How Phat Conquered Palestine

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Steve Sabella

Da Arabian MC's, a Palestinian rap group.

Public Enemy frontman Chuck D once called hip-hop the CNN of urban youth. More recently, rap mogul and entrepreneur Russell Simmons called it a "worldwide cultural phenomena that transcends race." So it is fitting that hip-hop has found a new home in one of the world's most volatile regions: the Middle East.

Leading the movement is a Palestine trio of lyricists who call themselves DAM, a triple-loaded name: an acronym for 'Da Arabian MCs, the Arabic for "blood" and the Hebrew for "eternity." The group doesn't do the formula, commercialized rap music that gets a lot of radio play; instead DAM is a vanguard for a politically charged subgenre of rap that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It's our life, it's our window. Whatever has happened to us, we think about it, we write it," said Tamer Nafar, who partnered with his younger brother Suhell and his friend, Mahmoud Jreri to form the group in 1999. He says his major influence was Tupac Shakur's music in the 1990s, and artists that came before like Public Enemy and KRS 1. Their flow is almost entirely in Arabic, over music that links them to the region. But the sampling and even the non-English rap style borrows unmistakably from American hip-hop.

"Sometimes its about love, sometimes its about who is best on the microphone," said Jreri who sat with his cohorts backstage after a recent performance in Brooklyn. "We have love for hip-hop and we are not only taking it as political, but politics is part of our life."

In the same way that American rappers react to urban poverty and strife, the Palestinians react to the poverty in the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. DAM's signature tune "Meen Irhabi" ("Who's The Terrorist"), sparks the same sentiments as songs by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Other artists like Gaza's Palestinian Rappers and Egypt's Arabian Knightz help bolster the popularity of the music.

Conservative and fundamentalist religious critics however have made it difficult for hip hop artists to perform in many venues. The group Palestinian Rappers were reportedly chased off the stage during a performance by teenagers said to be linked to Hamas. There has also been scant contact between Arab rap artists and the equally popular Israeli hip-hop movement.

But despite the hurdles, the musicians go from gig to gig because they see they are having an effect. "Artists make political statements subtly and not so subtly and those statements have an impact on the audience," said Bakari Kitwana, who serves as Artist in Residence at the Center for the Study of Race Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago. "This is what hip-hop does at its best, so we we see young people gravitating toward hip hop, seeing their own conditions and have hip-hop giving them a voice."

Jackie Salloum, a filmmaker who is producing a documentary about the Middle Eastern rap scene called Slingshothiphop said the movement had been small, but grew quickly. "In Gaza it caught on and people were influenced by it," she explained. "When I got there, there were only 10 guys rhyming, but within a year, there were 60."

Hip-hop is seen as one of the gifts of African-American culture to the world's creative landscape. Rhyme artists like DAM and others spent years listening to their favorite rappers, dressing like them and emulating their beats. Now they want to have the same kind of global impact. "We know about Afro Americans through hip hop," Suheil Nafar said. "So all the world will know about Palestine through hip-hop."