art of resistance, Palestine

(Interview) DAM: When The Levee Breaks.

I guess this is my first Throwback Thursday. Half a year ago, I did an interview with DAM’s Suhell Nafar, it was published on Reorient Magazine, but I never reposted it here. It was a lovely interview and I enjoyed it very much, so I am posting it here today.

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Heralded by Le Monde as ‘the spokesmen of a new generation’, the members of DAM – the first [known] Palestinian hip-hop crew and among the first musicians to rap in Arabic – began working together in the late 90s. Struck by the uncanny resemblance of the streets in a Tupac video to those of their own neighbourhood in Lod, brothers Tamer and Suhell Nafar, along with Mahmoud Jreri were inspired to tell their stories through song. They’ve come a long way since the 90s, and part of their tale has been documented in the acclaimed film, Slingshot Hip Hop, directed by Jackie Reem Salloum. As well, a year ago, they released the long-awaited album, Dabke on the Moon, to popular acclaim. Despite their growing popularity, however, they’re still largely unknown in many parts of the world, including the Middle East.

To find out more about the group and to help shine a light on their music, I spoke with Suhell Nafar, with whom I discussed DAM’s projects, the universality of their messages, and their role in the Palestinian struggle.

DAM-slider/photo via DAM/

Who is DAM?

I was a little kid when we started. We grew up, our political views changed … we’ve seen a lot of things, travelled around, performed, met people … we’ve seen things from so many perspectives … our writing [kept getting] stronger, we got stronger [as a result].

And Palestine today? How do you see the peace negotiations?

The same situation, the same occupation. About the peace negotiations: [they’ve] been sold out; nobody here even paid much attention to them – we expected nothing from them. You can’t have peace or talk [about] peace when there are new settlements being built, when there’s ongoing police brutality … Palestine today is not much different than the Palestine of my childhood. There are these little moments – moments when everything seems worse, or moments of hope, when [things] get better; But all in all, [there have been] no big changes.

In a way, it could be argued that the Palestinian situation has taken away many freedoms of life to become a meaning in itself, in terms of resistance. What do you think about the Palestinian cause being such an important part of life and identity in Palestine?

Well, that’s really bothering … this is what [we are] dealing with in our [songs]. Life here … it’s not black and white, you know – it’s colourful; there are happy songs, love songs, etc. There are many layers to Palestinian life and identity – not just [the] occupation. It’s like Mahmoud Darwish wrote in his poem: Palestinians don’t only die from occupation – they die because of diseases, getting old, etc. Palestinians existed before [the] occupation, and will exist after this occupation.

Just as Edward Said wrote about many local Palestinian issues, such as the weaknesses of the Palestinian leadership, your songs deal with issues within Palestine – not just with respect to outsiders and/or aggressors and their allies. In If I Could Go Back in Time from Dabke on the Moon, you address the problem of honour killings, for instance.

If we use our music to rap only against the occupation, I think it would be fake; it would be using dead people for our fame, in a way. Rapping about women’s rights is as important as rapping about the occupation. You know, without social justice, there’s no freedom; so, we feel it’s important to raise our voices and bring [to light] all the issues Palestinians [are facing] today.

When you started out, the hip-hop scene in Palestine was almost non-existent. Slingshot Hip Hop follows your story, as well as that of the growing Palestinian hip-hop scene. You were also among the first to encourage female rappers to join you and create music of their own. How is the situation now?

The scene is much bigger now, in general. When we started, there were no hip-hop studios, no producers – nothing. In the last 15 years, it [has] changed a lot; there are many studios now … there are rock, pop, [and] reggae singers too – not just rappers. There’s a whole new generation, and I feel [the singers] are getting stronger and stronger. There are [many] more female rappers too, of course. There are these two girls, Dammar … I used to see them at protests, and then I saw them rapping. They are seventeen now, and great; they are protesting, rapping, [and] break dancing.

How about collaborations with other Palestinian rappers? In Slingshot Hip Hop, one sees how hard it is for rappers from Gaza to perform and make music together. How has the situation changed, if at all?

Well, I have to say it’s easier now than [when] Slingshot Hip Hop [was made]. The Internet has developed, and there are social networks, so we always keep in touch, [and] exchange our thoughts, ideas, projects, etc. We recently did the Israel vs. Palestine Rap News24, which was a great collaboration. There are more platforms for [these sorts of projects] now. That’s about it. But about Gaza – people from Gaza still can’t come to us, and we still haven’t been in Gaza. We never went there. Ever.

Your new album is finally out, after much anticipation. What is Dabke on the Moon all about, in a nutshell?

Ok … so, dabke is a traditional folk dance. There’s this thing all these modern countries [do]: when they go to the moon, they stick a flag on it. It’s always [about] this patriotic stuff. We don’t care about that … we care about art; and when we go to the moon, we want to dance on the moon. The idea for the name came to my brother, Tamer. He was reading the newspaper, and saw all this stuff about NASA going to the moon, and [then] he turned the page and there was news about people from Gaza digging tunnels. [There] was this great contrast … part of the money used against Palestinians comes from NASA’s homeland, so in a way, what’s helping NASA go up is at the same time pushing us down.

Dabke on the Moon is a special album. The production is great – we had an excellent producer, Nabil Nafar. And, the most important thing: the album is much more personal [than our previous ones]. In If I Could Go Back in Time, we did not sing about honour killings in general – we sang about the stories from our city. In only one year, more than 13 girls were killed … Some of them we knew … we knew their parents. Also, when we sing about prisoners, we don’t sing about [them] in general – we [tell] stories of real people … people we know. It was hard, and I think you feel that when you listen to the album.

I think this leads us to the question of whether music and art can bring about meaningful change in societies. What do you think about this with respect to Palestine?

It’s like Tupac said: I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world. That’s what we are doing; we’re just a piece of the puzzle. There are many others – activists, writers, painters, politicians … we’re building this ‘puzzle’ slowly, and I hope it will [turn into] something beautiful. You know, this is not a conflict; if [both] sides had equal resources and power, it would be a conflict. But they don’t; this is a war. Art is important.

When you come to Palestine, you will see the most unique rap performances; you’ll see people from the age of five to the age of 90 dancing and clapping in the audience – male, female, Muslims, Christians, of all ages and religions. It’s important for us to create art, to raise [our] voices. We are the lucky ones who are still able to travel, to go around, to meet people. If I can get out, I need to use that and speak, to be a sort of PR for the Palestinian cause. You know, I’ve met people who [have] said to me, ‘I started learning Arabic because of DAM’. I’ve met Jews who [have] said it [has] helped them get a better insight [into the Palestinian situation], etc. Just think about the Natives in the USA, about African-Americans, about all those struggles … through hip-hop, we learn so much about the prisoners of this world. I feel we have to teach the way we were taught. It’s this ‘boomerang’ of hip-hop: it never stops, and it never stays [in] the same place. That is what I love so much about it.

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