Thursday, July 08, 2004

Political Rappers, Palestinian and Jewish

The Iron Sheik made the New York Times:

This Detroit suburb lies near Eminem's spawning ground on the south side of Eight Mile Road. But the women covered in hijabs and the older men baking in the midafternoon sun looked on skeptically as a D.J. began thumping a beat and a fledgling rapper calling himself the Iron Sheik took the stage here on a recent Sunday.

"This first song is dedicated to a girl in a refugee camp," began the Sheik, a 26-year-old whose real name is Will Youmans. Stubbly faced, with dark, curly hair, he wore a Detroit Pistons jersey —- an indispensable fashion statement here lately —- with the number 48, as in 1948, the year of Israel's founding.

"If you feel for a Palestinian, you are a Palestinian!" he prodded the crowd at the Dearborn Arab International Festival, held in a town that is home to one of the nation's largest Arab-American communities.

And then Mr. Youmans began a set that substituted political statements for the four-letter words of other raps. He extolled the festivalgoers to get out of the bleachers and crowd the stage. He invited their reactions to various hot buttons, asking, "Who here likes Fox News?" and jabbing with banter like: "The next song is about George W. It's called `Low Expectations.'"

Not many other rappers take time to insult the Fox talk-show hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly (though it does happen: the spat between Mr. O'Reilly and the rapper Ludacris was featured in a VH1 special on celebrity feuds). Certainly it would be hard to find another rapper who chants the number of a United Nations resolution as a chorus —- in the Iron Sheik's case, Resolution 194, which addresses the Palestinian refugees' right to return to their pre-1948 homes, among other things.

That song, "Return a k a 194," includes these lyrics:

Palestine's their home, that's where they belong
been living in these camps for way too long
a sad song
been displaced since '48
time to return to where they originate.

Mr. Youmans was born in Dearborn and lives in Oakland, Calif., where until recently he taught politics at a community college. Now he is job hunting.

In the United States, Arab rappers of a political bent are rare, he says, though another Dearborn native, a Palestinian-American named Jacqueline Salloum, is filming a documentary in Israel and the occupied territories about young rappers there.

"There isn't really a strong Palestinian hip-hop movement in the States; it's all here," Ms. Salloum said in an e-mail message from the West Bank. She knows of a couple dozen rappers in the West Bank and Gaza, she said, but added that in Israel, where a rap scene has grown over the last seven years, "there are too many Palestinian hip-hop groups to count."

"They sing about the racism and living as third-class citizens, police brutality and wanting to be united with all Arabs around the world," she said. The group Dam, whose name means blood in Arabic, has a song titled "Who's the Terrorist" that has become an anthem for Palestinian teenagers, she said.

Mr. Youmans, whose mother's family comes from Nazareth, said of the United States scene: "It's an underground thing that's happening. Most people that are knowledgeable about hip-hop couldn't name an Arab hip-hop artist."

Mr. Youmans does not have a record deal and calls record companies "obsolete," but he has played shows from the Bay Area to Egypt. He plans to release his second album in September and sell it at shows and through his Web site,

His first immersion in Palestinian-Israeli politics came at 17, during a trip to visit his grandparents in Israel. (Though they are citizens of Israel, he prefers to call them Palestinian.) The trip came not long after the Oslo Accords of 1993, a time of hope, but he says he was disturbed by what he called the unequal treatment of Arabs and a lack of respect his grandparents received from Israeli teenagers at a shopping mall.

He took his stage name from another Detroit product, the Lebanese-American professional wrestler Edward Farhat, who carved out a persona as a thuggish Arab villain known as the Iron Sheik.

"Arabs are villains; they are the bad guys to be despised," Mr. Youmans said of the stereotypes. "I wanted to reclaim the icon and redo it my own way. If this is a battle for knowledge, we have to redefine terms."

So what does he think of the current political stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians? "I personally prefer one state, because they have more in common than different," he said after his show.

"The United States has to completely reform its foreign policy," he added. "Its absolute and uncritical support for Israel has not brought about peace. I want a shift in policy that is actually neutral. The ideal outcome is completely peaceful coexistence, equal rights under the law."

