Palestinian and Romani hiphop artists: "Rap is the CNN of ordinary people"
Three weeks ago the "Days of Jerusalem" festival was held in the Czech cities of Prague and Plzeň, an event which for several years has presented the culture of this divided Middle Eastern City. Organizers included an appearance by Palestinian rapper Muhammad Mughrabi on this year's rich program.
To make sure the evening would not "just be an ordinary" Arab hiphop event, they added Refew, a rising Romani star of the Czech rap scene, to the bill. We interviewed both of them about the refugee camps in which Muhammad lives, about rapping in Arabic and Romani, about the mission of artists, and about the ongoing cultural boycott of Israel.
Q: Muhammad, could you describe the basic "turning points" in your life that led you to "Days of Jerusalem" in Prague?
M: I grew up in the refugee camp to which my parents fled in 1967 and live to this day. I began rapping about 10 years ago when I created a crew called G-Town. For the last three years I haven't performed with them, now I perform with the Alif formation, with the songs the audience heard here today.
Q: Has the refugee camp become a normal place for you to live, or is your aim to get out of there?
M: I want to get out of there, I want to live a better life. Normally, when you say "refugee camp", you imagine a place you would end up in only in the worst-case scenario, where you might have to stay three years or so, but not more. You imagine you would one day return to the place you fled. However, in our case this is a bit different. The camp has been there for more than 50 years, nobody one even knows how to go back home anymore. No one knows what to do. I am doing my best to address this through music. In high school I began listening to hiphop and house, but I didn't know anything about it. I couldn't understand the words, but I really liked the music, and then I suddenly realized it's possible to rap in Arabic. I attempted to record some of my own songs at home on the computer, and they became very popular. Nobody in Jerusalem before then had ever rapped in Arabic! People began saying "He's that rapper" about me. So I said - why not?
Q: Refew, how about you? Do you have a similar story? Did you come to rap by seeking your way out of a rough environment?
R: What had a big influence on me was the fact that I'm not a "blood Czech". Naturally I am a Czech citizen, but Mom is half-Czech and half-Romani, and my father is part-Hungarian, part-Roma and part-Slovak. That made me a sort of "international citizen", hated by all, loved by all. There were always people who didn't care about that and then there were people who cared too much about it. That certainly influenced me greatly. The other basic thing about my journey to rap, and from there to "Days of Jerusalem", is that I have listened to rap practically since the day I was born. For example, I definitely heard the album "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" by the time I was four years old.
Q: How did you come to hiphop?
R: My older brother listened to it. What else has greatly changed me? I've smoked cigarettes since I was young, but I've never taken drugs. In my lyrics I am always discussing drugs because in the place where I used to live many people were taking them and I can't stand it. I also frequently rap about my Mom, because she raised us alone. I appreciate her very much! I'm not a mama's boy who just likes his Mom, even though naturally I have a feeling for that sentiment, but my Mom has really dealt with impossible things. For 15 years straight she worked every single day for 16 hours - maybe except for Sundays when she only worked eight hours, and on top of that she was doing work that men usually do... During that time she managed to raise me and my brother in such a way that we had no problems at school, no problem with integration, and no problem with anything else. She did it all, as just one person. The last essential thing to know is that I am quite explosive. I have a lot of energy, so I have a lot of aggression in my lyrics. However, I am not a violent person, I don't like weapons, I would never assault anyone, I'm just doing my best to urge people not to let themselves be pushed into a corner - (and I don't mean in a physical sense!).
Q: Your Mom is half-Roma, but you did not speak Romanes at home, right?
R: No, I know some phrases, but we didn't speak it at home.
Q: Muhammad said it was important for him to rap in Arabic. Was it not important to you to rap in Romanes?
R: I do not speak Romanes fluently, so that was never an option for me. I don't know - maybe if I could speak it fluently, then it might be, but speaking Romanes is not exactly my department.
M: It's important to use the language of local people. If I were to sing only in English, no one in my neighborhood would understand me.
Q: I get that, but if you rap in English, then you can probably become more famous, you have the opportunity of reaching a bigger audience.
M: That's not true. Look at that Korean rapper [Psy - translator's note], he sings in Korean, which is a language that almost no one speaks [80 million people speak Korean - translator's note] and he is terribly famous nonetheless.
R: I don't know - it seems logical to me that you have a bigger chance of success if you sing in English.
M: The best is to rap in your mother tongue and in English, because English is international. When I come to the Czech Republic I can't sing in Czech, but people everywhere understand English.
Q: You have both performed at "Days of Jerusalem", so I like to ask you to comment on the festival. Why did you decide to appear there?
M: I believe artists have a great deal to say, through their work, about where they come from. I am from Jerusalem, which is terribly diverse, which is why I love representing it to others.
R: It's super that I was able to perform here. It has a symbolic meaning for me to share my rapping here. Muhammad's rap is top-notch and I am glad to perform with people who aren't just some trendy rappers, but who are genuine.
M: I really enjoyed it, and I think the audience did too! The experiences that I have when I perform are ones I will never forget. I will always remember the moments that Refew and I spent talking in Prague. You constantly learning from each new experience, it's brilliant!
Q: I want to ask you both what you think of the cultural boycott [of Israel]? Today it is a rather popular topic on the territory of Jerusalem, so I would like to hear your opinion of boycotts through culture in general? What do you believe should be the role of the artist at such moments?
M: I have a rather radical opinion about that and many people disagree with me. In my view, art has always been a kind of guided tour of the country it comes from. If you don't listen to Czech music, you won't understand what it's like here. I believe there is no point in boycotting either Israeli or Palestinian art and I am decidedly not involved in this. By doing this we are losing the all but non-existent communication that does exist between Israel and Palestine. Already these two groups know almost nothing about each other because there is a wall between them. My task is to tell the truth about who I am, what I want, and to publicly defend my view of the world, which may also represent the views of other people like me. Most people just watch television and get their information that way, but that information has nothing to do with reality. People must directly communicate with each other more! The role of the artist is to tell stories, to describe how things actually are.
Q: What about you, Refew? What do you believe the calling of an artist is?
R: Through rap I can communicate a lot of ideas. When I look around me and see something I disagree with, it's my task, as an artist, to draw attention to it.
Q: One last question and then I'll let you enjoy the rest of the evening! Can you describe what your lyrics are about? Are there any essential themes that you stick to?
R: Drugs, money and prostitutes, what do you expect?!
M: I want to tell the truth. People fear me because they known I am from a refugee camp. I sing about the fact that even in a refugee camp we can live normal lives - we compose music, we throw parties. I have one song where I say "We barbecue every Friday on my roof terrace". I show the positive sides of our life, I represent the actual face of young Palestinians, not the one the media presents. Whenever I travel to Europe people ask me what life is like in the refugee camp, if I even have Internet there, for example. They just have no idea at all how we live because they only watch the news, where the journalists talk total nonsense. I think rap is the CNN of ordinary people. If you are really interested in what is going on somewhere, listen to local rap.
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