Hip-hop has risen to popularity in places of unrest, creating a global commonality. The against-the-system mentality of the genre paired with its edgy lyrics have made it a form of activism in a wide variety of cultures. Images of Tupac rapping, being chased by the police, and representing the living conditions of the marginalized neighborhoods, have inspired countless people worldwide, including the first Arab-Israeli rap crew, DAM.
Comprised of two brothers, Tamer and Suhell Nafar, along with their longtime friend Mahmoud Jreri, the group started in the late 90’s. The trio came up in the city of Lod, Israel, which was described by Tamer as “the biggest black market in the Middle East.” Lodis a mixed Jewish-Arab city only 9.3 miles southeast of Tel Aviv. Before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Lod’s demographic was mainly comprised of Arab inhabitants. However, after the 1975 Palestinian exodus, only 1,056 Arabs remained allowing for the town to be resettled by Jewish immigrants.
Hip-hop was relatable for Tamer, because “even though I didn’t understand English, [I understood] the visuals of Tupac being chased by the police, the drugs, and the guns. I always felt like it was [filmed] on my block, so that's why I started listening.” Although most of Tamer’s friends enjoyed rap, he was the “only one [who] used to go home and just ask questions.” His fascination with the genre became an obsession, to the point where he recalls times when he would throw away his school books so he could make space for his printouts of rap lyrics and an English-Arabic dictionary. Word-by-word, he decoded the lyrics, slowly taught himself English, and made sense of the flow used throughout Tupac’s verses.
Although DAM is the first group to rap in Arabic, Tamer started out rapping in English. Since all the rap he listened to was in English, he said “English is built in.” It wasn’t until he heard Jewish artists in Tel Aviv rapping in Hebrew that he realized that he could do the same. It was difficult for him to transition from English to Hebrew but he referred to existing Hebrew rap when looking for style and language examples. “But for Arabic... I searched, but I couldn’t find anything. So I knew that I had to create it. So even though it’s my language, English and Hebrew were easier for me at the beginning because I had that reference.” Tamer struggled to understand the formula to approach rap in Arabic. He would “write, throw away, write, record, throw away,” until he finally recorded the first rap song in Arabic that made him a local celebrity in Palestine and Israel. And from there, DAM began to rise.
They used rap as their medium to tell the story of what life is like for a Palestinian living in Israel. The song that got them on the map was titled “Min Irhabi” (“Who’s the Terrorist?”). In Arabic, the song discusses the oppression, pain, and violence that the Israeli occupation inflicts on Palestinian people. Released in 2001, during the Second Intifada, the song became a huge hit throughout the Middle East. Within a few days, the track was downloaded over a million times and DAM became a household name in the region.
Throughout the years, DAM has continued speaking about human rights violations in the Middle East. Their overtly political art has provided a much-needed voice in the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian community. In 2004, DAM was invited by the Shateel organization to write and perform songs that discussed discrimination and poverty in mixed Arab-Israeli cities, housing demolitions and unemployment by the Israeli government, and the dangerous entrance into Lod, which required residents to cross eight train tracks en route to the city. For this convention DAM teamed up with a local R&B singer and created the song “Born Here”. “Born Here” was a play on the known Israeli song titled, “Dats and Datsa.” The song states, "I was born here, my children were born here and this is where we built our houses with our hands." DAM tweaked this to "I was born here, my grandparents were born here, and this is where you destroyed our houses with your hands". Due to the success of the campaign, the Israeli government built a bridge above the train tracks for safer entrance and allowed DAM to tour through Israel discussing the importance of their cause.
After the Born Here campaign, the group became the first Palestinian artists to secure a studio album with an international record company in 2006. The release was titled “Ihda” (“Dedication”). Although they largely spoke for Palestinian Rights, they made their mark on the world by being the first Arab rap artists to discuss women’s rights. The song “Al Huriye Unt'a” (“Freedom for my Sister”) begins with lyrics against the oppression that Palestinians face and then pushes further to protest all types of oppression, including patriarchy. This song also featured the first woman Palestinian rapper, Safa' Hathoot.
For the next five years, DAM toured the world garnering support and spreading the sounds of their debut album. In 2012, the group members decided they had more on their minds that they needed the world to hear, and began recording their second studio project, “Dabke on the Moon.” DAM continued speaking out on social issues and promoting women’s rights in a region where those rights are largely disregarded. The first single and music video from the album, “If I Could Go Back In Time,” provides striking visuals showing the scene of an honor killing and spreading awareness about the gross nature of these acts.
Their most recent single, titled “#Who_U_R” was written in response to the 16-year-old Texan teen, Jada, whose rape was recorded and then shared and mocked on social media in 2014.
Although the song is performed in Arabic, Tamer says, “women’s struggle is beyond the Middle East. It’s an international struggle.” For the concept of the video has four different parts. For the chorus of the song where Daysa (the first woman and newest member of the group) is singing, she is taking all of the negative comments that were written on social media to Jada, and twisting them. Tamer explains Daysa acknowledges the disgusting comments that are forced onto rape victims and the gender norms that women endure daily, then hits back and confronts men and society with their faults and shortcomings. “‘Okay, I know who you THINK I am, but who are you, other than a judge?” By completely shattering the validity of commentary from society, she herself reaches empowerment. In the verse, each male member also addresses aspects of patriarchy in society, and themselves. Tamer explains his verse, by saying that it’s “not to criticize society, but to criticize [myself]. I consider myself a feminist, but I said ‘I am a feminist who still lives on his mom’s food.’ So, it is chauvinistic in a way. This is me so I’m ready to face myself, and not just judge other people. I realize that I am feminist but there are things that I still need to fix.” The verse that follows, hits on a much more global scale. It discusses honor killings in Palestine, human trafficking in the U.S., and high amounts of rape reports in India. Overall, Tamer discusses how the concept was to “take the social part of my individual progress and to take my social issues to the international stage.”
The song has generated a Twitter campaign throughout the Middle East. Using the hashtag #Who_You_R men are encouraged to send in photos of themselves doing housework as a way to break gender norms and support women.
Although much of DAM’s support has come from their political activism, Tamer doesn’t “know why everyone expects that because we come from the Middle East, that we have to automatically come with a message. And, it’s weird because the three messengers were Jesus, Moses, and the prophet Mohammed and they all came from here. So, I guess that’s a gift and a curse: that we must be messengers.” Although Tamer is concerned with being pigeonholed, DAM’s love for hip-hop and performance is what lead them to where they are today. And at the end of the day, he is an artist that “fell in love with the music.”