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(photo credit: Courtesy )
The beat might be American, the message might convey in rapid vernacular the frustrations of those on the street, but in these hip-hop tunes, the lyrics are all in Arabic.
On Thursday night, 50 groups and soloists from the West Bank and Gaza gathered to participate in HipHopKom, the first Palestinian hip-hop competition, aimed at selecting the best up and coming Palestinian rap group. The event was broadcast simultaneously in Gaza City and the West Bank city of Ramallah, with the participants in either city able to watch each other via video conferencing and projection.
The 16 finalists were selected by an international panel of judges, including Palestinian rapper, Shadia Mansour, from London, Zaki from Denmark, Mazzi from the New York group S.O.U.L. Purpose, and Suhel Nafar, one of the founders of Da Arabic MC (DAM), the pioneering and leading Palestinian rap group.
Wearing baggy clothes and baseball hats in a style that wouldn't look out of place in the rundown neighborhoods of New York or London, these artists may have dressed the same as other rappers, but they used the beat and the stage to voice objections all their own. In the shadow of the Israeli security barrier, climbing over the rubble, Rashed Al-Remawi, a member of the group Pikafi ('Enough is Enough') from El Bireh, said rap gave him the perfect way to protest Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
"We sing about our personal situation or about the political situation. We want to send a message to the world and to anyone who thinks that we, the Palestinians, are terrorists, and to show that Palestine is exactly the opposite," Al-Remawi told The Media Line.
His cousin and fellow rapper Mohammed Abu Ghosh said the competition provided a welcome platform to communicate their feelings to a wide audience. "It's very important because I was frustrated and I needed to convey my message," said Abu Ghosh. "When I sing rap I can pass on my message and a lot of people hear me. I can talk about what I want not just to one or two people but to a lot of people."
DAM has just returned from a 22-date tour of North America. Suhel Nafar, a member of the trio, said the spirit of hip-hop as a platform to voice grievances and influence young people seemed tailor-made for the Palestinians. "You don't wanna hear me singing opera," joked Nafar, as he waited in the dressing room at the Al-Qassaba Theater in Ramallah for the finals to begin. "A guy chasing a girl along the beach with a flower-it wasn't my reality. Our reality was us running away when the cops was trying to shoot us."
"We're not trying to be, 'hey we're hip-hop; we're gonna free Palestine; we're gonna bring all the refugees back'. We're realistic: it's harder than that. So we're just sparking the kids' minds so the youth won't be going to drugs or leaving school or doing bad things that will kill our cause or kill our resistance to kill our fighting and get our liberty at the end," said Nafar.
"You've gotta understand that you can't change the world but you've gotta spark the minds of the people that will change the world," he said.
But the political situation is not the only theme of protest. The youngest finalist in the competition, Sarouna Mshashe, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from east Jerusalem, said her lyrics ranged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the status of women in Arab society.
"I started doing it because I started seeing other hip-hop Palestinian bands coming from this area. I really got inspired that wow, hip-hop can be in Arabic - and they used it to express the things that we're going through here, just like they did in America," said Mshashe in an interview at Lycee Francaise in Jerusalem, where she studies.
"There's one song I sing about Gaza. There's one I sing about women's rights: how people view women in the society and in general in the world; how we don't have as much rights as men do, and in general the whole Palestinian issue," she said.
"The Palestinian issue is a very complicated issue and I thought that maybe we could explain to the world the other point of view, the other side of it. They don't see the things that we go through. I thought we could use hip-hop as a tool to actually show them the conditions that are actually going on, the things that we're actually going through day by day that nobody knows about," she said.
Lately, the increasing division, hostility and fighting between Hamas and Fatah have featured in the lyrics as well.
Hip-hop's roots can be traced to block parties in the Bronx in New York, where in the 1970s, African Americans and Puerto Ricans took the percussion breaks to hit funk and soul songs, 'sampled' them, added a bass-heavy beat and a performer chanted over them in a rhythmic tone to entertain and sound off his or her thoughts. Hip-hop grew in popularity and evolved during the 1980s and 1990s, becoming an outlet for dissatisfaction and a soap box for disenchanted youth and the frustrations they felt in the social, cultural and political environments of their surroundings.
The star guest among the judges at Thursday's competition was Mansour, an acclaimed Palestinian rapper who grew up in London. She said she was impressed by the new generation of hip-hop talent in the West Bank and Gaza.
"I'm seeing a lot of enthusiastic kids, a lot of inspirational kids take part," Mansour told The Media Line.
HipHopKom was part of Project Hip-hop Palestine, created by the Sabreen Association for Artistic Development in association with the Danish government. Five of the finalists performed in Gaza City, hooking up to the audience in Ramallah via videoconference until local Hamas officials shut down the show. Darg, a group from Gaza, were voted overall winners. They win the chance to record a CD and tour Denmark.
This exposure is sure to be a launch pad for success: DAM's popularity and international acknowledgment have been inspirational to both young Palestinians in the Middle East and their supporters all over the world. DAM's album 'Stop Selling Drugs' was released locally in 1998 and the controversial title track of their 2001 follow up album, 'Min Irhabi' (Who's the Terrorist?) was released on the net and more than 1 million people downloaded it within the first month. The song was released free with Rolling Stone magazine in France, where it became a 'street anthem', and other top artists, such as Manu Chao and Noir Desir featured the song in a compilation album.
DAM's Web site (http://www.dampalestine.com/main.html), featuring news, lyrics and interviews, gives an insight into the message the group is sending out to the Palestinian youth:
"Jews, Christians, Muslims,
None of these sides wants to understand the other,
Every side thinks they're better than the other,
Claiming that he's the only one going to heaven
Meanwhile making our lives hell.
But you're different from us, your heart is still pure,
So don't let our dirt touch it,
Keep asking for a life full of equality
And if someone asks you to hate, say no."