The Chris Hedges Report: Hip hop, censorship, and Palestinian resistance

Legendary UK-based hip-hop artist and activist Kareem Dennis, aka Lowkey, uses his considerable talents as a musician to pay homage to the voices and struggles of the oppressed, from the plight of migrants that have fled to Europe, to the suffering of Iraqis and Palestinians in the Middle East, to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. His work, including his single “Voices of The Voiceless” with Immortal Technique, and “Long Live Palestine” (also known as “Tears to Laughter”), are hip-hop classics. His song “Terrorist?”, a searing condemnation of the hypocrisy of Washington and Western governments, was swiftly censored by many digital media platforms.

He’s long been a target of the Israel lobby in both UK and the United States, which blocked him from receiving a visa to perform. The University of Cambridge postponed his March 8 Zoom talk, “The Israel Lobby’s War Against You.” The British press has engaged in an ongoing smear campaign against the rapper, and there is an organized effort to get his music removed from Spotify.

Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show, The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.

Watch The Chris Hedges Report live YouTube premiere on The Real News Network every Friday at 12PM ET.

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Transcript

Chris Hedges:     Welcome to the Chris Hedges Report. There are very few recording artists I admire more than Kareem Dennis, the legendary hip-hop artist known as Lowkey. He uses his considerable talents as a musician to pay homage to the voices and struggles of the oppressed, from the plight of migrants that have fled to Europe, to the suffering of Iraqis and Palestinians in the Middle East, to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. His work, including his single, “Voices of The Voiceless” with Immortal Technique and “Long Live Palestine,” also known as “Tears to Laughter,” are hip-hop classics. His song, “Terrorist?”, a searing condemnation of the hypocrisy of Washington and Western governments, was swiftly censored by many digital media platforms.

In 2011, the Jewish Chronicle described Lowkey’s increasing influence and worldwide recognition as one of the most gifted lyricists in hip-hop as a “potential nightmare” for Israel and its Zionist supporters. He has long been a target of the Israel lobby in the UK and the United States, which blocked him from receiving a visa to perform in the United States. The University of Cambridge, under pressure from the Union of Jewish Students and the Israel lobby, postponed his March 8th Zoom talk, “The Israel Lobby’s War Against You.” He was blocked from speaking and performing at the annual National Union of Students Conference in Liverpool. And British prime minister Boris Johnson, weighing in on the censorship campaign against Lowkey, said a few days ago that British University “for far too long have been tolerant of casual or indeed systematic antisemitism,” adding that he “hope[s] that everybody understands the need for rapid, and indeed irreversible change,” before announcing that the United Kingdom needed a new antisemitism task force, in his words, “devoted to rooting out” the problem at all levels of the education system.

The Cambridge Palestine Solidarity Society says it now fears it will be banned, as have many students for justice in Palestine groups in the United States. The British press has engaged in a daily smear campaign against the rapper. And there is an organized effort to get his music removed from Spotify. As the crimes of the Israeli state become more and more apparent to the public, as even leading Israeli intellectuals can see that Israel has cemented into place a brutal system of apartheid, as a new generation of Jews in the West no longer feel an emotional attachment to Israel, the Israeli state has adopted harsher and harsher methods to silence its critics, including an attempt to criminalize those of us who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.

Joining me to discuss the fierce Israeli censorship campaign that is being waged against him is Kareem Dennis, or Lowkey. So Kareem, just lay out what they’ve been doing recently. It’s pretty fierce.

Kareem Dennis:     Thank you very much, Chris. It’s an honor to be here with you. I’m a big fan of yourself and The Real News, of course, for very many years. Now, the important thing for us to point to when talking about the latest aspect of this campaign against me is that the organization which is calling for my music to be removed from Spotify is the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center, which is led by Richard Pater. Now, Richard Pater previously was an employee of the Israeli prime minister’s office. And he currently, while simultaneously leading BICOM, is in the reserves of the Israeli occupation forces. The lobby group is bankrolled by its chairman and donor to the Conservative Party, Poju Zabludowicz. His wealth, of course, comes from his father who founded Soltam Systems, an arms company, which was later subsumed by Elbit Systems, the largest arms company in Israel.

Now, BICOM works closely with AIPAC, the very world famous lobby group in the United States. According to the former director of BICOM, Daniel Shek, AIPAC assisted BICOM with developing grassroots networks. And one of those networks would be this particular project We Believe In Israel. Two of the fellows at BICOM, Michael Herzog and Tal Becker, are also fellows of the AIPAC think tank, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And that director that I mentioned, Daniel Shek, later went on to be the Israeli ambassador to Paris.

Just to articulate quite how deeply entrenched BICOM is within the British media atmosphere, you had a former editor from BBC, Mark Berg, appointed as its director not long after the founding. And not only did he work for the BBC before he worked for BICOM. After he left BICOM, he went back to working for the BBC on some of its most famous flagship shows like Hard Talk.

