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Slingshot Rhymes from Palestine

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Issue: 63 Section: Arts Geography: Middle East Topics: palestine, Occupation, Hip Hop

September 19, 2009

Slingshot Rhymes from Palestine

An interview with filmmaker Jackie Salloum on Slingshot Hip Hop

by Stefan Christoff

A poster for a screening of Slingshot hiphop in Olympia, Washington. [cc 2.0] Photo: Jason Taellious

MONTREAL—Palestinian hip hop is on the rise, gaining popularity around the world as the international movement against Israeli apartheid picks up steam.

Palestinian culture has been expressed for generations through the words of celebrated singers such as Fayrouz or Marcel Khalifé, but in recent years rap has emerged as a strong contemporary cultural expression from Palestine.

Slingshot Hip Hop is a documentary film that chronicles the emergence of Palestinian rap in the past decade, in the West Bank, in Gaza and in Palestinian communities living inside Israel. Palestinian hip hop artists have connected with the socially conscious roots of American hip-hop culture and translated the spirit of groups like Public Enemy to the refugee camps of Palestine.

As a film Slingshot Hip Hop is a moving portrayal of young Palestinian artists struggling to tell the Palestinian story of dispossession while also struggling to find voice within their own society. Filmmaker Jackie Salloum, based in New York City, began creating Slingshot Hip Hop after first making a video to accompany DAM’s celebrated track Min Irhabi (Who’s the Terrorist?).

Salloum’s film has been warmly received around the world, making the official selection at the Sundance Film Festival, and winning awards at numerous festivals, including the Audience Choice Award at both the Beirut International Film festival and the Toronto Palestine Film Festival.

Salloum spoke with journalist Stefan Christoff on the heels of another North American tour of DAM, the first Palestinian rap group featured in the celebrated documentary. The tour will include multiple stops in Canada.

Stefan Christoff:
During the last Israeli attack on Gaza, wondering if you were in contact with the Palestinian rappers in Gaza featured in the film, living through the bombings, wondering how that period was for you and the hip hop artists in Gaza.

Jackie Salloum:
Phone lines in Gaza were down so it was difficult to remain in touch during the war, but sometimes it was possible to connect online. Reaction from the hip hop artists in Gaza was basically horror.

Palestinian rapper Ibrahim from Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza basically has seen everything during his life, but insisted that this war was the worst they ever had seen in their lifetimes.

Ayman, a member in Palestinian Rapperz, was on the phone speaking with me during the war and quickly Israeli tanks surrounded his apartment, the phone line cut. The next day we got news that Ayman’s house was hit by four Israeli rockets; Ayman’s house was destroyed completely and his father martyred.

I was fixed on Al Jazeera throughout the war on Gaza throughout the day, felt completely crazy watching the war happen, feeling that it was impossible to make it stop immediately. It was a horrible time for me and millions around the world.

Christoff: Slingshot Hip Hop weaves together stories of hip hop artists from throughout Palestine, wondering if there are any particular moments that stand out for you from making the film while filming in the different areas in Palestine.

Salloum: Filming in 1948* stands out, working with Palestinians who hold Israeli passports, it was clear that Palestinians from different regions have preconceived notions about each other that are surprising, as they can’t visit each other due to Israeli occupation and travel restrictions.

Having an ability to move around Palestine, given my US passport, really was striking, as the artists featured in the film simply couldn’t move around. It is impossible for Palestinians living in Palestine to move between their different territories: the West Bank, Gaza and inside Israel.

In Gaza I would tell the rappers that I was planning next to visit Akka next for example and it was really sad to see their faces knowing that they simply couldn’t travel with me. Although even with a US passport it still was very difficult to enter Gaza at all.

Christoff: Recently Slingshot Hip Hop screened in different countries in the Middle East, wondering what the reaction was to the film?

Salloum: Slingshot Hip Hop screened all over Syria this year, again and again audiences surprise me with a lack of knowledge on the travel restriction that Palestinians face, their inability to travel between different territories. People in Syria were particularly surprised about Gaza, as the images that people in Syria are use to viewing about Gaza are images of Palestinian suffering, not Palestinians rapping.

Generally when media covers Gaza it is after an Israeli attack, so these images of war from Gaza are the images that people are use to seeing in the Middle East, on Al Jazeera for example. In Syria many were surprised to see Palestinians having fun and that Palestinians in Gaza even had facilities to hold a hip-hop concert.

It was great to see that even Arab audiences, in Syria, Jordan, were seeing something new about Palestine as the film was intended both for western audiences and also audiences in the Middle East.

