New America Media, News Feature, Suzanne Manneh, Posted: May 24, 2008
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SAN FRANCISCO — May 2008 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Nakba – Arabic for catastrophe, the expulsion of the Palestinian people and creation of the state of Israel. However, the Palestinian Diaspora decided to commemorate it with a different image: sharing and performing hip-hop. A commemoration concert was recently held here at the Civic Center Plaza and it was free and open to the public.
Performers were male and female. They ranged in ethnic backgrounds –from Palestinian and other Arab nationalities, to African American, Mexican and Caucasian. They had come from across the United States, Canada, the West Bank and Israel.
"This is a hip-hop festival for Palestine. Hip-hop is not dead; it lives in Palestine. It's about unification for our people," Patriarch, a Palestinian-American hip-hop artist asserted before the audience.
Event organizers say this was the first large-scale gathering of 3,500 or more people: Palestinians, other Arabs and nearly a third of non-Arabs, recognizing the Nakba through hip-hop.
The performances were in English and Arabic, with some performers using both languages. The music was energetic and its sounds reflected everything from the classic African-American hip-hop of the 1980's and 1990's to contemporary underground African-American hip-hop. Some artists incorporated classical Arab beats, music, and melodies into their routine.
The Bay Area Nakba Committee, a group of Palestinian American peace activists, in collaboration with other Arab organizations and community groups such as the American Indian Movement and the International Jewish Solidarity Network, organized the event.
"I participated because I'm in solidarity with the Palestinian people and I want to demonstrate my support," said Alley, a volunteer with the International Jewish Solidarity Network. She didn’t want her last name to be used. “A people are being oppressed in my name, and it’s important to show that I disapprove of it,” she added.
Lead organizer Noura Khouri explained the need she saw for making the commemoration a hip-hop event.
"We wanted to connect urban youth culture with the Palestinian struggle," she said. "We're so sick of seeing people going up on stage and lecturing about history and politics. We wanted to connect youth to the issues in a way they can digest and we didn't know of a better way than through hip- hop." Yet, there is a perception that hip-hop could not be associated with Palestinians or Arabs.
"I never thought of Palestinians or Arabs as rappers," said a woman who was dancing to the music. This is a common stereotype that is assigned to Palestinians, and one that many people believe, says Nasser Halteh, activist and member of the hip-hop group Politikal Heat.
"We're supposed to be conservative and hip-hop is not something we're expected to participate in," he explained. "But what we're doing is nothing negative. We're performing hip-hop and telling our stories.” “Hip-hop was positive from the beginning. They (African American hip-hop pioneers) created something out of nothing to tell their stories, and that's what we're doing," he asserted.
Sammy Totah, of the pan-ethnic hip-hop group Scribe Project, feels likewise and believes that hip-hop is the strongest, constructive medium to communicate the Palestinian message.
"Hip-hop has a lot of history behind it," Totah said. "It is a revolutionary tool that has inspired positive change and instead of using our fists, we use our words."
But hip-hop has also become a means of self-exploration for many Palestinians, Halteh suggests. Halteh, who was born and raised in the United States, has been rapping since he started high school, and sees it as “his duty” to rap about Palestine. “I feel lost here in America, and when I rap, I can express myself, my Palestinian roots, and that maintains my identity."
Formed in 1998, DAM (Arabic for "lasting an eternity”), the first Palestinian hip-hop group, performs in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, and came from Israel to perform and realize the importance of expression and exploration through the music.
"Hip-hop is my way of expression. Our songs speak to all kinds of people and reflect what they feel," he said.
For this very reason, over the past decade, hip-hop has generated much popularity in the Palestinian American youth culture and has gained a larger success in Palestine, as shown in the documentary feature, Slingshot Hip-Hop.
However, while the older generations of Palestinians admit that hip-hop is not their musical preference, several were at the hip-hop event to support the Palestinian struggle, and recognize the success hip-hop has gained for articulating it.
Nabila Mango, founder of ZAWAYA, an Arab arts organization, said that while she understands "barely two-thirds of the hip-hop culture," she enjoyed the concert nonetheless. "I was shaking and grooving with everyone else," she said.
Khouri said that her parents and older relatives, all over 60, are not hip-hop fans, but came and found themselves "waving their arms and raising their fists into the air, singing and dancing with the music." Other performers included distinguished African American hip-hop artist Boots Riley from The Coup, (who brought his constituents and said he wanted to show his solidarity for the Palestinians. He said all minorities are struggling in the face of oppression.
While the Nakba commemoration was primarily focused on hip-hop, there were also cultural and educational elements consisting of Dabke, the traditional Palestinian folkloric dance, as well as simulated refugee camp exhibits, pictures from the 1948 Nakba, and a tent where Palestinian elders recounted their memories for those interested in listening.
Khouri explained that hip-hop carries a peaceful, hopeful, yet strong message and effect that she cannot find in other ways of expression and hopes to plan similar gatherings in the future.
"Just like Erykah Badu sings it," Khouri said, quoting the famous hip-hop diva, "'hip-hop is bigger than the government, it’s bigger than religion. It's the healer.'"
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Listen: Palestinian Hip Hop Tracks: