GAZA CITY, Sep 12 (IPS) – In a backstreet open-air café in Gaza late at night, Khaled Harara from the Black Unit Band starts to talk about rap.
A phone call interrupts him. "Oh my god, it’s my dad, he will kill me because I’m not home yet." Not quite the tough image one conjures of rappers.
After assuring his father he’s giving an interview, he’s ok to stay.
But that interruption brings up something he wants people to understand better: rap doesn’t have to be what the corporate market makes it to be. "We are trying to show people that hip-hop can be good; it doesn’t have to be about sex and drugs. We are returning rap to its old roots, talking about real issues."
His friend Ayman Mughames from Palestinian Rapperz joins him.
"When we started in 2002, our message was to show the real life in Palestine and especially in Gaza," Mughames says. "We talk about cases, things that must be talked about: the Israeli occupation, the siege on Gaza, the Israeli wars on Gaza, Palestinian unity.
"Rapping is our way of resisting. We need people to resist not only by weapons, but by words too."
Palestinian Rapperz (P.R.) joined the ‘new’ generation of rappers like Harara’s Black Unit Band. Under the umbrella Palestinian Unit, the group now comprises P.R., Black Unit, and supporting musicians and break-dancers from the Water Band and Camps Breakerz.
"That’s what we wish for, Palestinian unity," says Mughames, playing on the group’s name.
The two speak some of the many difficulties they face as rappers in Gaza.
"People don’t understand what rap is, they think it’s some negative Western influence, like we’re forgetting our culture," Harara says. "But we are mixing Palestinian tradition and patriotism with rap. It’s our way of reaching youths inside and outside of Palestine."
They admit that a part of the problem lies with other rappers in Gaza who don’t hold the same ideals.
"There are some bad rappers. Their behaviour is bad, so then they reflect badly on rap in general," says Harara. "But we try to teach youths what rap is really about, and how it can be used for the Palestinian cause."
Harara goes on to explain their work with Gaza’s youths.
"Recently we established a hip-hop school. Many of the younger generation had come to us saying ‘we want to learn to rap’, so we opened a school."
Mughames, considered Gaza’s old-school rapper, is emphatic about the benefits.
"It’s good for youths. They have nothing to do in Gaza. We teach them concrete skills: how to make good lyrics, how to set the lyrics to the beat, how to control their voices…how to be a good rapper."
Harara adds, "Our school is free. And it’s actually very important, because these kids might otherwise end up going to the bad rappers and learning bad ideas."
Aside from public perception, most of their problems are due to the Israeli- led siege on Gaza, imposed shortly after Hamas was elected in early 2006, but severely tightened in June 2007 after Hamas took control of Gaza.
"Equipment is a serious problem," says Mughames. "If we want to give a concert, we need speakers, microphones…they aren’t easily available in Gaza."
"There’s only really one good DJ in Gaza, with his own equipment. He charges between 200 to 500 dollars per show. We can’t afford that," Harara says.
Producing an album is not easy either.
"Since we don’t have equipment, and the recording studio is too expensive, we try to cut albums in the most simple way, using a laptop mixer programme and recording in our home," says Harara.
New York based Palestinian-Syrian film-maker Jackie Reem Salloum produced the documentary ‘Slingshot Hip Hop’ last year featuring Palestinian rap artists in Palestine and Israel, among them the Palestinian Rapperz.
"The slingshot movie was released, we got the invitation to attend the opening, we got the visas, but we couldn’t get out of Gaza," Ayman Mughames recalls.
There are limits at home as well. "We want to go to the camps where people who lost their homes in the Israeli war are living. We want to give concerts for the orphans," Harara says.
But for now, the rappers concentrate on what is viable. "We can’t make concerts, can’t leave Gaza. We are limited in what we can do. So we focus on the school and making more songs," says Harara.
Like the one on the Israeli war on Gaza (’23 Days’), patriotic songs (‘My City’), and love songs too (‘Take Me Away’).
Much of the music is in some way a plea for unity among Palestinian parties. The rappers speak again and again of the need for Palestinians to come together and face their common enemy: the Israeli occupation, siege, and denial of basic rights.
One song goes: "Palestine forgive me, I can’t shut up about everybody who steals you, trades you/You’re like a supermarket, people get more rich by you."
The songs are all in Arabic. "It’s our language and we are proud of it. And we can express subtleties and nuances in Arabic that aren’t possible for us in English," Mughames says.
Despite the many constraints, the Palestinian Unit has been able to perform now and then.
"We had a concert at Rachad Shawa (the Gaza cultural centre) a few weeks go, sponsored by Mercy Corps," says Mughames. "The audience were mixed…guys, girls, even conservative types."
"There were about 6,000 people, and they didn’t know what to expect," recalls Harara. "And when we started rapping, they were shocked, because we were rapping, and there was the band playing, and the break- dancers…People were amazed."
In December this year the next Viva Palestina convoy is due to enter Gaza with humanitarian aid. Mughames and Harara expect Palestinian rappers from outside of Gaza to be in the convoy.
"We’re going to give a concert on January 1," says a hopeful Harara.