The idea for the song "Nudbok al Amar" ("Dabke on the Moon" ), the title track of the new album by the Lod-based hip-hop group DAM, was conceived by band member Tamer Nafar while watching the news on television one day.
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"There were two stories. One was about a research study that NASA is doing on the moon, and the other was about the tunnels in Gaza," he recounts. "It hurt me to see the difference between them. Light-years apart. The Americans are flying to space, and we [the Palestinians] are still digging underground. And they are also responsible for our being in the ground. With the billions they give Israel, Israel builds settlements and seals Gaza. So not only are they climbing upward, they're doing it at our expense."
How does all this tie in with "Dabke"?
"I wanted us, too, as a community, to get to the moon. That is what the song is about. When you think about a country that gets to the moon, you immediately think about a flag. But we don't like flags. We are not patriotic. We prefer to think about art. If I were a black guy from America, I would have used the expression 'DJ on the moon.' But I'm not a black guy from America, so we looked for something that has to do with our culture.
"Suppose we've reached a situation where we have a state and we have technology and means to reach the moon. How would we say it? We'd say: 'Dabke on the moon.' Using dabke [the name of a traditional Arab folk dance] means we're not talking about capitalism or patriotism or militarism, but rather about something more spiritual."
You dream of a situation in which, as you put it, "we've reached a situation where we are a state and we have technology and means." Officially, you are a citizen of a state that has technology and means, but from what you say it is clear that you do not feel a sense of belonging vis-a-vis this country.
"When I speak about a state that is mine, I am talking about budgets for culture, about building permits, about living peacefully without threats of demolition bulldozers. [About a situation where] the most basic things for a man's life are on our table, and instead of waking up every morning and wasting a whole day on surviving, we could simply wake up, write songs, educate our children, exercise our imagination and create things.
"Do you know how hard it is when you wake up and chase after things that the Israelis take for granted? It's nice to start life from the ground and grow from there, and not fight below ground just to reach to the surface and then grow."
Center of gravity
And you believe these hopes can be realized in the framework of the state of Israel?
"With [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Avigdor] Lieberman as the audience favorites? I think our existence here is in doubt."
Nafar has never been afraid to say what he thinks of Israel. And the things he has said, in songs and mainly in interviews, have riled many people, including former friends in the local hip-hop community. If at the start of his career he sang in Hebrew and worked alongside Jewish rappers, in recent years Nafar and his band - his brother Suhell Nafar and Mahmoud Jreri - have completely disavowed the possibility of coexistence. Tamer's much-discussed falling out with [Israeli rapper] Subliminal was documented nine years ago in the film "Channels of Rage."
Five years ago an event called "Hip-Hop Sulha" (Hip-Hop Reconciliation ) was held in Tel Aviv. Nafar was the only one who upset the apple cart there, as anthropologist Uri Dorchin writes in "Real Time," his new book about Israeli hip-hop (Resling Press; in Hebrew ).
"In contrast to the anticipated conciliatory slogans being mumbled by those who appeared before him, it was evident that Nafar was in no hurry to be part of the trend and was uncomfortable with reconciliation," Dorchin writes. "The way he stood there gave him the air of a lecturer standing like a stationary extra before an audience of listeners. 'To make a real sulha you have to look at reality head-on and take responsibility for it like men,' Nafar said at the beginning of his condemnatory speech. 'You [the Jews] have to assume responsibility for the massacre and transfer you did in '48, and for the massacre you are still continuing to perpetrate.'
"The laid-back manner in which Nafar delivered his address," Dorchin goes on, "contrasted with their emphatic harshness and underscored it. 'The Israeli government,' he went on, 'is the most murderous government in the world. Just today 10 civilians in Gaza were murdered, and I emphasize murdered and not killed' ... In view of the vagueness and generalization that typified the comments of his Jewish colleagues, his direct choice of words constituted an unusual phenomenon."
Not surprisingly, the new album by DAM (the band's name, according to its website, comes from "Da Arabian MCs" ) - which is coming out six years after the band's debut CD, "Dedication" - has some clearly political songs. However, they do not constitute the album's main center of gravity, and it is important for Tamer Nafar to stress this fact. "I don't want this article to be an interview with [Arab Knesset member] Hanin Zuabi," he says, toward the end of a conversation with him and his fellow band members. The interview takes place in Nafar's home which, ironically enough, is located on none other than "Heroes of Israel Street" in Lod. "What can I do," he shrugs. "I don't have any control over these names."
The difference between DAM's new album and the previous one lies largely in its subject matter. "We are much more socially conscious on this album," Tamer explains. "We talk about things that are happening in our society. Women's rights, sexuality. For example, the song 'Tell Him It's a Classmate' is about a girl who's talking to her boyfriend on the phone, and her father asks her whom she is speaking to. We tell her: 'Tell him it's a girl friend from class. Lie to him. In a hypocritical society, you are allowed to be two-faced.'"
"It's a matter of growing up," Mahmoud Jreri explains. "We realized that if we want to take on the state that is conquering the Palestinian people, we must be brave enough to look in the mirror and criticize our own society. There are a lot of things in our society that we hate, and the time has come to talk about them, not to keep silent. I can't remember if it's Mahmoud Darwish or Samih al-Qasim who said that for you to be able to be a poet, you have to murder your father. So to be an artist, a musician, and not just a rapper, you must talk about things that are considered taboo."
