GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—The wanna-be gangsta boys arrive in baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts bearing the likeness of rapper Tupac Shakur, looking for a chance to freestyle with the night's star performers. The groupie girls in glittery tops throw their hands in the air, cheering on the breakdancers, when the hip-hop party is brought to a screeching halt:
Time for evening prayer.
Across the Gaza Strip, West Bank and even in Israel, young Arabic rappers are trying to juggle Middle East traditions with contemporary Western culture to create a political voice for their generation.
"It's the CNN of Palestine," says Tamer Nafar, a way to broadcast the news. Nafar, a skinny 26-year-old, is helping to turn Arabic hip-hop into an international phenomenon.
As a movement in its infancy, Palestinian hip-hop shares more in common with early American rap than the narcissistic, modern-day mainstream hip-hop that dominates MTV.
Just as Public Enemy, N.W.A. and Ice-T created furors with songs such as "911 Is a Joke," "F-k Tha Police" and "Cop Killer," Palestinian rappers such as Nafar take a provocative, controversial approach with songs such as "Who's a Terrorist."
"You call me the terrorist?
Who's the terrorist?
I'm the terrorist?
How am I the terrorist
When you've taken my land?!
Who's the terrorist?
You're the terrorist!
You've taken everything I own
while I'm living in my homeland."
Nafar and his group DAM ("blood" in Arabic and Hebrew) are pioneers in the Palestinian hip-hop scene. They've generated a loyal following among Israelis and Palestinians by singing in Hebrew and Arabic.
"It's a form of nonviolent resistance," says William Youmans, a Palestinian-American rapper who performs as the Iron Sheik. "The idea is to provoke critical thinking and encourage people to look at these issues from the perspective of the victims."
Palestinian rap first blossomed in Israel, where Arab citizens like Nafar generally have greater freedom and opportunity than Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But the conservative Gaza Strip—where alcohol is all but banned, movie theaters are nearly nonexistent and Islam is a foundation for many families—is proving to be fertile new ground for hip-hop.
Over the past year, rap groups such as R.F.M. and P.R. have been gradually moving from their bedrooms to restaurants, theaters and social group stages with messages that resonate in a society where half the population is under the age of 18.
"We're making something new for Gaza," said Rami Bakhit, one of three rappers in Gaza City's R.F.M. "It's the only way to talk in the street language to the youth who are going to build the Palestinian state."
Their music is proving to have crossover appeal. At a recent R.F.M. concert in Gaza City, teenage boys with their oversized Tupac T-shirts danced next to reserved groups of women and girls in traditional Islamic headscarves and conservative dresses.
One mother who came to chaperone her daughter said she was initially skeptical, but she warmed up to the music after listening to R.F.M.'s message.
Like DAM, R.F.M. focuses much of its music on the Israeli occupation. But the group also presents a scathing social critique of Palestinians who turn a blind eye to the problems surrounding them.
In perhaps its most controversial song, "Watch Your Back, Arabs," R.F.M. lashes out at Jews and Arabs.
"Where are the Arab people?
Where is the Arab blood?
Where is the Arab anger?
Where, where and where ...
Driving the coupe car
Smoking the cigar
Voting for the super star "American Idol"
And forgetting about our martyrs, wounded, prisoners. ... Have you heard the last news!?"
While many young Palestinians are embracing hip-hop, not everyone in the Gaza Strip sees rap as a welcome addition.
A recent rally to celebrate the end of Israeli military rule in the Gaza Strip, held amid the rubble of Israel's largest settlement, came to an abrupt end when supporters of the Islamic group Hamas stoned a young rap group on the stage.
"People got more religious during this uprising and they prefer to listen to Hamas songs," said Mohammed al Fara, one of the members of P.R. "They didn't like the music. Hamas guys were mostly upset because a lot of girls were excited about us and they were waving their hands as we sang."
It may take more time for hip-hop to gain broad acceptance in the conservative parts of the Gaza Strip. But it's gaining respectability and visibility around the world.
Detroit-based filmmaker Jackie Salloum is in the final stages of producing "SlingShot Hip Hop," a film she hopes to release next year that documents the rise of Palestinian rap.
"It's one of the most positive things I've seen over there," Salloum said in a telephone interview from Detroit. "Hip-hop is probably the most popular form of music around the world, and even if people aren't into the Palestinian struggle and the occupation itself, people are curious about Palestinian hip-hop."
Salloum sees the young rappers as new messengers.
"If our message about the occupation can't be carried across the world, maybe these artists can do it," she said.
To see and hear Palestinian hip-hop:
_ www.slingshothiphop.com has the trailer for a documentary in progress, as well as links to the artists.
_ www.dam3rap.com/ is the DAM Web site with the "Who's the Terrorist" song
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-HIPHOP
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