Palestinian hip-hop inspires a different kind of political party

Boston Globe, November 13, 2011

So a woman and a man enter an elevator. She is Israeli, he is Palestinian; she is going up, he is going down. But as it turns out, no one is going anywhere. The elevator is stuck. While they wait for something to happen, they talk.

That’s the premise of a new song in English that the pioneering Palestinian hip-hop trio DAM, who usually rap in Arabic and occasionally in Hebrew, are trying out on their current US visit. The tour brings them, together with British-Palestinian MC Shadia Mansour and American guests including M-1 of the activist duo Dead Prez, to the Middle East in Cambridge tonight.

“It’s a funny song, a sarcastic song about the struggle in Palestine,” says Tamer Nafar, who makes up DAM with his brother Suhell and Mahmoud Jreri. “It’s me and this beautiful woman, and we get to talk. It’s a love story; the delivery is not political at all.”

But the metaphor is clear. “We really are stuck in this stinking situation,” Nafar says. “But they are going up and we are going down. They have their country and their existence, and we don’t have ours.”

Balancing message and entertainment, reality and humor, has been a DAM specialty since the group formed in 1999, a precursor to the wave of hip-hop acts that have sprouted more recently not only in Israel and Palestine but across the Arab world, many coming to notice in the recent upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

“Someone said our show is like the son of Chuck D and `South Park’,” Nafar says. “We talk to the crowd, we have fun. People laugh. You don’t see people waving flags at our shows, all the expected stuff. But of course we deliver the message as well.”

You don’t need to know Arabic; watch the videos for some of DAM’s songs and the images of walls, checkpoints, bulldozers, settlements, cleared olive groves, refugees, and rubble make the message plain.

The members of DAM grew up in and are still living in what Nafar calls the “Arab ghettos” of Lod, in Israel. They are featured in a 2008 documentary on Palestinian rap, “Slingshot Hip-Hop,” and they welcome visits by foreign artists – Nafar cites Erykah Badu as a recent guest.

“They’re just legends out there. They bring that iconic force, and they’re wonderful showmen,” says Mazzi, an Iranian-born MC from New Jersey who appears on tonight’s bill. Most recently, Mazzi joined Mansour, M-1, British rapper Lowkey, and other MCs and DJs on a 10-day tour performing and holding workshops with youth in Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, and Hebron.

That visit is the subject of another documentary, “Hip Hop Is Bigger Than the Occupation,” which screens tonight at MIT. For Mazzi, who has made four visits to the region and has also met with Israeli artists, this trip was especially eye-opening.

“There’s a million stories, bro,” Mazzi says. One example: One day, he says, Israeli soldiers blockaded the village they were staying in all day, lobbing tear gas and preventing exit and entry. That night, the artists performed in a refugee camp nearby.

“I had to take that bottled-up aggression and channel it into the energy of a show,” Mazzi says. “At the end I ran into the crowd and they just lifted me on their shoulders. It was total mayhem in a beautiful artistic way – one of the illest shows I’ve had.”

For the British-raised Mansour, a charismatic performer who is as gifted a singer as an MC, hip-hop has similarly provided a means of both expression and catharsis.

“I used to turn to hip-hop to take out my frustrations and find comfort in expressing myself freely, without being judged,” Mansour says. “Now I turn to hip-hop as a tool to deliver my frustration.”

Like DAM, Mansour, who raps in Arabic and is finishing her debut album, has a strong presence online, with numerous videos on YouTube. One, featuring an English verse by M-1, addresses the way the keffiyeh – the traditional Palestinian scarf – became a hip international fashion item.

“The scarf has definitely been culturally hijacked,” Mansour says, but she sees a benefit too, so long as its roots are recognized. “I was happy to see all types of people wear the keffiyeh, because I am sure there are people who do not want to see its popularity grow for what it symbolizes.”

Politics, outrage, advocacy, are inevitably on the menu when a group of Palestinian performers and their allies get together on stage. But so are fashion, love songs, and party tunes, says Nafar of DAM.

“Yes, we suffer, but in between the suffering I do have a few drinks, I go out dancing, I talk about that as well,” Nafar says. “We don’t believe in Palestine; we believe in freedom in general – when it comes to sex, to studies, to art, to growing your hair, wearing whatever you want. We believe in the idea of freedom of expression.”

And what about that love song set in the stalled elevator – does it have a happy ending?

Nafar hesitates a moment before offering an answer. “It doesn’t have an ending,” he says. “I haven’t finished the third verse.”