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DAM: Crime, Honor, and Hip-Hop

[DAM's Tamer Nafar, Mahmood Jreri, and Suhell Nafar] [DAM's Tamer Nafar, Mahmood Jreri, and Suhell Nafar]

Palestinian rap trio DAM dropped their latest video “If I Could Go Back in Time” a week ago at a press conference in Ramallah. Working in cooperation with UN Women, the subject of the song is domestic violence and crimes against women. With this release, DAM members Mahmoud Jreri, Suhell Nafar, and Tamer Nafar affirm their reputation as audacious socially-conscious rappers by continuing to take on taboo issues in Palestinian society. They do so through hip-hop, whose mainstream stars are all too often themselves guilty of propagating intensely sexist and homophobic content. In so doing, DAM are contributing to transforming hip-hop into a safe space for women and women’s issues domestically while breaking the social silence surrounding controversial socio-political topics and offering an opening salvo in an indigenous conversation about internal problems.

Male and female rappers have used their music to confront misogyny, especially against Black and Brown women. Angel Haze, for example, attacks rape culture in her raw and powerful song “Cleaning Out My Closet,” in which she documents and shares her own history with rape and abuse. The genre remains a medium that is particularly well-suited for rebellious political messaging, for both men and women, given its origins in New York’s impoverished communities, its flexibility as a form of storytelling, and the ease with which it can be produced and distributed. Angela Martinez Dy/El Dia, a “queer-identified woman of color spoken word artist,” says that the genre of hip-hop has always been her medium of choice to “order the chaos” in her head. She writes:

Hip-hop is one of those rare forms of expression with the unique quality of being both mesmerizing and easily memorized. It is this quality behind its broad appeal, and its accessibility is what makes it one of the most versatile and reliable methods of mass communication available to those who desire social justice.  To illustrate, hip-hop has grown organically in some of the most impoverished and war-torn communities in the world today, including Somalia and Palestine.

Hip-hop has become the global music of dissenting youth, enabling communities the world over to adapt it to their local artistic practice as well as their socio-political circumstances. Palestinian emcees use hip-hop to produce and distribute political and social messages which criticize the Israeli occupation and simultaneously turn inward to challenge internal Palestinian problems, including patriarchy. DAM's latest release, a courageous forging into a suppressed topic, tells the story of a young woman who resists a decision that her family makes on her behalf. She ultimately pays the price with her life. Among the Palestinian women involved in this project are Amal Murkus, who sang the chorus and is featured in the video, and Jacqueline Reem Salloum, who directed the video.

The story of the song is that of a single heroine whose experiences relayed in the video unfold in reverse chronology, from end to beginning, thereby interrupting the linear temporal convention. The first scene shows her lifeless body, immediately followed, in reverse, by the bullet retreating from her head and back into her brother's gun. The audience pieces the violent narrative together as both the video and the lyrics work backward through time to tell the full story of her murder. The chorus is an interruption of the story that showcases singer Amal Murkus singing in the presence of other women in a place that is the dead protagonist's posthumous utopian fantasyscape. The women merrily and smilingly participate in various playful creative activities such as knitting and drawing, to Murkus’ words as she laments the life she did not live:

If I could go back in time
I would smile, Fall in love, Sing
If I could go back in time
I would draw, Write, Sing.

Beginning the story with the murder is an intriguing choice as it mimics the way in which we encounter such crimes in the news; the stories always begin with the discovery of the murder itself, then goes on to tell who murdered the woman and what the perpetrator stated as his reason. Akin to most news reports on such incidents, the story then continues to unfold in reverse. According to the press release companying the video, the choice to work backwards through the story is a matter of slowly revealing that the violence against the heroine in this video is largely a result of her being born a girl. Describing her birth, Tamer of DAM says:

Their expressions filled with anger as if someone announced a crime
“Congratulations, it’s a girl”
The beginning.

These final words indicate that her problems started when she was born into a family that considered her gender to be a misfortune, a tragedy. It is a matter of larger social concern and an implication that girls are considered less desirable than boys, which in turn stigmatizes girls both inside and outside of their families. The final scene of the video features the heroine pitching the words al-huriyyah untha (“freedom is a woman,” ironically pointing out that the word freedom in Arabic is itself feminine). When a black screen appears at the very end, it reads “There is no link between killing women and honor. Murder is a crime. Say no—unite to end violence against women.”

["If I Could Go Back in Time"--DAM's latest music video]

As Arab women and men break the silence by addressing controversial social issues, they interrupt prevalent ideas around these issues in the Arab world. In addition, whether intentionally or not, they also reclaim these conversations and take them back from the Western gaze. This is an external gaze which frequently uses violence against women in Arab societies to “other” the Arab world, further entrenching strong negative sentiments towards the region and its peoples.

On the contrary, the local and indigenous discussion of domestic violence and crimes against women among Palestinians forces society to seriously address the issue at hand. It does so by complicating the false reductionist binary that positions the Arab woman as perpetual victim and the Arab man as perpetual perpetrator. Oversimplifying tragic social phenomena, like crimes against women, is as dangerous as silencing them altogether. While the latter encourages social actors to pretend that the tragedy does not exist, the former hinders progress towards honest conversations and therefore curbs tackling the problem.

The most poignant example in which DAM presents a more complicated picture is the mother’s complicity in the crime against her daughter. She excitedly delivers the news of her daughter's pending marriage and participates in pressuring her into it. The video also implies that she may have served as the informant for the father and brother: she told them about her daughter’s decision to flee the country. The extent of the mother’s complicity is entirely unclear. However, suffice it to say that she both participates in and is a victim of patriarchy. After all, patriarchy may privilege men over women, but men do not have a monopoly over it. This shifts the paradigm from a “men vs. women” dichotomy that paints Arab men as perpetrators of crimes against women, to one in which women as well as men participate in upholding the patriarchal social structure. By extension, the opposite is also true, as both women and men work to resist it.

Men have a great stake in the issue of crimes against women. When we dig deeper into crimes against women we find that it is not a matter of men hating women. Rather it constitutes a greater issue of power, patriarchy, and masculinity. Therefore, the humanity of men and society at large, are both under threat as long as domestic violence and so-called “honor killings” continue to exist. (I have so far refrained from calling crimes against women “honor crimes,” and only did so here for the purpose of clarification). Yet male artists have often stirred controversy when handling gender issues. Most significantly their contributions lack male accountability, and oftentimes include a condescending masculine formulation of what they deem acceptable and unacceptable female behaviors.

This, for example, was the greatest criticism of Lupe Fiasco's “Bitch Bad.” The song, which takes on the use of the term “bitch,” created a conversation around this issue, and indeed brought it to the surface. It attempted to interrupt some of the increasingly misogynistic themes and language of mainstream contemporary hip-hop. However, women felt that Fiasco could have, and should have, discussed male ownership over and interaction with the term "bitch." Reasonably so, many believed that he lost a valuable opportunity to produce a sound critique by engaging too strongly in admonishing women, including mothers, girlfriends, and little girls.

DAM handle the conversation differently. While complex in its own right, DAM's task is not as complicated as Fiasco's. Fiasco deals with the definition of a term and the ways in which women and men utilize it and interact with it--the conversation is a more abstract etymological one. While words can be violent and oftentimes can normalize violence against women, crimes against women are violent in the sense that they cause direct bodily harm. DAM address the existence of these crimes within a social climate which may perceive them at least as possible, and in some cases as acceptable.

Crimes against women in Palestinian law carry fewer penalties than regular crimes if a man can prove that he committed violence (even murder) against a female relative as a crime of passion, particularly if he catches her engaging in an illicit act. Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code of 1960 is enforced in the West Bank (which is rooted in French and Ottoman law) and Article 18 of the British Mandatory Law is enforced in Gaza. In May 2010 Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, suspended these laws but left other tenets in place that also reduce punishments against perpetrators of crimes against women. According to women’s groups that participated in the video release, between January and August 2012, twelve women were murdered in the West Bank by members of their families.

DAM make no excuses in the song and video--neither for the family, nor the society, nor the law. They tell the story of a woman who is killed by her brother with the complicity of her father, and possibly her mother. They state in their lyrics that she has little room for resistance (remember to read this story from end to beginning):

It’s the first time in her life that she says “NO!”
Her mom announces happily “tomorrow you will marry your cousin”
If I look through the album of her life
I won’t see a photo of her standing up for her rights

Finally, by revealing that the ultimate crime committed by this young woman is that she was born a female, DAM redirect the guilt of this crime from her family alone to the problematic societal perception of girls and women. That particular incident was not the one that condemned her to death at the hands of her family, it was patriarchy. If it hadn’t been that incident, it would have been another. Therefore, a patriarchal social structure that discriminates against women is precisely what DAM set out to confront. They do this successfully.

In this hip-hop critique of gender-based discrimination, the male artists use their privilege as men in a conservative society to begin the conversation. In fact, female Palestinian rappers have also used their music to confront gender issues, but have faced backlash. For example, rapper Abeer Alzinaty, aka Sabreena da Witch, was threatened with physical violence by her cousins for wanting to go on tour with other Palestinian rappers. Despite that she continued to work on two fronts: exposing Israel’s discrimination against its Palestinian citizens while critiquing and confronting patriarchy within Palestinian society.

The male members of DAM recognize their privilege and have spoken about it in songs from their previous album. In the track “Al-Huriyyah Untha” (“Freedom for my Sisters/Freedom is a Woman”) from their 2007 album “Dedication,” DAM member Tamer Nafar says:

We all see it, what is forbidden to me, is forbidden to her
What is allowed to me, is forbidden to her. Then what is
Allowed for her?! Well, the word ‘allowed’ does not appear in her dictionary
She puts us on our feet and we just step on her rights.

In these lyrics, Nafar implicated himself along with other Palestinian men for participating in the discrimination against women. The words “al-huriyyah untha” that the young woman arranges in the open field at the very end of DAM’s latest video allude directly to this 2007 song. However, “If I Could Go Back in Time” is different in that DAM do not implicate themselves personally in the crime that they depict in the song. Instead, they do implicate male and female members of families who have committed crimes against women; and they implicate social values that prize boys over girls, then frame this discrimination as taboo. As Palestinian men, they make a plea to other Palestinian men, and women, to speak about gender-based violence.

When three Palestinian men tackle crimes against women in a hip-hop song, they break the narrative of a simple oppressor-oppressed binary that erects stubborn male-female boundaries. In fact, this is a more complicated social problem that places men in all roles (perpetrator and victim) and women in all roles (perpetrator and victim). With this video, DAM break the silence about crimes against women, they re-appropriate hip-hop as an art form that is ripe for protest, and they burst open the terrain for an urgent conversation about Palestinian societal ills. While the misogyny of mainstream rap continues, these rappers, among others, have turned the tool often accused of furthering the oppression of women into an instrument to combat it. 

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