Jasiri X, a hip-hop emcee based in Pittsburgh, recently participated in a delegation of black American activists, academics and artists to Palestine. The weeklong trip inspired his track “Checkpoint.”
Accompanied by hard-hitting breakbeats, it features the emcee detailing the types of persecution and harassment which Israeli soldiers inflict on Palestinians as a matter of routine. Referencing Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, the track urges listeners to support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Originally from Chicago, Jasiri X is unafraid to tackle political issues. His 2013 album Ascension deals with the racist murder of Trayvon Martin, the power of Wall Street and the corporate funding of election candidates.
Jasiri X spoke to Amira Asad.
Amira Asad: What did the delegation do while you were in Palestine?
Jasiri X: We had a Palestinian woman as our guide, and we went to different places and talked to people about the suffering they are experiencing due to the occupation. We went to East Jerusalem and talked to people in a neighborhood where they were doing forced evictions. We went to Bethlehem and saw the separation wall and talked to the community there [about] some of the things they were doing there that were affecting the ecosystem and the farmers.
AA: What made Hebron particularly intense?
JX: Well, it’s like a militarized city. There were members of our delegation that were approached by Israeli soldiers, asking us what our religion was. I guess that was the determining factor because we were outside of the Ibrahimi Mosque.
There was one place where there were settlers and Palestinians in close proximity, then you put in these soldiers and it got really, really intense.
As black people, who are walking down the street and soldiers are stopping us, it takes us to stop-and-frisk and policies we are coming from and experience a lot of the time in inner cities.
AA: Could you touch on the relationship between stop-and-frisk and what you experienced while in Palestine?
JX: In Hebron it was very reminiscent of being a young black man in the inner city. Here [in the US] you’re a person of color so I’m just going to assume you are a criminal, stop you, frisk you, and assume you are doing criminal activity.
It was really the same treatment I saw with Palestinians and African refugees. Automatically, if you are Palestinian I am just going to assume you are a criminal and treat you as such, especially from what I saw at checkpoints.
We had a Palestinian guide who couldn’t ride in the van through the checkpoint with us, even though she has an American passport, even though she has a permit. She had to get off and walk through. So that is why we ended up walking through because we were like “we’re going to walk through with you, if you can’t ride through, then we’re all going to walk through with you.”
With [poet] Remi [Kanazi], who is Palestinian, every time the soldiers would come in our van they would automatically go to him first. It reminded me, like I said, of when a police officer would just stop you and single you out because you’re a person of color.
AA: What other similarities did you find between the treatment of the black community in the United States and of Palestinians?
JX: When you talk about stop-and-frisk you are talking about police departments like NYPD and Atlanta police department that are being trained by Israeli security or Israeli military.
We were over there right around Martin Luther King’s birthday and I just imagine it was like a scene that you remember reading about, like this is what the ’60s were like. Because you are this race, or this nationality, you are treated less than or really like nothing.
To me, that’s how Palestinians were treated — like they were nothing. I was shocked because I guess I assumed that white supremacy in America was the worst, and you know my music deals a lot with race. But I didn’t think I could see a more virulent strand of white supremacy until I went there.
Not only is this 2014 and this is happening, but also billions of our tax dollars are going to uphold this and support this. And to me the reason I think there isn’t as much of an outcry from the black community is because we just don’t know.
I consider myself conscious and relatively educated and I was for the rights of Palestinians, which is one of the reasons I went. But I didn’t know it was like that.
I didn’t know they rationed water. Like I’m Palestinian, so I only get a certain amount of water and then some months you might not have enough water.
And we support this? How is that about security? Denying someone water, what does that have to do with keeping someone safe?
That’s still hard for me to conceive. We were at this guy’s home. It was a temporary home, and they wouldn’t even let him dig a well. How inhumane is that?
If you dig a well, I’m going to destroy it or poison it. That type of mentality. I still can’t understand. It really was a mind-blowing and life-changing experience for me.
