‘The mic is stronger than the gun’

Israeli-Palestinian Hip Hop Band Heartbeat: Jerusalem explores the power of music to build a mutual understanding.

Israeli-Palestinian hip hop band 311 (photo credit: heartbeatjerusalem.org)
Israeli-Palestinian hip hop band 311
(photo credit: heartbeatjerusalem.org)
Hanna Szekeres writes for No Camels.
An old Russian proverb says: “When the cannons roar, the muses stay silent.” This proverb might be true for Russia, but whoever said it obviously doesn’t know the complexities of the Middle East conflict. The conflict might be a constant in the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, but the periods of heightened tension come and go. And every time there is relative quiet, there are groups and people on both sides who try to pick up the pieces and form normal human relations.
One of these groups is Heartbeat: Jerusalem, founded by Aaron Shneyer in 2007, to create a space for young Palestinian and Israeli musicians to work together, guided by an international community of professional musicians and educators.
“We wanted to explore the power of music to build mutual understanding,” says Shneyer, who won a one-year MTV and Fulbright scholarship to help make music in the Middle East. The program began by bringing together 12 Israeli and Palestinian high school students from the ages of 14 to 18 for weekly musical encounters. The students are from various Palestinian and Israeli cities such as Ramallah, Haifa, Ashkelon, Hebron, Kadima, Beersheba, and Bethlehem.
“Music has been a strong tool for the young musicians to express their needs, fears, frustrations and hopes,” Shneyer tells NoCamels. “Unlike other mediums for dialogue, a song can easily be spread across the masses, far beyond the room where it was created,” she adds.
Heartbeat: Jerusalem is the first youth band with Palestinians and Israeli musicians that plays modern music. Other groups have been around that play classical music, but Shneyer says it is the modern sounds that will reach the ears and hearts of youths on both sides. Heartbeat’s music ranges from Israeli folk and funk to hip-hop as well as Arabic rap.
Moody, a 16-year-old Palestinian from Haifa says of the band: “I feel like when we’re doing music there’s no difference between us. And we are in the same mind and with the same goal. And that’s peace.”
Heartbeat has already released two full-length albums and the group held its debut performance on September 21, 2008, marking the UN’s International Day of Peace, at the YMCA Theatre in Jerusalem. The event was sponsored by the US Consulate of Jerusalem and brought together over 300 Israeli, Palestinian and international residents of Jerusalem.
In 2010, the band performed in a Jerusalem-Berlin hip hop exchange program that saw sixteen Israeli, Palestinian and German young musicians create music in Berlin and Jerusalem. And last December, the group received the annual prize from the organization “Europeans for Peace.” The European organization will fund Heartbeat’s next project: A “Hip Hopera” with Palestinian, Israeli, African, and German youth musicians. In 2012, the group will travel to Europe and the USA for performances.
Heartbeat’s most challenging time came during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza which started on December 27, 2008. “In the beginning of the conflict, fearing that it would become more and more difficult to meet, we sang our anthem ‘I am a Seed of Peace’ and then parted ways,” says Shneyer. “Throughout the month-long war, our group could not come together in person, but kept in touch online.”
“Facebook proved to be the greatest gift, as our ‘thread’ kept us in almost constant contact, providing space for dialogue on the situation, updates on personal relationships and lively discussions about our music. We asked the band members to write lyrics and music about what they were witnessing. A great deal of the music on the new album comes from this terribly dark period,” he adds.
But despite the unavoidable political discussions, the students try to keep the focus on their music. “Why talk politics?” asks one member. “Nothing ever changes and we’d just end up going home angry at each other.”
This winter Heartbeat: Jerusalem is going on a Music Tour called “the Mic is Stronger.” The tour will consist of presentations, performances and dialogue sessions held at high schools and community centers throughout Jewish and Arab communities.
“We want to help millions of people understand that they have a partner for peace on the other side,” explains Shneyer. “It’s no simple task. To get there we are sending our all-star band into their communities to share their music and experiences through performances and workshops.”
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