danger that certain artists evoke and that considerable energy and resources are spent to establish an artist’s “street cred” by promoting their history of poverty, violence and their prison record. Despite the fact that much of that sense of danger may very well be manufactured, it can make a big difference to the bottom line: music and ticket sales.
As an American in my mid-twenties, hip-hop has been a musical cornerstone of my adolescence. Normally, attending a hip-hop concert on a warm summer night wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary but this past summer in the King Hussein Gardens, located in Amman, Jordan, as I jumped and grooved to the rhythms of the Palestinian rap group “DAM” I was able to see hip hop from an entirely different cultural perspective. I danced at the foot of the spectacular King Hussein Mosque, in an open-air theater surrounded by Palestinians and Jordanians of all ages.
Prior to my recent two month stay in Jordan, the constant barrage of news about violence in the Middle East never carried much meaning for me. Now, having spent time in an Arab country, and having visited Israel and the West Bank, the daily headlines take on a deeply human significance. Through their ground-breaking music, DAM is also putting a human face on the headlines.
Straight Outta Lod
DAM, short for Da Arabian MC’s, was formed in the late 1990s by Tamer Nafar, 27, his younger brother Suhell, 23, and Mahmood Jreri, 24, all of whom were born and grew up in the slums of Lod, a mixed town of Arabs and Jews, twelve miles from Jerusalem. DAM’s debut album Stop Selling Drugs was released locally in 1998, followed by the second album called Min Irhabi (who’s the terrorist?) which was released in 2001. The controversial title track of this album was released on the website ArabRap.net and was downloaded more than a million times within the space of a month. The song was also distributed free with Rolling Stone magazine in France. Their first international release Dedication (2006) along with appearances on music festivals and in mid-size venues across the Middle East and Europe has increased their visibility considerably.
But, unlike some of their less-authentic hip hop counterparts in America, there is nothing manufactured about the issues DAM rap about like oppression, racism, terrorism and women’s rights. As Palestinians from Israel, they have lived through the iconic scenes of terrorism and sectarian violence reported on in the international media where individuals are often denied a voice to express for themselves what life is like in a war zone.
But unlike the news media, music is a fluid and personal form of communication, the lyrics and beats of DAM’s music bring a human dimension to the complexity of war. While focusing on the daily struggles of Palestinian youth, such as growing up or falling in love, all aspects of life have to be framed in the reality that these are a people caught in the cross-hairs of a sixty year old international conflict.
“Because of Tupac!” was the immediate reply when I asked Tamer Nafar why he was attracted to hip-hop. Interviewed while DAM was on a tour of Europe, Nafar described how even though he didn’t understand the language at the time he understood Tupac’s message. “In the video clips I could see that he was talking about my life” he said. “He talked about friends in jail, about the drugs, about him being a minority in a white man’s world. Well, that’s the thing here, we live with Jewish hate.”
What makes DAM’s music astonishing is its ability to express the frustration resulting from inescapable hardships. But rather than slipping into the rhetoric of anger, they leverage the primacy of human dignity as the singular, non-negotiable, foundation for peace. In the song “Change Tomorrow” from their new album, Tamer sings:
This is for the small kids in this big world
Lost, don’t know what is happening
Barely opened your eyes, u saw tears
Barely opened your heart, u felt pain
Barely joined us, u saw that we are separated
Jews, Christians and Muslims
None of these sides wants to understand the other
Every side thinks they’re better than the other
Claiming that he’s the only one going to heaven
Meanwhile, making our lives hell
But, you’re different from us, your heart is still pure
So don’t let our dirt touch it
Keep asking for a life full of equality
And if someone asks you to hate, say no
I am the child of today, the transformation of tomorrow
Fear of a Palestinian Nation
Nafar is less forthcoming about how his personal faith influences his music, “It’s none of anyone’s business” he said. “It’s something between the person and God.” But when asked about his hopes for the future of Israel/Palestine, I’m reminded that in the region he is from, religion isn’t simply a matter of faith, it is the red line of war. “When we initiate an album, we talk about stuff, I think that’s hope. That means we’re still optimistic” Nafar says. “But to be more realistic, I don’t see it happening. The point is, when you hear ‘Israel’ it’s only for the Jews. When you say ‘Palestine,’ it can be for Jews, Muslims and Christians. You know what, don’t call it Israel or Palestine, lets all live together and not in a selected country.”
He is well aware that his positions are controversial but fails to see why. “The funny thing is, when I say things like this, a lot of people think I’m anti-Semitic” says Nafar. “But think about it, they want a state only for the Jews. I want a state for Jews, Muslims, Christians, Rastafarians, whatever you want. I’m down with everybody. But when I say it’s shouldn’t be only for the Jews, then I’m the racist one. This is the mix up today.”
Like Tamer’s politics, DAM’s music fiercely defends the Palestinian national identity while maintaining an inclusive stance toward non-Arabs. DAM incorporates traditional Arab refrains into standard hip-hop beats. At times they even interject strands of operatic arias and reggae, uniting sounds that are both foreign and familiar, depending on where you’re from, into a common melody. In “It Takes a Revolution to Find a Solution” DAM uses the slow, melancholic reggae beat, reminiscent of Bob Marley, as an architecture on which questions of social conflict are musically erected. Despite the highly volatile subject matter, there is no endorsement of violence, but rather references to Nelson Mandela and other peaceful agents are identified in the lyrics.
The Chronic Issue
Nafar’s thoughts are equally direct on what important social issues he believes should be communicated to the average young American. “Americans should see what’s happening between Israel and Palestine” he says. “America accuses Iran of giving money to Hezbollah to fight Israel, so America gives Israel [millions of dollars] to fight the Arabs. Israel then builds settlements in Palestine and kills its people. Arabs see this and they hate America.”
Despite his feelings about why a large portion of the Arab world hates America, Nafar also has a strong sense of solidarity with portions of American culture. “America sends a few Latinos and a few black people [to fight in Middle East conflicts] and I think of how those people, who I watch and admire as a culture and as survivors, are forced to go and fight” he says. “My brothers are fighting my brothers. This is what I think, divide and conquer between poor and wealthy. Americans should know where their money goes.”
DAM’s music cries out about the need for solidarity in the struggle for equality. As the media propagates stereotypes of Arabs as primitive religious extremists, DAM’s music presents a counter-narrative to the anger and frustration experienced by the average Palestinian.
As an outsider, my question has become: at what point does faith in God facilitate mutual understanding, or provide a stage for murder? As one of the most cited examples of religious violence, on both the Muslim and Jewish side, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict demonstrates how faith has come to represent land, history, culture and home. Religion becomes dangerous when faith in God is no-longer represented by a selfless love of humankind.
By letting my body move to the complex musical influences that characterize DAM’s work, I am brought closer to imagining the lives of the people that their art reflects. Innovative music, such as DAM’s, touches the imagination, opening spaces outside of walls and check-points where alternate forms of social unity can be realized. As fans sing the lyrics and dance to the pulse of the music, the music works to unite our fundamental and universal desire for freedom and equality.
Fifteen years ago, Nafar was inspired by the music of Tupac, the iconic American rapper who sang about the social conflicts that exists in my home state of California and brought his message to the world. Today, artists like DAM have retooled hip-hop in a way that once again crosses religious, linguistic and cultural divides.
Hear DAM’s music at: http://www.DAMpalestine.com/