DAM is a Palestinian hiphop band comprised of a trio from Lod. Lod is a mixed Arab-Jewish town, about 20 km from Jerusalem. The band members come from a neighbourhood that has a history of drug abuse and violence. They turned to music to be able to articulate, and in doing so, have released two albums internationally and inspired a growing movement of young hip-hop/rap artists to start making music around resistance and self-expression. Although they claim to use art to reflect reality, their art functions both as a mirror to witness reality and as a chisel to re-shape reality.
When DAM was recently in the US for a brief tour in the NorthEast, I was able to chat briefly with Suhell Nafar over the phone. We conversed about identity and artistic purpose and the politics of being an Israeli-Palestinian and living in ’48 Palestine. The band, Tamer Nafar, Suhell Nafar, and Mahmoud Jreri all grew up in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish town. Known to the structure as Israeli-Palestinians or Israeli-Arabs, for Palestinians living inside Israel, self-identification as ‘48 Palestinians is essential in marking the exile that is a constant refrain in the notes of Palestinian identity.
HN: Your art is overtly political, which makes it truly inspirational. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced through censorship? In what ways have you also had to censor yourself?
SN: 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% 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 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 hiphop groups out there, in every town, every village.
HN: Your usage of the word ‘refugee’ is particularly striking, not because it’s the truthful status, but because that truth is often masked. 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 10 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 10 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 neighbourhoods. 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. The times have been unforgiving in darkness over the past ten years, since DAM’s existence, 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.