DAM rapper Tamer Nafar talks about how music showed him the connection between the Palestinian struggle and the Black American experience.
ANGEL ELLIOTT, PRODUCER, TRNN: I’m Angel Elliott for The Real Music from The Bun Shop in Baltimore. You’d have to be living in the Matrix not to recognize Palestinians’ continued struggle for the right to return to their ancestral land in Israel. May 15, 1948: the day celebrated by the state of Israel as independence day, and the day that Palestinians observe as al Nakba, or the catastrophe. They lost 78 percent of their historic homeland to Israel and the displacement of nearly 1 million Palestinians. In June 1967 Israel launched a preemptive strike against the Arab state of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, known as the six-day war and began the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the last remnants of Palestinian land. Palestinians have waged two major uprisings, or intifadas, against the occupation. The first in 1987, and the second in 2000. This forced Israel to agree to a so-called peace process, which in reality brought about a massive expansion of Israel’s settlers into occupied Palestinian land, illegal under international law. The Gaza Strip, home to 1.8 million Palestinians, is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and best described as the world’s largest open-air prison. Though Israel withdrew its settlers in 2005 it continues a military blockade, causing frequent shortages of basic goods. Gaza has been the target of three recent military campaigns led by Israel. Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, an offensive that destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, the majority of its water wells, and thousands of homes killing over 2,000 Palestinians, the vast majority civilian, in just over a month. According to the UN, by the year 2020 Gaza will be unlivable. U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But over the past two weeks we’ve all been heartbroken by the violence. Especially the death and injury of so many innocent civilians in Gaza. ELLIOTT: The United States is an essential partner in the occupation. It provides Israel with over $3 billion a year in military aid, and critical diplomatic cover for the ongoing occupation, demolitions of Palestinian homes, and the seizures of Palestinian land. The U.S. routinely vetoes UN resolutions calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Not unlike the Gaza Strip, the U.S. has urban ghettos where black people live in conditions that are densely populated and lacking in basic resources for survival. What writer Arlene Eisen calls Operation Ghetto Storm. In this environment, hip-hop was born. And this art form is how Palestinian artist Tamer Nafar connected his struggle to the black experience in America. I spoke to Tamer, a part of DAM, the award-winning Palestinian hip-hop crew who have been heralded as the voice of a new generation there. We talked about his hip-hop influences, from Tupac to J Cole, and most importantly how DAM’s music continues to shed light on the struggle for freedom of their people in Gaza.
ELLIOTT: Thanks so much for joining us, Tamer. TAMER NAFAR: Thanks so much for having me. ELLIOTT: What time is it there? NAFAR: It’s 10:00 PM. No, 9:15 PM. ELLIOTT: Okay. Not super late. NAFAR: It is for me. I start my day really, really early. ELLIOTT: Well, thanks for talking to us after your bedtime. So you and the members of DAM are from Lod, in the center of Palestine, right? Growing up in one of the mixed cities in Israel. When you first began to record hip-hop you flowed over known hip-hop instrumentals. You even memorized English by listening to Tupac, his lyrics, and translating them into Arabic. What in hip-hop influenced your lyrical style and your music? NAFAR: Well, you said Tupac, so I cannot pick someone else now. But it’s, it’s a few steps. Actually my first verse that I memorized even before I knew English was, do you remember the song Informer, by Snow? ELLIOTT: Yeah. [Informer by Snow plays] NAFAR: It was this, I don’t know who was the rapper [over there]. But it was, I’m sittin’ round cool with my jiggy jiggy girl. That was the first verse that I ever memorized in my life. But there’s a metaphor that I use sometimes. I mean, hip-hop, I liked hip-hop. But it was like a beautiful girl for me. I liked the way it sounded, I liked the way it looked. But Tupac kind of made it like a serious relationship, where I got deep in the lyrics, and he made me just grab the dictionary and translate the lyrics. Whatever I can translate. Because a lot of them is, the dictionary is a bit official for slang. But basically Tupac got me translating, understanding 60 percent of the lyrics. And there’s a lot–I remember that song on All Eyez On Me–I won’t deny it, [singing]. I think it was. So for example the word rider, it was written ridah, R-I-D-A-A-H, something like that, and I couldn’t find it in the dictionary. ELLIOTT: How’d you figure it out? NAFAR: As much as I sound racist, but you know, I was 15, 16. I used to stop Ethiopian people in the street and ask them what it means. I figure they are black, so they probably know. But it just took me time to break the code, decode everything, and understand that they’re slang. And that made it more interesting, because if a dude living thousands of thousands of miles away is creating slang and he could convince that guy from the other side, from the other language, from the other culture to go and search these things–it’s strong like the Da Vinci code. So it just made me more enriched with these things, and actually made me follow lyrics until I got to know all about the African-American struggle, actually, before I knew all about my struggle. So that’s, so it was a bit of a boomerang. I had to go there so I can come back. ELLIOTT: You talk about hip-hop being like a beautiful girl, like a relationship for you. The rapper Common, one of his first popular songs was I Used to Love Her. Comparing music and hip-hop, basically, to a relationship with a woman. And