Another figure who is prominent in BICOM is Ruth Smith, who was instrumental in the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn in the Labor Party. She was appointed as the director of public affairs and campaigns. Now, Ruth Smith was identified in a US embassy cable that was released by WikiLeaks as being a “strictly protect” informant of the US embassy. And her husband is a key figure at the British American Project, which is an organization funded by the US embassy and BAE Systems, and works to steer the left in this country towards the orthodoxies of NATO.

Also, BICOM were revealed to have worked very closely with the Israeli embassy on the campaign against the academic boycott at the University and College Union. You even had somebody like Tim Llewellyn, who was a former BBC correspondent, say of BICOM that organizations such as BICOM have hundreds of thousands of pounds at their disposal, much of it coming directly from the United States, which sends a third of its whole global foreign aid budget to Israel. This great flow of funds bypasses most ordinary Israeli citizens and goes straight to the projection of Zionist causes and colonialism wherever it might be needed. These funds prop up, here in the United Kingdom, not just BICOM, but organizations like Labor Friends of Israel.

When we look at the particular group from BICOM, it was cultivated by BICOM, is still in the same office as BICOM, and is part of BICOM, which is working on removing my music from Spotify, it’s We Believe In Israel. Now, this is led by a gentleman by the name of Luke Akehurst who’s actually on the NEC of the Labor Party. This is a key decision making body within the Labor Party. Now, he describes himself as previously being a “political consultant” to defense companies about their sales to the ministry of defense. He was a consultant to Finmeccanica, which was an Italian arms company that had a $1 billion deal to supply training jets to the Israeli Air Force according to the Financial Times. It later became Leonardo, which today is the ninth largest arms company in the world and is a longstanding partner of Rafael, the Israeli-owned arms company.

Now, the allegation is that my music incites violence, and what we can clearly see is the extension of the type of policies which are aimed towards Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza. So, the Palestinian Prisoner Studies Center found that between 2015 and 2018, 500 Palestinians, among them children, many children, were arrested for the crime of incitement because of things that they had posted on the internet. You have the example of Tamara Abu Laban in Jerusalem who merely put the words “forgive me” on her Facebook, and then her house was raided and she was arrested. A 15 year old child we’re talking about. You also have, of course, the case of Dareen Tatour who wrote her poem “Qawem Ya Shaabi Qawemahum,” “Resist, My People, Resist Them.” For that, she went through three years of prosecution, which entailed house arrest, and also entailed being put in prison for at least five months. When Dareen Tatour was released from prison, she was actually given an Oxfam Novib prize for freedom of expression at the Hague, but of course that has not been emphasized in any of the reports.

So as we see, an extension of the war against the Palestinians and their right to speak about what is happening is now being aimed in my direction, along with thousands of others in this country, as we speak.

Chris Hedges:      Let’s talk about the campaign. You alluded to the vast amount of money these people can use to perpetuate the campaign against you, but how does it work? Is it primarily done through the press? I mean, what are the mechanisms they use to essentially attempt to marginalize you?

Kareem Dennis:      Well, it’s through the press, of course. And we have very clear lines of communication that have been fortified massively throughout the war against Jeremy Corbyn. There are several proxy organizations that have clear links, whether it’s the board of deputies, which said in its trustees report that he has a close working relationship with the Israeli embassy, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and the IDF. This was a key group working against Jeremy Corbyn. Or it could be an organization like the campaign against antisemitism, which is led by Gideon Falter, who, simultaneous to leading that organization, is one of the directors of the JNF, which builds settlements in the West Bank and in other parts of Palestine, too.

These are organizations that have very clear links to the Israeli state and what they have sought to do throughout the Corbyn years was build up this communication between them and the media. As I stated, BICOM was primarily focused on the media war, and it has several well placed journalists that work with it at the major newspapers. And you have seen tens of articles published about me, strongly implying that I am… That there’s an irrationality behind what I’m saying. Some type of irrational motivation. You’ve also seen me spoken about in Parliament two days running. And, of course, in Parliament, the MPs enjoy parliamentary privilege, which means that they cannot… Nothing they say is legally actionable. So I could not sue anybody for calling me a racist in Parliament.

The crux of this when we get down to it is that they are trying to reconfigure the idea of anti-Zionism as somehow antisemitic. When the actual peer of Theodor Herzl by the name of Nathan Birnbaum, who is – Very little is known about him, actually, because he’s largely been written out of history, but there are a few great books about him – He was the person credited with coining the term Zionism. He was a peer of Theodor Herzl and Leo Pinsker, the earlier Zionist thinkers.

