Rapping About Land and Identity
(Soundbite of song "Meen Erhabe")
DAM: (Singing in Arabic)
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
"I'm not the terrorist. You're the terrorist." That's the provocative lyric repeated over and over in the hit song by the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, which, in Arabic, means "eternity." It's an appropriate name for a group that raps about the fight over land and identity in Israel and the Palestinian territories, a conflict that's gone on for what feels to many like an eternity.
DAM is one of several groups profiled in a new documentary film called "Slingshot Hip-Hop," which debuted at Sundance in January, and was screened in New York earlier this week at the Museum of Modern Art. Palestinian-American director Jackie Salloum tells the story of a handful of young emcees scattered throughout Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, trying to overcome politics and partition to make their music.
Jackie Salloum and one of the artists in the film, named Abir(ph), stopped by the BPP studios the other day and talked with me about the project. What made you want to do this film?
Ms. JACKIE SALLOUM (Director, "Slingshot Hip-Hop"): Growing up in this country as an Arab-American was pretty challenging when I was younger because, you know, everything I saw on television was really negative. Everything I saw on film that depicted Arabs was negative. The news, and so I grew up - there was a point in my life, like in middle school, where I just wanted to fit in and I just didn't want to be an Arab because I thought, you know, it was a terrible thing.
And you know, my parents would always say, no, you should be proud of who you are, and you know, I didn't understand that at that time. I just wanted to be a regular American like everyone else. And then as I grew up, you know, I started to appreciate my culture and where they're from and so I decided, like you know, I don't like what's out there, so why don't I try doing something to change it too?
So, I started making artwork, and videos, and so when I heard about Palestinian hip-hop, I thought this was an amazing, beautiful form of resistance. And how often do you get to hear the Palestinians speak for themselves? How often do you see young Palestinians as humans on television? So, I thought it was really important to, you know, to bring that out as far as I could, and I thought film could do that.
MARTIN: I want to bring Abir into the conversation. You are one of the performers who was profiled in the film, and as I understand it you were cousins. You are cousins with the guys who comprise the group DAM.
Ms. ABIR (Palestinian Rapper): I'm Mahmoud's cousin and Tamer and Suhell are my best friends. I grew up with them.
MARTIN: How did they approach you when they first said, you know what, we think Abir could be part of our music? Did you have aspirations to be a musician, to be a singer?
Ms. ABIR: I always wanted to be a musician. I mean, like any other child you have big dreams of being famous and, you know, just being known, and I always wanted to do that. I always thought I have a nice voice, you know, to use, and they were already known. They were already halfway through with their music.
So, I was like, wow, this could be like, I'm starting from here. They started from scratch. Nobody knowing them, starting on their music, I'm going to be in a video all the way, and all of Israel is going to see me, so of course, I was like I will definitely do that!
MARTIN: So you were in their video, but they performed on television, and you were not allowed to go perform in that particular - at that particular event. There's a scene in the film that captures that. When you're actually watching them perform on TV. You had to stay at home and you're watching it. Let's listen to that.
(Soundbite of film "Slingshot Hip-Hop")
DAM: (Singing in Hebrew)
MARTIN: So, that's a scene where you're actually watching the performance that you should have been a part of?
Ms. ABIR: When they had a tour with this project and with this song, it was really hard for me to be in the audience, sitting like I'm part of the crowd, and my voice is being played. That was the hardest.
MARTIN: Explain why you couldn't perform.
Ms. ABIR: My family. They had a very hard time to understand what is rap, and what are they doing. For them it's just being provocative on stage, and they couldn't understand that, and I wasn't allowed to go on the tour with them.
MARTIN: How did you convince them otherwise?
Ms. ABIR: I didn't. I just - now I decided I'm going to do it anyway.
MARTIN: Are they upset about that?
Ms. ABIR: I mean, you know they could be upset, but you know, with time you realize there is nothing much you can do, and it depends actually on the person, which is me. If I decide I'm going to be scared and not doing it and just bend over to the rules, of course people are going to be, you know, always be like OK, she's scared, we're going to attack her. So, I'm taking the role of, you know, someone who is not going to say no, and I'm going to keep on doing what I'm doing because that's the only way.
MARTIN: Why hip-hop? Why rap?
Ms. ABIR: First of all, this is my favorite music. It has nothing to do with the fact that I'm doing it. It was always my favorite music. I always found it fascinating how black people just, you know, talk about their issues in this angry, beautiful way.
It's being - it's telling the truth, and not just rhyming with beautiful melodies so people would buy it. They actually talk about what's happening, and I could totally relate to everything that black hip-hoppers talk about when they talk about their struggle in America. I totally relate to everything they say.
MARTIN: I want to ask you, though, about some of those influences. I mean, you talk about the influence of American rap and, you know, a lot of those artists - there's a bit in the film actually where the guys from DAM are showing off their CD collection, and they've got Tupac, and they got Public Enemy on the shelf...
(Soundbite of film "Slingshot Hip-Hop")
DAM: This is DMX, Big Pun, Snoop, and B.I.G.
