By Taleed El-Sabawi
“Rap music is the most visible form of African American cultural expression in contemporary society.” 1 Yet, as hip hop’s popularity continues to grow, it ceases to be solely a means of creating African American identity. Scholar Halifu Osumare in his article “Beats Streets in the Global Hood: Connective marginalities of the hip hop globe” argues that hip hop as “an extension of African American popular culture” has become “a global signifier for many forms of marginalizations.” Osumare continues to argue that in this case “‘blackness and its perceived status is implicated as a global signifier for many forms of marginalization.” 2 Osumare’s theory can be exemplified in the film Commitments, in which the main character, Jimmy Rabbitte, maintains that the reason many European minority groups identify with African American music is that they can empathize with the oppression of blacks. “‘The Irish are the blacks of Europe, and the Northsiders are the black of Dublin,” cries Jimmy. “So say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!”3 The immense growth of Palestinian hip hop over the last seven years is due greatly to this equating “blackness” to “marginalization.” Hip hop has historically provided a voice for the silenced minorities and these roots have allowed for its rhythmic flows to transgress many nations’ borders, providing a global musical outlet for the marginalized. Due to the constant social and political struggle confronting Palestinians and Palestinian Americans, many of their youth have used hip hop as a means of creating an identity and providing a peaceful outlet for their political dissent.
Although hip hop was officially born in the 1970’s, its beginnings date back to the 1920’s. During the 1920’s, many Blacks migrated from the South to the North and from the countryside to the city. Due to the migration, Black urban areas expanded. In these growing urban areas, a “street culture” evolved and along with it came an “alternative” economy. This alternative economy was fueled by drugs and prostitution. While sitting on the street corners waiting for “work,” many Blacks engaged in a type of verbal wordplay called “signifyin” in order to pass the time. Signifyin was used to speak out against the White mainstream, but due to the dangers of the time, the signifiers spoke in codes. For example, when “the object of derision was the mother figure,” mother was a code for the White mainstream. So in other words, when signifiers were dissin’ each other’s mammas they were really speaking out against white mainstream. Soon this verbal wordplay began to rhyme, and battles sprung up allowing signifiers to compete over whose rhymes were the best. Overall, signifyin was an “extremely transgressive” form of wordplay that involved “a lot of cursing” and was “excessively focused on sex and codified language.” 4
It was in the 1970’s that signifyin manifested itself into hip hop. “America’s dark side” began craving for music that fit its needs. “America’s dark side is comprised of those who don’t fit neatly into official history – unneeded workers and uneducated youth whose contact with the American government is usually limited to mean-spirited policing, their filthy, abandoned neighborhoods covered up by graffiti.”5 The Bronx, New York, hip hop’s birthplace, was home to such “darkness.” It was a borough with a drug problem, a gang problem, and an economic problem. Despite its social ills, out of the Bronx emerged a “cauldron of vibrant, unnoticed, and quite visionary creativity born of its racial mix and its relative isolation.”6 In this environment, with the first flows of hip hop greats Cool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and African Bambaataa grew hip hop music and hip hop culture.
So how does a seemingly American form of music, rooted in American legacies of slavery and urban blight, extend to reach across the world? The information age has made it so that the idea of a “global virtual reality” has become a “household phenomenon.” The result of such globalization has resulted in a “global oriented, youth,” pop culture. 7 As a prominent world power, the United States’ influence on this global culture is immense. Because Black culture is at the center of American culture, it has become a large part of the global culture as well. Moreover, what has added to hip hop’s global appeal is its identification with a “historically marginalized status.”8 With groups like Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest who have historically “spread Afrocentric, probing, and street-wise raps that inculcated messages of social consciousness globally,” youth worldwide are given a context in which to explore their own marginalization and oppression.9 Ethnomusicologist David Badagnani states that “many other oppressed or minority people around the world have recognized a very strong parallel between their social situation to that of the black American…Any time people do rap in any foreign countries they have an acknowledged indebtedness to black-American culture.”10
“So say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!”
