Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2005
Can't Stop the SlingShot: Hip-Hop Arises in Palestine
by Ron Nachmann
We watch a group of five rappers prepare for their first show in their hometown. Dressed in requisite hip-hop style—football jerseys, baseball caps, and the like—the performers primp nervously and practice their rhymes, while they talk about their pre-show jitters. This could be any crew of kids in the world that's recently found a voice in the global phenomenon of rap music. But the impact hits as we watch them enter a modest club to their friends' greetings, and then hit the stage after one of them gets on the mic and announces: "We are PR, the first rappers from Gaza."
PR stands for Palestinian Rappers, one of the ten groups portrayed in SlingShot Hip Hop, a documentary-in-progress about Palestinian hip-hop by filmmaker Jackie Salloum. Judging from the trailer for the movie, which opens with the above scene, SlingShot Hip Hop is shaping up to be a uniquely compelling portrayal of hip-hop music's impact on resistant Palestinian youth culture.
Between its early-seventies roots in black and Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx, and its current status as a hyper-commodified global phenomenon, hip-hop music held sway as young African-America's musical voice of social protest and alternative reportage in the late eighties and early nineties. During that blossoming era, rhymer Chuck D., of the seminal political rap group Public Enemy, famously called hip-hop "the black CNN."
While the genre has gotten comfortable and therefore lyrically insubstantial at home, it has been localized worldwide—from Germany to Japan to Mali—as a vehicle for political commentary and action. Rappers worldwide speak to the concerns of their people in their own languages. That's also how it's manifested in the Middle East: Israeli rappers, for example, range from the nationalist MC Subliminal to the progressive politics of artists like Sagol 59.
SlingShot features rhymers and producers from both inside Israel and the Occupied Territories, moving from Nazareth and Ramallah to Jenin. The film also prominently features female rap acts like the Akko duo Arapeyat, and solo artist Abir, from Lod.
According to Salloum, most of the challenges that she faced in making the film had to do with traveling with the MCs between Israel and the Occupied Territories. "Getting the MCs living in Israel into the West Bank and trying to get them permission to get into Gaza was very difficult." Despite the difficulties, she was able to shoot a poignant scene in which DAM, a seminal Palestinian rap trio from the Israeli town of Lod, visits and graffitis the separation wall in the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank. Looking at the wall, one of the rhymers notes, "I feel small. Not small in size compared to its height, but small [compared] to the powers that support this."
As with all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, separation and restriction have had a deep impact on these young practitioners of a globalized musical form. "I asked the MCs in Gaza about their wishes. They said that one of them was to one day go to Jerusalem or any part of Palestine besides Gaza. It's crazy to think about, considering they live only an hour and a half away from Jerusalem."
Salloum, a Palestinian-American artist, first encountered Palestinian hip-hop when she heard DAM's "Meen Erhabe?" ("Who's the Terrorist?") on public radio. After creating a video collage of non-mainstream news footage of the Intifada for the song, Salloum decided to chronicle the nascent scene itself, and started shooting in Israel/Palestine in 2003. She aims to finish the film by late this year.
Although Palestinian hip-hop as such is less than six years old and created in dire circumstances, it seems to have reached a remarkably sophisticated and focused level. "Palestinian hip-hop is extremely self-reflective," Salloum notes, "and [the rhymers] often make calls to their own community to better itself. But there's a fundamental understanding that the Occupation and racism are the main problems they face."
Unsurprisingly, SlingShot Hip Hop gives a snapshot of a young Palestinian generation looking to thrive artistically in a situation drenched in anger and despair. Salloum points to a scene in which DAM member Tamer talks about the group's goal of making enough money through music to build an art school for the Arab kids in Lod.
"The MCs see hope through their music," Salloum says. "Hip-hop is not an end in itself for most of the rappers. They're using it to bring people together in their community and inspire them. At the same time that they're all paving roads and reaching new ears, their hope is challenged by watching and feeling the Israeli Occupation continuing to take lives, trees, and land."
More information about SlingShot Hip Hop is available at www.slingshothiphop.com.
Music editor Ron Nachmann is a journalist, editor, and culture worker living in San Francisco. For more about SlingShot Hip Hop, visit www.jsalloum.org.
Nachmann, Ron. 2005. Can't stop the SlingShot: Hip-Hop arises in Palestine. Tikkun 20(3):79.