'Like a screenplay'
"Dabke on the Moon" is different from DAM's first album not only because of its content, but also the manner of writing and the tone in which the three rappers express themselves.
"It is still protest music, but we don't yell anymore," Nafar says. "When we were younger and we shouted, it sounded real and emotional, but it wasn't right. It was kids who wrote something and said: 'C'mon, get it out there.'"
They do shout less, and they also seem to opt for fewer words and more melodies. Suhell Nafar, who is influenced by reggae, suggested to his two mates that they "air out" the songs and shorten the rap sections from 16 bars (the classic hip-hop verse ) to eight. "That changes the way in which you tell your story," he says. "The previous album was like a documentary film. Shitty here, shitty here, shitty here. The new album is more like a feature film. There are pictures, stories, dialogues - just like a screenplay. We played with our imagination. We took reality and turned it into fiction."
Tamer: "We are people who spend all day thinking about puns and punch lines. If you had told me a few years ago to forgo a punch line, I would have thought that would be like chopping my hand off. But that is what we did on this album. We reduced, got rid of a lot of punch lines, and discovered that it isn't exactly like chopping off a hand, but rather more like cutting your nails."
The first single, "If I Could Go Back in Time," is a good example of the new CD's spirit and DAM's change in tone and attitude. The song, which features the magnificent female singer Amal Murkus, tells the story of a young woman who was murdered by her brother in a so-called honor killing. The three rappers and the singer recount the story backward: from the murder to events that took place beforehand. The first sentence is, "Before she died, she did not live." The final sentence is, "Congratulations, it's a girl!"
"As far as I know, we are the first to sing about this subject," Tamer says. "If someone else has done it, he didn't publicize his song properly." And then he adds with pride: "We released the video clip a short time ago, and it already has more than 100,000 hits."
The clip was produced with the support and funding of the UN Women's rights organization.
To what extent is the subject of honor killings related to your lives in Lod?
Tamer: "In 2010 more than 10 girls were murdered. Without going into personal matters too much, let's say that this is not something we just read about in the paper. We knew at least two girls who were murdered. Either we shopped with them at the grocery store, or we went to school with them, or they came to our show. We also know some of the murderers."
Another powerful DAM song that lashes out at injustices in Arab society - or, more precisely, the Arab world - is "I'm Not a Traitor." It protests the hypocrisy of that world which, on the one hand, clings to pre-1948 Palestinian history, but on the other sees Palestinian citizens of Israel, which includes the members of DAM, as collaborators or traitors.
"This song is directed at the Arab world. How is it possible that we've appeared in New York and Paris 30 times, and in Jordan and Egypt only once? Because we have Israeli passports. What we did in this song," Tamer adds, "is critique the romantic longings of the Arab world for the pre-1948 Palestinian villages. In all the songs you will always find Haifa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Jerusalem. We are doing this in hip-hop. For Ajami, for Juarish, for Dahamsh. There are no romantic songs about these neighborhoods, but these neighborhoods are our reality. When we say these names, we are conveying a message, conveying our culture."
The band's frustration about performing in New York much more than in Cairo or Amman stems, to a great extent, from the fact that DAM raps in Arabic and prefers to appear before an audience that understands what they are saying.
"When we perform in Europe or America, our audience says, 'Oh, they're probably singing about the Palestinian struggle,' and it applauds," Tamer says. "But it's annoying because you want them to applaud you because your songs are good, because your metaphors are deep, because your punch line is funny. You don't want them to applaud you because you sing about the occupation. We delve deeply in what we do. We read poetry. I can drive my wife nuts for a whole day because I can't find the precise word. And in the end the struggle draws the attention, and not the art."
Of course DAM would like to perform in Lebanon and Syria as well, but as Israeli citizens they cannot travel there. "Earlier we talked about our fantasy about the moon, so appearing with our songs in Lebanon is also like dancing a dabke on the moon," Tamer says.
Not so funny
The concert scheduled to launch DAM's new album was supposed to take place a few weeks ago in Haifa, when Operation Pillar of Defense was occurring. At first the band decided to go ahead with it, but after a rocket was fired at the Tel Aviv region, the show was called off.
"A lot of students were supposed to come from the central part of the country, and we began getting text messages that they were canceling," Tamer says. "Under ordinary circumstances 1,000 people would have showed up, and we didn't want to do a launch concert with a limited crowd. Besides, my wife and son are in Lod and I felt I had to be with them. It was a real shitty day."
The Jewish audience at the band's concerts, like the audiences in Europe and America, probably won't get most of DAM's songs, but they will understand one track on "Dabke on the Moon" - the only one in English. Understand and laugh. The song is called "Mama, I Fell in Love with a Jew." It presumably serves as comic relief, but underneath the humor DAM's members express their despair at the notion of coexistence. It begins: "Mama, I have bad news, I was stuck in the elevator with this hot chick. Sit down, Mama, because your son fell in love with a Jew."
The song continues in the best tradition of humorous hip-hop, with lots of clever quotes and quips. The girl, whose "name ain't Janie but she's got a gun" (a reference to a famous song by Aerosmith ), tells the guy that even without seeing him through the sniper lens, he looks cute. She tells him that her dream is to be a pilot and search the skies; he says his dream is not to be searched when he flies. Then things heat up ...
"Every sentence in this song documents a certain issue in the conflict, but in a funny way," Tamer says. "That's how it is when you grow up on Public Enemy, Tupac, Mahmoud Darwish, and Cartman from 'South Park.' That's the cocktail you get."