It’s a hot night in the centre of the Palestinian West Bank town of Ramallah. Tonight the peace is disturbed not by the Islamic call to prayer or Israeli gunfire but by the sound of hip-hop music.
In the bedroom turned studio of a small apartment, 23 year old hip-hop producer Basil Abbas gazes at a computer screen honing his beats while MC Boikutt frantically scribbles down lyrics in both Arabic and English.
They are members of the Ramallah Underground Collective who are busy writing a new chapter in the history of a music born over 25 years ago in the neglected and decaying neighbourhoods of New York city.
In Palestine it seems that hip-hop represents a new form of protest adopted into an old Arab tradition of passing down history and folklore through stories and music.
Mahmoud Shalaby of Acre-based hip-hop crew MWR says of the black American pioneers of hip-hop, “They made a weapon. And with this weapon they fought until they got their rights. We don’t just want to go and drop some stones. We want to drop our lyrics.”
The Ramallah Underground’s latest project is an EP entitled “No Borders”. On one side four tracks made by four different European producers are rhymed over by four different Arab MCs. On the other side four different European MCs rhyme over beats made by four different Arab producers.
Like their British hip-hop and grime contemporaries, Palestinian MCs often place graphic descriptions of their own experiences and struggles in a sharply political context. One of the internationally best known Palestinian hip-hop crews, Dam, had a hit recently with a tune entitled Meen Erhabe? (Who Is The Real Terrorist?).
Dam come from the Arab Israeli town of Lod – a town that has emerged as one of the key centres of Arab hip-hop.
But their international recognition, secured by recent visits to the US and London, is exceptional. With freedom of movement severely restricted for all Palestinians, it is the internet that has provided many of the artists with their only opportunity to reach a global audience.
Basil Abbas told me that it was the internet that gave the Ramallah Underground Collective hope of being heard.
It’s a logic endorsed by Jenin based MC and producer Rami who has attempted to set up the online label MMD Records. Opportunities to gain local audiences are often obstructed by a chronic lack of both funds and chances to perform.
Jenin’s only theatre was destroyed during the Israeli army’s Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. What’s more, major record labels in Israel show no interest in signing Palestinian or left wing Israeli artists.
This is despite the fact that Israelis and Palestinians have been united by the electrifying performances of Palestinian hip-hop crews at festivals in Tel Aviv and Nazareth.
Of course the degree to which music can ever be an effective weapon against occupation and oppression must be questioned.
And, like many weapons, either side in a conflict can use it – as the worryingly high sales of Tel Aviv’s right wing Zionist rapper Subliminal demonstrate.
However, this is a time when so much of the worldwide mainstream media reduces the people of Palestine to caricatured victims, or more often vilified aggressors, in a misunderstood conflict. The very existence of a vibrant hip-hop culture reaching out to a global audience undermines the engineered assumptions of imperialism.
As Basil Abbas explains, “There are many different reasons to produce a tune for us. One of the major reasons is what we call in hip-hop terms ‘representing’.
“A lot of our stuff is produced to represent us – to represent Palestinians. We’re not nationalist – we’re even anti-nationalist people. But because of the situation we’re in we find a need to represent Palestine, to say ‘Hey, we’re here.’”
Dave Randall is a musician with Faithless and Slovo. To hear Slovo’s collaboration with Boikutt of the Ramallah Underground collective go to www.slovo.co.uk For more information about Palestinian hip-hop go to www.ramallahunderground.com or www.Arabrap.net or www.zebox.com/rami
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