Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Straight outta the Middle East: Reflecting on personal experiences with Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop

Posted By on 04.03.13 at 10:53 AM

DAMs latest album
  • DAM's latest album
It's been a few weeks since I caught Israeli-Canadian rapper Shi 360 performing for an intimate crowd at SXSW, and I keep returning to my conflicted feelings about that experience. Shi is a talented MC with an intuitive grasp on how rhymes flow in a variety of languages, but even though Shi could spit with style I was disappointed at how often he didn't seem to have anything substantial to say; the dude dropped a lot of cliches about peace and love, which is all well and good, but I could have used something with a little more depth.

Shi's set was a marked contrast from the kind of Israeli rap I first experienced during a brief stint living in that country shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. That's when I enrolled in a study abroad program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, which is situated in a suburb north of Tel Aviv, and I decided to seek out some local hip-hop. I still recall walking into the town's music store, asking the ponytailed man behind the counter for an Israeli rap CD, and walking away with The Light and the Shadow, the breakout 2002 hit album from Subliminal*. I quickly became addicted, picking up a new Israeli hip-hop album almost weekly, snapping up flashy rap magazines and convincing anyone who could translate Hebrew to read them to me, and memorizing chunks of songs I was drawn to but didn't entirely understand.

The language and culture of Israel have always been a part of me; my father was born in the region in the final months of its existence as a British mandate, my parents met and were married on a kibbutz in the north, and I lived there as an infant. These days my grasp on Hebrew is less-than-rudimentary, and although the language remains foreign it's also paradoxically familiar—there are times when just hearing my dad speak in Hebrew will cause my olfactory memory to kick up a faint musty smell that reminds me of childhood. Although Hebrew had long been a part of me it still wasn't something I could always connect with—that is, until I heard a mess of Israelis spit with an enviable amount of fire.

My complex relationship with Hebrew and Israel was even thornier when it came to the rap I preferred. I admired Subliminal's talent, but that changed once I gained a more informed understanding of his work and how it reflected his right-wing, near-nationalistic ideology; I've long been supportive of a two-state solution regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so I continue to have issues with some of the content in Subliminal's songs. Fortunately I was able to find some other MCs who rapped with the same kind of passion as Subliminal without presenting the same ideological hangups, such as Mook E., who started out as a member of one of the country's first rap groups, Shabak. There is one act I wish I had listened to back then—DAM, aka Da Arabian MCs, the first Palestinian rap group. Fortunately, DAM will perform Friday night at Loyola University Chicago's Coffee Hall at McCormick Lounge (1000 W. Sheridan).

Hailing from Lod, an Israeli city that's southeast of Tel Aviv, the trio started in the 90s, drawing inspiration from a Tupac video that displayed a blighted reality the members of DAM felt reflected their own. DAM makes the kind of rap I sought from many Israeli MCs; the dudes drop raw raps with a flow that complements the natural inflections of their given languages (they mostly rap in Arabic but there's some Hebrew and English in their music), they blend popular rap beats with Middle Eastern pop and folk sounds, and they present thoughtful and inspired commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that draws upon their unique perspective**. DAM appears inclined to let people know every particular lyrical detail in each song; the trio's site includes English translations of every DAM song so fans and curious listeners can get a better idea of the story behind, say, "If I Go Back in Time," a cut off last year's Dabke on the Moon about a horrific experience of one woman's painful experience in Arab society and honor killings.

DAM isn't always mired in political distress, and parts of Dabke on the Moon have a carefree touch that's in keeping with the trio's perspective. The penultimate song, "Mama I Fell in Love With a Jew," is a Bruno Mars-esque twinkly pop track rapped mostly in English; it's about an Arab who falls for a Jewish woman in an elevator, and it's packed with throwaway tongue-in-cheek lines that toy with uncomfortable cultural tropes concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the only Arabic the Jewess knows is "freeze or I'll shoot"). There's also the album's title track, an escapist dance number speckled with autotune—it has a hard dance beat that at times reminds me of some of BBU's material. I hope they play it Friday. Doors open at 8:30 PM, and tickets are free for students and $5 for non-students.

*Subliminal has, coincidentally enough, collaborated with Shi 360.
**Although I don't agree with Subliminal's choice of words, he does articulate an emotionally charged point of view that's as vital to try to understand as what DAM presents.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.

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