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Folk music is the language of the masses in most countries, and history has shown that the power of song can shape a nation’s future. It is unsurprising for resistance and liberation struggles to inspire folk music often, whose popularity has played a critical role in fostering local and international solidarity. Most reflective of this power folk music has is the iconic Italian song “Bella Ciao,” a 19th-century anti-fascist folk song that has become the anthem of liberation movements globally. Among those who have found inspiration in “Bella Ciao” are the Palestinians, who have lived under Israel’s apartheid state and the illegal military occupation of their remaining territories since 1948.

Palestine has a long history of resistance through folk music, and this tradition continues to thrive today. One of the most significant recent examples of Palestinian folk music’s power is the victory of Mohammad Assaf in the second season of Arab Idol in 2013. Assaf’s win was a musical triumph and a cultural milestone for Palestine, which has been denied statehood and self-determination for over seven decades. Assaf’s success showed the world that despite many challenges Palestinians face, they can still celebrate their culture and heritage. 

Assaf has since become a symbol of Palestinian resistance and pride, using his music to raise awareness about the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice. His song “Ya Halali Ya Mali” quickly became a hit, showcasing the beauty and resilience of Palestinian folk music to a global audience. Through Assaf’s success and the ongoing popularity of Palestinian folk music, a rich and vibrant tradition of resistance and resilience continues to thrive in Palestine, inspiring and uniting people in their fight for freedom and justice. Palestine itself has a storied history of resistance through folk music, a tradition with the potential to create global solidarity for Palestinian resistance similar to “Bella Ciao.” 

In recent years, there has also been a growing interest in Palestinian cultural heritage as a form of resistance; Palestinian folk music has become a powerful tool for mobilizing global solidarity for the Palestinian cause. Many Palestinian hip-hop artists incorporate traditional Palestinian songs into their work to promote a national Palestinian-Arab identity, which has become a means of achieving asabiyyah, or group cohesion and solidarity. Palestinian hip-hop artists have been able to use their songs to connect with their audience and raise awareness about the Palestinian struggle. They have also created a space for dialogue and exchange, bringing together diverse communities within and beyond Palestine. Through their songs, they have challenged the dominant narrative of the Israeli occupation and presented their own, emphasizing the importance of Palestinian identity, heritage, and self-determination.

The resurgence of Palestinian hip-hop is not only a cultural phenomenon but also a political one. It reflects the new wave of resistance that is taking place in Palestine and beyond, as people are increasingly using various forms of resistance to challenge oppressive systems and demand justice. Hip-hop has become a powerful medium for this resistance, as it provides a platform for people to express their experiences and struggles in a way that is accessible and relatable to many. In this sense, the resurgence of Palestinian hip-hop is a testament to the resilience and creativity of the Palestinian people, who continue to resist the odds. 

The History of Palestinian Folk Music

Palestinian folk music has a long and rich history that dates back centuries. It reflects Palestine’s cultural and political landscape, and various historical, social, and political factors have shaped its development. One of the earliest forms of Palestinian folk music is the zajal, a type of oral poetry that originated in the 10th century. Zajal was often performed at weddings, festivals, and other social events, and it became an important part of Palestinian cultural identity. Over time, zajal evolved into other forms of folk music, including the dabke, a traditional Palestinian dance that is still popular today. During the Ottoman Empire, Palestinian folk music underwent significant changes. The Ottomans encouraged the development of Arabic music, and as a result, Palestinian musicians could experiment with new instruments and musical styles. This period saw the rise of maqam music, a classical Arabic style characterized by complex melodies and rhythms.

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In the early 20th century, Palestinian folk music began to be influenced by Western music. The phenomenon of Palestinian folk music was partly due to the growing popularity of Western music in Palestine and the influence of Palestinian musicians who had studied in Europe. As a result, Palestinian folk music began to incorporate Western instruments, such as the piano and violin, and Western musical styles, such as jazz and classical music. The Nakba of 1948, which saw the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, profoundly impacted Palestinian folk music. Many Palestinian musicians were forced to flee their homes, leaving their instruments and music behind. The actions of IDF soldiers and oppressive Israeli forces, deeply involved in the ethnic cleansing and expulsion, were primarily responsible for this forced displacement and the resulting loss of Palestinian musical expression.

