hip hop in lubnan

So much I wanted to write about and share from Lebanon, but there was too much to do and so little time to write or get online. I packed so much into way too short a trip: seeing friends, an academic conference, trips to Nahr al Bared refugee camp, trips to Beirut-area refugee camps like Shatila and Bourj al Bourajneh, attending lectures. While in Lebanon Norman Finkelstein was also in town, in part for the same conference I attended at the American University of Beirut, and in part for his own speaking tour around Lebanon. His talk at Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, I thought, was particularly compelling in some ways. He had a phrase, in particular, that I really liked. He said that the Zionists turned the Balfour Declaration into a “birth certificate.” His point was that the Zionists have a history of transforming little, nothing pieces of paper into laws to validate their colonial actions and he was arguing that Palestinians should consider doing the same thing given that on paper, in international law, Palestinians have a history of victories. From UN Resolution 194 to the ICJ decision on the illegal wall built on Palestinian land to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, Palestinians have a slew of papers and laws that demonstrate the world’s legal bodies are on their side, but these documents are not used in any real way as a comprehensive claim to Palestinian sovereignty over the land or the right of return. Given the audience’s reaction I don’t think that people will take the ball and run with it, but I hope that they at least consider and think about it. Norman also went down to South Lebanon and to Baddawi refugee camp (he tried to go to Nahr el Bared refugee camp, but the Lebanese army wouldn’t let him in), though I couldn’t accompany him on these trips. Ha’aretz reported on his meetings with Hezbollah funnily enough.

finkelstein in shatila

The conference at AUB was energizing, especially the hip hop performance. Three hip hop artists joined together to create the Human Writes Project. Mark Gonzales, Nizar Wattad, and Omar Chakaki joined forces to put on a performance piece that combined a history of hip hop with their individual and collective memoirs woven throughout. Their writing and delivery was amazing and inspiring. Mark Gonzales had my favorite line of the night, which demonstrated the limitations of building solidarity. As a Chicano poet/hip hop artist he spoke about visiting Palestine and witnessing the parallel colonialisms (1848 when the U.S. occupied Mexico and 1948 when the Zionists occupied Palestine), but then he came back to the U.S. and saw a wealthy Palestinian with a Mexican maid and it made him think about how far we have to go. All of them spoke about stories of education and childhood and the role of hip hop in inspiring youth to effect change. I had not realized when they began their performance that I had been a fan of both Omar and Nizar, but I hadn’t realized it as I didn’t associate their names with their bands. Nizar (aka Ragtop) has a band called the Philistines, but apparently he has a solo album coming out soon. Omar’s band is called the Nomads, which I also love. My favorite albums they co-created/collaborated on: Free the P and The Arab Summit. Mark doesn’t have a group, but he was on one of the recent Def Poetry Jam episodes on HBO (see Youtube video below to hear Mark). He teaches high school in Los Angeles and has a project of using the apparatus of music–the music itself, the liner notes in the album, etc.–to help teachers use music in the classroom. But it wasn’t just their performance on stage that was dazzling–it was their very presence at the conference. These guys attended a number of the sessions and always asked the best questions with the most insight and precision that got at the heart of any given speaker’s message.

This trio was so amazing on so many levels. The day after the conference ended I brought Mark up to Baddawi and Nahr el Bared refugee camps with me to witness the devastation from the war. It was absolutely freezing and he didn’t have a proper jacket, but he braved the cold and walked around the camps with a friend of mine taking photos and video footage. He played with kids in a kindergarten in Baddawi. He spat his lyrics at various sites around the camps. On the bus on the way home he started freestyling–composing new lyrics about what he saw, what he felt after the seeing the devastation and listening to people’s stories. It was amazing. He is truly brilliant. The following day Mark and Nizar came with a bunch of us to Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut to meet with Yassin, an amazing young high school kid who has been composing fabulous hip hop songs for the past few years. The previous week a couple of us went to see him to help him set up his audio studio so he could record his own music, though he is limited as there is no power from 6PM until 12 AM every day and he goes to school during the day. Mark and Nizar came over to listen to Yassin’s music and they also freestyled together. They ended the afternoon by composing a new song together, which was fascinating to watch. I loved the collaborative process and the way they worked on rhyming Arabic and English words in various ways. It was beautiful–and much of it was composed in the dark under the glow of cell phone lights after the power went out. And, yes, Baha’a, they composed “in harmony.” 😉

hip hop composing

After we were finished I went to my friend Fadi’s house in Bourj and saw his new film, “The Smell of Coffee,” which is amazing. It shows a young married couple and their life in a 24 hour period in Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp. They never speak–all of the sounds are just the sounds of the camp: kids playing, neighbors talking, scooters driving through the narrow alleys. It is really powerful–the way sound is used–on so many levels. The camera shots are really beautiful, too. I can’t wait for people to see it once it gets on the film festival circuit.

hip hop concert

We had one final night of hip hop before I left. A Lebanese hip hop group, 961 Underground, had a concert that featured local Lebanese hip hop artists as well as Nizar and Omar (Mark had already gone home). Yassin was there, too, and got to sing during the open mic session at the end of the concert. It was really great to see them all perform live. An inspiring way to close out my Lubnan visit.

hip hop concert 2


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