Land, Life, and Hip Hop
The vicious worlds of DAM and N.W.A
Necessity often births the greatest art. Expression becomes a necessity when silence is no longer an option. When a people’s rights and humanity are pushed aside by the powers that be, those people begin creating and constructing in the face of the oppressor. The African American community, throughout its history, has expressed itself in ways that challenge authority. The blues and jazz explosion of the early 20th century put black expression in a stunning display and by the end of the century hip hop became the popular form. What also came at the end of the last century was a rapidly shrinking world. Different art forms were and are being shared around the globe to show solidarity and grab ears of those that remain deaf to wails. Of the many great hip hop artists that came, the rap group N.W.A stands out as a politically vocal, controversial, and revolutionary outfit. However, little did people know that all across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, another three-lettered hip hop group was about to shake up the scene: the Arab Israeli band known as DAM. Spending their early lives being discriminated for something they were born with, Palestinian Israeli members of DAM and American hip hop group N.W.A began making controversial music to represent their stories and the struggles of their people.
A brief reiteration of the Israel-Palestine issue would begin with how the Jews of Europe in order to flee the horrible discrimination on the continent made efforts to secure a safe homeland. The area of Jerusalem and the surrounding lands were under the British mandate at the time and the colonial powers promised the Jewish people the land of Palestine in 1917 with what is known as the Balfour Declaration. Of course, there were already people inhabiting the lands who eventually became refugees in the same places they once lived. The conflict escalated as the neighboring Arab states attacked the new state of Israel. Some changes in control took place as a result of the wars, with Israel having more land that it was supposed to according to the 1948 U.N. Partition Plan. This is but a simplified version of the events meant for context and not nuance. Regardless, the biggest victims of all these conflicts have been the Palestinians. They remain displaced within what was once their own country and as refugees in other Arab countries and overseas.
The massive restrictions on their freedoms of movement and protest, along with the human rights violations they have endured, has given rise to global support for the Palestinians. This solidarity often has a humanitarian basis, and other times sees a more pan-Arab and even pan-Islamic narrative attached to it. One group that has shown support for the Palestinians has its own history of oppression, the African Americans. Although the horrors of slavery and subsequent segregation may have been struck from law, the societal after effects of centuries of discrimination still hurts the African American community in many ways today. It is no surprise that this community has become increasingly wary of politics that sounds similar to white supremacy. Top black movement groups in the United States use language that claims most oppression of minority and indigenous communities today, operates under a ‘framework of white supremacy.’ This framework includes the United States’ treatment of black and Native American communities, South Africa’s (recently dismantled) racial apartheid, Australia’s treatment of the Aboriginals, and even the Israeli oppression over the Palestinians. It is not surprising that some members of the African American community would have such a view and choose to show their support for Palestine. The community obviously knows what discrimination feels and looks like.
In the midst of this racial discrimination, peak police brutality and the American crack-cocaine epidemic, a group as dangerous as the times came to be. N.W.A were the pioneers of a hip hop subgenre known as ‘gangsta rap.’ Their music and artistry was a true reflection of the perils they had to face their entire lives which did not change with fame and success either. Originating from the city of Compton in Los Angeles County, the members, O’Shea Jackson (a.k.a. Ice Cube), Andre Romelle Young (a.k.a. Dr. Dre), Eric Lynn Wright (a.k.a. Eazy-E), Antoine Carraby (a.k.a. DJ Yella), Kim Renard Nazel (a.k.a. Arabian Prince), and Lorenzo Jerald Patterson (a.k.a. MC Ren), grew up around gang violence and were often subject to police brutality and racial profiling. The frustrations of their daily struggle which was very much a result of their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds pushed them to use music and lyrics as a tool to express their dissatisfaction and the suffering of their community. This was not an easy thing to do. The group was subject to censorship and threats from the federal United States government. One of their signature songs, an anti-police brutality anthem, went on to cause a lot of controversy.
