Musicscan: How has the audience response been in Europe for you?
Dam: First of all, in Palestine the people sing with us, because they know the lyrics which are in Arabic. The challenging part over here is when I explain/discuss certain things between the songs and you realize that you are surprising people: “wow, we didn’t know that”. When we say the same things to Palestinians they hardly react at all anymore, because they are familiar with it: it happened before. That is the main difference.
Musicscan: What role does hip hop play in Palestine these days?
Dam: In 2000 it was the biggest thing that Palestine ever saw in an artistic sense. There had never been artistical superstars before that. There was merely art und kids in the neighbourhood who sang. Of course, there were some singers that you knew and you saw them every once in a while, but I am talking about superstars. There were thousands of people at the concerts, screaming, yelling, it was crazy. I have never seen something like that before. Then it suddenly spread like a virus and everyone wanted to do hip hop. Everyone was wearing baggy clothes. However, the community didn’t really understand the hip hop culture and so it gave a shot for everybody and that killed it. It was like with any hype. People started to believe that it was just a temporal thing. But Dam was always there and we have always been activists. When we are not doing hip hop, we are political activists. We organize demonstrations, do lectures and public speeches and stuff like that. Now we are the first Palestinian artists, not only hip hop artists, that have a worldwide release of an album. People are very much talking about that these days and it seems like hip hop is coming back strong.
Musicscan: What first attracted you to Hip Hop and Rap?
Dam: Tupac. I didn’t like the music to tell you the truth. I never liked it very much. However, I read his lyrics once and my English was really poor at the time so my cousin had to translate it to me. I also saw some of his video clips which were all about the ghetto and being harassed by cops. That directly related to me. That spoke to me. I held the remote control and watched the Arabic MTV, but there was only the usual “I love you, you love me” crap. That didn’t speak to me, that didn’t interest me and thus I never listened. When I listened to Tupac, I didn’t understand everything, but you feel it. He is talking about me. The cops that are chasing him are the same cops that chased me a few days ago. The friend that he is talking about that is in jail is the friend I just visited in jail.
Musicscan: I noticed that you incorporate kids in your songs as well. What was the reason behind that? Is hip hop a more communal affair in Palestine?
Dam: The situation in Palestine right now is very screwed up. I don’t think my generation or even the generation following will see a severe change or any result. I think I have the right to say that I am well educated and I know what I am talking about, but it wasn’t like that when I was a kid. I was lost and I was weak and I had very low self-esteem. The Israeli government and the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, are responsible for our schools. They teach rewritten history and lies. They teach kids that the Israelis came here and that nobody was there at the time. We are systematically disconnected from our history. When they teach us about culture and poems or language they only teach us poems in Hebrew as if we had no culture. We grow up believing that education is not for them. That is also part of the reason why a lot of people turn to drugs and just deliver Hummus to your door. That way they will accept us. At the age of 20 or 21 I started to discover that we have a culture, one of the deepest cultures ever. Just take a look that the history of the Islam and all the outstanding poems and culture. There are plenty of people in the US who study our culture and I take it for granted. I live it. I first couldn’t believe that our music is studied in universities in the US. It took me until the age of 22 to be strong like this and I want to pass that on to the Palestinian kids. Why should they be spineless? If you raise awareness early on they will be much stronger at my age and then they will be able to change things.
Musicscan: In your lyrics you directly deal with the daily hardship and problems in your lives in Palestine. Could you describe what an average day of your neighbor in Lod looks like?
Dam: Well, he wakes up very early in the morning at around 6 AM and he looks at the wall of the university with envy and then he tells himself that he wasn’t meant to do that. Then he works something else from 5 to 6, breaking his back just to continue the month. Then he walks back and he gets harassed by cops the entire way. If he is one of the lucky ones he will be able to pay his bills and every once in a while a little trip. Most others, however, are not so lucky as he finds a note on his door that his house is about to be demolished since he doesn’t have a licence. He didn’t have a kid before, but he has one now and so he had to build and he asked for a licence for years, but they didn’t give him a licence because he is Arabic. So he built one anyway and the destroy it. However, there are so many problems that it is impossible to be specific in an interview like this.