Palestinian hip hop is used as a political outlet for Palestinian youth. “Young Israeli Arabs are making use of political rap to express the alienation they feel living in the minority in a majority Jewish society.”11 Hip hop has grown in Palestine in the last seven years as a result of the increasing unrest and violence. Liron Te’eni, Israeli DJ, states that “recently as the situation got worse, as things got harder and life got harder, people needed to reflect this reality in their songs.”12 Music writer Sagi Bin-hun explains that hip hop created a “revolution because before it, Israeli music wasn’t honest. It was escapist music.” Hip hop became the “CNN of the people.”13 It has “provided a political platform for those who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice.”14 Rather than adopt hip hop as a form of Americanization, Palestinian hip hop artists have been attracted to the “black marginality” of hip hop. “My reality is hip hop,” elaborates Palestinian hip hop artist Nafer, hailing from the city of Lud. “I listened to the lyrics and felt they were describing me, my situation. You can exchange the word ‘nigger’ with ‘Palestinian’. Lud is the ghetto, the biggest crime and drug center in the Middle East. When I heard Tupac sing ‘It’s a White Man’s World’, I decided to take hip hop seriously.” 15
For many of these Palestinian hip hop artists, hip hop is not only used as political expression but a form of peaceful dissent. Palestinian youths’ lives are plagued by violent tensions between the two warring nations that manifest themselves in physical aggression. Hip hop has become a “form of creative nonviolent resistance against the military occupation,” where violent resistance and violent repression are the norm. According to documentarian Jacqueline Sacalloum, “hip hop has become an expression of Palestinian identity in the face of Israeli oppression”16, and it provides “a bridge to understanding the Palestinian struggle as well as highlighting the way creative resistance serves not only as a powerful educational tool but also as a source of strength and community” 17. Also, “Music can be a good weapon,” explains Palestinian hip hop artist Tamer. 18
An example of a group who has armed itself with its lyrics is DAM, a trio of rappers, Tamer Nafer, Suhell Nafer, and Mahmud Jiery, who hail from Ramleh. The group’s name means blood in both Arabic and Hebrew and is also associated with the English curse word. DAM blends the influences of 2pac and Mos Def’s American hip hop flavor with the traditional Arabic music greats, George Wasouf and Fairuz.19 DAM “sing about the racism and living as third class citizens, police brutality , and wanting to be united with all Arabs around the world.”20 In songs such as “Who’s the Real Terrorist?,” DAM spit powerful lyrics in Arabic in attempt to raise political awareness of the Palestinian struggle. Documentarian Jacqueline Sacalloum produced a highly politicized music video for DAM’s song “Who’s the Real Terrorist?.” But unlike mainstream music videos, DAM’s short documentary style video did not include scantily clad women or enormous diamond chains. The video was a blend of disturbing footage that showcased acts of violence against Palestinian people and a provocative track that begged the viewer to question who the real terrorists were.
“Who’s the Real Terrorist?”
MP3:Stream or Download
For more songs from DAM, visit their website.
Contrasting with DAM’s political message is Israeli hip hop sensation Subliminal. Shimoni, a.k.a. Subliminal, represents right-wing Israel. “Subliminal’s uncompromising politics and violent undertones of some of his songs” have caused controversy in the Jewish community. His violent lyrics have pushed many Israeli parents to ban Subliminal’s albums from their households. In his song “Bottomless Pit,” he warns an “unnamed enemy” that anyone who “messes with” him “ends up in a coffin.” 21 As the song continues Subliminal brags about shooting two brothers on the street corner. He is what the LA Times calls the Israeli version of “gangsta rap” except his “beef” is not with an opposing gang from around the way, but rather a group that is literally on the opposite sides of the enemy lines — the Palestinian people.22
In reality, political Israeli hip hop grew out of a need to battle Palestinian hip hop, and the animosity between the two groups sprouted from their ideological differences. “Imagine that at the time Public Enemy came out, another group of white musicians called simply Public started rapping about how great things were, supporting the discrimination against Blacks,” Nafer states in providing a metaphorical example for the rise of Israeli hip hop. Channels of Rage, a documentary directed by Anat Halachmi, spotlights the battle between the leftist Nafer and the rightist, Jewish nationalist Subliminal.23 At least this lyrical war is being fought with battles and not with blows.
