• Joel Dwek & Danny Wiser

PALESTINE: Dabke On The Moon - DAM

Hard-hitting political rap music is the order of the day with these Arabic-language hip-hop pioneers

When reviewing an album as political as Dabke On The Moon by DAM, we try not to take sides. However, as two Jews with family in Israel and a close personal connection and understanding of the ongoing conflict, we are aware that passions run high when addressing the situation, particularly on the internet. Like all humans we may present certain subconscious biases, however, we categorically do not agree with the aggressive politics of Israeli leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu, and simply put, as human beings before being Jews, we feel only sadness, pain and heartbreak at this seemingly entrenched, eternal, and exasperating conflict to which there is seemingly no end in sight, with continued misery and death blighting the civilians on both sides of the conflict.

Our initial thoughts when it came to reviewing a Palestinian album was to find a neutral and apolitical album, of which we have discovered several of decent quality, but ultimately none stood up to the impressive nature of DAM’s sophomore album Dabke on the Moon, which shines both musically and as any high quality hip-hop record does, it cuts through with immense lyricism. Though born in Lod in Israel, DAM, founded by two brothers and their friend, identify primarily as Palestinian and this identity is at the forefront of their intensely political music. Palestinian identity comes in many flavours, as noted in the documentary film Slingshot Hip Hop in which they are prominently featured. The film discusses the differences between the Palestinians living in Gaza, Palestinians in the diaspora in refugee camps, ‘67 Palestinians mostly residing in the West Bank, and themselves as ‘48 Palestinians. It is of course worth noting that there are ample perspectives on both Palestinian identity and a range of political views within the Palestinian community. DAM are neither representative of all Palestinians in their viewpoints, nor are they representative of all Palestinian hip-hop artists. However, their discontent, dismay and anger is something that is felt universally about the political backdrop through which they have been raised.

“The combination of great musicianship alongside [Tamer] Nafar’s superb flow never ceases to be enjoyable.”

One thing that is abundantly clear, and in some senses makes their music not just resonant within Palestine, but also across the world, is that ultimately the group are products of their upbringing, with the desire to sing and perform about issues affecting young people globally, such as love and heartbreak, but feel that they cannot as they carry a burden or sense of responsibility to tackle these political issues that those in office have failed to do successfully. Although they are not representative of all Palestinians, their music has undoubtedly left a mark on the entire Palestinian hip-hop scene and whilst nobody could claim to be entirely reflective of the whole community, they have certainly managed to resonate with large sections of Palestinian society, as well as onlookers from the outside world.

Dabke On The Moon, was released in the aftermath of an Israeli operation in Gaza, Pillar of Defence, at the back-end of 2012. With over a decade of experience rapping by this point, the group had clearly honed their craft, not only with a sharp flow but also incorporating a variety of genres to accompany their cutting lyrics. The melodies and beats used pay homage to influences both East and West, with instrumentation native to Palestine and the Arab world such as the oud, and styles such as dabke and raï are included on the album, whilst at the same time genres as far-reaching as blues, jazz and electronic music are all integrated to create their own unique style. As pioneers within the Arabic hip-hop scene they had to look elsewhere for their ‘specifically hip-hop’ influences, namely the United States and even Israel itself. This may seem paradoxical, due to differences in political perspectives, but ultimately DAM are products of their environment and can look no further than to icons within the hip-hop world such as Tupac and Chuck D, who made their music rapping about the problems they faced in their difficult surroundings they grew up in. It seems that Harlem and Lod have more in common than meet the eye, both are plagued by poverty and systemic racism. When it comes to Israel, Tamer Nafar admits in an interview with Mike Skinner of The Streets, that listening to Israeli rappers performing in Hebrew is what gave him the idea to rap in Arabic. Though the process was arduous, due to the difficulty of adapting Arabic to rap’s rhythms and its traditional rhyming patterns, it is evident listening to Dabke On The Moon that they have perfected the formula.

The variety within the album does not just come from a mixture of Western and Middle Eastern influences, but also from the tone and emotion that varies throughout the record. There are some melodic, softer tracks such as If I Could Go Back in Time and Mama, I Fell in Love With A Jew, which contrast greatly with songs like Street Poetry and Handcuff Them War Criminals which both use an incredibly high energy beat that is almost irresistible. Though all the track names are in English, the vast majority of the songs are performed in Arabic; there is a sparse use of both English and Hebrew throughout the record, such as a few throwaway lyrics on The Hob in both of those languages. However, there is only one track that is primarily in English and thus easier for us to analyse the lyrics of, which is the aforementioned Mama, I Fell in Love With A Jew. Nevertheless, we have looked into translations of some other tracks, to give us a broader picture of the message that DAM are trying to convey. Suffice to say, the overall tone of the album is one of deep-seated frustration, with a great focus on the injustice that they live with.

Mama, I Fell in Love With A Jew is a parody of a love song, depicting an abusive relationship, that highlights the imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians. The song is both potent and comical, with a very catchy chorus. The song highlights the fact that the political discourse that has surrounded the conflict for decades, has warped the perspective of both sides. As the song points out, the Palestinian narrator mostly sees the Israeli solider he has fallen in love with as both a threat to him, whilst at the same time despite his lack of weaponry or resources, he is a great threat to her too and perhaps even a target, as the sardonic lyric “without the sniper lens you look cute too” implies. Unfortunately, both Palestinian and Israeli society are plagued with swathes of people who fail to see the humanity in their cousins, even though, in modern historical terms, they are both products of political catastrophe that has come about at the hands of those in power, all the way back to grave failures of the British.

With this in mind, there are within the track antisemitic tropes on display, such as the homogenising of Jews as white, when in actual fact many Israeli Jews have brown or black skin. This plays into an idea that all the Jews of Israel are predominantly European and thus colonisers. However, DAM can be somewhat forgiven for this. The very fact that we are reviewing the album, is due to the potency of this track which caught our attention before hearing the rest of the record. Were the song to have contained softer lyrics or far more overtly antisemitic lyrics we would have not been so drawn to it. Music is like a painting and sometimes the way in which an artist can gain the attention of passers-by is to include something that may make them feel uncomfortable.

In spite of the fact that the tropes on the song might make a listener uncomfortable on a stand alone listen, it is important to attempt to put the track into its context. Though the intentions of DAM can never be fully known, one must try to put oneself in their shoes as Palestinians living in Israel, experiencing a daily dynamic of powerlessness and systemic oppression that is almost unfathomable for most people to even comprehend. With this in mind, one can only assume that DAM’s motives, are not simply to carelessly offend, but rather might root from a wish to address the paralysis of their situation. It is our view that the song is merely a satirical look at how Israelis view Palestinians and vice versa, and the fact of the matter is that there is lots of racism on both sides and their lyrics highlight this wider point.

The rest of the album is similarly of a high musical quality. One of the biggest indicators of this is the fact that it kept us both highly engaged in spite of the fact that it is clearly a very lyrically-driven album and we do not speak Arabic. The combination of great musicianship alongside Nafar’s superb flow never ceases to be enjoyable. There are numerous collaborations on the record, most notably Rachid Taha on Why, an indicator of the fact that DAM seem to be reaching out to other corners of the Arab world rather than merely appealing to a solely Palestinian market. Though this, or frankly any other album, might on the surface not seem to go a long way in solving what feels like an unsolvable political disaster, DAM must be commended for showing themselves to be a source of inspiration to young Palestinians. By using music as a form of self-expression, and doing so broadly through sheer will and determination, rather than with huge financial backing. Ultimately, DAM prove that music can be a powerful and effective form of protest and social engagement, and achieve this with flair and style.