If this was happening in Compton, a similar story was brewing in the Israeli city of Lod. An Israeli citizen of Palestinian ancestry, Tamer Nafar grew up in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood of Lod, a city between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Nafar loved hip hop growing up surrounded by the low quality public housing and pollute-ridden parks of Ramat Eshkol. Gunfire was also a regular feature of the area. Gang and drug violence was very common. A soccer field close to Nafar’s house used to be off limits for the children as the local drug dealers would stash weapons there. There was also an incident of a gang hit which happened a five minute walk away from his house with at least one person dead. Living as a young person dealing with state discrimination daily, coupled with the poor conditions in his neighborhood, Tamer would become a ‘street smart’ teenager. By watching American hip hop videos with his friends, he learned English and began to understand the social commentary as he delved deeper into Biggie Smalls and Public Enemy. The connection between the lives of African American youth and the youth growing up in Lod became clear to Tamer through his education in hip hop. Interestingly, it was through his interest in music coming from another continent that made him more politically aware about the conditions of his own people. By studying the nationalism of the Black Panther Party, he started understanding the Palestine Liberation Organization and by reading Maya Angelou, he eventually moved on to Mahmoud Darwish. One of his frustrations was how the public education in Israel had kept him from studying about Palestinian writers and movements. He was eventually joined by his brother Suhell Nafar and friend Mahmoud Jreri to form the rap trio DAM. Pronounced ‘daam,’ the name means “everlasting” in Arabic and “blood” in Hebrew. It also works as an acronym for “Da Arabian MCs,” the name is very smart from a linguistic perspective as the group performs in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
The similarities in the origins of these two important groups show how people can make unlikely alliances to ward off an oppressor. Although the groups were founded 13 years apart, N.W.A in 1986 and DAM in 1999, both seemed to be trying to achieve the same purpose with their music.
In the case of N.W.A, their debut album “Straight Outta Compton” proved to be problematic for the authorities. They especially had issues with one specific song titled “Fuck Tha Police,” which the authorities claimed incited violence against law officials. Milt Ahlerich, an FBI assistant director at the time, even wrote a letter to the record company of the band, Priority Records, in early August of 1989. In the letter he expressed concerns about how the song disrespected and put the lives of law enforcement officials in danger at a time when violent crime is the biggest problem in the country. The letter also claimed to be speaking for the entire law enforcement community. Ahlerich also said that according to him the FBI had never taken a side on any book, film, song or artwork before, but is justified to do so in this case because the lyrics directly talk about the violence and murder of police officers. However, Ahlerich was not the only law enforcement official to get directly involved. An informal network of police fax messages to police stations around the country asked cops to help cancel N.W.A concerts. Their shows that year in Detroit, Washington, D.C., Chattanooga, Milwaukee, and Tyler, Texas were either disrupted or cancelled due to the police. In Detroit, just singing a few lines from their popular provocative song caused the police to rush the stage. While there was a scuffle between the police and security staff, the group had escaped to the hotel. The police eventually made it to the hotel and detained N.W.A for 15 minutes just to strongly reiterate their views on the song. These “thugs” from Compton had just made a song so powerful that the FBI, for the first time in its history, had to take a stand against an artwork. ACLU’s Barry Lynn even said that in the interpretation of the courts this song does not advocate violence and if anything Mr. Ahlerich’s letter is legally questionable as it uses a government institution to intimidate someone from the creative community.
What made the song so popular, though? There could be many reasons for that. The hard-hitting music, the excellent social commentary, the fiery delivery and lyrics, or most likely a combination of all that. I believe in order to fully appreciate how the song became so inflammatory and timeless, we can take a much closer look at it. Musically, the song opens with an interesting funky soul rhythm before going into a rocking beat that stays throughout the song, the transition from soulful to hard-hitting shows that the band has an important message to give. Then comes the profanity throughout the lyrics. The abusive language in the song is not supposed to have shock value; instead it is an honest, unfiltered articulation of the group’s struggles in the ganglands of south-central Los Angeles. The message is better delivered by keeping the language true and not trying to give it mainstream marketability. The most interesting aspect of this song, which I believe is due to the genius songwriting behind it, is the way the narrative is framed. The song is actually a court case. N.W.A turns the criminal justice system on its head by having a court with black rappers and gangsters as the judge and prosecuting attorneys while a white man is the one being prosecuted. Although the whole song is equipped with one great lyric after another, my favorite line has got to be the following, “They put out my picture with silence, ’Cause my identity by itself causes violence.” This may initially sound like the words of a cocky gangster but it is actually true of the perceptions people have of poor blacks in the United States. A whole section of society is identified by their association with or proximity to crime and violence.
