The next song is very, very deep, but if I want to translate it, it’s fuck the police.” So Da Arabian Mc’s (DAM) introduced one of their final songs on Thursday.
They come to the United States with a backdrop of dismal Israeli-Palestinain relations. Negotiations have stalled, the two sides have engaged in everything from skirmishes to all out war for the past 65 years. With right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still in power and refusing to dismantle West Bank settlements and the terrorist group Hamas still regularly firing rockets into Israel, many believe there is little hope for a permanent peace between the two groups.
And so DAM comes to America. The Palestinian hip-hop group, which played in the Frist Multipurpose Room (did you ever think you’d hear Palestinian rap in the Frist Multipurpose Room?) on Monday April 1st, consists of two brothers, Tamer and Suhell Nafar, and Mahmoud Jreri. Founded in the late 1990s in Lyd (Lod), a city 15 minutes from Tel-Aviv, the group is the first Palestinian rap group to tour the United States.
The crowd was small but enthusiastic. My Arabic teacher was there along with many students and people from outside the University community. Despite having played for much larger crowds around the world, DAM engaged the crowd as enthusiastically as they would any. Jumping around the stage, they frequently asked the audience to shout things like “Ana Mish Ka-yer,” or “I am not a traitor,” in their songs. While introducing their songs in English and spontaneously addressing the audience in English mid-song, they rapped and sang primarily in Arabic. But the crowd didn’t seem to care. Despite content mostly incomprehensible to the American audience, middle-aged women moved their hips and students in the front jumped around so much a mosh pit seemed inevitable. The closest to a mosh pit was a dubke, an Arabic folk dance, led by a DAM member who came down into the audience at the show’s close.
The audience’s enthusiasm was likely due to the DAM’s Western personality combined with a passionate political message, which would be clear even if they rapped every song in Pig Latin instead of Arabic. DAM charges their music with modern melodies and lyrics. While their songs feature instrumental backgrounds with a distinctly Middle Eastern tone and feel, they are a modern rap group, complete with words like “fuck” and “asshole.” When they asked the audience to call something sounding like “Erich George,” roughly translating to “Bull shit!” on cue in the middle of the song, the audience called it when DAM said, “We are all virgins!”
Some might expect the influence of conservative Islam in their music, but it is nowhere to be found. Their DJ, who opened the show, played 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” over Near Eastern melodies. Near Eastern music contains microtones beyond the 12 tones common to Western music, and these microtones give it its exotic feel. The combination of Western-influenced rap and Near Eastern melodies encapsulate what the group itself does; it combines the influences of the two worlds, the traditional and the new, to form politically conscious music.
Politically, nationalism, not Islamism, motivates DAM. They want the Israeli occupation to end and stand for a just Palestinian state; this idea is not directly connected to Islam. More than just socially conscious, their music is fundamentally political. They perform on behalf of the Palestinian people when they play songs that translate roughly to “fuck the police” with videos of police breaking up protests, a common scene in occupied Palestine.
We also called “Bull shit!” in response to their highly political lines. At one point, they played a recording of President Obama saying, “I believe then and I believe now that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own.” The audience called that bull shit just as they called the claim that DAM’s members were all virgins. DAM’s music pushes back not only against the Israeli occupation of Palestine but also against the weak, phony support provided to Palestine by the United States government.
On a lighter note, they played one song in English called “I’m in Love with a Jew” in which they sarcastically narrated the story of an Arab man falling in love with a Jewish woman in an elevator. While most of DAM’s songs focus on the occupation and the injustice facing Palestinians, this one is more comedic, and members of the crowd, perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the blunt political incorrectness, chuckled while looking nervously at each other.
Despite being, by and large, a voice for social and political justice, DAM sings about their personal lives too. In one of their songs they played in Arabic, the graphic behind the stage said, “Came from the hood, straight to the stage.” While DAM’s music has a Middle Eastern message and melodic inclination, Western rap’s influence is evident. We hear American rappers and hip-hop artists singing and rapping about themselves and their careers all too often. DAM’s outfits, with t-shirts and baggy jeans hanging off their asses, are strikingly Western, and they cultivate the slightly egocentric, thug-like personality found in American rap and hip-hop artists as well. Their music combines Western artistic influences with a political message geographically specific to the Middle East.
While Western dress remained throughout, DAM’s more personal songs are the exception, not the norm, and their impact is as socio-political as it is artistic. Videos of their concerts for huge outdoor crowds in Palestine preceded the show. Palestinians clearly admire the group. Before the show began, a documentary featuring the group and other Palestinian rap groups played on the projector behind the stage. The main theme, or even argument, put forth by the film was that these rappers gave hope to many Palestinian children and helped further the Palestinian cause by making their microphone a microphone for the Palestinian cause.
Whether you’re pro-Israel or pro-Palestine or pro-not caring, it’s hard to deny that the Palestinian people are oppressed. “By whom?” is a question for another article. Outside the Middle East, the news media tends to focus on the political issues, from the drawing of borders to the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama. DAM adds a human voice and face to the discussion of the occupation and conflict. They highlight a real but marginalized issue: the plight, poverty, and marginalization of the Palestinian people and their voice.
Perhaps the most powerful thing they said was that “peace will happen when you handcuff the war criminals.” They may make listeners laugh with songs about Arabs falling in love with Jews, but powerful lines like that one will force any audience to think while they dance. Their sound is meaningful, controversial and powerful—if only they had ears in the Knesset!