Musicscan: You are very critical with American politics in your lyrics and yet American popular culture is very popular in Palestine. Can you explain that seemingly paradox dynamic?
Dam: Are you saying that hip hop is American?
Musicscan: Well, we can talk about that.
Dam: I think it is afro-American before it is American. That is a big difference for me. The hip hop that I am listening to is criticizing the same things that I am criticizing. Besides that we are criticizing American policies, the American government, the American imperialism, the people in power. We are not criticizing the American culture. I think that every culture has its negative and positive aspects. Now if I can learn something from the American or European culture and transfer that to my culture in order to contribute something to my culture than that is fabulous. I believe that there are a lot of different things that we take from the West and there are also a lot of things that the West took from the Arabic world. The difference is that the majority of the West denies that fact. The mathematics for instance, the Arab world hugely contributed to the mathematical questions, but also to the language all around the world and also to medicine. If a culture creates something good and worthwhile, of course, I am going to use that in the same way that you take certain aspects from my culture. This way it is possible to build a better world for everybody. If you look at the films that Hollywood releases nowadays, which is sort of the main education of the entire world, Arabs are continually and solely portrayed as the villains in Hollywood movies. There are plenty of Arabs working with NASA for instance, or in physics, but I don’t see them in “Independence Day” or films like that. I see Americans do it, I see Christians and Jews do it, but not Muslims or Arabs. Hollywood accepts us only as terrorists. The positive aspects of Arabic culture are mostly trivialized in Hollywood cinema. Look how cute, we can make a circus.
Musicscan: What are the reasons behind such a portrayal?
Dam: I could go on and say it is a conspiracy, but the fact is that it is there and it needs to be stopped. I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, even though that is probably more or less what is going on. When you think of conspiracy theories you end up with the idea that ten people have planned and structured your life and that makes me feel very weak and I don’t like that feeling. I am just saying that it is there, so fight it. It is not so much important how it started, but let’s work so that it will end.
Musicscan: So would you agree that hip hop used to be an Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean form of expression in the beginning?
Dam: Yes, absolutely. I believe hip hop started in the seventies, but look at an Egyptian protest singers like Sheikh Imam who wrote protest songs against Egypt and the Western world at the time. You should check out the guy’s rhymes, he is totally rapping. So I believe that particular style was already there in Arab culture, even if not as pronounced. If you go back to times even before Mohammed, the Arabs used to have markets were you go and by poems. There was a stage in the middle of the market and then you had poets battling each other. It is all about potency and being strong in hip hop lyrics these days, and the same holds true for these poems back in the day already. Now the songs talk about their big cars, in those days they used to talk about their horses. Guns and weapons are also a common theme in hip hop songs and in the past they used to talk about their swords. These elements of storytelling have existed in my culture for many years, too.
Musicscan: Is hip hop a truly global form of expression as a consequence these days?
Dam: Hip hop is primarily about being real.
Musicscan: Ok, what does real mean to you?
Dam: Real means that if you live under an occupation you talk about living under an occupation. If you live in a villa, are bored and have a lot of money then say that. Talk about stuff that relates to you. For instance, take a look at the Zionist hip hop. There are some Zionist rappers that you read about, particularly in the US. When they are asked to define hip hop, most of them answer that hip hop is the expression of a minority, it is against the government and it is from the street. Ok, but these people are not a minority, they are a majority here. Most of these people rap about what Palestine is doing and how to stop it. That is what the government is doing. They aren’t really against anything. They are moving along with the view of the majority. When asked about their political views they mostly state that they are in favour of what Ehud Olmert is doing. It is ridiculous. It is as if Public Enemy made George Bush commercials. It is important to talk about stuff that you are and not things that you are not.