As an artist, he said, he tries to keep his criticism directed at governments, not peoples. "My belief system is that the Palestinians have always existed, independent of Israel and the Zionist movement," he said. "I never talk about the Jews as a people, because it's not about Muslims and Jews. It's about a state, Israel, and the Palestinians, and Jews go both ways on that issue."

To the festival crowd, he introduced himself as "old school Dearborn."

"I'm trying to represent our views to mainstream America so they can understand we're not terrorists," he shouted. "We're people, too!"

After a few songs, dozens of people clustered around the stage, some white, some black, but most Arab-Americans, arms in the air. The Iron Sheik implored them to chant 1-9-4 "until Sharon wakes up in the middle of the night and has a nightmare."

Most were hearing the music for the first time. "I thought it was awesome," said Hussnia Zahriya, 33, a Palestinian-American social worker and the lone autograph seeker backstage, standing with her 15-year-old son, Jihad. "I think we need more people like him to get the message out."

Ammer Yacubo, a 27-year-old truck driver of Iraqi descent, assessed the music as he sat on a motorcycle, chatting with friends. "It's O.K.," he said, adding that he listened to a mix of Arabic music, country and rap. "That's great to get American songs here, and rap music."

Mr. Youman's biggest fan, his mother, Nadia, conceded that it was hard to win over many in the festival crowd.

"This is new music for Arab-Americans; it is hard on the ears of the older people," said Mrs. Youmans, who held aloft a poster with the words "Iron Sheik" spelled out over a Palestinian flag. Describing her evolution as a rap mom, she explained: "I used to have headaches. I said, either you get out of my car or turn it off. But I like his music, because I love the words." (Danny Hakim, "American-Born 'Iron Sheik' Rhymes for Palestinian Cause," New York Times, July 8, 2004)
The New York Times paired the article about the Iron Sheik with one about a political division in the Israeli rap scene, between Jewish and Palestinian rappers who seek peace with justice on the left and Jewish rappers who preach Zionism on the right:
It was a standard enough hip-hop salute: "Peace!" But then came the response: "Justice!"

For the handful of Israeli M.C.'s who performed at the Prospect Park Band Shell last Thursday in a concert called the Unity Sessions, the two concepts go together: no peace in the Holy Land without justice. "You can never say let's live together and then have this thing called occupation," shouted T. N., a Palestinian from the town of Lod, near Tel Aviv. "They call it democracy," he added to growing jeers from the crowd. "It's democracy for Jews and Zionism for Arabs."

["This boy, from the Arab neighborhood of the city, is reading a political pamphlet about the home demolitions issued by his municipality against what it defined as 'illegal' building" (Regevn, "The City of Lud/al-Lydd: A Microcosms of Iareal`s Complexities 2004," Visions of Conflict, May 6. 2004).]

T. N. —- a k a Tamer Nafar, a wiry 25-year-old who raps in quick torrents of Arabic —- is part of the growing Israeli hip-hop scene, which barely existed a decade ago but has become one of the most potent forms of pop culture in the Middle East.

[Regevn, "Tamer Al Nafar & DAM - Famous Rappers from Lud, August 2003," Visions of Conflict, September 7, 2003.]

With beats borrowed from Gang Starr and a Tribe Called Quest and lyrics inspired by the Beastie Boys and Tupac Shakur, Israeli rappers express a political urgency not often heard in hip-hop, whether in New York or any of the other corners of the world to which the music has spread.

The Israeli rappers, plus a couple from New York, were brought to Prospect Park as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn series by JDub Records, a nonprofit, New York-based Jewish record label that has produced events in New York and Israel. Some 3,000 people attended, according to Celebrate Brooklyn, and more than a few knew the Hebrew and Arab raps by heart.

For T. N. frustration over occupation and the plight of Palestinians is a central theme, and in his raps he often lashes out against Israeli military tactics:

You buried the parents under the stones of their own homes

And now you call me a terrorist?

Who is a terrorist?

You are a terrorist.

