As a hip-hop quartet originating in perennial battleground the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Rapperz are currently serving as the archetype for a simmering Middle Eastern rap scene alongside scene patriarchs DAM, a Palestinian trio birthed in the slums of Lod, a small city in the state of Israel. And with a message that addresses a history steeped in war, poverty and crime, it's easy to see why they were chosen to co-star with DAM in Slingshot Hip Hop, a documentary (that screened this year at Sundance in Utah) about Palestinian rappers using music to bridge the gap between themselves and their land.
Not since its heyday in '80s New York has hip-hop been this socially relevant, as these emcees' lyrics often address issues of inequality, rape, terrorism and general civic mayhem. The breadth of their influence — they are provocative, radical, contextually cognitive and undoubtedly important — supersedes their status as mere musical performers; classifying DAM and PR as only hip-hop acts is like classifying Rocky IV as only a boxing movie.
PR's silver-tongued frontman Mohammed Al-Farra took some time out of his schedule to speak with the Press — in preparation for his upcoming solo Houston concert — about the Palestinian struggle, those wily liberals in Utah and how he uses music to fight tanks. (Like real, actual tanks.)
Houston Press: All right, let's go from the beginning. It's hard enough getting someone from south Houston to listen to an artist from north Houston, so let's assume no one's heard of PR or DAM or the socially relevant work you guys have been putting in. Walk us through the inception of PR.
Mohammed: We are four guys from Gaza Strip and we started hip-hop in 2003. DAM is from Lod and are another group. I've already released my first solo album with the title I Have Arrived, and we are also featured in the movie Slingshot Hip Hop. Gaza Strip is all surrounded and nobody is allowed to get in or leave, so we use the music to talk about that, our daily life.
HP: So you guys are just like American rappers, except way more gangster. You know, what with the whole years upon years of war and all. So is rap big over there?
M: At the beginning, when we started in 2003, it was like we were the first group. You could barely see someone wearing hip-hop clothes in the street in the whole city. But after that, when we started our first show in 2004, I guess people started to listen more about hip-hop. It started to grow and people loved it. Now it's really big. There's a lot of rappers, a lot of emcees, a lot of groups working in Gaza. It's getting bigger and bigger every day.
HP: That's dope. Now, what's the content that you guys are rapping about? You don't really see a lot of Palestinian performers rocking the big piece and chain and whatnot, DJ Khaled notwithstanding.
M: We pretty much rap about everything, the daily struggle of people [caused] by the occupation [of Israel], human rights.
HP: Human rights and the illegal occupation of Israel? That's pretty much what we talk about here, too, but the exact opposite. It's one of those, do-what-you-do type of things, then?
M: Right. We're trying to give the true, right image of how people live in my country, you know. The people, the whole world looks at Palestinians and Gaza Strip as a terrorist and as they see them on TV. "Oh, a Palestinian guy went to Israel, and he bombed himself." They are like, we are suicide bombers. We are trying to get that truth, that right image of people that live there. We are struggling in my country. We are just peaceful people trying to live in peace, and show them that we are not violent people.
HP: Man, so what are you doing in Dallas? If we got out of a war-torn area, the last place we'd go was Dallas. That place is, like, the butthole of Texas.
M: Well, I came to the states for the Slingshot Hip Hop movie, to promote it in Utah. I came to Dallas in February, I think, because I have an uncle who lives here. I wanted to go back home to Palestine, but all borders are closed, so I couldn't go back home. I'm not allowed to get back in my own country. So I decided to stay here, work for more money and wait until I can go back home. [Also because of the closed borders, the rest of his group will not be appearing at this show.]
HP: That's wild, man. Two things about that. First: what kind of reception did you get in Utah? They're not exactly known for being liberal in their beliefs.
M: Pretty much, it was amazing. People loved the movie. When people saw the movie, they were like, "Wow." Some people came after the screenings and they were like, "We really didn't know this, what's going on in Palestine." They saw we were trying to show, like, the reality in there, so people were really, really supportive. It was amazing. That's all what I can say.
HP: Really? Wow. Our ignorant regional beliefs are crumbling before our very eyes. So the second part: When the borders get closed over there, is that something that happens a lot over there, or is it just a really out-of-the-ordinary type thing?
M: Every day, every time, every minute. I mean, I used to struggle to go from my [Gaza Strip] city [of] Hanoun to Gaza [City] to meet the guys or to record in the studio. So I used to stay to wait for the border to be open for like about five hours, sometimes eight hours. So just going from Gaza to Hanoun, it used to take me like about eight hours usually. Without borders it would take like 20 minutes.
HP: So it's pretty much like Hurricane Rita traffic but every day? That sucks. So let us ask you this: There's all of this political strife and real actual wars going on daily where you live. And then here you are pushing CDs and the music; is it hard to get people to pay attention when you've got this mortal, life-and-death situation going on?
M: Let me tell you something. To be honest with you, you can't stand up in front of [a] tank and throw a CD at the tank, you know what I mean?
HP: That's some real shit right there, man.
M: Or you can't just fight a tank by throwing a rock. I believe that violence doesn't bring anything except violence. So that's why, with hip-hop, we are trying to get attention. I believe the music is the speech of the soul, so people love the music. And we can express ourselves with music, this kind of music. It's kind of hard to get attention, but we got really good attention. We can make people listen to us.
Actually, if you look around, the whole world is going down, seeing on the news people dying, people killing, Gaza is occupied, blah, blah, blah. People got sick of this, so they want to see something new. What is the new thing? It's something interesting. It's rap music. And we're using this music, using it to fight the occupation.