December 6, 2007
Palestinian rappers infuse poetry with politics
"Our music is not about coexistence," said Tamer Nafar, the self-assured leader of Palestinian hip-hop group DAM. "There's a few steps that come before peace." |
Nafar, 27, addressed an audience of roughly 200 people during "Poetry of Peace," a hip-hop and cultural jam benefit for the Levantine Cultural Center at USC's Bovard Auditorium on Nov. 17.
The Arab Israeli trio, whose name is short for Da Arabian MCs, is generating significant buzz in Israel and Europe for their smooth rapping skills and biting political lyrics. DAM also translates as "blood" in Hebrew and Arabic.
"We Palestinians don't really exist, so how can we talk about coexistence?" he asked.
The audience, primarily of Middle Eastern descent, roared in enthusiastic agreement.
"You can't take my land," Nafar continued, "and then say let's live together." More applause followed.
"Remove your hand from my freedom!"
The crowd got out of their chairs, clapping vigorously.
Despite the energy, turnout for the performance was relatively low, considering the venue holds more than 1,200 and DAM has typically drawn large audiences in Europe and the Middle East.
DAM's Nafar; his brother, Suhell, 23, and their childhood friend, Mahmoud Jreri, 24, are from Lod, a run-down suburb of Tel Aviv notorious for rampant drug trafficking. For the past eight years, the three have collaborated on rap songs echoing their angst-ridden lives: "I Don't Have Freedom," "I Was Born Here" (video below), and "Who's the Terrorist?" are just a few of their provocative titles.
Rapping almost exclusively in Arabic, DAM has garnered a large and passionate following in Europe, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Their aggressive energy, sophisticated blend of Eastern and Western music and defiant lyrics have inspired a beleaguered generation that grew up in the shadows of the second intifada: bulldozed houses, air raids, civil war and the building of the wall.
DAM's mission is to change that. They want to inform their audiences of the struggle on the streets of cities like Lod and Ramallah -- the human struggle, not the political battles covered in the news.
DAM's 2003 hit. "Min Erhabi?" ("Who's the Terrorist?"), is something akin to a Palestinian street anthem and has been viewed and downloaded more than 2 million times. Exploding with rage, the song is still considered their signature track:
You're a democracy?Sheava Rahimi, 24, was blown away by DAM's impassioned performance at USC. An American of Persian Muslim descent, Rahimi does not speak Arabic and therefore could not understand the words to any of DAM's songs. Nevertheless, she said she could feel what they were saying.
"They were incredibly inspiring," Rahimi said. "I've never seen such energy and ... I can't even think of the right word for it -- drive."
"Poetry of Peace" was the first time Rahimi had ever attended an event organized by the Levantine Cultural Center, which strives to promote cross-cultural dialogue and understanding among Middle Eastern cultures.
"There was a definite purpose to the show," she said. "It rang with the message of peace. It left a strong impression on me."
However, not everyone in the audience was pleased with the show's perceived message. Jordan Elgrably, one of the founders of the Levantine Cultural Center and an active board member, said he received complaints from Persian Jewish attendees that the show was too political.
"The very nature of Palestinian culture is very political," Elgrably said. "Anytime you deal with a minority culture -- and the Palestinians are considered a minority in Israel -- it will have a political feel. We're scratching our heads over how we can do what we do and not offend too many people."
A pan-cultural, inclusive approach is what the Levantine Center typically aims for, although a Jewish Israeli presence was markedly absent from the culture jam, which featured Lebanese, Syrian, Iranian and Palestinian performers.
"We definitely missed out on something by not having an Israeli performance," said Elgrably, who comes from a Moroccan Jewish family.
He added, "Whenever DAM is invited to perform, it frequently happens that because they're Palestinians, there is almost always an Israeli counterpart to balance them out. It's as if they can't stand on their own; they have to have an Israeli equivalent to legitimize them."
Elgrably booked the group on the recommendation of Raya Meddine, a statuesque Lebanese American actress who served as the event's spirited host.
In California for only two days, DAM had performed at Stanford and Chapman Universities before finishing off their tour in downtown Los Angeles.
Levantine Center board member Nile El-Wardani, who picked up the three rappers, their Jewish Israeli DJ and their French manager at LAX, said everyone was professional and polite. She added that the group was disappointed with the small crowd.
"They're used to performing in front of huge audiences in Europe, and they asked me, 'Why do you think people didn't come?'" El-Wardani said. "I told them that it's hard to put on any show that is Palestinian because people don't understand what's going on in Palestine."