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Slingshot Hip-hop, and the power of digital Palestine

Monday night, Rachel and I went to our local movie theatre to watch “Slingshot Hip-Hop“, a documentary on Palestinian hiphop by Palestinian/Syrian/American filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum. It’s the sort of film where 83 minutes of cinema can lead towards several hours of intense (and perhaps heated) conversation. The film’s stars are a set of Palestinian hiphop crews, including DAM (Da’ Arabian MCs) who are based in Lod, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and PR (The Palestinian Rapperz) who are based in Gaza. The film traces the lifecycle of each crew, the inspirations behind their music, their struggles to be heard and accepted, and their quest to play a show together.

Trailer for “Slingshot Hip-hop” by Jackie Reem Salloum

This aspiration – a DAM/PR joint concert – provides the dramatic structure for the film. It’s extremely difficult for “’48 Palestinians” – Palestinians living within Israel – and “’67 Palestinians” – Palestinians living within the West Bank or Gaza – to travel and visit one another. The struggles the two crews go through are a powerful illustration of the circumscribed lifestyle Gazans in particular are living, confined to a small, crowded, tightly controlled territory, and the difficulties of creating a coherent national identity in a “Palestine” that’s split between two disconnected territories and a diaspora.

“Born Here” by DAM

Rachel offers a helpful review of the film, as well as reflections on what is and isn’t covered in the narrative presented. As someone deeply committed to Israeli/Palestinian dialog, she’s a little disappointed that the film didn’t look at spaces – like Hip Hop Sulha – where the Israeli and Palestinian rap communities have been able to come together, connecting on stage.

As someone obsessed with the idea of “connection”, what I found most interesting about the film was the ways in which the kids in these two marginal neighborhoods found ways to connect with each other and with broader hiphop culture. An early scene shows DAM in the bedroom of one of the members in Lod. A set of exterior shots makes it clear that Lod can feel more like a developing nation than a suburb of Israel’s glossiest city. But the DAM boys have an excellent CD collection, featuring the hits of political hiphop, from Public Enemy to Talib Kweli, by way of Tupac. Their early rhymes, showed in enthusiastic but embarrasing footage, are highly derivative gansta rap… ten years later, they’re sharp political statements, which one member of the crew describes as 30% Public Enemy, 30% Palestinian authors like Edward Said and 40% the streets of Lod. The DAM boys are tightly connected to parallel communities – Palestinian intellectuals, and American political hiphop – even though they’re physically distant from many of the conversations.

(A side note: It’s interesting to rethink some of the rhetoric of late 1980s hiphop in regards to these Palestinian rappers. Public Enemy’s lyrics made it clear that Chuck D saw America as a war zone with black Americans targeted by the white majority. I heard those lyrics as poetic, not literal, part of the same atmosphere produced by the air raid sirens that punctuated live PE shows – songs like “Don’t Believe the Hype” seemed to caution against taking PE’s lyrics too literally. But the same phrases in the mouths of Palestinian rappers, especially those in Gaza, have a very different resonance. Parts of New York City may have felt like a war zone when PE was spitting tracks, but the same lyrics sound very different in a literal war zone.)

The internet is a major reason why these connections are possible. In discussing DAM’s first hit, the filmmaker doesn’t talk about record sales, but about “over a million downloads”. In interviews in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, all the kids talk about discovering Arabic rap online and downloading as much as they could. Every shot of a rapper’s bedroom features a computer, usually a beat-up tower lying on its side, case off, innards cooled by a room fan. The computers are where rappers make or find beats, record tracks, and send their music out to the masses.

Despite my obsession with digital connection, it took my breath away when the filmmakers made it possible for PR and DAM to connect for the first time… via mobile phone. Salloum and her crew filmed PR’s first public show at the Red Crescent Society in Gaza, and brought the footage to show Palestinian rappers in Israel. We see the members of DAM call the PR crew on their mobile phones and congratulate them on a great first show. Abeer, a Palestinian rapper and R&B singer, gives one of the PR guys her IM handle, and we watch him blush beet red on the other end of the phone in Gaza.

I’ve written a bit about the ways in which the Internet can create a virtual nation that maps only partially onto a physical nation. When Kenya exploded in violent protest after the 2007 elections, a virtual Kenya, including Kenyans in South Africa, the UK and America, as well as those in the physical nation, sprang into action, building efforts to counter the violence.

From Birmingham, Alabama David Kobie decided to disable the increasingly tense Mashada forum and put up I Have No Tribe in its place, urging Kenyans to confirm that their national identity was more important that tribal tensions. Kenyans used services like Mama Mike’s to send phone minutes, petrol and food aid home – and bloggers like Juliana Rotich rode shotgun on the resulting aid convoys, documenting the distribution of food aid to those who needed it. Shuttling between the US and Kenya, Binyavanga Wainaina penned “No Country for Old Hatreds“, a plea in the New York Times to understand the Kenyan conflict as a political, not ethnic one. And a team of Kenyans in Eldoret, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Alabama and Florida came together to build Ushahidi, a platform to document Kenyan violence, which has gone on to be a popular platform for distributed reporting now in use around the world.

Digital Kenya is bigger than physical Kenya – it includes expatriate Kenyans and people who love the nation, even if they’re not Kenyan. So I wasn’t surprised by the existence of a digital Palestine… but I was blown away by the realization that digital Palestine exists in part because it’s impossible to exist in physical Palestine. The guys from DAM dismiss the idea of travelling to Gaza to give a concert as being roughly as fanciful as planning a concert on Venus – the difficulty PR has in leading Gaza to travel to the West Bank appears to confirm their skepticism. This virtual, digital Palestine beats no common ground at all, as far as the rappers are concerned – it lets them follow each other’s work and cheer each other’s successes – but the longing on both sides to connect in person feels almost Shakesperian. My guess is that Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have been content IM’ing each other, and the separation between DAM and PR becomes yet another factor fueling the anger and passion that infuses much of the men’s work.

I wish there were some way to make “Slingshot Hip-Hop” required watching for aspiring MCs around the world. There’s a lot of guys out there who’ve got a lot of style but not much to say. You may find what DAM, PR and the others have to say uncomfortable or inspiring, but you can’t say that they’re talking a lot and saying nothing.

I wrote an earlier post on this film as it was still in production, before the storyline about DAM and PR emerged. It generated a very productive comment thread, including some pointers to collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian youth around hiphop.