One of the first scenes of the new documentary Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation shows a veritable who’s who of radical underground hip hop pass through the Qalandia checkpoint into the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
These people aren’t lightweights by any means: among their ranks are Lowkey, Shadia Mansour and M1 of dead prez. Of course, they are forced through the menacing metal turnstiles, flanked by the Israeli military robocops, staring them down like everyone else for whom this kind of repression is a daily fact of life. Right out of the gate, one asks an obvious question: how, in the midst of all this, can hip hop be “bigger than the occupation?”
Last year, Mansour, Lowkey and M1 took part in a visit to the West Bank organized by the campaign group Existence Is Resistance (EIR); that visit also included New York’s DJ Vega Benetton, Mazzi from Jersey City’s S.O.U.L. Purpose crew, the Bronx’s own “revolutionary minded” MC Marcel Cartier, Chicago’s University of Hip Hop and a handful of other activists. Their purpose? To teach, in a series of workshops and shows, nonviolent resistance through the arts and music. This documentary, produced by EIR and director Nana Dankwa, tells the story of that ten-day journey.
And a journey this most certainly is. It might be tempting to look at this film as mostly focusing on the artists — their experiences, their thoughts, their actions. And while the film’s events obviously revolve around them, in some ways the real “stars” of this film are the Palestinians themselves, in particular the young people who under the most inhumane of circumstances maintain an unquenchable sense of hope.
Toward the film’s end, a humbled Marcel Cartier looks at the camera and says “we were hoping to inspire them, but we left more inspired.” That just about sums up the thrust of Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation. Though hip hop’s popularity in Palestine has become well-known by now, this film chronicles what an amazing phenomenon that is — both because of its deep roots, and the odds that are stacked against it. Ultimately, as the film shows, both these reasons are intimately intertwined.
As the artists travel through the West Bank, their days are primarily spent touring the cities and camps, speaking with those who live in an almost literal hell. Every conceivable aspect of stable and normal culture is strangled by the Israeli state. We’re taken through the Balata refugee camp, an area barely covering a quarter-mile and housing 30,000 human beings, with streets so narrow that grown men have to walk sideways to get around.
We’re witness to a conversation with Hashem, a resident of Hebron whose wife has miscarried not once but twice from being beaten by the Israeli military. Her crime? Trying to get to the only hospital in Hebron.
We’re shown the artists’ participation in a peaceful demonstration in Bilin before it’s broken up by Israeli soldiers using sound bombs, tear gas and live ammunition. So ruthless are the soldiers that they attempt to detain EIR activist (and The Electronic Intifada contributor) Jody McIntyre, whose lives with cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair.
“My parents were born here”
During their visit to Jerusalem, walking through the settlement markets selling t-shirts reading “Camel Power From Jerusalem,” Shadia Mansour and Lowkey happen to glance a man they recognize — Daniel Luria, an Australian real estate agent selling homes whose Palestinian residents have been kicked out in order to make way for settlers.
Anyone who is familiar with the work of Lowkey or Mansour will rightfully get the impression that they don’t take any shit. The argument that ensues after approaching Luria is heated to say the least, with the estate agent smugly insisting that there was never any Palestinian claim to Jerusalem until Israel came into the picture. “My parents were born here!” exclaims Mansour. The exchange is broken up before Israeli cops can get involved, but not before we get a glimpse at the unquestioned racism driving Israel’s settlements and occupation. This is the kind of chauvinism only possible when backed up by tanks.
It’s these scenes — frankly presented to us by the directors — that had this viewer wondering yet again how exactly hip-hop can be bigger than all of this. How, in the face of such brutal repression and unhinged bigotry, can we expect any art to take root, let alone for this small delegation of artists, DJs and rappers to make any impact?
Naturally, we are supposed to ask this question, and the answer is repeatedly provided us in that same forthright manner. Throughout the film, spread between the scenes of unimaginable horror, we’re shown an unmistakable counterpoint: the community spaces and youth theaters that play host to the tour’s workshops and shows — the Yaffa Youth Center, the House of Talent in Askar Camp, and Jenin’s Freedom Theater.
The folks who run these spaces are, more often than not, scraping by simply to keep them open (indeed, mere days after I first saw a rough copy of this film, the Freedom Theater was raided by the Israeli military, and three of its crew were arrested). They are, as Lowkey explains, relating to “children being deprived of their basic human rights … [these are] people struggling to provide them with some kind of future.”
The value of places like this can’t be overstated, however, in the face of such brutal denial. One 19-year-old woman, a regular at the Freedom Theater, says that its events are a prime source of encouragement for her. Another young woman goes further, saying that without the theater’s workshops she’d feel “non-existent.”
The workshops make these kids’ faces light up. The rhymes they write are — according to the visiting artists themselves — good enough to run alongside any of their own. The one word that appears most often in these rhymes? “Hurriya.” Freedom.
Throughout the breakdancing and DJ-ing classes, the kids’ focus and enthusiasm shine through. Of course, such positivity is contagious — not only is everyone on screen caught up in it, but it’s difficult even as a viewer to not be affected. These scenes aren’t merely exhibits of existence and survival; they are moments in which we witness the flowering of creativity — that one characteristic that, perhaps more than any other, makes us human.
What we witness during these workshops is something more than teaching, more than kindness, and yes, even bigger than the occupation: solidarity. An overriding sense of equality between visitors and occupied that persists despite all walls, checkpoints and the ever-present threat of bombing. Hip hop, so often portrayed by western mainstream media as a materialistic end in itself, becomes a vehicle here for something much, much stronger.
It would be difficult to find a vessel with more dynamism and potency than the words, beats and moves that EIR have brought over. Footage of the nightly performances, with their raucous, grassroots energy and call-and-response participation is reminiscent of New York in the early 1980s, a similarity also noticed by some of the artists themselves.
Each show captures that feel of controlled chaos, directed to some transcendent end, that defined those days before the industry sunk its claws into the hip-hop world. The crowds are enthralled with the dynamic contrast between Shadia Mansour’s gorgeous singing voice and fierce Arabic lyrics. They are well-acquainted with Lowkey’s “Long Live Palestine” and consistently chant the chorus along with him — to the point where his own voice becomes almost incidental.
Then, of course, there’s the performance of dead prez’ “Bigger Than Hip Hop.” By now the song has become so iconic that it’s bound to be referenced by anyone looking to illustrate rap’s social relevance. The obvious allusion to the track in the Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation title might be trite if we hadn’t seen the indelible sense of hope that makes it so. Without a doubt, there are countless things in the fight for basic humanity that rank higher than music, but when a song is imbued with the spirit of resistance despite all odds, it does become something bigger.
With the final cut of Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation now being submitted to festivals, the hope is to raise enough money to pay for next year’s tour. If the content of this film is to be believed, then that alone makes it worth supporting. Modest though they might be, it’s trips like these that present a sense of life beyond borders and walls. “All we could do was spread the message,” Mansour explains in the film. Much more is needed if Israeli apartheid is to one day crumble — infinitely more. But it’s a start, and a very inspiring one at that.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist based in Chicago. He runs the website Rebel Frequencies and can be reached at rebelfrequencies AT gmail dot com