Still image of two women from Sling Shot Hip Hop by Jackie Reem Salloum

Image credit: Slingshot Hip Hop by Jackie Reem Salloum

As grim images of corpses and devastated cityscapes continue to pour out of Gaza, even while truce extensions are worked out day by day, the paths to peace and justice remain unclear. During this time, Jackie Reem Salloum’s 2008 documentary, Slingshot Hip Hop, might offer some degree of solace to those seeking hope.

The film follows the first Palestinian rap group, Da Arab MCs (DAM), revealing a snapshot of Palestinian resistance. DAM’s debut single, “Min Irhabi” (Who’s the terrorist?), described by member Mahmoud Jreri as a “no-bullshit protest song,” expressed their frustration with being brutally policed and unjustly criminalized in their homeland. Both the song and video, shot northwest of Jerusalem on the streets of Lydd, emulated the style of Black American artists like 2Pac, Nas, and N.W.A. Upon release, the single quickly climbed to over one million downloads. 

While DAM’s members were initially attracted to the flashy defiance of the U.S. rap stars they saw on TV, they rejected the misogynistic and violent tropes perpetuated in the gangsta rap genre. The budding Palestinian rap scene produced female artists like Abeer and the duo Arapeyat, and their music encouraged children to fight back with words.

The anti-violence ethos of the film and its subjects raises interesting questions about the roles of both art and violence in liberation: How can art affect material change? What are the comparative utilities of direct/indirect action? One rapper’s father, a former musician who was imprisoned for his songs about Palestinian suffering, shows us that even nonviolent protest can increase one’s proximity to state violence—despite excessive Israeli firepower, music is still considered a threat. Rap in particular gives a unique and accessible voice to the oppressed, synthesizing poetry and rhythm in memorable ways for communal performance and consumption. For those who question the capacity of rap to deliver powerful positive messages of social change, Slingshot Hip Hop supplies an answer.

Salloum’s multimedia art and film work explore the potential of collage for creating new meaning, especially as it relates to the experiences of displacement in Arab communities. Graphic elements such as spray-painted graffiti animations and stylistic transitions visually remix a variety of footage. Videos of packed clubs and street life are intercut with archival news reports and footage of the Second Intifada. The resulting sonic and visual collage is reminiscent of the American rap music videos of the 1980s and 90s that inspired DAM in their early days.

The resonance of American rap with Palestinian youth speaks to the social construction of otherness—the way it alienates marginalized groups within an apartheid state but also unifies oppressed peoples around the world. From their baggy clothes to the rough edge of their flows and music videos, the featured rappers go to lengths to emulate Black American traditions of hip-hop. Prominent Black activists such as Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela, and Cornel West have publicly voiced solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.  

Yet this cross-cultural affinity has not always been obvious. There is a lengthy history of Black support for the early Zionist project, particularly as it relates to the idea of returning to a historic homeland—the “Back to Africa” movement promoted by Marcus Garvey shared this ideology. 

However, as time passed some members of the Black liberation movement saw the Palestinian struggle as linked to the same white supremacist world order from which they suffered. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, educator and activist Angela Davis echoed the assertion of American poet and activist June Jordan that “Palestine is a moral litmus test for the world.” In failing to acknowledge and fight human rights violations, nations and institutions throw the rights of all peoples into question.

Slingshot Hip Hop ends with a pan-Palestinian concert in the West Bank—minus the one rap group Israeli officers wouldn’t let exit Gaza. Even in their absence, the other groups maintain optimism: a belief that things can change, including people’s minds. 
One scene of Slingshot Hip Hop shows Tamer Nafar of DAM visiting Camp Return in Lydd—the name references the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland—to speak with the children and inspire hope of a better future. Afterward, he reflects on how far DAM has come. “When we started rapping we never thought our music would convey this message: there is hope, a spark like a flame in the darkness of a cave. We hope it works out.”

Zenzelé Soa-Clarke is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research.