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Middle Eastern rap: hip-hope hooray

Believed to be Palestine’s first hip-hop group, DAM cover issues that affect Middle Eastern society and beyond – but 'raptivist' Tamer Nafar insists he wants to be known for more than politics

28 February, 2019 — By Róisín Gadelrab

DAM, from left: Tamer Jrere, Maysa Daw and Mahmood Jrere. They play the Jazz Cafe on Saturday (March 2) 

“I’M not gonna lie to you, my first kiss was to an Amr Diab pop song. I don’t make love to Malcolm X speeches, I can make love to people who have nothing to say about politics because it’s part of my emotions.”

Rapper and activist Tamer Nafar, of Palestinian hip-hop group DAM – who play Jazz Cafe on Saturday (March 2) – is clear that there is more to him and his music than politics.

Speaking from his home in Lyd, Palestine, the verbose artist – he is an actor, “Raptivist” (Rap Activist), and influencer – has plenty to say. But while he wants to be known for more than his political statements, politics, whether it be for Palestine, for the plight of his neighbours, gender politics or LGBT rights, seeps into his very core.

“It really annoys me that because I’m Palestinian, people only expect me to be political, as if we don’t die from car accidents, from cancer, we don’t make love, we don’t joke,” he says.

“We are like all the human beings around the world – we share the same joy, happiness and problems as that guy in Sweden, but he doesn’t share my apartheid world. So I should have that balance. Israel is trying to do the best to separate me from the world but I shouldn’t do the same. I still have sex, I still get drunk…some of us pray, we make movies.

“Oppression and apartheid is here, I’m trying to find me in it, my common things with the rest of human beings around the world.”

Formed in 1999 and said to be Palestine’s first hip-hop group, DAM cover a wealth of subjects in their music, encapsulating issues that affect Middle Eastern society and beyond. DAM’s single Yassadikhoum (a made-up word derived from the Arabic for body, meaning it’s your body but your body belongs to them), due out on International Womens’ Day on March 8, is led by female member of the group Maysa Daw.

“It’s one of my favourite songs, it’s spoken word, musical, very strong,” says Tamer.

“I don’t want to say it’s revolutionary for the Arab world, it’s revolutionary for the world. Chauvinism is not a Middle Eastern thing, it’s a male thing. We say it in one of the songs.

“Let us confront our honour killings and at the same time you confront your pornography in the street.”

The song was inspired by a book that Tamer says changed his life – Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Tamer says: “He approaches his son and explains the importance of the body, the black body, the same body that was slaved, tied in chains, kidnapped from Africa, the same body that died in the civil war, was attacked by dogs and the police and the KKK and the same body that was shot, killed by police in that whole Black Lives Matter time.

“He comes back, he tell stories, personal stories, theories, and talks about his son and goes to quote Nas and Dead Prez, and Public Enemy, but at the same time he keeps coming back to the importance of the body, how we should control your own body – as a black man being victimised by white supremacists and as a white man who needs to control his body towards women…When we started to write that feminist poem I told them ‘stop’, I drove my car, and bought three copies of that book and instead of writing, we had a reading session and somehow we left with that feeling of how important the body is, especially for Maysa, the woman, so that’s how the song came about – your body is theirs.”

DAM’s latest single, Emta Njawzak Yamma? (When Are You Going to Get Married, Yamma? – a term of endearment often used by mothers to their children), questions the pressure young people in the Middle East face to get married.

“It’s basically us asking, who said marriage is a solution? Most of my friends got married age 20-22, I got married age 31 and before I got married most of them were like, ‘ah, when will you be like us?’

And I was like, ‘dude, you are fucking miserable, why?’ To me it sounded like ‘Hey dude, I’m in prison and they have amazing breakfast, when will you get arrested?’.”

Tamer’s observations led to him considering wider issues of equality.

“I always felt there’s a gap between my friends, between the couple. First of all the age – he’s always four, five, six years above her. In general he had sex, he got drunk, he’s privileged, you can never co-exist when one side is privileged so that was my problem of getting married.

“But then I was in love with my classmate, I’m older than her by 19 days and we’ve been friends for 15 or 16 years before we took that decision so for me it was different.”

Inequality of the sexes is something that has been on Tamer’s mind since he was a child observing the different attitudes to family roles.

“Maybe I realised the questions earlier, all kind of naïve questions like, how come my father goes to work every day while my mother stays home and works physically as a housewife but when father comes home we all feel he’s the one working not her, he’s the one getting an income and he’s the one who’s independent when it comes to money? He gives her money but we all feel he’s doing a favour, he’s giving money to the house, but the house had been functioning because of her.”

Over the years, DAM’s influence has permeated Palestinian society. Tamer began listening to Tupac from a young age, teaching himself English so he could fully understand his lyrics. He went on to form DAM in 1999 with his brother Suhell and friend Mahmood Jrere. Maysa joined later. The title of DAM’s song The Generation of Revolution has been adopted as the name of a new group of young Palestinian intellectuals who want to make a difference, their lyrics have been the subject of debate following a recent murder and one of their songs led to a successful campaign (backed by a busload of Israeli musicians) for a bridge to cross a lethal stretch of railway tracks upon which many Arabs were killed trying to reach their neighbourhood.

It is clear DAM has plenty more to say, although Tamer is not as hopeful as he used to be.

“My tone is going to be very positive but my verbs are not. I think no, I think we’re fucked up, I think we’re heading to a disaster, I’m not optimistic, I wake up every day to change it but I’m not optimistic. If you asked me 20 years ago I’d say yes, let’s change it, but at the same time people voted for fucking Trump and now innocent kids are being killed in Syria and if you search for it you’re going to find more debates about if Assad is good or the revolution is good, more than the humanity itself so I would say no we are fucked up let’s be honest we are fucking fucked up.”

And his purpose?

“I want to know what I can add to my location and not what my location wants to add to me. I don’t want to be known as a Palestinian, I want to be known as that guy who brought something to his country.”

Click here to buy tickets for DAM’s gig at the Jazz Cafe.

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