Levantine Hip-Hop 101
Who's who in the Middle East rap game.
The documentarian Anat Halachmi's excellent film Channels of Ragechronicles the fallout between the two as Subliminal stops producing Nafir's records and ceases bringing him on tour. Halachmi attempted to have both Nafir and Subliminal perform together one last time for her film, but her efforts failed. Channels of Rage was one of a crop of recent documentaries examining Palestinian hip-hop. The Arab-American filmmaker Jackie Salloum's Slingshot Hip Hop profiles DAM alongside other Palestinian rappers from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Her subjects face obstacles unfamiliar to most American rappers: Arapeyat, a female rapper from the Israeli city of Acre, has to deal with disapproval from family and community members because she is a secular Muslim woman onstage performing, while a young rap group in Gaza scrambles to make backup plans in case the power is cut during their show.
Most Israeli rappers come from the left. In Jerusalem, a city not known for its night life, a rap scene coalesced around the Corner Prophets collective, who sponsor a monthly freestyle event that attracts Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and English-speaking rappers. Corner Prophets acts include Sagol 59, an ex-kibbutznik with song titles like "Summit Meeting" and "Current Events," and an African-American convert to Judaism who calls himself Rebel Sun. The latter moved to Israel several years ago and is currently the target of a deportation effort considered by many to be racially motivated. (Check out this video for "Fight Rebel Sun" in which he performs with a cross section of the Israeli rap scene.)
Despite the gulf between them, the hip-hop communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories largely get along. DAM regularly toured with Jewish acts, while Sagol 59 takes pains in interviews to illustrate his lack of enmity toward most Arabs. During the recent fighting in Lebanon, musicians on both sides notably avoided inflaming the situation or, indeed, making any political statements in the media whatsoever. At the height of the conflict last week, an "Israeli and Palestinian Hip-Hop Showcase for Peace" was announced in New York for September. Acts scheduled to appear include Sagol 59, members of HaDag Nahash, and the Israeli-Arab rapper Saz alongside members of Palestinian-American hip-hop crews the Philistines and the N.O.M.A.D.S.
In the face of the orchestrated pop that dominates Israeli airwaves, hip-hop in both countries is distinctly underground. But that very underground nature allowed it to report honestly on the slow-motion conflict in Israeli-Palestinian relations since 2000. The overtly political rappers who dominate Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop have shown a unique talent for translating the nuances of the conflict into terms familiar to American ears. Much like their respective nationalities, neither hip-hop community exists in a bubble, and their struggle for coexistence offers hope. Or, less loftily, it could just be that both Israeli and Palestinian rappers have discovered that samples from Middle Eastern pop make for some damn good rap songs.
Correction, August 21, 2006: The article originally and incorrectly stated that Israeli Arabs are forbidden from serving in the military. In fact, although they are exempt from mandatory military service, they can volunteer to join the Israeli army. (Return to the corrected sentence.)