Isabel Khalili revisits 2019 with the album Ben Haana Wa Maana by the Arabic hip-hop pioneers DAM.
Isabel Khalili revisits 2019 with the album Ben Haana Wa Maana by the Arabic hip-hop pioneers DAM. The group formed more than 20 years ago when they saw what hip-hop was doing in the U.S., tapped into its power, and used it as a vehicle for change in their home across the world in Palestine.
Written by Isabel Khalili.
Audio production by Roddy Nikpour.
Support the podcast: kexp.org/50hiphop
"Look how great this title is
“Fear of a Black Planet”
It’s about how the white man is trying to
Stop the growth of the Black population
In this country, there’s fear
Of an Arabic nation
How could you expect us not to love hip hop?”
This is Tamer Nafar, one of the founders of DAM.
He picks up the Public Enemy album Fear of a Black Planet and compares it to his own experience as a Palestinian living in a country where there’s “fear of an Arabic nation.” Then he says, “How could you expect us not to love hip hop?”
Tamer goes on to say that DAM is 30% hip-hop, pointing to his CD collection, 30% literature, gesturing toward a stack of books, and then for the remaining 40%... he points past the bars on his window, referring to his life as a second-class citizen, a Palestinian living in Israel.
These audio clips come from a 2008 documentary called Slingshot Hip-Hop, directed by Jackie Reem Salloum. It’s an introduction to the Arabic hip-hop pioneers DAM and their rise in the early 2000s. But it’s also a good primer for understanding what life is like for Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied territories.
This isn’t the space to dive into the complexities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but I really recommend checking out Slingshot Hip Hop to learn more through the lens of music and first person stories.
What this episode is about is the power of hip-hop as a voice of reason when nothing else makes sense. Rapping has been used to process trauma, inspire solidarity, and take back the narrative from oppressive forces. And for groups like DAM, it’s impossible to separate the personal from the political.
Back in 1999, Tamer started the group with his brother Suhell. They were inspired by several hip-hop artists in the United States… but one of them stands out in particular.
GABRIEL: They were inspired by 2Pac's "Holler If You Hear Me" video.
That’s Gabriel Teodros, a DJ at KEXP and a rapper based in Seattle. You can hear his reflection on Eric B. and Rakim earlier in this series. He’s been a fan of DAM from the start, and even shared stages with them in the late 2000s.
GABRIEL: That music video was something that really connected with them and just seeing the depictions of like what the neighborhood looked like, they were like, Wow, this is like Palestine, you know? And, and, and who was 2Pac like, and what is he talking about? And I think that really inspired them to tell their own story.
Tamer and Suhell are from Lyd, the mixed Arab-Jewish city in Israel with one of the highest crime rates in the country and biggest drug markets in the Middle East.
They walk us through their neighborhood, pointing out the checkpoints for Arabs, pointing out where schools have been turned into police stations. How their neighborhood is under-resourced and over-policed, even militarized. In fact, the forces that police Palestinians in Israel have literally trained police departments in the U.S.
As young people, Tamer and Suhell lost many friends and loved ones to violence. They were living through the same stories that 2Pac was giving voice to.
They were fed up, and hip-hop gave them an alternative to armed resistance. They heard how it could be an outlet for anger at a suffocating system, while also documenting their struggles for the rest of the world to hear.
GABRIEL: I think of hip-hop as something that's like akin to folk music, you know, akin to reggae. Um, it's, it's something that's very accessible.
You know, you don't have to have advanced music classes or a degree, or even access to instruments to pick up a pen and pad and tell your story over beats, you know? And I think it's something that visually and sonically people just can connect with and be like, oh, this is, this is something I can do.
This is something where I see myself, I see people that are going through situations like mine that are coming from backgrounds like mine, telling their own story and making it look cool and doing it with so much style and flair and finesse, and they're changing their circumstance that maybe I can change mine too, you know?
And I think that's the thing about hip hop that connects with people struggling worldwide.
In the beginning, DAM tried not to be overtly political. They thought that would hinder their chances of success. But during the second Intifada, or uprising, that became impossible.
