Sunday, August 17, 2008

Palestinian rap: interview with Jackie Salloum

From the Daily Star's inimitable Jim Quilty (a Razorback alum), this piece on Palestinian hip-hop:

Chronicling the story of Greater Palestine's rappers

Jackie Salloum discusses 'Slingshot Hip Hop,' pop culture and art

Beirut: [Yet another] blackout has descended upon Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp this night. It makes your efforts to find the Palestinian Arab Center that much more atmospheric and inspires vague hopes that perhaps you won't miss the first minutes of Jackie Salloum's "Slingshot Hip hop" after all.

You find the hall's exterior bathed in generator-driven light. The interior is dim but for the concert footage projected on a screen and reflected back upon the white plastic chair-mounted eyeballs fixed before it.

Salloum's first feature-length film, "Slingshot" chronicles the rise of the Palestinian hip-hop scene - starting in '48 Palestine (sometimes called "Israel") and the other occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

Salloum's central protagonists are DAM - who had a region-wide hit with their tune "Mean Irhabi" ("Who's a Terrorist") - especially the group's Tamer Nafar, from Al-Lid near Tel Aviv. Other profiled artists include the Gaza Strip's PR (Palestinian Rapperz), West Bank girl-MC duo Arapeyat (aka Safa and Nahwa), Abeer Zinati ("the first lady of Palestinian R&B," and Mahmoud Shalabi, veteran of the Palestinian hip-hop group MWR.

Considerable buzz accrued to "Slingshot" since early 2008, when the Sundance film festival nominated it for its grand jury prize.

The Palestinian-American multi-media artist screened her film in Bedawi and Shatilla camps as well as Bourj al-Barajneh. This tour came just after a series of screenings around Palestine, and Salloum was still radiating a high from the experience.

"Until we screened in Palestine, it didn't feel like we were finished yet," she said. "Over 4000 people came out to Nablus to see the show. I couldn't get the Gaza rappers out for the screening and I couldn't get into Gaza myself ... The shows in Ramallah and Jenin were awesome."

"Slingshot" took some time to ferment and, like so many independent films, it has an eccentric production history.

"By chance," she says, "I was in Gaza [in 2003] for the first hip-hop show there ever ... We just decided to make a movie."

"I didn't know anything about filmmaking and there were lots of production problems ... I didn't even bother reading the manual before I picked up the camera. We were working on graphics and the sound right up to Sundance."

"I have a great support group," she continues, "but basically I paid for the film on my credit cards." Though she's long since maxed-out her cards, Salloum is less interested in discussing her spectacular indebtedness than the artists at the center of the work.

"The project was a huge collaboration," she smiles, "even in the production. I left cameras with DAM and Abeer and PR. I wanted the film to speak with their voices as much as possible.

"They did start getting impatient after a couple of years. It was hard to convince them that taking a bit of extra time would make it that much better.

"But they were very loyal to me. Plenty of other filmmakers approached them in those years, but they told them, 'No. Jackie will make the first movie.' They even turned down Al-Jazeera. That's a big sacrifice."

Western audiences will be interested in the film's portrayal of how Palestinian rappers have found echoes of their own lives in some American hip-hop, but the form occupies an ambivalent space in occupied Palestine.

"DAM began as an Israeli act," Salloum says, and they appeared on Israeli TV. The most popular [Jewish] Israeli rapper is an ultra right-wing Zionist [named Subliminal--TS]. [Israeli filmmaker Anat Halachmi made a 2003 film] about him and [DAM's front man] Tamer, called "Channels of Rage."

"What really changed DAM's music was the second Intifada. That's when they released 'Meen Irhabi.' The Intifada made the Zionist rapper worse. He sings 'Death to Arabs.' You never hear Palestinian rappers singing 'Death to Jews.' [Incorrect! see comments--TS.]

"I have so much respect for their integrity. Coca Cola is a big player in Israel and they approached DAM about doing an ad for them. They offered them a lot of money but the guys told them no. You hear about that and you realize these guys really have principals, even though they're broke.

"The hip-hop is different in different parts of Palestine. In Gaza, it's harder to have shows because it's more religious, even though all the rappers believe in god. Yet it took off there more than anywhere else."

Salloum blinks in recollection. "You ask someone 'Do you like hip-hop?' and they'll say 'What's hip-hop?' If you say 'Meen Irhabi,' they'll say 'Oh I love "Meen Irhabi!"'"