AA: Can you tell me about your experience with the African refugees?
JX: That was really, really crazy. They haven’t been given a refugee status by Israel. They aren’t even considered refugees.
They’ve been considered criminals in a sense, infiltrators. They were dropped in busloads at this park with nothing, no assistance, no help.
You see families and children and really tears came into my eyes seeing that. It was tough to watch and see and look at. It was also inspiring to see because there were women organizing a march that they ended up doing a few days later, where women and children took the lead in the march.
And to also hear about how the Eritreans and Sudanese were working together, without social networking and very little money they were able to build these rallies. It was inspiring to see but also they are coming to Israel because they are looking at it from the outside and thinking that it is the “only democracy” in the Middle East.
So they think they are going to be treated a certain way as refugees and then they get there and it’s like what the hell?
They have been called infiltrators and ostracized. One of the most interesting reactions was from our guide from Bethlehem. She didn’t know and she was crying.
From where she lives and her experience, she already has a certain feeling toward the State of Israel and then she sees this. It was really deep, just more inhumanity. This should not be accepted by anybody, the world community should be condemning this loudly.
AA: As a hip-hop artist, what are you doing to fight Israeli apartheid?
JX: I try to use my means of expression that I have, which is hip-hop. It was interesting — because of how emotional and intense the trip was — my first thought wasn’t to do a song but it kind of just came. Someone made a joke like “yeah he’ll probably have a song and a video before we get back.” And I was like “naw” but then I started thinking like “well if I did do something, what would I do?”
So I had just happened to film these checkpoints because I had got into a habit of when there’s some type of interaction that could be dangerous we film the police. So when we go through these checkpoints and I see all these military soldiers and guns, I was just filming it for my own and our delegation’s safety.
So I made a song about it and leant my voice to the growing voices that say this is wrong and this is apartheid. This is immoral and it needs to stop. I was able to meet one of the members of DAM, a Palestinian hip-hop group, when I was over there and we also talked about possibly doing some stuff in the near future.
I take my message back to the hip-hop community and encourage other artists to stand up or take that to the media.
AA: In your song “Checkpoint” you mention your own experience at the checkpoints, could you elaborate on this?
JX: To me, this is where clearly something is wrong. If the state of Israel thinks they are doing right to the Palestinians, then it should not matter if I go there and want to see what is happening with the Palestinian people. I should not have to go there and feel like if I go into Palestine that I’m on some James Bond spy type stuff.
And that was kind of the thing. We couldn’t just arrive at the airport and just say “I’m going to Ramallah, I’m going to the West Bank.” I mean we had to whitewash all of our computers, I had to upload all of that footage on a Google drive and delete it off my computer.
When we were going to the airport we all had to have our story straight. And there was a point where I was like “Fuck this, I haven’t done anything wrong” so I kind of had a little attitude at the airport. No, I’m not going to be afraid.
I’m not going to be intimidated because I haven’t done anything wrong. We were in this security system, where if you got a number one you were the least risk and if your number was six you were the highest risk. Well, we all got five, but why?
Members of our delegation were searched for hours, not only at the airport but then we flew from Israel to Austria and we had members of our delegation where they went back through their stuff. When we were leaving it felt like the end of [the movie] Argo, like were escaping something. Why is it like that?
It’s not like that when you’re going to other countries. Literally we’re driving to the airport and it’s like “are we going to get out of here?” without being questioned for hours. I mean our taxi is pulled over before we even get to the airport.
That is what I wanted to convey at the end of that about our experience and how we felt, that’s kind of why I ended it [the song with a reference to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv] because literally by that point we were like “Fuck this, get me out of here.” That was our delegation’s attitude at that point.
I thought the experiences I had as a black American would prepare me. But no, its worse. It’s just so out and open and in your face. In America, it’s subtle the way they do their thing. But in Palestine and Israel it’s right [in your face] like “you don’t matter” straight up.