The first time that brothers Suhell and Tamer Nafar witnessed a Tupac
Shakur video, they saw their own lives—growing up as young boys in the
Palestinian city of Lod—reflected back at them from the TV screen. The
American ghetto mirrored their neighborhood, while the anger and
passion behind Shakur’s words forged an instant connection. “Lod is one
of the biggest crime cities in the Middle East,” Suhell says. “I’m
talking about drug problems, ghetto poverty, demolished houses, a lot
of things that are familiar to the African-American struggle.”
The brothers began to see hip-hop as an outlet, a tool they could harness to confront day-to-day life inside what they refer to as the “occupied territories.” In 1999, with Mahmoud Jreri, they formed hip-hop trio DAM (Da Arabian MCs), in response to the violence and poverty they faced. Their music—which blends traditional Arabic instrumentation with Afrobeat and modern Algerian and French hip-hop—quickly found a following in the Palestinian community, both in the Middle East and abroad.
Rootsy soul septet Sheva—an Israeli group featuring one Palestinian Muslim—grew up living with daily violence of its own, across the border in Israel. “We all know the pain and suffering,” explains Lior Shulman, Sheva’s drummer. “Israel is small, so you know somebody that got wounded or killed in this crazy reality.” Still, like the members of DAM, he believes that, “It’s the power of music that can touch the heart of a man and change it.”
In a region wracked by centuries of strife, bigotry and ethnic resentment, Sheva and DAM have made conscious efforts not to alienate individuals of any race, regardless of their alliances. Both groups strive to show that life exists in the Middle East apart from checkpoints, tanks and suicide bombers. While Sheva draws from the Jewish Tehillim (Psalms) and Sufi prayers to create songs that call for peace in the Middle East, DAM attempts to spread awareness of extreme Palestinian poverty. The group has recorded several recent songs in Hebrew in hopes of reaching across the vast cultural chasm and educating Israelis about the Palestinian struggle.
“There’s a lot of things that they don’t know about,” Suhell explains, “They don’t know that we have such poverty here, they don’t know that we have all the ghettos. When we’re showing them the images of the police and poverty in our neighborhood, that makes them understand us more because we’re coming to them in a humane way to show them exactly what the situation is. That’s made a lot of Israelis send us e-mails saying ‘I grew up in a really racist house, and after I saw your videos and heard what you’re talking about, I don’t agree with the way my parents and school educated me. I agree with you now. I know more. Thanks.’”