May 14, 2001

report: "Rapping Against Walls"

In the West Bank, dissident voices questioning the Palestinian Authority's increasingly authoritarian rule have become rare. But a young musician in Ramallah refuses to hold his tongue.

Old houses are torn down in Ramallah by bulldozers to make way for fancy restaurants, shopping malls, office buildings and apartment blocks. The Palestinian Authority's headquarters are being rebuilt, too. The compound looks like a fortress. Nearby, the 28-level Palestine Trade Tower is nearing completion. Soon it will host luxury offices, a high-end hotel and a cinema.

Six or seven years ago, when most West Bank cities were still up in arms against Israeli occupation, Ramallah had already been pacified. Fancy cars and trendy boutiques conquered its downtown area. In one of the new restaurants sits a young Palestinian music composer going by the name 'Boikutt'.

"It's very confusing to live in Ramallah," says the 25-years old. "It's like a bubble." He feels that people are living in the illusion of being free, even though Ramallah is still an occupied town surrounded by checkpoints and the separation wall. "When you drive just 10 minutes in any direction you'll realise you're in a prison," Boikutt says.
The waitress has come over to ask for orders. In English. Boikutt answers in Arabic. However she, a Palestinian woman in her twenties, insists on speaking English. As she walks away, Boikutt meaningfully raises his eyebrows. "Ramallah has become very different and separated from other Palestinian cities." The restaurant next door doesn't even serve Arabic coffee any more.

Israeli tanks occupying the streets of Ramallah in 2002, threatening to shoot at anyone who'd walk in the street, pushed Boikutt to compose his first track called 'Under Curfew’. In 2003, Boikutt, his brother 'Aswatt' and 'Stormtrap' established the music collective 'Ramallah Underground'. The group's experimental approach resulted in a distinct musical outcome, combining trip-hop, hip-hop, downtempo and traditional Arabic music.

Most of their initial tracks dealt with life under Israeli occupation. As Israeli army presence inside Ramallah decreased, the Palestinian Authority (PA) emerged as a new target of their rhymes. In the artists' opinion, one oppressor had just replaced another: "They robbed us / Took away our land, our country / Defeated / Turning on us / They convinced us / Trained to defend Israel from us / We're being controlled / Soldiers everywhere / But tell me who is this all for?"

Boikutt says he has been being imprisoned twice: "There's the Israeli Apartheid wall, resulting in an open-air prison. And then there's the rule of the PA and its police forces that are placed at every corner of Ramallah. They're constantly controlling us, even though we're just roaming within our own prison."

While as in several Arab countries regimes were toppled by popular uprisings, the PA has so far successfully suffocated anything similar in the West Bank. The Authority's repression of dissident voices and political opponents has led to an atmosphere where "people know where the limits are," says Boikutt.

The so-called March 15 movement which pushed for ending the division between Hamas and Fatah indicated, though, that many young Palestinians are fed up with the ruling political class. "The PA has allowed the protests to happen as long as they were under control," Boikutt says. "That's the maximum to where you can go."

The young musician considers it a shame that most Palestinian artists are voicing criticism only very softly. In contrast, Ramallah Underground's rhymes are quite explicit: "Civil riots, because the cops are pissing me off / As if the Apartheid wall isn't enough / Now they put a virus into my country."

Boikutt is asking people to start some kind of a third Intifada. "Its goal would be to disrupt the colonial machine and all of its pieces." Indeed, many Palestinians consider the current security coordination between Israel, the U.S. and the PA a form of collaboration with the enemy. As cables published by WikiLeaks have shown, the PA has been eager to "keep the coordination out of the public eye." So far, the PA has succeeded in keeping the security situation calm, thereby protecting Israel's interests.

"Maybe the only way to actually reach the coloniser is to get rid of the one who's holding you back," Boikutt says. In the track 'Prison within a Prison', Stormtrap raps: "While leaders masturbate for one another / Settlements multiply, grow, and expand! / Want to solve the problem? / Dismantle our government! / Maybe then we can start something."
Ramallah Underground spread its work mostly through the Internet. "Considering the isolated geographical position of Ramallah, it's been very important," Boikutt says. Even though he raps in Arabic, reaching the domestic audience is difficult. Due to Israeli restrictions, staging a concert in nearby Jerusalem for example is impossible. "Performing in Europe is much easier," he points out.

In 2009, Ramallah Underground split up. Besides doing solo performances, Boikutt started a new project along with Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, two installation-based artists working with sound and video. Their project is called 'Tashweesh', which means interference. The group's name is its programme.

Tashweesh focusses on live performances. Boikutt admits that performing in public spaces or streets is quite difficult. "Ramallah is being destroyed by urban development. Public spaces have become rare," he says. Performing in commercial places is unavoidable. Boikutt regrets that there, mostly members of the local elite attend, while by-passers or those who don't belong to the scene, don't.

One his greatest performances was when he performed in a parking lot and people spontaneously joined in, the rapper tells. "You know, they didn't come to be entertained, but because they were actually interested in what they were hearing."

Having his dissident voice being heard isn't easy nowadays. For many Palestinians, materialist desires have become more important than the political struggle for liberation. In one of his recent tracks, Boikutt raps: "Let them wait for foreign aid until they die / Drive around with their expensive cars / Inside the Apartheid wall, until they enter into mazes." The rhyme ends with the sound of a car crashing.

This report was written by Ray Smith and was published here by IPS Inter Press Service.