Now, he later became an anti-Zionist. So the implication here is that somebody who coined the phrase Zionism and was one of the earliest Zionist thinkers is now somehow antisemitic because he became an anti-Zionist later on. Also, when you look at the amount of citizens that you have within this state, six million of them are Jewish people, meaning that only six million Jewish people are actually believers in the idea of Israel in so far as they’ve taken citizenship. But there’s 15 million Jewish people in the world, strongly implying that the vast majority of Jewish people are actually not Zionists. And so, this really is about that key issue and trying to force through the IHRA definition, whether that is on private companies like Spotify or in public institutions like universities. That is what this is about. It is about quelling the freedom of speech of not only Palestinians, but their supporters.

Chris Hedges:       Let’s talk about the character assassination that they’ve engaged in. What are the kinds of things that you’ve heard said about you?

Kareem Dennis:      Well, again, it’s about attributing an irrationality to my ideas. Of course, I’ve come under fire for saying that the heritage of Zelenskyy in Ukraine has been weaponized to stave off genuine inquiries into the nature of the far right groups which are involved in the fight in Ukraine and are directly being armed and trained by the government I pay taxes to. So, actually, I’m being depicted as somehow antisemitic because I have a problem and an objection to the arming and training of explicitly Nazi organizations. So, it’s quite the acrobatics are being played with these things, of course.

Chris Hedges:       So, you’ve long been a target. It was a few years ago that you were denied a visa to the United States in order to perform. Why does an artist like you frighten them so much?

Kareem Dennis:       Well, I mean, at that time I was booked to perform and speak at the Left Forum and my visa was refused. I think the reason why my music would be quite worrying is because it does not have any strings attached to it which say what I can or cannot talk about. I’m also and have been involved in many different political movements. I’m a patron of what the British state would consider some of the most subversive organizations, possibly, in this country’s history. I’m involved in those campaigns. The key to my music was always about mobilizing people to build critical mass, and also I’m a person who has political ideas which have rendered me disqualified from the very narrow parameters of political choice within this country, and I’m not afraid to talk about it. Also, seeing my neighbors die in the horrific circumstances that they did at Grenfell Tower. People I’ve known since they were children died in there.

And being a witness, an eyewitness, to that. Being an eyewitness to what happened after it. Having the cladding and the ashes in my hair and all over my body and having to wash them off. That in and of itself would render me to be a person of interest to the state, and somebody certainly worthy of quite close surveillance. But then when you add on top of it that this music is quite subversive, that this music is directly challenging people, that it attempts to bring together the micro and the macro, to bring together the criminals with the victims of their crimes, it’s no surprise that this type of opposition is what I have faced.

Chris Hedges:         Right. Well, what they call subversive we call truth. For people who don’t know what happened at Grenfell, and I remember walking around that neighborhood one afternoon with you, because it’s really horrific. But I think it’s, again, the way the poor have been abandoned and discarded in neoliberal societies. Just tell us what happened there.

Kareem Dennis:        So, essentially, you had an orthodoxy, a bipartisan orthodoxy of neoliberal necro-politics in this country across, essentially, the last 50 years. What that meant was the deregulation of so many different industries, and the key one being the construction industry. And that meant that it opened up the creative ambiguity for these companies, particularly Arconic is the company that made the flammable cladding which was placed around Grenfell Tower. The top shareholder in Arconic, of course, being BlackRock. We can’t forget that the reason for the insulation and the cladding being placed on buildings was to lower carbon emissions after the Kyoto agreements. But then, the truth of the matter is that the top shareholder in this company, Arconic, who benefited so greatly from it, is BlackRock, who are also the top shareholder in Shell. So this is one of the ways in which power reproduces itself, and what they’ve put on these buildings is solidified petrol. So at six millimeters of polyethylene in the material that was placed on the side of this building next door to me. And of course, prior to that, we had understood that all of the blocks including the one I lived in were due to be demolished.

Now, the only block that we understood to not be ready to be demolished in the march of gentrification was going to be Grenfell. And the reason why it wasn’t going to be demolished was because it had the refurbishment that placed the cladding on the outside of it. So, one of the most twisted ironies of this is that we considered everyone that lived in Grenfell to be safe from regeneration and to not be likely to be moved from the neighborhood, whereas the rest of us all felt we were on the verge of being moved from the neighborhood. And then the fire happens and the council backs off because they knew it wouldn’t be tenable to demolish all of our blocks.

Now, what happened on the night of the 14th of June, 2017, is that a fridge exploded. Again, there would’ve been a background of deregulation within this particular industry that would mean you could have a faulty fridge just explode randomly. But then that fire then spread to the outside of the building and spread across the building in a really unnatural way and led to many people dying of asphyxiation. A young child died being trampled on the stairs. A man jumped from the 15th floor. His body was then taken into the block next door to Grenfell, and a gentleman by the name of Omega came out of his front door and took a picture of the body on the floor outside of his house. Now, he then uploaded that picture onto the internet. And what happened was he was then contacted by a journalist who asked to meet him, who then set him up to be arrested. And Omega spent three months in prison because he took a picture of that dead body which was placed outside of his door.

