In making my documentary film about electronic music, Modulations (1998), I learned a great deal about rap music. The genius of hip hop emerged first as party sport -- the urban poor salvaging musical parts to create something entirely new -- but soon morphed into an expression of grief and outrage as Ronald Reagan, crack cocaine, and gang violence sewed misery among African American communities, and ghettos from Harlem to Compton sprouted up on the map as MCs defiantly chronicled the uncensored history of Reagan's America.
Now the cat is out of the bag, and hip-hop has since expanded beyond our borders to give voice to the muted masses of places like Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq -- places suffering from racial inequality and foreign occupation, and the likewise negative fallout of ill-conceived US policies. "Fuck the police coming straight from the underground/ a young nigga's got it bad cause I'm brown/ and not the other color/ so police think/they have the authority/to kill a minority." These lyrics spoken by Ice Cube, for instance, could just as easily have been uttered by DAM (Da Arab MCs), a Palestinian hip-hop trio forced to live as "Israeli Arabs" in an Israeli slum. My current film, Cultures of Resistance (out Fall 2010), is an exploration of the variety of activism in a world plagued with war, oppression and poverty. I pay special attention to creative action, specifically, and in my travels throughout the Middle East I encountered a hip-hop reborn through artists like the Ramallah Underground and Shadia Mansour, both Palestinian, as well as London-based Iraqi rapper Lowkey (who are all part of a larger collective known as the Arab League of Hip Hop). Their flows cut deep against the tyranny of Israeli and US occupation of their lands as they call for equality for all people, and reaffirm their Arab identity despite brutal attempts at cultural erasure. The goal, Shadia said, was to tell the world that "Palestine is on the map," and always will remain so.
Like the MCs of earlier generations, technology has also helped in the form of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and Youtube, allowing these artists and others like them to broadcast their music on a global scale. The same internet that was developed by the US Department of Defense has now had a boomerang effect in helping the opponents of imperialism to network their efforts across borders as artists and activists. This has led to some pretty interesting collaborations. Most recently, Lowkey and Shadia Mansour were able to connect with renowned scholar Norman Finkelstein to embark on a "Free Palestine Tour" for the launch of Finkelstein's latest book, "This Time We Went Too Far," a meticulous and searing account of Israel's bloody Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza strip last year. Along with other Arab hip-hop artists, both Shadia and Lowkey have toured with a number of high-profile hip-hop acts in the US as well, and while in New York they paid a visit to DJ Jonny "Juice" Rosado, producer for the legendary Public Enemy- an early and natural influence for the resistance-minded Arab rappers. (See the video below for a glimpse of Lowkey and Shadia recording in his studio, and discussing the convergence of their music and political activism).
Fortunately, Shadia and Lowkey are not a rarity. I had the opportunity to meet many, many other hip-hop artists in the region, all of whom had stories of a life where to simply breathe is an act of resistance against cultural obliteration. Like Katibe 5. Members of the group, consisting of Palestinian youths who grew up in refugee camps in Lebanon, mused philosophically to me on the interconnectedness of the world, and how people everywhere must understand how their actions, or inaction, might affect others in far-away places like Palestine. Another popular hip hop crew I met in Gaza was DARG (Da Arabian Revolutionary Guys), who had been unable to tour abroad since the illegal blockade began. The blockade, which has long kept necessary supplies from reaching the people of Gaza, was also designed to keep the people of Gaza from exporting their story to the world. This has of course changed since Israeli commandos massacred nine humanitarian workers on the Mavi Marmara ship, part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, and the Egyptian government was pressured to ease the travel ban on DARG (they are now touring in Europe and will be coming to the US this Fall).
Without sounding grateful, it is interesting to see how failed American policies and their calamitous effects have bred vibrant hip-hop cultures both here and abroad. Although hip-hop in America has become largely dominated by consumer culture, the roots of the form remain strong and have spread abroad, from ghetto to ghetto, as a common tool of resistance and cultural affirmation. Will rap music alone save Palestine, end the war in Iraq, and end colonialism once and for all? Probably not. But hip-hop has presented itself to Arab youth as one of the few tools available to them to remind the western world, in its own language, that they are still here, and that they will not be silenced.