A glimpse of Palestinian hip-hop

As Israel tries to erase Palestinian culture and history, Vivian Medithi peeks at the resilient local hip-hop scene.

Art by Tyler Farmer.

This column was initially written at the end of October for publication on Nov. 2 at a mainstream music publication. It has been lightly edited for timeliness and clarity.

The Jenin Horse (in Arabic, Al-Hissan) stood near the entrance of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank for more than 20 years. Five meters tall and made of materials scrounged from the wreckage of homes and cars, Al-Hissan was the culmination of a 2003 collaboration between German artist Thomas Kilpper, local artists, and children who would play football beneath its metal patchwork. These games defied the circumstances of Al-Hissan’s construction: its materials included “parts of the destroyed ambulance car in which a well-known local doctor got killed on emergency duty!” (the artist’s exclamation, not mine). When the statue was dedicated, Kilpper expressed his “wish that the horse may get well received and beloved in his town and that one day it might be walking or galloping [sic] in a free Palestine without roadblocks and checkpoints and soldiers…” On Sunday, October 29, Israeli Defense Forces raided the refugee camp, killing four alleged terrorists before liberating the statue with a bulldozer.

There are times when talking about art, about music, feels frivolous. The past two months — as thousands have been killed in Gaza and millions more beg for the bombing to cease — have been one such time. Digital documentation is splintering government and media narratives while the Western world — whose taxes pay for the bombs and the jets that drop them — is witnessing a vicious streak of censorship, increased surveillance, and deadly Islamophobic violence. This is just a mere glimpse of the repression that Palestinians experience not only on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, but around the world, whether on social media or in the streets, to say nothing of the news.

During this moment in history, there is little consumers or culture workers can do that is bigger than what we might do as citizens of the countries sponsoring the slaughter. It does matter that people show up on the street at protests, that we divest and boycott targeted brands (where those things are still legally allowed), that we call our representatives to demand a ceasefire. These are the smallest and least of the gestures we might make to our shared humanity.

Yet even in times like these, art matters. I say this not because it means so much to people who are struggling to survive in this moment, but because it clearly means so much to the people trying to kill them. As artillery fire targets universities and municipal archives in a purported search for Hamas, it becomes apparent that death is insufficient to those with nuclear codes: they intend a complete erasure of Palestinian history. Culture — food, music, clothing — is simply another front in the ideological campaign. I’ve been listening to more contemporary Palestinian music in recent weeks, first some NTS sets from Ramallah in the West Bank (this one with rap collective Saleb Wahad and independent hip-hop label BLTNM rules), then some albums from Palestinian rappers and an incredible documentary on the early 2000s hip-hop scene in Occupied Palestine. I watched a Palestinian DJ cross forbidden borders on YouTube just to spin a full set, no arbitrary military curfew. I’m in awe of the resilience they shouldn’t have to need.

Muqata’a – Kamil Manqus

This 2021 album by the godfather of Palestinian underground hip-hop weaves programmed drums, field recordings, spliced vocals, and samples of classical Arab music and modern Palestinian radio into an off-kilter tapestry of glitchy, tumultuous instrumentals. There’s the airless dirge of “Dirasat ‘Ulya,” built around a nasty 808 and a harsh metallic note as drum breaks and vocal textures zoom in and out of earshot, and the hackysack rhythm of “Shay’an Fa Shay’an,” (“little by little”) doused in eerie dial tones that make the instinctual impulse to bob your head feel somehow incorrect.

My favorite track here is “Simya,” named for “an ancient spiritual science, very similar to alchemy” that utilizes numbers and letters in specific patterns, which Muqata’a deployed metaphorically when recording this album, “creating my own patterns to communicate with my ancestors.” Here, that communication manifests as foxtrotting synths over a looping sample of degraded string instruments, brief bursts of bass distortion and locust chirp hihats.

“Our culture is being erased, our history is being erased, our archives are being destroyed. So what are we doing?” Muqata’a explained in an interview with Inverted Audio. “When Palestinians were kicked out of their villages and cities, which is still happening to this day, a lot of people, including my grandparents, left their record collections in their home as they fled… For me, trying to sample that specific music is a statement to regain access to those records.”

Haykal – ili

I don’t speak Arabic, so my appreciation of Arabic music comes with natural limitations. Then again, I feel that way about a lot of music I enjoy: K-pop artists I can’t interpret by ear, the first few times you hear an English-speaking rapper mince words into new slang and phonemes. I always want to know what an artist is saying, but you don’t always need the exact words to get the point.

ili features production by Muqata’a and his mentee Julmud, as well as Amman-based Big Murk; despite the language barrier, Haykal’s music could easily blend into a mix with American hip-hop, moving from the dour trap stomp of “Ashba7” to the wispy melodies of the Atari-produced “yayayaya,” buoyant and wavy thanks to a burbling synth and gently shimmering chords.