"Slingshot Hip Hop" marked Salloum's second appearance at Sundance. Her first experience with America's most-loved independent film festival came in 2005, when her nine-minute short "Planet of the Arabs" caught the festival's attention.

“Reel Bad Arabs,” Jack Shaheen's 2001 study of Hollywood's cliched representations of Arabs and Muslims, inspired the short, which draws upon clips from some of the movies Shaheen discusses. A bravura work of editing, "Planet" emulates the cutting and splicing techniques used to produce feature film trailers to make a work that's funny (if you know this stuff already) and thought-provoking (if you don't).

"Editing," Salloum recalls, "taking images and placing them next to each other and setting them to music, that all comes pretty naturally to me. When I heard Sundance wanted to screen it and I had no idea what it meant.”

Salloum's filmmaking insouciance may stem from her coming to film from multimedia art. She graduated with a masters degree in fine arts from New York University in 2003.

Her work occupies the interstices between pop culture and political activism and she's proven adept in a number of media - politically inflected collages, gumball machines and flashcards as well as video.

"People have told me that 'Slingshot' is the first 'Palestine film' they've seen that doesn't make them depressed," she says. "... That's why pop culture works so well.

"When I first started, ... I didn't want to start with the Middle East because it was too close to me. My first collages worked with Latin American pop art themes. Some people hated it. 'Art's not supposed to be didactic,'" she rolls her eyes. "'We're all on the left here, so you're just preaching to the choir.'"

Salloum has an agenda but she isn't naive - being interested in how her artistic intentions are received, regardless how they're refracted through the public's consciousness.

Her gumball machines, for instance, offer art consumers plastic capsules with objects and written profiles inside. In one version, "Each comes with a magnet, sticker, or ring of your favorite revolutionary." In another, "Each capsule comes with a Palestinian refugee: Collect all 5 million!"

"A woman walked into an exhibition that had one of my gumball machines," Salloum recalls. "She put in a quarter and one of my rings dropped out. She came back with a roll of quarters and kept feeding them in one after the other.

"I asked her, 'What are you doing?' I was a little irritated, I guess, because a lot of time and energy goes into each one of those items. She told me 'I just liked to collect rings.'

"Hip-hop is like that," she smiles again.

"I don't think my work is going to change the world, that people will want to overthrow Israel after seeing my film. But if I'm going to work, it has to be meaningful. With 'Slingshot,' I also want to help the artists.

"One of the problems Palestinians face is how they're represented in the media. That means we have to make different media. Media is our strongest weapon, I think."

Having spent the better part of five years working on a feature-length documentary, Salloum says she has no plans for her next long film.

Rather, she's thinking about the possibilities of Arabic-language music videos.

"Right now," she says, "I don't want to make anything longer than three minutes."

Jackie Salloum's "Slingshot Hip Hop" will next screen in Beirut at one of the city's October film festivals. For more information see


Anonymous said...

This is such bad journalism that the author fails to mention the name of the "Zionist rapper." It's Subliminal, of course. But he also says he sand "Death to the Arabs," after the Second Intifada began! What a complete and transparent lie that is! Subliminal never sang lyrics even remotely resembling those. And I challenge anyway to listen to Subliminal and not be impressed with his incredible skills. No one in the Arab world comes even close . . .

Ted Swedenburg said...

You are absolutely right about the "Death to the Arabs" question. I've not yet seen the film "Channels of Rage," but it includes a scene where Subliminal is performing and someone in the crowd shouts out "Death to the Arabs." Subliminal tells the fans off. But Tamer Nafar of DAM, who was supported early in his career by Subliminal, comes to believe that Subliminal is stirring up antagonism toward Palestinian Israelis.

I've not yet heard Subliminal, so I cannot judge his rapping skills. (Not sure I would agree with some of the lyrics.) Interestingly, Subliminal is of Tunisian and Iranian Jewish heritage.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the admission. So is Quilty a liar or just an idiot?

Ted Swedenburg said...

Quilty is neither, he's a very good journalist. He made what you could call an honest error (mis-hearing what Salloum told him). He has no inherent reason for making factual misstatements about Subliminal.

Anonymous said...

"(Quilty) has no inherent reason for making factual misstatements about Subliminal."

Sure he does. He wants to caricature Israelis as being anti-Arab racists. This serves his commitment to three other notions: 1. Palestinian suicide bombers are a form of resistance 2. Hizballah is not a terrorist organization 3. Israel is a racist state.