"We Are the Sugar Hill Gang of Palestine!"
DAM has taken on a pioneering role in the newly emerging young Palestinian hip hop scene. What brought you into contact with the genre?
Tamer Nafar: My first model was the American 2Pac. Over the years, I've developed a flow to express the Arabic language as rap, strongly influenced by the Algerian group MBS. In 2000 I booked a studio and recorded a single track. That made me so popular that I suddenly found myself performing in front of 2,000 people. Now there's an entire scene emerging all around us, but we were the first, the "Sugar Hill Gang of Palestine!"
Can you define the rap style of DAM?
Nafar: We are political, social and anti-commercial – it basically boils down to "protest rap." But our songs also have philosophical, poetic and even ironic overtones. In addition to being influenced by hip hop, we've learned from Arab poets how to use metaphors. Instead of stealing them from books, we develop our own images using our street slang.
In one of your songs you clearly emphasize that injustice cannot be overcome with arms but with paper and pencil. You call your work a "lyrical war." How is this approach viewed by Hamas, which scorns the hip hop movement as "Western"?
Nafar: No idea, I've never met with Hamas. (He remains silent for a long time.) We are political, not extremists. We're highly accepted in Palestine, and there are many people there who are devout Muslims.
From your lyrics it's clear that you directly oppose the Israeli government, but what kind of a relationship do you have with more moderate segments of the Israeli population?
Nafar: In earlier tracks we rapped in Hebrew when he had something to say to them. We also work with Israeli musicians. Together with the band Gaya we wrote a bilingual song about freedom and justice, which Israeli radio will only play without the Arabic part. And our shows in Israel have been shut down once or twice by the police.
Along with a million other Palestinians, you live as an Arab in Israel. What is daily life like for you in Lod?
Nafar: I'd call it a permanent state of "sleeping with the enemy". We represent 30% of the local population, but the government is pumping in a maximum amount of money to make Lod Jewish. I'm not talking about the residents. We have Jewish neighbors who we get along with. But just imagine you want to go to a club and they won't let you in because you're an Arab. If you want to build something, they tear it down. I go to buy some milk and behind the counter stands the shopkeeper's son who a soldier in the military.
At school you have to learn poems about Zionist heroes. I go to the only music store in town to buy desperately needed samplers – and discover that the shop owner is one of the people who expropriated my grandfather. If I want to mail my album to you in Europe, I have to put a stamp with Begin's face on the parcel. We're subjected to daily brainwashing that severs the umbilical cord between us and our culture.
Can the peace that you advocate in your lyrics really be achieved?
Nafar: How would the blacks feel today if no one had ever admitted to the crime of slavery? There will be no peace unless the Israeli government admits that they took everything from us in 1948 and deported our families. That's the beginning. The second step is to apologize. The third step is to return our property: our houses, our land.
This is not about the Palestinian government. I'm not fighting for a flag, a symbol or the name "Palestine". This is about people, building a future for our children. When these three things happen someday, then the Jews can live with us here; there's room for everyone. And it really doesn't matter what this country will be called.
There's a totally amazing song where you address your own people and denounce the oppression of women in Arab society. What kind of reactions have you received?
Nafar: A lot of men said: "Yes, you're right, we have to make changes, but why do we have to start with my sister and my wife?" Most women, however, didn't like the song. They said: "When you talk about other people's pain, you upstage them."
I can understand that because I would feel just as rotten if an Israeli grabbed a mic and started singing about our suffering. That's why in the second verse I give the stage to a young woman and ask her how she sees things.
DAM is not only short for "Da Arabian MCs" but also has a meaning in Arabic and Hebrew.
Nafar: In Arabic "dam" means "eternity," while in Hebrew it means "blood." When you say "blood," most people think of violence. Not me, I see the other side of the coin. Blood is what allows life to continue in the first place. If you combine the two you have "eternal blood," meaning that politics can never eradicate what makes us human.
Interview by Stefan Franzen
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen