“We will continue to sing”: DAM’s Suhell Nafar interviewed

DAM’s Suhell Nafar. (Matthew Cassel)

DAM is a Palestinian hip hop trio from Lod, a mixed Palestinian and Jewish town about 20 kilometers from Jerusalem. Comprised of Tamer Nafar, Suhell Nafar and Mahmoud Jreri, the members of DAM are from a neighborhood with a history of drug abuse and violence. Like African-American hip hop acts, the members of DAM turned to music at a young age to articulate the harsh realities of urban life and the institutional realities of living in a country that not only views them as a suspicious “other” but as the enemy within. DAM has released two highly-acclaimed albums and has inspired a growing movement of young Palestinian and Arab hip hop artists to start making music around resistance and self-expression. The Electronic Intifada contributor Hira Nabi spoke with Suhell Nafar by phone while DAM was in the United States for a brief tour.

Hira Nabi: Your art is overtly political, which makes it truly inspirational. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with censorship? In what ways have you also had to censor yourself?

Suhell Nafar: Back home, the government tries to censor us. You know we’re Palestinian and we carry Israeli passports, we’re also Israeli citizens. We come from Lod, it’s a Palestinian city in Israel, that has a 20 percent Arab population. There is constant tension. Where we come from we confront constant racism, injustice towards Palestinians, our homes are demolished, and our land is taken away. The constant struggle makes us stronger; so when they try to censor us from living, we still continue to live. They censor our being by not granting us permission to perform, our sound is cut off during concerts and that’s when you know the police are there. It’s occupation, you see. The Israeli police control everything. But art is supposed to reflect reality. So we try to stay true to that.

HN: How do Palestinian audiences respond to your music?

SN: Our audience is not limited. There are children and old people that make up the audience. We have a big fan base inside and outside of Palestine. We have a lot of fans who are not living in Palestine, who are refugees, in Lebanon, in the US. Palestinian people were thirsty for this kind of music, and now there are so many hip hop groups out there, in every town, every village.

HN: The dispossession of people is allowed to take place when their claim to their identity along with their rights are taken away. You confront this through your reality and your art. How has DAM affected you personally?

SN: Recently we just celebrated our ten year anniversary. The idea for singing and making music in this way started cooking a year before that, so 11 years. But we’re officially celebrating ten years of DAM’s existence. This has greatly affected me as a human being. When we started we were really young, we sang about drugs and drug-related violence in our neighborhoods. Soon after, we started thinking and questioning, our thought process was still related to the drug abuse — why were those drugs there in the first place? We came to understand the politics of minorities. Same as in the US, with Black and Latino communities, there is a deep sense of inequality in the eyes of the state and it is evident in the treatment meted out to them, to us. We understood more about the occupation as we engaged more with our music. You have to work within the community if you’re serious about change.

HN: Someone asked Bertolt Brecht in the dark times, would there be singing? To which he replied, yes, there will be singing, of the dark times. Since DAM started ten years ago, the times have remained dark. Where do you see your music, through these times and after?

SN: DAM’s music is not just about the dark times. We’re humans also, not just Palestinians. Some people read us just as their news. We have art, culture, history, we sing about all of it. We love, we sing about love. Are you familiar with the poet Mahmoud Darwish? In one of his poems, he wrote about how Palestinians also die from old age, from disease. We don’t just die because we live in war. We live normal lives as well. And when we are free, we will continue to sing.

Hira Nabi lives and works in New York City, teaching video production to youth and contesting borders, visas, identity and violence through film.