And it is my conviction that when history speaks, it will say that we as the community were far more criminalized by the British state than any of the companies involved in this refurbishment that killed neighbors and loved ones close to us.

Chris Hedges:       And I should be clear, as you told me, this was something you witnessed. I mean, you watched it.

Kareem Dennis:        Yes. Yeah. I was there on the night through everything. At one point, there were three generations of one family that died in there from the grandmother to the granddaughters. And at one point they were waving out of the 21st floor at us. We saw the helicopter move towards them, within about 100 meters of them, take a picture of them, which was on the front page of the Evening Standard the next day. The Evening Standard was led at that time by George Osborne. George Osborne, of course, was the chancellor of the Exchequer responsible for the austerity program which cut 10,000 jobs from the fire service, which cut the local fire brigade. And, of course, people within the building were saying, we see [inaudible 00:22:00]. We see the helicopters and we think they might be able to help us and save us. And so, these people were waving at the helicopters to be saved by them. The helicopters just turned around and went in the other direction. And that the three generations of that family, Choucair family, died in the building that night. And we saw it all in front of us and were shouting back and forth to people within that building. So, certainly, coming from a community like this, you would definitely see my music be carefully monitored.

Chris Hedges:       But they demonized the families that survived and those in the neighborhood in the same way they’re demonizing you now.

Kareem Dennis:         Yeah. I mean, well put. What you saw was the attempt by the mainstream media. You have to remember that what Grenfell revealed was a national scandal, but it was camouflaged as a local scandal. And it was exceptionalized when it should have been generalized. Meaning that you have hospitals, cinema, schools, and houses across the country, and blocks that are lived in and have the same kind of flammable insulation and cladding across it. You have a primary school just a mile away from Grenfell that was built within four years after the fire with flammable insulation that was made by one of the same companies that made the flammable insulation on Grenfell.

So, what had to happen in that early stage was that the local community had to be seen as different from the rest of British society. And people often talk about racism and Grenfell, but I think the way that racism and Grenfell worked was that it said to the rest of the population, you have nothing to do with this community. They are a Prevent priority community, which is, Prevent is the British government’s, one of its counter-extremism programs, which basically allocates funding to local government depending on the proportion of the population which are Muslim. So meaning that you had to depict this community as somehow different from the rest of society, so you couldn’t have that real horizontal solidarity which needed to happen. And so what we’ve seen, really, is this massive US company in Arconic, French company in Celotex, they’ve been able to get off completely scot-free while the so-called nationalists can puff out their chests saying that somehow they have more in common with the interests of a massive US construction company like Arconic than they do with people that live in neighborhoods very similar to their own.

Chris Hedges:      To what extent did the attacks against Jeremy Corbyn… Of course, that was, again, orchestrated around the charge that he was an antisemite, and of course successfully. And much of that came from the Blairites within the Labor Party itself. How has that weakened, if it has, the people like you? I mean, to what extent has that kind of knocked out props that might offer support?

Kareem Dennis:        Well, it sets up the infrastructure through which the witch hunt can take place. You know, this is McCarthyism 2022. And you set up these bodies whereby their entire purpose is to monitor the social media output of people and to basically match them against a criteria for political subjectivity. It basically established a hierarchy of political subjectivity in this country. Meaning that if you are on the close to 80% of the population who believe that the railway should be nationalized, if you are part of the 78 or so percent of the population who believe that water and household utilities should be nationalized, if you are part of the, again, close to 80% of the population who believe that we should not have nuclear weapons, then you are disqualified from the right to be a participant in the political process in the country.

And the subterfuge through which that was done is pro-Palestinianism. So, if you support the Palestinians, if you assert the humanhood of Palestinians, then you are you very likely – And thousands of people. I am one of the fortunate people. When I have had this campaign against me, I’ve had the support in the public letter that we’ve signed and put out to Spotify, the support of a former UN special rapporteur for housing. I’ve had the support of a princess of Jordan. I’ve had the support of Mark Ruffalo in Hollywood. I’ve had the support of yourself. I’ve had the support of so many very influential people, but thousands of people during this period did not have their right really looked at and supported by people in a major way. They were kept anonymous. And again, many of them lost their livelihoods, but mostly it was focused on stopping them having any right to be politically active within this society. And that was done through the project of Corbynism. And that’s the simple truth of this.

Chris Hedges:         Great. We’re going to close the show with “Long Live Palestine III” by Lowkey.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.