Rappers wrap Mid-East pains in new trend

Published February 8th, 2005 - 03:51 GMT

During the years of the Intifada, which at times, seem endless, a new trend of music has surfaced, one that attempts to “capture” the true meaning of life under occupation, poverty and harsh circumstances. This is not to indicate that this kind of music was invented by these emerging young musicians, but rather, “adopted” and suited to fit the heated climate of Middle East tensions.

Popular Arab rapper Tamer Nafer, lead rapper of the first Palestinian hip-hop group, DAM, once said, “Our message is one of humanity - but it's also political - we make protest music.”

Rap music, by definition, has always been focused on dealing with conflict and various social problems. Rapping is one of the elements of hip hop and the distinguishing feature of hip hop music; it is a form of rhyming lyrics spoken rhythmically over musical instruments, with a musical backdrop by DJs. In the mid-80’s, rap became increasingly politicized and tended to chronicle the black urban experience. Later on, many rap artists expanded with anti-war songs, anti-drug songs, women's rights songs etc.


Nafer believes that the struggle of African-Americans against discrimination is mirrored by that his of own community. "Black people in America were oppressed for hundreds of years - that's why we feel connected to this music."
DAM centers on other issues familiar to hip-hop fans around the world, including drug-related violence. "Our city, Lod, is considered the biggest drug market in the Middle East. You can get everything here - including weed and cocaine," says Nafer. From time to time, police arrest drug dealers in the mixed Jewish and Arab city of Lod, hoping such measures would weaken the city's thriving drug industry.

Despite not having a formal recording contract, DAM's 2001 single Man Irhabi? - Who's the terrorist? - was downloaded more than a million times from an Arabic hip-hop website. The group has also delivered their message outside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories on four European tours. Their live performance features images of Israeli soldiers clashing with stone-throwing Palestinian youths.

DAM's latest single is in Hebrew and they are hoping they can bring the Palestinian message to an Israeli audience. "Arabs already know how they live - we have to educate Israelis on what's going on."

In the meantime, DAM is not the only rapper expressing ideas on the Mid-East conflict. DAM's polar opposite, well-known Israeli rapper MC Subliminal has developed his style by adopting the 'bling' image of gold jewelry and fast cars of American rappers, with a unique addition and touch of Israeli nationalism. As a self-described “right-winger”, he is never pictured without his Star of David jewelry, and often expresses his admiration for the army and police. "It's a war of words," he has told a BBC radio documentary. "And I'm on a mission to let the world know our side of the story."

One lyric from his last CD described Israel as "still dangling like a cigarette in Arafat's mouth". Subliminal often calls for unity among Israel's politicians and has ridiculed left-wingers, describing them as "not really for us". His message has proved popular with Israelis in the shaky atmosphere of the current Palestinian Intifada.

Many miles away, in the United States, rapper Will Youmans appears determined to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well. During the day, he teaches political science at a college, but at night, he raps away, telling a story of prejudice that dates back to his mother’s experience in the Middle East and his childhood in the US.

Youmans, 26, is known onstage as the Iron Sheik. He is a Palestinian American rapper, part of a trend of young Palestinians using hip-hop and rap to express their frustrations and ideas. Faced with two Americas, white and black, many young Palestinians in the US now identify more with the latter.

"Whether in Dearborn or in the sticks, I was always dealing with racist pr -- ," raps Youmans in a song called "Growing Up." "I remember being called a camel jockey, other kids circled me and tried to mock me."

Youmans' performances are mostly at university rallies or Arab conferences. He'd like to reach a wider audience, but says his main goal is to increase awareness among his peers.

"I'm trying to educate those who don't know [about Palestinians], but do know about imperialism, colonialism and so on," says Youmans. "At the same time, I also want Arab Americans to learn their history, the history of the Palestinian people - the politics - and to gain a view that it's cool to be political, it's OK to speak your mind and speak truth to power," he says, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

"Olive Trees" is Youmans' lyrical history of Israel and the Palestinians. It begins, "Trouble began before 1948, when Zionists founded the Israeli state. Zionism called for a Jewish homeland, but they picked Palestine as a land with no man. One major flaw with all of this: They forgot the indigenous populace!" "Olive Trees" ends by comparing the Palestinians' situation in the occupied territories to that of American Indians, "As a Palestinian, feel more like an Indian, driven into reservations, living under occupation, as a shattered nation, a Western creation."

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