Palestinian Rappers

TNT & MC Tamarrod

Palestinian rappers TNT and MC Tamarrod (c. Reese Erlich)

From Tupac to TNT

By Reese Erlich

At the age of 21, Mohammad Turek is already a veteran of the Palestinian hip hop scene. Known as TNT, Mohammad lives in a refugee camp near Beirut Airport, drawing inspiration from the rhymes of early political hip hop artists such as Tupac Shakur’s Hail Mary. “I was just a regular guy listening to pop music,” says Mohammad. “When I hear this song, I had get this message out. I had to express myself.”

Palestinian rap became popular about ten years ago in Israel and the West Bank, but has now spread throughout the Palestinian diaspora. Hip hop artists look to Tupac Shakur and the socially conscious rappers, while rejecting the gangsta image so popular in the west. Listen here:

 

But like many Arabic rappers, TNT had a problem. Mohammad didn’t speak English. So, like any self respecting hip hopper, he turned to the Internet for help. He used Google translation. “I saw [the videos] of them lighting fire and singing together,” says Mohammad. “I figured out it was street music, like street art.”

TNT and a buddy named Yeah Seen–a play on the Arabic name Yassin–formed Invincible Voice, known simply as I-Voice. TNT remembers Yeah Seen’s transformation was quick and surprising. “We grew up together,” says TNT. “Suddenly Yeah Seen disappeared. He came back wearing baggy clothes and asking, ‘What’s up bro?’”

The first Palestinian group, DAM, began in Israel and focused on issues of resistance to Israeli occupation. As hip hop spread to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, rappers tackled topics of concern there. MC Tamarod, which means Rebel MC, lived in a camp called Naher al Bared, which was caught in a murderous crossfire between fundamentalists and the Lebanese Army in 2007. “I rap about how people had to leave their houses in Naher al Bared,” MC Tamarod says, “and how there is discrimination at the checkpoints.”

Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon were established in the late 1940s and 50s, in the wake of Israel’s founding. Palestinians living in Naher al Bared face some of the worse conditions anywhere in the Arab world. Angie Nassar, a local journalist and graduate student writing a master’s thesis on Lebanese hip hop, explains that Lebanese law prohibits them for owning or inheriting property and bans them from more than seventy professions. “They’re under constant supervision by the Lebanese Army,” says Nassar. “The argument goes that one day the Palestinians will return home. In my opinion, that’s just a lie. They don’t treat them like human beings.”

Osloob, founder of the hip hop group Katibe 5, says Palestinian rappers protest their segregation in Lebanese camps, while drawing inspiration from the experience. “We’re saying the first thing we want: back to Palestine,” he says. “The next thing, we say the camps are important for Palestinian people. Why? Because the camps maintain the Palestinian culture while in Lebanon. We need to never forget the history.”

According to Nassar, camp conditions have produced a highly politicized rap similar to American hip hop of the 1970s. She notes that only one Lebanese rap group takes on the gangsta image. “They use lots of profanity and violence,” she says. “Nobody wants anything to do with these guys. And you’ll ask “Why?” And they’ll say they’re not gangsters. The real gangsters in this country are the political leaders, the people in power.”

Some conservative Muslims in Lebanon criticize hip hop for being imperialist, western music. Ghazi Abdel Baki disagrees. He runs the independent recording label Forward Records in Beirut. If anything, says Baki, rap is anti-empire. But, he adds, some purists “consider rap to be a Western mode of expression that is not ours. But people tend to appropriate music worldwide.” Just as “Vivaldi is not European anymore,” he says “we’ve appropriated” Tupac. “And that’s how it should be.”

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