MARTIN: There were a lot of leaders in the African-American community that were really heavy critical of that music, and they said sure it gives voice to the oppression and the struggle, but it does so in a violent and divisive way that maybe does more harm than good. Have you faced some of that criticism over this music?
Ms. ABIR: Well, when I went to photography school and my video was shown with different Israeli students the first reaction was like, this is too violent. Like, look how the kids look. Look how they're running there. Is this a demonstration? Like, the Israelis have this kind of response, too. Like, it's too violent, can't you just sing about what's happening without having all these people running in the street and looking this way?
So, my reaction to that was like when I'll have a beautiful neighborhood with beautiful buildings, and with fancy kids walking around and looking so spoiled and beautiful, I will do that. But I don't. This is not my reality. I can't just come and pretend I'm rich and beautiful and civilized. Like, it doesn't work like that. When you don't have water, when you don't have food - these are things you fight for everyday just to survive.
And these are the people who don't understand what it's coming from. It's not violent the way you think it is. Nobody's hitting anyone, you know, it's just - we're showing you what you're doing, what the capitalist people are doing to us. We're trying to show it to you because you have to see it in your face instead of avoiding it.
MARTIN: Is it all about the protest and expressing the true authentic anger? Or is any of it about reaching out to try to bridge that gap, to try to create dialogue, all those words people use about conflict resolution and this longstanding crisis?
Ms. ABIR: It's about protesting and it's about reaching out, and it's also about us just being recognized as artists who people who actually make music, and not just terrorists walking around killing their women and killing their enemies. We actually have a culture. We make music out of it. You know, we have many artists who never - nobody talks about in the West. So, for us it's not just reaching out about the Palestinian issue.
It's reaching out about the Palestinian people who don't do what the Western think we just do, just waiting there and waiting to bomb some kind of building or people. And we're coming here to show that this is not what it is. It's not just that. What you're seeing on TV is not totally right. So, it's a way to protest, it's a way to resist, and it's a way to get to the world to say here, this is who we really are.
MARTIN: A lot of the narrative ends up being about the vacuums that you're creating this music in, because you can't connect with the group PR in Gaza. You can't connect with the other artists who are in other parts of the territories. How difficult is that for you to not be able to collaborate with other artists who are doing similar work?
Ms. ABIR: It's frustrating, because you know, you can travel around the world and go on vacations and do whatever you want, but you can't even go visit your cousins and your family right across the street. Just to take - drive your car for two hours and go meet them. You can't. It's like, these checkpoints are so huge, and this wall that's being built is so big, like you can't even imagine.
It comes in between schools. It comes in between families, like totally. One cousin will be living in the west side, and one will be living on the east side, and the wall just will come in between, and it's just like a few miles between them. So, it's really frustrating more than anything, because we know how close they are. PR have always been so close to us, but we feel like I'll never meet them. There's a possible chance that I will never see these people in person.
MARTIN: But did that become an obvious part of the narrative? The fact that there was just this artistic closeness among these people.
Ms. ABIR: Oh, of course.
MARTIN: But this vast geographic distance.
Ms. SALLOUM: Yeah, I mean, that's one thing that always like affected me very deeply when I was there. I felt so privileged. I had this ID that let me go across these borders, but the Palestinians who actually live there can't go across. You know, they can't travel within their own land, and I just thought that was one of the hardest things because when I go to Gaza, my friends there would say what does Jerusalem look like?
What is Aqsa look like? I've never seen any part. You know, Gaza's only 26 miles long and four miles wide, and imagine like that's all you see your whole life. But there's this whole country, your country, and you're not allowed to see it, and it's really devastating. So, when I go and film PR in Gaza, you know, I would say OK, I'm going to go, I'm going to back to Israel now and film Abir, DAM.
And they're like, oh, tell them we say hi, can you - and you know, you could just see in their eyes like the disappointment that they can't just get in the car with me. It was really a hard thing to accept that like we're so close. I can just take them in the car and go, but they wouldn't be able to get through the border. And so that was one thing that I thought was really important to focus on was this relationship they were building though the Internet, and creating music through the Internet, but couldn't actually meet each other.
MARTIN: But you all have really used the Internet to just get your music out there. What is - what's your fan base like in Israel and the Palestinian Territories? Do you have any Israeli fans?
Ms. ABIR: Both from the Israeli and Palestine side, like, DAM are the most famous artist now, today, especially when it comes to hip-hop. You say hip-hop in Palestine or Israel, you say DAM. They go together. They don't go apart. They started it. They're doing it. The Israelis are aware of it. They love it. DAM have shows in Tel-Aviv, and in other, you know, Jewish cities and Israeli cities, and people come.
It's always packed. It's always crowded. They believe it. They love it. They're having not only their favorite music. They're being educated about the situation because nobody's talking about let's hate each other and let's burn each other down. It's actually talking about let's learn about what's going on. Let's get educated, and let's live together in peace, or at least let's start trying.
STEWART: That was hip-hop artist Abir, profiled in the new documentary "Slingshot Hip-Hop," and Jackie Salloum, who directed the film.
ALISON STEWART, host:
And that's it for this hour of the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart.
MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin. You can find us online all the time at npr.org/bryantpark.