In their struggle for statehood, Palestinians were fighting with stones against one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Yet, news outlets were constantly reducing them to “terrorists.” Tamer and Suhell, along with a new third member of the group, Mahmoud, were angered by the hypocrisy of the label. If they were terrorists, what did that make the Israeli forces?
GABRIEL: I feel like in a conflict, any conflict, right? Storytelling is absolutely one of the most powerful tools that are used in in keeping a group of people oppressed in telling a story about the about these people demonizing these people, making an entire population scared of this other population that literally lives under apartheid behind a wall. You know, all of this is a maintained through story, through what stories are uplifted and what stories are silenced.
DAM attempted to reclaim the Palestinian narrative in 2001 with a protest song, called, “Meen Erhabi,” or “Who’s the Terrorist?”
“Meen Erhabi” was downloaded over a million times and garnered them international attention.
The message was clearly resonating. The single helped launched DAM’s career, and they’ve since shared stages with GZA from Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, and Chuck D from Public Enemy, among others. They’ve signed to the UK label Cooking Vinyl and released 3 full length albums.
There was Dedication in 2006:
Dabke on the Moon in 2013:
And Ben Haana Wa Maana in 2019:
Even since finding success, their values have always remained at the forefront of their music and the way they’ve built community around it.
GABRIEL: Another thing that stood out to me about this group from the beginningIs um, is they've always uplifted women.From the beginning in their music. You know, I remember one of the earliest songs I heard from them was a song called “Freedom for My Sisters,” you know?
They featured Abeer, you know, Sabreena da Witch on one of their first big songs called “Born Here,” which, you know, um, introduced the world to her voice.
“Today Arabs face the most discrimination
Palestinians even more
Plus the difficulties in our own society
What could be tougher than that?
And who gets it the worst?
A woman... An Arab woman
It doesn’t get harder than that”
Tamer talks about how Arabs, and particularly Palestinians, face extreme discrimination in the world today. But considering the difficulties in their own society as well, he says that no one gets it worse than Arab women.
GABRIEL: I remember when Ben Haana Wa Maana dropped, it was the first thing I heard from them in, in years. And I was working at KEXP actually. And it just felt like an album that everybody needs to hear, you know?
And even if you don't speak Arabic, like you're going to get into the vibe of these beats and these lyrics and the chemistry of their three voices together. Is just next level, you know? Yeah. Yeah. I feel like it goes right now too. It came out what, in 2019? Yeah. If it came out in 2023, it would still sound next level, you know?
If you do speak Arabic, or you’re willing to look up the translations of each song, you’ll find messages tackling everything from beauty standards and bodily autonomy to corrupt governments and Western intervention.
The track, “Hada Yid’ie Sitna” calls for the leadership of women. It states that Palestinians are not in “a darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of a womb,” suggesting rebirth and a new collective path led by women.
One titled “Prozac” is all about Western intervention and how it always ends up making things worse by not addressing, or even understanding, the root issues. This is an anthem where DAM is basically saying, “leave us the fuck alone.”
GABRIEL: It's an extreme example, you know, um, of the ways that hip hop have touched every side of this planet that I think often gets under celebrated when we talk about, you know, we're doing this whole podcast in celebration of hip hop's 50th, and a lot of times people look at like, oh, what were hip hop's, shiniest moments? What were the most celebrated? Which ones changed the way different people rapped? Which ones, you know, got the awards and sold the records?
But sometimes I think the most important stories in the culture are the ones that like really. Saved lives and can shift culture, and can change politics, and we talk about hip-hop and Palestine and the work that DAM has done. I feel like that's, that's what it is. You know what I mean? This is like, like I get goosebumps even like talking about it and thinking about it, you know? Like this is why this music exists right here. You know? This is apartheid like in our lifetime, like one of the greatest like Injustices, like actual active land theft happening right in front of people's eyes. Like people fighting cultural and actual genocide. You know what I mean? And one of the most powerful tools that the people from that group have that are using is hip-hop?
Tamer talks about the unexpected message of hope in their music, how it’s like a flame in the darkness of a cave.
DAM means “everlasting” in Arabic, and as they document their own story, their message becomes everlasting too. We just have to listen.