artists like him and KRS-One, Tupac, Biggie, Kendrick Lamar, Dead Prez, J Cole, all of them take the black experience and rap about it. And not just the black experience but their life experience, and use hip-hop and rap to be creative and artistic. Is that something that you feel that you do? NAFAR: You used a lot of names, and I think every one of them deserves–I can do a whole interview about each one of them, like, one hour talk about each of them and analyze it. But I think it is great to start talking about his black life, about my Palestinian life, but the magic is when you make it international, is when you make it common to the whole world. That’s the magic. That’s what makes the difference between a good rapper and an artist, I think. For example, you used the name, you used J Cole for example, right. He had his last album, and he had that song–I can’t remember the name. But what he starts with ‘Rest in peace, Uncle Phil, you’re the only father I ever had’. He just uses this line, and the Fresh Prince is international. I used to watch the Fresh Prince. And when he talks about Uncle Phil as his father, because he was raised by a single mother, so that makes the connections, just that simple keyword that makes everything connected. I think that’s the big difference between being an amazing rapper and an amazing artist. So it’s just finding that formula to be international. ELLIOTT: And subsequently your music has served as a soundtrack to the liberation struggles that Palestinians face in the face of the Israeli apartheid. Talk to me about creating movements through your music. NAFAR: Well, it’s not, it’s not like a revolution that you plan. It’s not like we sit with the map and we say we start here, and then we’re going to do this. That’s the beautiful thing about art. You do it, and whatever happens, it happens. You just drop the ball. And back then it was the hood. Before that it was also the hood, but it was basically blaming drug dealers. I knew that drugs and crime comes, is a result of unemployment, ghetto, no education, no budgets for the minorities. But I didn’t want to fuck with that, because you know, I want to succeed. I want to be on the Israeli radio. This is where I live. I want my royalties, I want to be famous. I still want to be more famous than I am. It’s a dream, it’s my individual dream. ELLIOTT: And you didn’t begin recording political songs, songs with a political [inaud.] until your friend Booba was killed in a drive-by, right? NAFAR: When my friend died, it’s like I didn’t care about saying whatever I want. So it’s funny because my father used to tell me that I shouldn’t mess with politics because it will burn my career. He always said, you are stepping into a building on fire. And it took me time to understand that I want to be a fireman. So that’s what I want to do, I want to step into these buildings. So I just needed that click, that incident, that specific incident that would make me–. I will give you an example. A cliché, Hollywood example. But in the movie Braveheart, for example, in the beginning he was ready to–Mel Gibson, Sir William Wallace. He was ready to fight. He had that militant power in him. He was smart, he was da-da-da. He saw the war, but he didn’t want to mess with the English people. But as soon as they killed his wife, she he [inaud.]. So sometimes we need that push, you know? The second intifada was my Ferguson, then. Because I did used to believe that I lived in a bubble. It’s not like living in a bubble. It’s just I didn’t think that it’s–I thought that if I don’t touch it then it will not touch me. But it takes time for you to understand that it’s a virus and it’s going to get you anyway. ELLIOTT: Right, right. And to tie that into, you know, many Palestinian struggles mirror that of black Americans. In your first political song, and excuse my pronunciation of this, Posheem Hapim Peshaa, which actually used Tupac’s Hail Mary beat, you said, when Jews protest the cops use clubs. When Arabs protest the cops take their souls. And that really struck a chord for me. You wrote this song as a result of the angst and anger that you and other Palestinians faced when thousands of your brothers and sisters were killed during the second intifada. Is what we’re seeing in Ferguson, in New York, in Florida, and now Baltimore, like, all across the country like we’re talking about, that moment. Black lives taken with seemingly little repercussions. Can you talk to me about the connection between Palestinian struggle and the Black Lives Matter movement here? NAFAR: Well you know, in between the second intifada, the uprising, and Booba’s death there was only three weeks. So it was just, I was still on fire, you know. After Booba’s death, I was–what is happening in the hood, it’s because of the police. And three weeks after that the second intifada started. So it was just a matter of time for me to go all over. Look, it’s, if you want to talk about Ferguson and the second intifada, about the Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian life matters, I think that–you know that the Israeli police, and I think the Atlanta police. The Israeli police and the American police sometimes work together on especially of how to shut down uprisings. And I think it’s amazing. I think it’s amazing, if they can find a way to work together, how come we are not finding a way to work together? Because it’s just, it’s a classical, it’s divided so classically, in a classical way. These two cops are working together, so these two minorities should be a majority, in a way. And of course I see, I cannot–there’s this argument. If you go into specific details then I can say no, we don’t find–and we are more like the natives, because we were not kidnapped and raped with ships from Palestine to here, but we are here anyway. When we were here, Israel came with ships. So in a way we can say we are the natives. But I think that these things slow down the unity. ELLIOTT: I’m Angel Elliott for the Real Music in Baltimore. And for more information on DAM, you can check them out right here.