Christoff: Music commonly tied to the Palestinian struggle are anthems in the Arab world from celebrated classical musicians such as Fayrouz or Marcel Khalifé, but Palestinian rap brings a new generation of Palestinian cultural expression to the world. Wondering what the reactions have been to the film, Slingshot Hip Hop as a celebration of Palestinian rap, a new wave of Palestinian culture?

Salloum: Actually so many are very excited to see this new face of Palestinian culture.

In Palestine one thing that was beautiful at the screenings, that is different than in North America, is that hip hop shows reach people of all ages, you have both youth and grandparents coming to the same concerts. In Palestine so many young people were so excited about the film; often youth felt that hip hop was a way for people outside, around the world, to understand their struggle.

Actually the older generation is very happy that the younger generation in Palestine has found a new way to express themselves and the Palestinian cause, which is hip hop.

In Dubai and Jordan, there were DAM fans lined up outside the screenings, especially in Dubai as DAM attended the screening, fans who knew every word to every song which was so exciting. Clearly Palestinian rap has connected with people across the Middle East.

In Syria a grandfather came up to me who loved the film and was very emotional, explaining that he hadn’t returned to Palestine since being driven out in 1948 and it was very emotional for him to see the different parts of Palestine today in the film and the music of the Palestinian youth.

Christoff: Back to the US, Slingshot Hip Hop was a reviewed by Harry Allen in Vibe magazine. There is this connection drawn throughout the film between Palestinian hip hop and American hip hop culture, the origins of US hip hop culture, Public Enemy, and Tupac Shakur. Do you find this parallel important today?

Salloum: DAM folks were originally not into hip hop as the image they saw on TV was commoditized hip hop, but then when Tamer from DAM first heard Tupac videos on TV everything changed. Tupac videos featured images that looked just like his ghetto in Palestine. Tamer looked up Tupac online, read the lyrics and felt a connection, feeling that Tupac could have been from Lyd, the town that DAM is from. This launched DAM, this was the trigger.

At screenings in the US many people ask if hip hop in Palestine could become more commercialized as in the US But in Palestine the reality for hip hop is so different. Palestinians are living under military occupation and there aren’t major corporations interested in trying to make corporate or commodify Palestinian hip-hop culture. Palestinian hip-hop has remained grounded.

Actually one thing that has impressed me was that when Palestinian hip hop artists talk about Arab women, they are very respectful and actually rap about women’s rights. DAM has been extremely supportive of Arab women MCs starting up as hip hop artists in Palestine.

Christoff: There are literally thousands of films today in the world about Palestine, wondering what drove you specifically to make a film on Palestinian hip hop?

Salloum: Actually never planned to make a film on Palestine. While studying fine arts at NYU and most of my art focused on challenging stereotypes of Arabs in the media, my art merged with politics and pop culture.

In 2002 was listening to public radio and heard Min Irhabi (Who’s the Terrorist?) by DAM and flipped out because Palestinians were using hip-hop. Quickly looked up the song online and found out about other groups in Palestine using hip hop, this was so impressive. It was an entirely new cultural expression in Palestine going on.

I then translated Min Irhabi to English and made a music video for the song about the massacres that were going on in Jenin at the time in 2002. Then showed the video during my open studio at NYU, my studio was packed and people were really, really impacted by the video. People were coming up to me in tears explaining that they didn’t know that this was happening in Palestine and were asking for more information on the situation in Palestine.

I asked people why this song and video impacted them more deeply than my other work. People explained that Min Irhabi hit them because hip hop comes from the heart.

Palestinian rap wasn’t something contrived, it simply expressed the circumstances facing Palestinian youth. Seeing this powerful reaction and also speaking to professors who encouraged me to make a film lead to Slingshot Hip Hop; however, I really had no idea how long and how difficult making a feature length documentary film was in reality.

Slingshot Hip Hop also changed my experience with Palestine. Today, you travel to Palestine and see so many Palestinian homes being demolished, the Israeli wall being expanded, so many youth are being killed, the situation just seems horrible, actually worse and worse with each year. But after working on this film and seeing the rappers working to make change on the ground through culture showed me a much more positive and resilient expression of Palestinian culture, it gave me hope for Palestine.

*"Filming in 1948" means filming inside Israel's 1967 borders, which Palestinians often refer to as 1948 lands.

For more information on
Slingshot Hip Hop visit: http://www.slingshothiphop.com/.

Stefan Christoff is a journalist and community organizer.

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