I got to the park with my friend Nico around 7 PM, and we waited about 30 minutes for the live performances to begin. Rapper and PR (Palestinian Rapperz) memberMohammed Al Farra and (apparently first ever) female Arab R&B singer Abeer took to the stage, and their passion was obvious from the getgo. Last night's audience was quite possibly the least engaged audience I've ever been a part of, however, so I felt kinda bad for them. Mohammed asked everyone to stand up and put their hands in the air, and maybe 30 out of 200 people did so (I unfortunately remained seated, as I was in the midst of devouring a spinach pie). Maybe about 5 minutes later, he again implored audience members to stand up, reminding us "This is a hip-hop show! And I came all the way from Gaza for you people!" A few more people, including myself and Nico, stood this time around, but the energy level didn't really increase. This probably had a lot to do with the artists' choice to perform in Arabic, but I was still disappointed.
It began to rain soon after the performances ended, and I worried that the screening would be cancelled, but thankfully it stopped and the film began to roll after 9. I'm glad I stuck through the rain, because Slingshot Hip-Hop really opened my eyes to just how much of a global and inspirational force hip-hop has become. The film began with first Palestinian rap group DAM (Da Arabian MC's) and Chuck D in a studio, and DAM is absolutely giddy to be in the same room as the man; "Hip-hop is our CNN," they excitedly tell him. One of the most powerful statements of the film also comes in this scene, as one member laments that Israel has "Fear of an Arab Nation" just as America has "Fear of a Black Planet."
DAM was founded in the Israeli town of Lod in the late 90s, but judging by the rappers' immediate surroundings, you wouldn't know that it was only 10 miles away from Tel Aviv. Boulders lay in undeveloped plots because the Palestinian residents couldn't acquire building permits, a school library had just been transformed into a police precinct, some roads are unpaved, etc. Children look up to local drug dealers as role models because they are the only ones that live in some kind of relative luxury. In effect, the children can only choose to "go to prison" for crime "or die." PR (Palestinian Rapperz), another landmark group, hail from Gaza, where the situation was (and is moreso today) even more bleak. Imagine being prevented from ever leaving your borough, imagine not being able to drive to the other side of your borough without going through multiple hours worth of checkpoints. Imagine being confined to such a space your entire life.
It seems that hip-hop thrives under these kinds of seemingly hopeless conditions. DAM said they always felt a certain connection to rap when they heard it on the radio, and began to kick it for fun. But it was not until seeing Tupac's "Holla If You Hear Me" music video chronicling inner-city police brutality that they recognized hip-hop's revolutionary potential. DAM's subsequent political call-to-arms "Min Irhabi" (Who's The Terrorist?), released in 2001, would be downloaded by over 1 million people in the following month. PR found similar success in Gaza after their first public performance, with Palestinians of all generations supporting and encouraging their music.
Honestly, the amount of importance hip-hop has had in personally transforming the lives of these rappers and their fans was astounding. They all said it gave them a voice to vent their frustrations that they would otherwise lack. One rapper described hip-hop as his "oxygen." Another went as far as to say he "felt empty" before channeling hip-hop for self-expression. One of the most poignant parts of the film involved a scene where DAM illegally snuck into a refugee camp to perform alongside a group from the camp itself. One of the group's members, Kifahn, had been killed in an Israeli Army attack, and before rapping, one person said "Let's bring [Kifahn] back to life with a song." Even more tragically, two of the group's members would be detained by the Israeli police two months after the performance in a raid on the camp, officially on charges of "throwing rocks" at a protest two years prior. After going 8 months without trial, one was finally sentenced for ten years imprisonment while the other was sentenced for three years.
The rappers featured in the film weren't content with just spitting about these injustices, but used their broad appeal to help their communities. DAM opened a youth center in Lod that currently sees over 300 children, and a lot of the kids come asking for advice to pen their own hip-hop lyrics. By only looking at hip-hop as it relates to the vast majority of American listeners today, one can forget how much awesome potential it has in organizing and motivating people.
So I encourage all who have the opportunity to watch this eye-opening documentary to do so. Not only did I learn a little more about hip-hop abroad, but I've gotten back a little faith I'd lost in hip-hop's potential to promote social change.
Trailer for Slingshot Hip-Hop: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rdS8zNp3ow
Website of DAM: http://www.dampalestine.com/main.html
Website of Slingshot Hip-Hop: http://www.slingshothiphop.com/