A taste of far away
An encounter with the Dalai Lama

Slingshot Hiphop

Our local single-screen movie theatre, Images Cinema, just screened Slingshot Hip-Hop, a film about Palestinian hip-hop made by Jackie Reem Salloum.

The trailer for Slingshot Hiphop.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I have complicated feelings about Israel and Palestine. I spent last summer in Jerusalem, and came to really love the city while I was there. I have dear friends in Israel, as well as family. I'm committed to Israel's continuing existence. And I'm also committed to the hope of a sustainable independent state of Palestine alongside it.

While I was living in Israel last summer, I made a concerted effort to engage not only with the things which delighted me about Israel (the history, the community, the wonder of hearing my language of prayer as a living tongue on the streets), but also the things I knew would make me angry and sad. I spent a day with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, and went on a a day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron, both of which were powerful and heart-wrenching.

The trailer for Slingshot Hip-Hop gave me two expectations: first, that the film would highlight the injustices faced by Palestinians in a way that would upset me, and secondly, that the film would likely paint Palestinians as purely victims, and Israelis as the monolithic bad guys, which would also upset me. Any one-sided portrayal of either side necessarily ignores the complicated realities of both communities, and this film looked likely to be pretty one-sided.

But I believe it's important to hear each side's story as each side tells it. Which means I feel an obligation to encounter both Israeli narratives and Palestinian narratives, even when they make me uncomfortable. Besides: I like a lot of hiphop. So we went to see the film.

Here's how our movie theatre describes the movie:

Hip Hop has historically been linked to messages of social consciousness, a means of channeling energy into artistic expression rather than physical violence. Hip Hop culture has now spread across the world, often as a way for disenfranchised youth groups to get their message out.

Slingshot Hip Hop braids together the stories of young Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel as they discover Hip Hop and employ it as a tool to surmount divisions imposed by occupation and poverty. From internal checkpoints and Separation Walls to gender norms and generational differences, this is the story of young people crossing the borders that separate them.

I was curious to see how the film would compare to Democracy in Dakar, an indie film about hip-hop and activism in Senegal which Ethan reviewed a few months ago. Before we went, I took a few minutes to read Levantine Hip-Hop 101: Who's Who in the Middle East Rap Game by Neil Ungerleider, published at Slate.com in 2002. It's a few years out of date, but it gave me a good starting-point for understanding the (unsurprisingly complicated) local hiphop scene. (Added bonus: audio links.) Two of the songs to which Slate linked in partial form are tracks I already knew, and they strike me as an excellent juxtaposition:

First The Sticker Song ("Shir haSticker") by Israeli band Hadag Nahash -- the lyrics consist entirely of the text of recent Israeli bumper stickers, juxtaposed in a fascinating (and, I think, subtly furious) way. Here's a YouTube video subtitled in Hebrew and English:

"The Sticker Song," HaDag Nahash

And secondly, by DAM (Da Arabic MCs; the name also means "blood" in Hebrew and in Arabic) there's "Born Here" -- sung in Arabic and Hebrew. Here it is on YouTube, in both languages with English subtitles:

"Born Here," DAM

The Slate piece argues that "Despite the gulf between them, the hip-hop communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories largely get along. DAM regularly toured with Jewish acts, while Sagol 59 takes pains in interviews to illustrate his lack of enmity toward most Arabs." (Of course, that was 2006; the situation may be bleaker now, post-Operation-Cast-Lead.)

Slingshot Hiphop is a good film, though the filmmaker doesn't signpost well, so it's hard to tell as you watch how long it's going to be or where you are in the general narrative arc. But the movie does a nice job of introducing a variety of Palestinian hip-hop artists: DAM (based in Lod, outside of Tel Aviv) and PR ("Palestinian Rapperz," based in Gaza), a female artist named Abeer (Lod again, though she seems to have moved to Baltimore in 2008 after the film came out), girl group Arapeyat and Mahmoud Shalabi (both from Akko.)

A few things stood out for me. First, the way the artists in Lod consider themselves "'48 Palestinians" and those in Gaza call themselves "'67 Palestinians." (The reference, of course, is to Israel's wars in 1948 and 1967; the '48 Palestinians have been living in Israel since the state was founded, while the '67 Palestinians inhabit the West Bank and Gaza, the Occupied Territories.) I hadn't realized those were disparate identities, though it makes sense that they would be. I was also struck by how Palestinians from Gaza aren't allowed to visit the West Bank, much less the rest of Israel. The hip-hop scene started in Lod with DAM, and it's clear that the guys in the Gaza-based PR idolize the guys in DAM... but they spend the whole movie talking on the phone and via IM, unable to meet until the very brief epilogue. It's one thing to intellectually understand what Jeff Halpern of ICAHD calls the "matrix of control" (read my post about my day with ICAHD if this term is unfamiliar to you) but it's another thing to see it in action.

What language each person speaks is inevitably politicized. We watched as a respectful Israeli TV host came to interview two members of DAM (brothers Tamar and Suhel Nafar) and their parents, and of course the interview was conducted in Hebrew. Not surprisingly, they all speak lovely Hebrew, and I couldn't help feeling excited that I was able to take my eyes off the subtitles and listen to the language instead! We also saw DAM appearing on an Israeli TV show, with a live Israeli audience, and they clearly connected with the Hebrew-speaking crowd. Of course, we also heard a member of DAM talking about how he used to speak only Hebrew on buses because otherwise people stare at you as though you were a suicide bomber -- but now he doesn't do that anymore, because he has a right to speak his own language even in public. His (Arabic) remarks are filmed on a bus, with Israeli soldiers sitting nearby, and sure enough, it's an uncomfortable scene.

