As the late 1990s shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. demonstrated, the rap life can be a dangerous existence. But being a rapper in Gaza? Now that presents some unique hazards. At a concert by the Palestinian Rapperz (PR) last summer, Islamic youths, outraged by the group's arm thrusts and crotch grabs, rushed onstage and beat up its four members. Soon after, a Palestinian M.C. known as Sompol was also assailed for immorality. He was kidnapped midperformance and let go three hours later, after a warning at gunpoint to stop bringing un-Islamic Western behavior into Gaza.
And yet rap is thriving. The U.S. import has taken root in the Palestinian territories and Israel, evolving into a gritty hybrid expression of the Arab-Israeli conflict that steers clear of the original's current preoccupations with flashy wealth, gangster attitudes and fast women. "It's preposterous to pose as a gangster out here," says Sagol, 59, hailed as the Israeli godfather of hip-hop. Instead, Israeli and Palestinian artists have borrowed from earlier, more socially conscious rappers such as Shakur, and sharpened their songs to a razorlike political edge.
PR's lyrics are full of death (by falling bombs, Israeli Mossad agents or feuding Palestinian gangs) and set to an ominous, rumbling beat that sounds like an approaching Israeli tank. "Traditionally, Palestinian songs are all about love," says one member, Mohammed al Farra, whose rap handle is D.R., the Dynamic Rapper, "but our reality in Gaza is about suffering. Gaza is like a big prison, and we get our message across with rap music." At concerts, PR ignites a dervish-like frenzy among Palestinian teenagers. When they sing, "Just because we're Palestinians/ America and everyone suspects us of being terrorists/ But all we're asking for is freedom," the crowd erupts with the same raw energy you see in the Gaza showdowns between Palestinian and Israeli forces.
Arab hip-hop doesn't get airplay on stuffy state-run radio and TV stations around the Middle East, so rappers have turned to MySpace.com and other Internet sites to find their audiences. No record deals are in the works for the Gaza crew, but fans abound in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S.; PR's website has had thousands of visitors since last June, according to Al Farra.
Israel has rappers of every variety, from ultra-Zionists like Subliminal (he wears Star of David bling) to left-leaning hip-hoppers such as the top-selling Hadag Nahash (the Snake Fish) and Sagol 59. Promoter Dan Sieradski and Sagol 59 run a live monthly hip-hop show with Israeli and Palestinian performers called Corner Prophets, which, Sieradski says, aims to "take anger and redirect it into a creative outlet."
In the Holy Land, it's inevitable that religious belief, as well as anger, would give hip-hop a special twist. A 30-year-old Miami native who recently moved to Israel, Jew Da Maccabi found rap before religion, but he's now putting his religion into his rap. He dons the black garb and practices the habits of an ultra-orthodox Jew, with a few hip-hop accessories such as a Yankees baseball cap instead of a broad-brimmed black hat. "After I became religious, I remembered what my rabbi said: 'Take what you did before, and flip it to holiness,'" says Maccabi.
That's not easy. During a recent promotional video shoot for an Israeli record company with other rappers, the former hard partier acted shy about appearing with shimmying women dancers. But he's the one some other rappers find embarrassing. Jeers Corner Prophet's Sieradski, "We look at Jew Da and our eyes roll. Is this the future of Israeli hip-hop? If so, we're in trouble." But Maccabi shrugs it off. "Ninety percent of the kids are listening to hip-hop, so why not give them spirituality too?" Meanwhile, in Gaza, there are signs that hip-hop is gaining wider acceptance. After all, it's been nearly a year now since any critics have used their fists to try to silence Al-Farra and his rapper friends.