The Middle East Channel

The Arab League of Hip Hop

As the Arab League weighs in on the value of restarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, another Arab League has formed and is poised to win more support, overseas and in the Middle East, than George Mitchell could ever dream of. I am speaking of the so-called Arab League* of Hip Hop, a conglomeration ...

As the Arab League weighs in on the value of restarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, another Arab League has formed and is poised to win more support, overseas and in the Middle East, than George Mitchell could ever dream of. I am speaking of the so-called Arab League* of Hip Hop, a conglomeration of rappers from across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, who have joined forces to spread their message and their music to audiences worldwide. While Hamas security forces were shutting down the first hip- hop concert in Gaza, the leaders of the Arab hip-hop movement, namely Shadia Mansour, the group DAM, Lowkey, and The Narcicyst, were preparing for their first performance together, a historic event which would solidify not only their union, but their supremacy as the voice of the Arab hip-hop revolution.

The growing political potency of Arab hip-hop has drawn the attention of the U.S. State Department, which last month sent out Brooklyn-based hip-hop band Chen Lo and the Liberation Family on a tour of North Africa and the Middle East. The group traveled to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and performed with some of the best local groups, such as NORES in Salé, Murder Eyez in Aleppo, and DJ Lethal Skillz in Beirut. This was, by far, the most extensive and well-designed tour of its kind and showed a serious commitment by the State Department to expand its use of hip-hop as a cultural diplomacy tool, specifically in its inclusion of prominent local artists. However, the exclusion of the Palestinian territories and Gaza on the tour gave a strong impression that the State Department was playing it safe, while sacrificing its best opportunity for real impact.

The show that was shut down by Hamas security forces at the end of last month showed that the new movement has plenty of opponents. As the B-Boy crew began its breakdance set, police burst in, shouting "The show is over!" A brave young dancer tried to explain to one of the policemen that, "Rap means: Respect for All People, but he didn’t seem to be listening. He said it was an immoral dance." Officially, Hamas claims that the organizers did not obtain the necessary permits, but it was clear that the event, which took place in a conservative area, posed other issues. But to deny these youngsters, who have literally no other outlet from their barricaded environment, an opportunity to transcend their imprisonment through dance and music is simply cruel. Such cultural repression is hardly worthy of a so-called Islamic Resistance Movement.

Another type of Palestinian resistance movement is taking place outside Gaza, far from the reach of Hamas. British/Palestinian rapper/singer Shadia Mansour recently came to New York to promote her new single, "Kofeyye Arabeyye/The Kufiya Is Arabic," a direct rebuttal to the creators of the "Israeli Keffiyeh," a Zionist variation on the Semitic scarf. The song, with a verse from pro-Palestinian American rapper M-1 (of Dead Prez), quickly became an underground sensation and earned not only a litany of criticism against the makers of the ‘Israeli’ version, but an outpouring of support for Palestine. Once again, hip-hop proves to be a powerful force shaping young hearts and minds, though it remains to be seen whether this debate will build bridges or generate more conflict across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

One thing is clear, however. Neither Hamas nor the U.S. State Department have the power to cut down or co-opt the sheer force of the Arab hip-hop artists who I saw on stage last weekend at a venue in Brooklyn. When DAM took the stage at Southpaw and called up their "Iraqi brothers," Narcicyst and Lowkey, and "the Queen of Arab Rap," the lovely Shadia Mansour, you’d have had to be across the river not to feel the rumbling of the floor as fans jumped up and down to welcome the artists to Brooklyn. And when they broke into their latest collaboration, the anthem "Long Live Palestine," and the 500-plus fans, adorned in black-and-white kufiyas and "Free Palestine" T-shirts, began pumping their fists and chanting along to every word in Arabic and in English, that’s when it hit me that this new Arab League of Hip Hop all-stars has a very clear objective in mind and it’s not just to endorse or reject negotiations with Israelis, or to criticize or valorize the actions of the U.S. government in their own backyards. Rather, their mission is to rally their own troops, the foot soldiers of their hip-hop revolution, the millions (yes, I said millions) of young fans, Arab and otherwise, across the globe, who follow not only their music but the messages contained within. This is their constituency, and it grows with every show, in every country that they are able to travel to, and with every new view of their Youtube channels, their Myspace pages, and their Twitter stream. And they don’t need anyone’s permission to do it except that of their fans, which, as I heard firsthand on Friday night, they have in spades.

So, what can Hamas do to stop these Arab hip-hop revolutionaries from taking a stage? And what can the U.S. government do to get them to promote its foreign-policy agenda? The answer to both is: very little. Nevertheless, both groups would be wise to rethink their approach to hip-hop and find new ways to get behind it, as opposed to standing in front or alongside. Whoever gets there first may discover a powerful and natural ally, insofar as hip-hop embodies both the spirit of diplomacy and that of armed resistance.

That said, watch the live performance of "Long Live Palestine" and read the lyrics. And remember, the battle for hearts and minds will be won with words, not weapons.

Joshua Asen is co-creator of the Hip Hop Diplomacy Project and award-winning documentary film, I Love Hip Hop in Morocco.

*The ‘Arab League’ also refers to the record label and management company created by Egyptian powerhouse, the Arabian Knightz, covering Cairo’s top talent, including MC Amin, Wighit Nazar, and The PharoZ, as well as Saudi superstar Qusai, Palestinian-American producer FredWreck, and Shadia Mansour, not to mention recent collaborations with DAM and other Arab rappers across the region. My apologies to Rush and the homies out in Cairo, Jeddah, and LA. [This text was added on May 4, 2010.]

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