Ethan and I talked a lot, when we got home, about the origins of hip-hop in the Bronx. (Here's one hip-hop history; Wikipedia offers another, though neither makes explicit mention of the fires burning in the Bronx or the influx of crack cocaine in the late 70s, both of which were part of the story as Ethan told it to me since they fed into the "race war" rhetoric which was part of the early genre.) It's fascinating to see how that rhetoric repeats itself now among Palestinian hip-hop artists -- and how (unfortunately) valid it seems.

In one memorable scene, the members of DAM visit D'heishe refugee camp in the West Bank and meet local kids who are mourning a friend who was killed while throwing stones at Israeli tanks. They teach him to write a rap to express his feelings. (Personal moment of overload: I ate lunch in that very same cultural center on my day trip to Bethlehem.) Later in the film, we see them talking on the phone with the kid who wrote the rap, who was jailed a few months later for having thrown stones a few years before. At the time when that latter scene was filmed, he'd been in prison for 8 months without a trial. He looked to me to be about 14.

Part of what pleased me in the film was the insistence, on the part of the rappers and also their parents (who seem bemused by their kids' strange styles of dress and modes of singing, but also seem on the whole very proud) that violence is not the answer: speech is the answer. The artists go into Palestinian youth centers, where they're largely idolized, and preach the gospel of using your voice instead of stones.

Abeer performs in Baltimore in 2008.

I was also struck by the film's subtle feminist message. Abeer talks about how her hip-hop career has largely been secret; she doesn't want to let people know that she's out there doing this, so when she gets in a car to drive to one of her own shows, she ducks behind a hoodie, hoping not to be seen. But she's out there, and she's singing about the disenfranchisement of women, and the film celebrates her. (So do the male hiphop artists, and so does her audience.)

What was hardest for me about watching the film was the footage of destruction in Gaza. We saw footage of an apartment block before a bombing, and then footage of the block after the bombing. Rubble everywhere, rebar and concrete, people picking through the debris looking for any salvageable possessions, a passel of stunned-looking small children standing stock-still and staring. It looks like a war zone. And this movie was made before Operation Cast Lead; I know that whatever devastation is depicted in this movie, the reality of last December dwarfs it. I look at that devastation, and I don't have to wonder how the people whose lives were destroyed feel about Israel or Israelis.

The film mostly doesn't descend into overt anti-Zionist rhetoric. Salloum makes relatively little use of stock footage of Israeli tanks menacing Palestinian stone-throwers. I think there was one mention of Zionist ideology (one of the rappers daydreams about founding a school where Palestinian children could learn their own history, instead of learning about the Zionist founders of Israel), but on the whole, Salloum lets the circumstances of these kids' lives speak for themselves. The film doesn't editorialize (much) about how it takes five hours to travel 15 miles within Gaza because of the checkpoints; it just shows, and lets the audience draw our own inferences. Likewise the scene where PR, finally granted a permit to leave Gaza and be part of a pan-Palestinian hiphop concert in the West Bank, excitedly drives toward the checkpoint... and then we cut to DAM, on stage, offering a long-distance shout-out to PR, who despite their official exit permit had been stopped at the border of Gaza, not allowed to go through.

The article Yo peace, bo shalom takes a hard look at the disparate worlds inhabited by Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop artists. Sankha Guha writes:

In such bleak surroundings, it's hard to imagine that Arabs and Jews will ever co-exist within Israel, let alone solve the big issue of Palestinian sovereignty. But despite the tough talk of his lyrics, Tamer must be an optimist. He raps in Hebrew as well as in Arabic, believing that hip-hop may provide a common culture that can open a few minds.

And he has collaborated with several Israeli artists, including Quami, who says: "The effect of a song like Tamer and me did together is that Jews can look at Tamer and say, 'He's a person, he's not Arab to me, he's no different to me.' Maybe Tamer's crowd will look at me the same way - I can only hope so."

(Quami is Israeli artist Quami de la Fox. Tamer is Tamer Nafar of DAM, a onetime friend and colleague of Israeli rapper Subliminal; their relationship and its public dissolution is featured in the film Channels of Rage.) But by the article's end, it runs head-on into major bones of contention between the two sides again, and the thread of optimism vanishes. I don't blame Guha for the bleakness of tone. How can one find common ground between DAM's "Born Here" (translated lyrics) and Subliminal's "Biladi" (though he raps in Hebrew, the song title is Arabic for "My land" -- transliterated and translated lyrics here)? Each side feels so passionately that the land is theirs, and that the other side has been a traitorous and untrustworthy partner in the "peace process."

The film I'd really like to see is one which looks at Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop across religious and cultural boundaries. One which brings DAM and PR and Abeer together with Rebel Sun of Coolooloosh and Corner Prophets, "a cultural initiative which intends to inject hip hop related arts and events into the Jerusalem cultural scene," and which is still working "to inspire a new generation of Israelis & Palestinians to use art and music as a way of interacting with one another as a means of finding understanding and common ground between them." At the end of the film there could be another Hip Hop Sulha, which "reinvents the concept of the traditional Arab sulha [reconciliation] by bringing leading Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop musicians...together to celebrate peace and religious tolerance via the performing arts."

But that's not the film that Salloum intended to make. She wanted to tell the story of Palestinian hip-hop artists and how they respond to their community's struggle with their art. If you're interested in hiphop or in Israel/Palestine, I recommend the film. It may not be easy for folks who support Israel to watch -- but for me, that's part of what makes it so important to see. It's good to hear the voices of people who are coming from another point of view, even if what they have to say may be painful to hear.

ETA: Ethan's weighed in with a terrific post -- Slingshot Hip-Hop and the Power of Digital Palestine -- which looks at this film through some slightly different lenses. Really worth a read.

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