Musicscan: Couldn’t you also be authentic by telling good fiction, even though it does not relate to your own life, but is well told?
Dam: Of course, that is the art of storytelling. If you are openly saying that you are telling a story that is fine, but don’t pretend to be something that you are not to your whole community. You can tell a story about a girl being raped. I guess the most religious guy could do that, but to talk about ghettos and police when you live in on of the safest and richest places on earth. And when the only time you see police is when they are rescuing a cat from a tree, don’t talk about it then. But, of course, I am only a rapper. I can’t tell people what to listen to.
Musicscan: In your song “Freedom For My Sisters” you deal with the woman in Arabic society? What are the reactions when you perform that song in Palestine?
Dam: From the reactions we get, I gather that a lot of girls and a lot of women love it. I often talk with educated women and they like the song, but they also criticize certain aspects about it. I talk about women’s issues in that song because I feel strongly about it and not because I feel like I can talk about it but the women can’t. Strong women don’t think that someone has to come and represent them, particularly not a man.
Musicscan: Well, which steps have to be taken in order to improve the position of women in Arab society?
Dam: I would start with the words: I am sorry. How can I make it up to you? The next step would be to think about how we can do it together. I think it is important to work towards an egalitarian position of women.
Musicscan: This sounds really nice, but is this realistic in an increasingly conservative and religious environment?
Dam: Religions don’t choke women, religious people choke women. That is a big difference. Of course, it is possible, but it is very hard. If it does not happen in my generation, then maybe it will in the next. I consider that song as a seed that we planted so that it will grow and blossom in the future.
Musicscan: Would you say that American culture has a liberating effect on people and women in particular?
Dam: Maybe in daily life, you can see a liberating effect through popular culture. But with respect to women I think it is clear that the entire world is still dominated by men. Men are oppressing women all over the world.
Musicscan: Why do you think that American popular culture is so successful on a truly global level these days?
Dam: Well, the US are the strongest and most powerful nation in the world. And through Hollywood films and pop music they have found ways to entertain people. They have portrayed everything in a new glamour. It is even obvious when you take a look at Pizza Hut and McDonald’s: everything is bigger, better and brighter and we seem to like that, which does not mean that that is a positive thing.
Musicscan: Have you ever considered rapping in English?
Dam: Yes, I am dying to do that actually. But when you want to listen to something in English you go and listen to the new Common or the new Mos Def. I don’t feel as comfortable and confident in that language yet. However, we are practicing and working on that and I hope that I can do some of the lyrics in English in the future.
Musicscan: How did you get in touch with Red Circle Music?
Dam: We played in London about two years ago and one of the guys was a friend of our tourmanager at the time. She had invited him to the show and he really liked it and said that he wanted to work with us. I like what they have done for us and I feel comfortable on the label. I feel more like a professional now as I don’t have to take care of the entire business end of things. I used to be the artist, the producer and the manager. Most of the time I was the last to work on the songs, because I was so busy dealing with organizations stuff. All that organizational stuff really takes a lot of energy out of you that I would rather invest in music. I am still taking care of some management duties but much less than before. I have already written half of a solo album in Hebrew.
Musicscan: Can you live off of your music?
Dam: Until recently we couldn’t support ourselves through the music at all. Right now it is just started that we can, even though not very well as you can imagine. But I hope next year the situation will further improve, because we focus all our energy on this project now. I hope that this will enable us to also work on other projects.
Musicscan: What can we expect from DAM in the future?
Dam: We have been filming ourselves for about a year now and we are still collecting and editing material for a DVD of DAM. We also just produced the soundtrack for Slingshot Hip Hop. We are also going to work with traditional musicians so that their music will break through the walls and cross all borders. We want to produce other artists and give them a push. Suhell is doing a reggae album, Mahmud is also working on a solo album and I am working on another political album in Hebrew. After that, of course, we are going to tackle the second DAM album.