"My lyrics are with peace," he said in an interview. "The question is which peace. Before you reach peace, you've got to have equality. I'm with peace, but I'm against the Zionism."

Not all are as blunt as T. N. Another performer at the Unity Sessions, Khen Rotem, a stocky 35-year-old from Jerusalem who uses the stage name Segol 59 —- meaning Purple 59, a name taken from his laundry identification tag from his kibbutz days —- is inspired by the same violence and injustice he sees in his neighborhood.

"I live not far away from the territories, from Ramallah," he said. "I'm deep in this thing. I see it every day, and I see that it's not a good situation."

But his raps are less combative than T. N.'s. "Summit Meeting," from 2001, is a typically pointed satire that mixes frustration with absurdist humor and enthusiastically jumbles Western culture with Middle East politics:

The president of hip-hop calls for a draft of all units

'Cause the situation's critical and everybody's drawing their weapons

I feel like a desperado just like that song by the Eagles

While the peace process is taken apart just like Yoko did the Beatles

"I'm against our occupation of Palestinian land, and I think Israel should withdraw from the territories," Mr. Rotem said. "Of course I condemn the Palestinian terrorism because it's against my people, but if you look at the whole picture, we've got to reach some kind of settlement and give them back some land."

But as hip-hop in Israel has grown, it has divided along political lines, and not every rapper there would agree that Israel has to withdraw from anything.

One of the biggest Israeli rap stars, Subliminal (né Kobi Shimoni), was not invited to the concert. Striking a gangsta pose with heavy jewelry, including his signature bejeweled Star of David, Subliminal represents the right wing of Israeli rap. His latest album has gone platinum in Israel (more than 40,000 copies) on the strength of catchy anthems and incendiary nationalist imagery, as in "Divide and Conquer," where he says: "The country is shaking like a cigarette in the mouth of Yasir Arafat."

Subliminal has already created a divide in the hip-hop community. Aaron Bisman, the founder of JDub Records and one of the promoters of the Prospect Park concert, said he did not invite Subliminal because he did not think the concert's message of openness and peace would be of interest to him.

Mr. Nafar is a former protégé of Subliminal but has fallen out with him and now refers to him simply as "an idiot." Their relationship is the subject of a documentary, "Channels of Rage," that has played at colleges and Jewish film festivals.

Liron Te'eni, a journalist and radio D.J. in Tel Aviv who has been one of the closest followers of the Israeli hip-hop scene, said the range of views simply reflects reality. "Rappers are taking sides on the issue," he said. "Hip-hop is about being brave, telling the truth like it is and not looking for excuses. Just talking about the real stuff."

At the Unity Sessions not all the rappers were explicitly political, though the theme of connection through music ran through the night. Fans rushed the stage and sang along as Mooke, a 29-year-old star formerly of the pioneering hip-hop group Shabak Samech, began one of his Hebrew raps. And all eyes were on the stage as Matisyahu, a 25-year-old Lubavitcher from Crown Heights, represented Brooklyn with dense raps (in English) to a loose reggae groove.

Born Matthew Miller and raised in a nonreligious Jewish household in White Plains, N.Y., he was a teenage Phish fan who had two epiphanies: around age 18 he found hip-hop, then a few years later he found Orthodox Judaism.

Rangy, soft-spoken and dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black hat, Matisyahu would seem the last person to be a rapper. But he has built a loyal local following, and JDub is preparing to release his debut album, "Shake Off the Dust, Arise," later this year.

In his lyrics he prefers spirituality to politics, with lines drawn from Hasidic texts. "Chop 'em Down" employs imagery from the 18th-century Alter Rebbe to describe a mission of using music as a tool for religious awakening.

"The whole point is to go into a place where there isn't a message of spirituality and to put the message there," he said. "To use music itself to chop down some of the negative aspects that go along with it," like drug use and promiscuity.

"Music is neutral," he said. "It can be used for religious purposes or for negativity. It can bring people together. It can bring Jews and Arabs together." (Ben Sisario, "The Israel Debate, to a Beat," New York Times, July 8, 2004)
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