The stop-start groove of “3asal” operates in a similarly dreamy register, but Julmud’s curt snare hits add a sharp edge; the interplay of his drums and Haykal’s enunciated flows is like watching Olympic fencers go at it. Muqata’a’s contributions here lay the backdrop for the intro and a pair of skits — of the three, “a7 sheliner (skit)” is the highwatermark, a simple phone call elevated with with just two piano chords and the textures of street traffic and a phantom sample that sounds like a mere echo of itself.

Julmud – Tuqoos

Released via Muqata’a’s publishing label Bilna’es, Tuqoos constructs a surreal musical funhouse that feels as though it could dissipate at any moment like a mirage. Saleb Wahad-affiliated Julmud’s visions of the West Bank are tethered to the physical realm by percussion, the kind of visceral rhythms that reverberate in your chest when the speakers are turned up high. See: the dusky shuffle of “Marhale A’la,” where a sample dries up to a fraction of its initial volume roughly one minute into the track but the beat never stops, glitching and mutating before it resolves atop the initial sample in a rewarding synthesis. Or how the phone notification ding of “Roh Al Nahrain” is softened by a gurgle of water and woody drums before a sinewy bassline comes into focus.

“Kassara” is scaled up and blown out, controlled cacophonic chaos; at the opposite end of Julmud’s sonic range is a song like “Ishi Hawa’i,” crackling with static as a whispery sample slips in and out of view, barely any percussion in sight. The syrup-slow sample underlying “Toshkol Asi” maintains a semi-urgent pace thanks to persistent drums before segueing into the slightly sunnier and quicker-paced “Kalma’,” which manages a similar feat thanks to a stabbing guitar.

“Harti” combines a thereminic synth line with an ominous low end that would make Lex Luger proud, then breaks open with a fluttering of snares, tracing new syncopations along the undulating melody of the beat as the song progresses. Julmud’s voice enters first as a crooning falsetto; when he switches to rapping, his doubled-up voice slowly picks up momentum, like he’s speeding up the BPM of his vocal take. When the hook briefly recurs, it sticks around just long enough to wind us down from the high before the song extinguishes.

Slingshot Hip-Hop (2008, dir. Jackie Reem Saloum)
Click the poster to watch.

This documentary chronicles the mid-2000s hip-hop scene in Occupied Palestine, primarily PR (Palestinian Rapperz) from the Gaza Strip and the trio DAM from Lyd, Israel, but also an assortment of affiliated acts across these areas and the West Bank, including Arapeyat and the since-disbanded MWR.

DAM are among the first Arabic rappers, inspired by Tupac music videos depicting the policing of Black Americans, a mirror to daily life for Arab citizens in Israel. But even in this, they are privileged over their counterparts in the West Bank, whose travel to Israel is heavily restricted, and in the Gaza Strip, whose residents are almost totally forbidden from leaving. When PR make their debut live performance in Gaza, their peers in ‘48 Palestine and the West Bank are seriously impressed by the footage, but only able to fete the trio through phone calls and instant messenger. Escalating civil conflict only exacerbates the impossibility of meeting. “I just want to hold Mahmoud [Shalaby, of MWR], Tamer [Nafar, of DAM], and the others in my arms so I don’t feel alone in this world,” PR’s Mohammed Alfarra sighs near the film’s close.

Slingshot Hip-Hop is a film rife with unmistakable images: an elementary school whose library was converted into an IDF police station, children in refugee camps who don’t know their Palestinian origins, unmoving traffic at military checkpoints in Gaza, suspicious looks from an Israeli soldier as Mahmoud speaks Arabic on a bus (later, police on the street demand to see his ID over the same “offense”). When Israel cuts off electricity to the Gaza Strip during the Second Intifada, it’s as if you’ve been plunged into the dark yourself.

About 30 minutes in, DAM and MWR illegally visit the West Bank to put on “the first hip-hop show in a refugee camp.” At the Deheishe Refugee Camp, they meet Bilal and Rami, who ask the rappers if they will help the young teens. “Our friend was martyred and we want a song that will represent what he means to us,” the pair explain. “There was a demonstration, and there were clashes with the army. We’d throw rocks and they would shoot at us.”

The pair perform their song alongside DAM and MWR. Four months later, when the Israeli Army raids the camp once again, Bilal and Rami are taken from their homes and put in prison for “throwing rocks in a protest, two years prior.” When DAM manages to get on the phone with Bilal in jail, he still has yet to receive a trial date. Worse still, Rami is set to be charged with 10 years in prison by prosecutors; Bilal may be so lucky as to get just two or three years. “They torture us all the time but we got used to it,” Bilal shrugs. “No you should never get used to it,” Tamer exhorts. After the call ends, DAM go outside and cry.