Da Arab MCs: Palestine's first hip-hop group on politics, feminism and their third album

DAM are about to release 'BEN HAANA WAS MAANA', a record that's 'full of self-love' and strong feminist messages

Ben Haana Wa Maana by DAM. Courtesy DAM
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When Mahmoud Jreri discovered hip-hop music in the late 1990s, most people in his country had not heard it before. Born in the early 1980s to a Palestinian family in a poor and crime-­ridden neighbourhood in Lod, a city in Israel close to Ben Gurion Airport, Jreri found the genre's imagery and lyrical content synonymous with his own reality.

"Hip-hop talks about growing up in poverty, about police violence, about crime," he says, in an interview with The National. "It was the same thing we experienced and this kind of music really talked to me."

Suhell Nafar, Maysa Daw, Tamer Nafar of Palestinian hip-hop group DAM performing at the Jazz Cafe, Camden Town, London, UK on 2 March 2019. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

Jreri was a keen poet and as his interest in hip-hop grew, he heard about a rap album called Stop Selling Drugs, released by another MC from Lod called Tamer Nafar. Jreri liked what he heard and got in touch with Nafar and his brother Suhell. Together, in 1999, they founded DAM, an acronym of Da Arab MCs and a word that is Arabic for "eternity" and Hebrew for "blood". It was then that they became the world's first Palestinian hip-hop group. Many Palestinians were shocked when they first heard DAM's music and didn't really know how to receive it. "For some of them, there wasn't Arabic hip-hop, but there was Arabic music, so in our concert, you'd see people dancing how they would to Arabic music and not dancing to hip-hop. It was funny times," says Jreri.

As DAM gained traction, they inspired the rise of other rappers in the Levant region, with the hip-hop scene making an impact during the 2010-2012 Arab uprisings.

From Palestine to the world

Arabic rhythms and Middle Eastern melodies permeate DAM's work, though some tracks, such as the synth-heavy Who Are You, have echoes of electronica. The group regularly play gigs in Palestinian cities in the West Bank, including in Bethlehem and in Ramallah. They also play regularly in Israel, including in Lod, Jaffa and Haifa. This year, the group have been touring internationally ahead of the release of their third album, BEN HAANA WAS MAANA, out June 7. In mid-March, DAM visited the UK to play shows in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. They also played a gig at the BBC Arabic Film Festival – a performance on March 27 at the BBC Radio Theatre – in London.

DAM. Courtesy Sony Music Middle East

Songwriter and rapper Maysa Daw joined DAM later, in 2012, when she worked on a reggae-tinged song called Green Revolution about the 2011 Tunisian uprising. Before working with the group, the music Daw listened to included Eminem and Linkin Park, as well as the music DAM was creating, but she has become acquainted with many other hip-hop artists since joining the group. Jreri, meanwhile, draws inspiration from old-school rappers such as Tupac and Biggie, but also from newer wordsmiths, including Kendrick Lamar, J Cole and Chance the Rapper. He's also heavily influenced by music from the Middle East and North Africa.

Touching on feminism

Daw says the new album is "full of self-love" and strong feminist messages. The record is mainly rapped in Arabic, but there are a few words in English and Hebrew, too. The lead single, Jasadik-Hom (Your Body of Theirs), was released on International Women's Day, on March 8. Rapping in Arabic, Daw denounces men in the song who stare at her body and don't respect that it's hers. "His body goes around … disappears, make mistakes, repents, we forgive, and he repeats," she raps.

There are two layers to being a woman in the Middle East

The song was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2015 book Between the World and Me. "We took how much he focuses on what it's like living in a black body in America and made it how it is to live in a woman's body, but there are two layers to being a woman in the Middle East," Daw says. "There is the social aspect in our own communities, how it is living as a woman, but then, at the same time, how it is being a Palestinian woman, living inside ­Israeli borders and facing Israeli occupation and oppression."

Daw adds that every woman can relate to the song, not only Palestinian and Arab women. “There’s the extra political side to the song. For us this side is the Israeli occupation, but for women of colour, it’s the white gaze or colonialism. Everyone has their own story so we focused more on being Palestinian, but I really do think it’s a message that a lot of women can relate to.”

Another track on the album, Hada Yid'e Sitna, tells the story of kids fighting on the streets before somebody calls their mothers. The song asks whether someone could call Lady Amni and the Virgin Mary, the mothers of the Prophet ­Mohammed and Jesus, to come and take their grandchildren off the street because they're fighting and killing each other. "In that song, we're calling for women to take the leadership and guide us in a better way," says Daw.

Arab-Israeli rapper Tamer Nafar (C) poses on-stage for a picture with audience members after performing during a festival in the northern Arab-Israeli town of Sakhnin on October 23, 2016. - Nafar, from the pioneering political rap group DAM, has touched a nerve with songs like "Who's the Terrorist?" skewering what he and others say is discrimination against Arabs in Israel, becoming a star among Israel's Arab population and Palestinians, but Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev, a former military censor with a combative style, is not a fan. She has singled him out for criticism, accused him of incitement and sought to have one of his recent performances cancelled, helping make him a target of rightwing protesters. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY MAJEDA El-BATSH

A fusion of music and politics

DAM's music wasn't always political, but after the Second Intifada started in 2000, politics became a regular theme. In October that year, there were several days of clashes inside Israel, mainly between Arab citizens and Israeli police.

Riots followed and 12 Arab citizens of Israel and a Palestinian in Gaza were killed by Israeli police, while an Israeli Jewish man was killed in his car after it was struck by a rock on the Tel Aviv to Haifa highway.

Thousands were killed during the uprising in what was some of the worst clashes since the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

There's no pressure to be political, but politics affect Palestinians every day

During the Intifada, some of DAM's lyrics didn't go down well at concerts, where audiences went from clapping to telling Jreri and Nafar to get off the stage. "With our lyrics, there's no pressure to be political, but politics affect Palestinians every day," says Jreri. "It's something we're born into and the moment we start to think and have a conscience we have to confront it in our reality."

Although the majority of the group's songs aren't political, being Palestinian means the political tracks often get the most attention.

"Even when we're talking about women's rights and social issues, it's all connected to politics," Daw says. "Because we write about our lives, we document our lives and being a Palestinian pretty much means everything you do is political."

Controversial concert

In November 2018, DAM played a concert at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba in the south of Israel, which sparked controversy.

"The student union requested to cancel our show and students were writing on Facebook, threatening us, doing all kinds of things," says Jreri. "We're going to always have it and I think we'll see more of it. I think politics in Israel is shifting really hard to the extreme right wing and often you get elected by the level of hate you show towards Arabs and Palestinians."

Despite the threats, the band pressed on with the show and found that many of the Arabic and Palestinian students supported them, despite being minorities at the university.

Hip-hop groups have always found a way of getting messages across, even if they're controversial. Legendary rap group NWA continued to play concerts despite the FBI telling them their music encouraged violence against the police. Like NWA, when DAM want to get a point across, no one will stand in their way.