A hip hop foreigner in Gaza

Our correspondent in Gaza City explores what one group of young Palestinians are doing to express themselves in the face of the daily struggle for survival in the Strip: rap, Gaza style.
By Bashar Labad, Menassat.com Gaza Correspondent
Palestine RAP music. ©AFP / Hazem BADER
Palestinians dance as Israeli soldiers raid a party in the West Bank town of Hebron. © Hazem Bader / AFP

GAZA CITY, Dec. 11, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) - It's not often that you get to see musical performances in Gaza these days. Although Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, its security policies have otherwise choked off any hope of cultural normalcy for the 1,5 million plus Palestinians living here. Israel completely controls the borders of Gaza like a prison. So cultural expression is just one of the many casualties of war.

Still, there I was at one of Gaza's many cultural centers, listening to local rappers doing their thing in Arabic.

Rap music in Gaza?

Somehow I was drawn to this music I didn't understand, performed by Gazan youth who donned the same stylistic markers as their American counterparts -- from the clothing to the music samples to the rhythms of their word flow.

At the concert's conclusion - which was a welcome break for my uninitiated ears -, I was left with so many questions.

How do they define the type of art they presented? How could they dare form American-style music groups and perform publicly in Occupied Palestine, which is characterized by its adherence to traditions and customs?
I decided I would ask members from three Gaza-based hip hop groups - Gazesta, P.R. (Palestinian Rap) and R.F.M. (Rap Fi Medinahti) - why it was that hip hop was their preferred method for expressing their day-to-day experience.


From R.F.M.:

From P.R.:

From Gazesta:

How were you introduced to rap music?

Faysal: "Let me start with a little background first. We have to acknowledge that rap music is an art form that comes from black America, and it reflects some very common themes such as the oppression, repression and racism in the United States experienced by black Americans at the hands of white Americans. I would go so far as to say that, in Palestine, we are suffering from similar oppression and racism from an occupying power. That is why we thought: why not express our pain in the same way?"
Ayman: "Most of us were introduced to rap music through popular media outlets, and of course, the Internet. We quickly realized that the best and fastest way to reach the outside world and inform it about the Palestinian cause would be through rap. Rap has visibility in these countries."
What is your motive behind rapping?
Mohammad: "We found rap to be a weapon for us - a means to convey our voice and our message. But, rap music is also a peaceful, defensive path, because paper and the pencil are the best means to convey the suffering of the Palestinian people to the outside world."
Do you find it difficult to rap in a society that is inherently conservative and more eastern in its values?
Mohammad: "In the beginning, it was hard. But as time passed, people accepted the idea because we are expressing the cause of a nation. Whoever examines the lyrics will see how simple and expressive they are."
What problems did you face at the beginning of your journey?
Mohammad: "One of the most common problems we faced was the criticism directed against us - from our clothing to the actual songs we performed. In addition, the issues of direct support both inside and outside Gaza, and the lack of funding - these have been the biggest obstacles."
Moutaz: "One of the key problems we faced were the parental objections. But even though our parents disapprove, they have not derailed our moves to achieve big things with our music."

(Note: Faysal said that his parents' reaction was positive and that they heavily supported him.)
What do you produce your music with?
"We use special computerized programs to arrange and compose our music. Sometimes we take ready-made rhythms or samples that have been cleared from any copyright infringement that we can get online or from CD's. We also use some eastern instruments to make our sound more local."
Who composes the lyrics and what are the issues you tackle?
"We write the lyrics ourselves. And these lyrics are aimed mostly at expressing the problems, the pain and the events faced by Palestinians every day."
Moutaz: "In fact, most of our songs tackle the social situation, youth, unemployment, children, and the political situation prevailing in Palestine."
What about relationships with other Palestinian musical groups? Do these young musicians all seek to achieve one goal, or does each band have their own dreams?
Faysal: "Honestly, some claim that all Palestinian bands agree on one larger goal - a nationalist sort of agenda. But in fact, each band seeks to achieve its personal goals regardless of the common interest, despite the communication between us and the bands in the lands of 1948 and through the Internet."
It is known that Palestinian society is conservative. And many people I talked to said rap music is considered an intruder art form. How do you expect your rap to serve the Palestinian society?

Mohammad: "Our rap songs express the Palestinian cause and our singing is full of nationalism and the love of Palestine. It is not a sarcastic kind of music; we sing within the framework of our traditional morals and customs."
What is the attendance like at your shows? Do you have a following, in other words?
Mohammad: "The attendance is increasing. This is inevitable. The young people are soaking up hip hop. So we have our fans."
What attracted you to rap and pushed you to do it?
Faysal: "The thing that attracted me to rap was honestly the fact that I can express myself and say whatever I want without restrictions. It is an offensive and defensive way at the same time."
Where do you find yourself, in Western or in Arab music?
Faysal: "I think that the rap music we sing is better than some of the aimless Arab and Egyptian songs that lack any meaning or message."
Is there any political side (like Hamas or Fatah) that finances or sponsors your music?
Moutaz: "There is no sponsor or financial backer for our music or our live shows. All our work is a result of our personal efforts."
Do you consider rap to be a future career or a life-long hobby?
Ayman: "I will continue to rap but I don’t think it will be my career. We'll see."
Moutaz: "I consider rap as a hobby, but it's something I really believe in."
Alaa: "For now, I consider rap a hobby. However, if at any time it provided me with an adequate income, then I would certainly consider it as a career choice!"
Mohammad: "Rap hasn't altered my life. It is a hobby that has its positive outcomes."
You are all young... So did rapping affect your studies or work?
"At first, it had a very negative effect because when we first got into the game, we obviously had to devote a lot of time to it. Eventually, as we got more experienced, we overcame the problem by organizing our time more efficiently."

So what did I conclude from these interviews? Certainly, this is a determined group of young men who are turning to art to discuss their discontent about the situation in Gaza. Art, in this case, is replacing bullets as a reaction to the Occupation.

But ultimately, I'm left with more questions.

Will Palestinian society allow the spread of western-influenced arts among the youth, especially in Gaza which is more conservative in many ways than the Occupied West Bank?

I ask this knowing that these western-influenced cultural leanings will eventually affect the customs, traditions, and the morals on which subsequent generations are raised.
And last, I wonder whether hip hop, as a culture, will veer them away from the conservative upbringing that they have come to know?

But one thing is for sure: the rappers in this group see hip hop as a means of elevating their lives above the malaise of life in Gaza.