DAM reflects on 20 years of Palestinian Hip Hop

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Before he became one of the biggest names in Palestinian hip hop as part of the rap trio DAM, Tamer Nafar was printing out Tupac lyrics at the local library in Lyd, Israel, where he grew up in the 1990s. He later met his friend and fellow artist Mahmood Jrere at a release party for Tamer’s solo album in 1998 when he performed under the name Untouchable. In 1999, they formed the first hip hop group in Palestine together with Nafar’s brother, Suhell. From their early days of performing at city hall and handing out CDs throughout the neighbourhood, the group would shape the trajectory of Arabic rap for decades to come. Tamer and Mahmood recently participated in a discussion co-hosted by SOAS and MARSM Digital to look back at the history of hip hop in Palestine, the beginnings of the region’s alternative music scene, and the changes that accompanied the advent of social media over the last 20 years.  

“My introduction to hip hop was through MTV and African American artists,” said Mahmood. “I loved this music … It had a lot of passion and power.”

The two artists were influenced by popular American rappers like Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, DMX and Snoop Dogg. They were struck by the resemblance of the reality in the streets of Tupac’s “Holla if Ya Hear Me” music video to their own lived experiences in Lyd. 

“We lived in a project, in poverty, there was crime and police chasing us …  it was the same thing I was seeing in the video,” said Mahmood. “I didn’t understand every word but I understood the pain and the struggle.”

hip hop DAM

As the leader and founding member of DAM, Tamer is also an independent artist, actor, screenwriter and social activist. Before the group was signed to a major record label and performed internationally, they promoted themselves on MySpace and posted their songs on an Arabic rap website. Their breakthrough single “Meen Erhabi” (Who’s The Terrorist?) was downloaded over a million times and set the tone for much of their protest-driven and political music that centres around topics including Israeli occupation, racism, poverty, drugs and women’s rights. The story behind DAM’s music and its members, as well as that of other young Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and Palestine 48 in the early 2000s is the subject of the award-winning 2008 documentary ‘Slingshot Hip Hop’, which spotlights the power of hip hop as a tool to voice resistance to occupation and social injustice. 

Since 2001, DAM has released three albums, over 100 singles and an EP. In 2015, DAM was officially joined by Palestinian musician, composer and artist Maysa Daw. Mahmood, who also performs solo, released his debut album Rhythm of the Tribe in 2016. The following year, he co-founded the Palestine Music Expo (PMX) to develop music industry networking opportunities for Palestinian musicians. 

Reflecting upon the evolution of the Palestinian hip hop scene over the last 20 years, Mahmood said he is inspired by the voice of the current generation.

“I see how hip hop has developed in Palestine and it’s still developing. I see it through the subjects being talked about – artists are singing about depression, love songs … That wasn’t there in the beginning. I love every aspect of it.”

Tamer added that he also feels hopeful about the future of hip hop in Palestine. 

“I’m very proud of what’s happening. Hip hop changed my life and I’m thankful for that.”

This event took place on 8 April as part of the SOAS Concert Series – a range of online global music events hosted by the Department of Music. Slingshot Hip Hop is available to watch online for free until April 19 on the MARSM website. Watch the full recorded conversation with Tamer and Mahmoud.

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes.

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