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Hip-hop and the Palestinians

More than a decade after forming, Palestinian hip-hop pioneer, DAM, continues fight for freedom.

Palestinian hip hop 2011 10 17Enlarge
Tamer Nafar, Suhell Nafar, and Mahmoud Jreri of DAM, the first Palestinian hip-hop crew and among the first to rap in Arabic, have been hailed as the soundtrack of Palestinian resistance. (DAM/Courtesy)

TEL AVIV, Israel — In 1970, over a steady drumbeat and the slow stream of a saxophone, the late Gil Scott-Heron said six immortal words and helped kick-start a genre later known as rap: “The revolution will not be televised.”

Thousands of tracks and two decades later, Public Enemy frontrunner Chuck D was calling rap music the CNN of urban youth in America.

Now, Tamer Nafar, lead singer of the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, says that, “Rap is CNN for us, the Palestinian people. In every village, in every town, in every city — in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank — people are doing hip-hop.”

It all started in the mid-1990s, when Tamer Nafar, then a teenager, started watching music videos by the late American rap legend Tupac. What he saw on the screen — the grimy, crime-ridden streets of Los Angeles — looked all too familiar: it looked like home.

Tamer hails from Lod, Israel’s most notorious ghetto; and though only a 20-minute drive from the tree-lined boulevards of Tel Aviv, the area’s narrow, gray streets — lined with graffiti, broken glass, and crumbling houses — couldn’t seem farther. Safety was a luxury foreign to Lod, and during Tamer’s childhood, neighborhood stabbings were routine and shootings were on the rise.

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But it wasn’t just the poverty and violence that Tamer recognized in Tupac’s lyrics, it was also the discrimination and racism. Both were minorities living among a majority, Tupac as an African-American in what he called “A White Man’s World” and Tamer as a Palestinian in Israel.

Listening to the music, Tamer began to see rap as a way to resist the tough reality of where he lived. He started writing, throwing down beats, and telling his family and friends that he wanted to be a rapper.

“They thought I was joking,” said Tamer, today a wiry 32-year-old with a sharp tongue and a wit to match. “And, I kind of thought I was joking, too.”

A couple of years later, however, he had become serious and was performing solo in the then small but burgeoning Israeli rap scene, making a name for himself and even sharing the stage with Jewish Israeli artists.

“It was a family scene,” he said. “But it wasn’t political. It was for nice things like peace and all that shit. But it wasn’t about reality.”

In 1999, Tamer’s younger brother Suhell and their friend Mahmoud Jreri, also from Lod, got on the hip-hop bandwagon, and the three started DAM — which means eternity in Arabic, blood in Hebrew, and stands for “Da Arabian MCs” in English. The first Palestinian rap crew and among the trailblazers of early Arab rap, DAM overlaid hip-hop beats with Arabic melodies, producing what sounded like a fresh take on 90s gangster rap, with lyrics that brought their music back to the genre’s 1970’s roots: protest.

“We opened our mouths,” Suhell said, “we got with reality” — and it wasn’t a pretty picture. The Second Intifada erupted in September 2000 and violence between Israelis and Palestinians rose to heights unseen in years — claiming, by some estimates, thousands of Palestinian and Israeli lives.

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Racism between the two groups was as vicious as ever and DAM had something to say about it. Taking a line from American rapper DMX, Tamer explained, “We wanted to tell Israelis, ‘walk in our shoes, and you’ll hurt your feet.’” Arming themselves with words, DAM called for people to walk in the Palestinians’ shoes before judging the rock-throwing youth of the uprising.

In 2000, they released their first single “Innocent Criminals,” recorded in Hebrew over the beat of Tupac’s “Hail Mary.” And a few months later came DAM’s big break, “Mein Erhabi” (Who is the terrorist?). The lyrics, rapped in Arabic, were the kind rarely heard in popular culture at the time:

You jump to say
"You let small children throw stones!
Don’t they have parents to keep them at home?"
You must have forgotten you buried our parents under the rubble of our homes
And now while my agony is so immense
You call me a terrorist?

Palestinians went wild with praise and some Israelis went wild with rage, accusing DAM of supporting