The boys in Israel have also been causing trouble in their own right. As Nafar grew older he became more inspired by socially-conscious hip hop and started writing provocative protest songs with his group DAM. When a Tel Aviv club was made the target of a suicide attack, there was global outrage over Palestinian terrorism. However, DAM was quick to bring light to what they considered the real issue by writing the lyrics, “Who is the terrorist/ You are a terrorist/ You have taken everything I own in my land.” I do not think they are in any way condoning the attacker but rather pointing to what they believe led to such a horrendous act that is the treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel. Nafar also attracted more controversy and got to share his story with the world, by playing a semi fictionalized version of himself named Kareem in the film “Junction 48.” Kareem, like Nafar, is a Palestinian rapper who comes from the slums of Lod. As Kareem tries to make it through the hurdles of Israel’s music scene, he struggles with problems that hold him back. His friends are involved in drug trafficking and his girlfriend’s family has forbidden her to date. Existential questions continue to pose Kareem (and Nafar) as he stands at a metaphorical junction or crossroads. Should he be seen with his girlfriend? Should he be singing at an Israeli club if he wants to be loyal to his Palestinian heritage? An interesting thing about Nafar is how he is able to enrage the intolerants in both camps, Israelis and Palestinians. Nafar spoke out about how his film was snubbed for the top awards by the Israel Academy of Film and Video, by pointing out how there are no Arabs among the nearly 1,000 voters. He also criticized the elite Israeli left for embracing Arab talent as long as they do not push the Palestinian narrative. During Nafar’s performance at the film awards, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev left in protest as Nafar was reciting Mahmoud Darwish. Regev also tried to cancel Nafar’s concert at a festival claiming that Nafar is an opportunist at delivering his anti-Israel message; however, the cancellation attempt was not successful. Despite his criticisms of Israel, Nafar still does not sit well with the conservative Arab population of Israel. Many do not accept his message and activism simply because he is a rapper. He has also been vocal about problems with conservative Arab thinking, as he shows in his film how his girlfriend is not allowed to date. He has also openly criticized the honor killings in Lod and received threats from some local hard-liners for performing with a woman. Regardless, Nafar and DAM are still important voices for the Palestinian and Israeli youth today. With the recent addition of Maysa Daw, the multi-talented Palestinian-Israeli from Haifa, the group’s feminist message has a woman deliverer.
The music of DAM draws on American hip hop influences and fuses them with the more local sounds of Arab and Palestinian folk music. The end product is a great juxtaposition of sounds both old and new, and a message both relevant and urgent. The themes they cover include fighting oppression, racism, poverty, drugs, women’s rights, and of course Israeli occupation. As pioneers of the Palestinian hip hop scene, DAM remain instrumental is spreading awareness. Nafar once called Palestinian hip hop “the CNN of Palestine,” undermining how important the music is for the youth to stay aware and active in their cause. One common theme in DAM’s music is pointing out how the institutions are paradoxically caught between democratic and Jewish. As Palestinian Israelis, their complaints to the state are somehow both that of an insider and an outsider. In the song “Stranger in My Own Country,” the group raps, “Ya,’ democratic to the Jewish soul And Zionist to the Arabic soul.” The song very poignantly captures how a state that tries to be both religious and democratic ends up creating polarized societies that do not allow all citizens to fully integrate. It also shows how the Jews and Arabs view Israel, the former as democratic and the latter as Zionist. In the same song, Mahmoud Jreri very subtly sings the following part, “All the ships are sailing/Leaving behind them sadness/That’s drowning our hearts/Again we are unwanted guests in our home/But our destiny is to stay physically close to our lands/While being spiritually far away from our nation/Who cares about us? We are dying slowly.” The sentimentality conveyed with only a few lines is one of the most moving things I have ever read. It almost has the emotionality of a classical Urdu ghazal or a Portuguese fado. DAM’s mission seems clear; they keep upsetting the dangerous extremists on both ends for the sake of the cause they believe in.
Great artists start creating dangerously when they know they can no longer stand not expressing. N.W.A changed the history of hip hop forever when they became the first group to be censored by the FBI and even paid the price, often violently. Yet they continued to create. DAM always found themselves caught between two worlds with no happy medium and increasing pressure and censorship from both sides. Yet they continued to create. The one fact that we should acknowledge about these groups is that they did not choose to approach a violent path. They were born in the conflict and grew around that violence. What they did was they took all of that and made beautiful art out of it. For the artists to grow up in two very different regions and still end up achieving similar goals shows two things. One, the mass appeal and reach of American popular culture and second how people all around the world face a similar struggle and art as a medium proves ever effective in giving them a voice. Tupac’s poem explains it the best, “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Provin’ nature’s laws wrong it learned how to walk without havin’ feet.”