At the same time that Palestinian hip hop emerged abroad, Arab American hip hop artists, specifically Palestinian American hip hop artists, began to utilize their lyrical flows to voice the minority perspective in hip hop’s birthplace. “It’s important to promote awareness of what’s going down in Palestine from a Palestinian perspective,” explains Arab American rapper Jojoboy.24 Like their counterparts in the Middle East, Arab American hip hop artists, such as Philistines, Iron Sheik, Juna, Furious, and DJK-Salaam, use the mic to address Arab issues both in the United States and abroad.25 Many of these rappers are not thugs, but rather graduates from institutions like University of California at Berkeley and George Washington University, who use witty lines and political jargon in order to present the minority’s view to mainstream society.26 Moreover, “the overtly politicized messages of Arab American rappers…show a connection with rap music’s tradition of challenging the status quo.”27
“Music can be a good weapon.”
One Arab American rapper who is known specifically for his political style is Iron Sheik. Will Youmans, a.k.a. Iron Sheik, a Palestinian American Dearborn native is leading the “pack…of underground politicized Arab American rappers and MC’s.”28 His name, Iron Sheik, was derived from the 1980 Iranian World Wrestling Federation star who was known for his depiction of Arabs as the stereotypical Middle Eastern villain. In his use of the name, Youmans hoped to make a statement against all such stereotypes and redefine what the name stood for. Like DAM, Youmans was influenced by Arabic classics, Um Kulthum, Fairouz, and Abdel Halim Hafez, and by hip hop greats like Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Although, he has been rapping since his youth, the Sheik says he is an “‘activist first, then an MC. I got back into producing hip hop as an alternative way to communicate the messages and ideas I work with.” 29 According to the Sheik, hip hop is a great platform to educate politically because youth are “seduced by the rap industry.”30 So the Sheik delivers witty messages laced with smooth tracks in songs like “Low Expectations” in which he rhymes:
We got a joke as a President, but I can’t laugh
that fool of a man’s behind a bloodbath
We got a joke of a President leading this nation
MP3:Stream or Download
For more songs from Iron Sheik, visit his website.
But even with their alluring beats and provocative tone, are the Sheik’s political messages being heard by the public? Arab American rappers have yet to be fully accepted into hip hop mainstream, let alone overall American mainstream. “It’s an underground thing that’s happening. Most people that are knowledgeable about hip hop couldn’t name an Arab hip hop artist,” admits Salloum. “There really isn’t a strong Palestinian hip hop movement in the States.”31 Most Arab American rappers are signed on to independent labels and distribute their CD’s at Arab American businesses or on the internet.32 Yet, some progress is being made with artists like Suhier Hammad. Suhier Hammad is a poetess/rapper and Palestinian refugee who was raised in Brooklyn. She “consistently focuses on a sense of deprivation and discrimination and a message of political and social activism and empowerment.” 33 Hammad recently performed at Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam’s Rap Unplugged, which is meant to be a “platform for minority and marginalized voices.”34 Through her performance on Def Poetry Jam, Hammad was able to reach a large public audience, and has begun taking strides to reach the hip hop mainstream. Also, she has given the public a glimpse of hip hop’s international role as a voice of the downtrodden. “Hip hop has a tradition of…imparting your parents’ historical legacy when that history has been marginalized in schools and in the mainstream. I understand the Palestinian diasporic situation better through hip hop,” explains Hammad. 35
Although many may argue that in the United States hip hop has lost its political zeal and its authenticity, globally hip hop has stayed true to its roots. The spirit of the signifiers spittin’ codified rhymes to criticize the dominant culture can be found in youth from France to Palestine. Regardless of political hip hop’s popularity in the states, one cannot deny the growing power of hip hop as a global form of political protest. It is the codified language of the marginalized, the objectified, and the downtrodden. “‘The appeal of rap music parallels the appeal of Islam around the world,” comments Professor Jonathan Scott, of Borough of Manhattan Community College. “Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion of the downtrodden. Rap grows so fast because it is the music of the downtrodden. Rap signifies rebellion – to rap is to say I’m against powers that be. Arab Americans are tapping into that to reject their marginalization by society.” 36 Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Palestinian youth have specifically chosen hip hop to represent their plight, and in doing so they align themselves with the “blacks” around the world. As “‘the Irish are the blacks of Europe, and the Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin,” the Palestinians are the “blacks” of Israel. “So say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!” 37
About the Author:
Taleed El-Sabawi was born in Miami, Florida, but has lived much of her life in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is currently a junior enrolled in the psychology department here at the University of Southern California. She hopes to graduate a year early and attend a graduate school in developmental psychology. Her aim is to attain a Ph.D. and become a developmental psychologist focusing on working with foster children. Although academically psychology is her calling, writing is her passion.
