Palestinians In Lebanon Find A Political Tool In Hip-Hop

Originally published on June 13, 2011 1:28 pm

Walking through the serpentine streets of a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, Mohammed Turek stops at his homemade recording studio. It measures only 6-by-12 feet, and the walls are covered with foam-rubber baffling and political posters. Turek, known as TNT, records tracks here for his rap group, I-Voice.

Still in his early 20s, TNT is already a veteran of the local hip-hop scene. He doesn't speak English, but says he has drawn a lot of inspiration from American rappers — like the late Tupac Shakur, whose video for the song "Open Fire" struck a chord with the young artist.

"I saw the graffiti street art," he says, speaking through a translator. "They lit a fire on the street and I liked that. It could have been a Palestinian camp in Lebanon."

Palestinian rap can be traced back to 1999, when the Israeli Arab group DAM began rhyming about resistance to occupation. But as hip-hop spread to Lebanon a few years later, the music started to incorporate themes specific to the Palestinian experience there. The song "Welcome to the Camps" by the Beirut group Katibe 5, for example, criticizes the Lebanese army occupation of Palestinian refugee camps and government corruption.

Most of the camps in Lebanon were established in the late 1940s, after Palestinians fled Israel. They have come to function as small cities, beset by poverty and guarded by the Lebanese Army. Angie Nassar, an American of Lebanese descent, is a journalist in Beirut and a graduate student writing her master's thesis on Lebanese hip-hop. She says the hardships of daily life in the camps have led Palestinian rappers to largely reject the gangster image popular with some of their American counterparts.

"Palestinians have it arguably worse in this country than anyone else," Nassar says. "It's like they have to deal with devastation. They have to deal with being nobody in this country."

Rapper Osloob, a member of Katibe 5, says there is a parallel between black ghettos in the U.S. and Palestinian camps in Lebanon — two segregated communities on opposite sides of the Earth. At the same time, he says, the camps do help the Palestinians maintain their national identity.

"The camps keep the Palestinian culture in the Lebanese community," Osloob says. "We need to never forget the history."

In order to preserve that culture, TNT says, Palestinian hip-hop often incorporates traditional spoken-word poets and Arabic instruments.

"We find people who play the oud [a lutelike Middle Eastern instrument] and other instruments, such as Arabic drums and keyboards tuned for the Arabic scale," TNT says. "We don't sample someone else's music. We record everything live."

While these efforts to fuse rap with classical Arabic music have attracted young Palestinians, some conservative Muslims in Lebanon still criticize hip-hop for being imperialist, Western music. But Ghazi Abdel Baki, who runs the independent recording label Forward Records in Beirut, says he disagrees.

"Some of them, the purists, consider it a Western mode of expression that is not ours," he says. "But Vivaldi is not European anymore. It's a heritage of the world."

TNT says that, while American hip-hop initially inspired him, it's the Palestinian people who continue to give him stories to tell.

"Palestinians are so proud of the rappers," he says. "When I get back here from Europe, even if the flight is at 4 a.m., people are waiting for me. I'm like an ambassador."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The musical voice of young people around the world is more often than not hip-hop. Palestinian rap, for example, began more than a decade ago in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Today it's heard throughout the Palestinian Diaspora, particularly in Lebanon. Palestinian rappers don't have much to say about bling, but they do have plenty to rhyme about.

Reese Erlich reports they're inspired by the political roots of hip-hop.

REESE ERLICH: Walking through the serpentine streets of a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, Mohammed Turek stops at his homemade recording studio. It measures only six by 12 feet. The walls are covered with foam rubber baffling and political posters. Turek, known as TNT, records tracks here for his group I-Voice.

(Soundbite of song, "My Brother")

ERLICH: In "My Brother," I-Voice criticizes Arab politicians, journalists and even fellow musicians who have become too materialistic while Palestinians continue to suffer.

I-VOICE (Band): (Rapping in Arabic language)

ERLICH: TNT has drawn inspiration from American rappers, such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. TNT doesnt speak English, but he could see the political passion in Tupacs decade-old video "Open Fire" on the internet.

TNT (Rapper): (Through Translator) I saw the graffiti street art. They lit a fire on the street and I liked that. It could have been a Palestinian camp in Lebanon.

ERLICH: Palestinian rap can be traced back to 1999 when the Israeli Arab group DAM rhymed about resistance to occupation. But as hip-hop spread to Lebanon a few years later, the music incorporated themes specific to the Palestinian experience here, says Osloob, founder of the group Katibe 5.

OSLOOB (Founder, Katibe 5): We have many things here; they dont feel it there: the schools, the camps. You saw the camp and what situation the camps is.

ERLICH: In this rhyme called "Welcome to the Camps," Katibe 5 criticizes Lebanese army occupation of the camps and government corruption.

(Soundbite of song, "Welcome to the Camps")

KATIBE 5 (Band): (Rapping in Arabic language)

ERLICH: Most of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon were established in the late 1940s after Palestinians fled Israel. The makeshift camps have become small cities beset by poverty and guarded by the Lebanese army.

Angie Nassar is an American of Lebanese descent. Shes also a journalist in Beirut. She says Palestinians daily experience makes them reject the gangsta image popular with some American rappers.

Ms. ANGIE NASSAR (Journalist): Palestinians have it arguably worse in this country than anyone else. And there's no way that they would take the time to voice their concerns about

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NASSAR: Benz, bling-bling and love. Its like they have to deal with devastation. They have to deal with being nobody in this country.

ERLICH: Rapper Osloob draws a parallel between black ghettoes in the U.S. and how Palestinians are forced to live in camps, segregated from Lebanese. At the same time, Osloob says the camps help Palestinians maintain their culture.

OSLOOB: The camps keep the Palestinian culture in the Lebanese community. We need to never forget the history.

ERLICH: In order to preserve that culture, says rapper TNT, they incorporate traditional spoken word poets and Arabic instruments into their music.

TNT: (Through Translator) We find people who play the oud and other instruments, such as Arabic drums and keyboards tuned for the Arabic scale. We dont sample someone elses music. We record everything live.

(Soundbite of song, "Black and White")

I-VOICE: (Rapping in Arabic language)

ERLICH: I Voice reinterprets the oud part from a classic song by Lebanese singer Fairouz into its rhyme "Black and White."

I-VOICE: (Rapping in Arabic language)

ERLICH: The group criticizes the rivalry between the two main Palestinian political parties, Hamas and Fatah.

I-VOICE: (Rapping in Arabic language)

ERLICH: While these efforts to fuse rap with classical Arabic music have attracted young Palestinians, 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.

Mr. GHAZI ABDEL BAKI (Founder, Forward Records): Some of them, the purists, they consider it as perhaps being a Western mode of expression that is not ours. But, you know, Vivaldi is, you know, is not European anymore. Its a heritage of the world.

ERLICH: So Tupac and Vivaldi now are shared culturally?

Mr. BAKI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, weve appropriated them. And thats how it should be.

(Soundbite of car engine)

ERLICH: Fans come up to shake hands as TNT walks the narrow streets around his studio. He says rap has become popular among Arabs living in Europe, and that enhances its appeal among Palestinians.

TNT: (Through Translator) Palestinians are so proud of the rappers. When I get back here from Europe, even if it's at 4 A.M., people are waiting for me and are so excited. It's like Im an ambassador.

ERLICH: TNT says while American hip-hop initially inspired him, its the Palestinian people who continue to give him stories to tell.

For NPR News, Im Reese Erlich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.