1Todd Boyd. Am I Black Enough for You? . Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana, University Press, 1997. p. 38
2Hayloft Osumare. “Beat streets in the global hood: Connective marginalities of the hip hop globe.” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures. Bowling Green: Spring 2001. Vol. 24, Iss. ½; pg. 172.
3Todd Boyd. p. 41.
4Todd Boyd. Lecture notes. October 21, 2004.
5George Nelson. Hip Hop America. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1998. p. 10.
6George Nelson. p. 10.
7Hayloft Osumare. p. 2.
8Hayloft Osumare. p. 3.
9Hayloft Osumare. p. 2.
10Hayloft Osumare. p. 5. It is important to note that hip hop’s global appeal is not always a result of its ability to cater itself to the politically marginalized. Osumare points out that Japan adopted hip hop simply for the purpose of Americanization and the emergence of hip hop in Russia began as a “cool” youth trend as well.
11Joshua Mitnick. “Israeli hip hop takes Mideast politics down to street level.” p.1. USA Today. Mclean, Va: Nov. 7, 2003. pg.A.11.
12Liel Leibovitz. “Hip-Hop with a Hebrew flow.” p.3. The New York Jewish Week. New York, NY: Jun 25, 2005. Vol. 217, Iss.4, pg. 28.
13Joshua Mitnick. p. 1.
14Danny Hakim. “Drawing a Rap Refrain From a U.N. Resolution.” p.2. The New York Times. New York, NY: Jul 8,2004. pg. E.1.
15Liel Leibovitz. p. 2.
16″Hip Hop film looks at Palestinian music scene.” The Arab American News. Dearborn, Mi: Jul 9, 2004. Vol. 20, Iss 60; pg. 8.
17Danny Hakim. p. 3.
18Ali Jaafar. “The DAM breaks: Hip-hop meets the Intifada.” p.2. Variety. New Work: Dec 14, 2003. Vol. 393, Iss. 4;pg. 10
19Ali Jaafar. p. 2.
20Danny Hakim. p. 2.
21Jonathan M. Katz. “Israelis polarized over rapper; Subliminal says his right-wing Hebrew hip-hop message is national pride, but some parents condemn the violence in his lyrics.” p.2. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Dec. 8, 2003. Pg. E .
22Jonathan M. Katz. p. 2.
23Jonathan M. Katz. p. 2.
24Christopher Farah. “Beyond Bling Bling.” p.4. The Jerusalem Report. Jerusalem: May 31, 2004. pg. 34.
25Christopher Farah. p. 3.
26Christopher Farah. p. 5.
27Christopher Farah. p. 3.
28Olivia Snaije. “Palestinian American seduces youth with hip hop, political lyrics.” Daily Star. San Francisco, Calif. p.1.
29Olivia Snaije. p. 1.
30Olivia Snaije. p. 1.
31Danny Hakim. p. 2.
32Christopher Farah. p. 4.
33Christopher Farah. p. 2.
34Christoper Farah. p. 1.
35Christoper Farah. p. 1.
36Christoper Farah. p. 3.
37Todd Boyd. p. 4.