As a result, Palestinian folk music became a means of preserving Palestinian cultural identity and heritage in the face of displacement and occupation. Despite the challenges posed by the Nakba and subsequent decades of occupation, Palestinian folk music has continued to evolve and flourish. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Palestinian folk music, both within Palestine and among the Palestinian diaspora. One reason for this resurgence is the growing recognition of Palestinian cultural heritage as a form of resistance. Palestinian folk music has always expressed resistance to occupation and oppression, and in recent years it has become a powerful tool for mobilizing global solidarity for the Palestinian cause.

Palestinian Hip-Hop and Identity

The longing and nostalgia often presented in Palestinian music speak to the experiences of the Palestinian diaspora, who have endured over 70 years of being denied the right to return to their homeland by Israeli authorities for over 70 years. Palestinian folk music helps Palestinians connect with their homeland and preserve their cultural identity in the face of displacement and occupation. Another reason for the resurgence of Palestinian folk music is the emergence of new Palestinian artists incorporating traditional folk music into their work. Artists like DAM and Tamer Nafar have gained international recognition for their fusion of hip-hop and traditional folk music. Their work has helped bring Palestinian folk music to a new generation of listeners. 

Despite centuries of occupation, displacement, and oppression, Palestinian folk music has continued to evolve and flourish. Its evolution reflects Palestine’s complex and varied history, and its resurgence today speaks to the ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation and self-determination. As Palestinian folk music continues to inspire and unite people in their fight for freedom and justice, it remains an enduring symbol of Palestinian resilience and resistance.

Palestinian hip-hop is crucial in creating, constructing, and maintaining a national Palestinian-Arab identity. This identity has become a means of achieving asabiya, or group belonging, as described by the medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. In their songs, Palestinian rappers often reject their Israeli citizenship and proclaim their Palestinian and Arab identity, drawing inspiration from the first three lines of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Sajil Ana Arabi” (“Record I Am Arab”). Many songs incorporate this message, including “Saydat al-Masrah” (“Ladies of the Theatre”), produced by Jawdat Shoublaq’s first group PAR (Palestinian Army Rappers). 

The Arab hip-hop identity finds embodiment in the cartoon character Handala, a Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali created in 1969. Handala, a caricature of a ten-year-old Palestinian boy with his hands behind his back, symbolizes the connection between hip-hop and a national Palestinian-Arab identity. Who chooses Handala to represent this identity? What meaning lies behind this choice? These questions delve into the ideological notions that are intertwined with Palestinian rap lyrics. These lyrics serve to promote a shared history and ideology, resistance against a hostile entity, and a profound attachment to the homeland. Additionally, Palestinian rap songs place great emphasis on education, as Palestinian children living in occupied territories often receive an Israeli education that presents a sanitized view of history aimed at eroding their Palestinian identity.

The Palestinian hip-hop scene has been on the rise in recent years — many successful rap artists are emerging from Lod and its nearby sister town, Ramlah. Hip-hop and rap have become powerful tools for Palestinian resistance in recent years, with artists such as DAM and Tamer Nafar gaining international recognition for their fusion of hip-hop and traditional Palestinian music. Through their songs, these artists can express the struggles and hopes of the Palestinian people and bring attention to the ongoing oppression and injustice Palestinians face under Israeli occupation. The fusion of hip-hop and traditional Palestinian music has been a way for Palestinian artists to bridge the gap between generations, creating a unique sound that speaks to both traditional and modern Palestinian experiences. They have described Palestinian hip-hop as a form of cultural resistance, reflecting the struggles of Palestinians and their determination to resist oppression and fight for their rights.

Music As Resistance

DAM was formed in the late 1990s in the Palestinian city of Lod, and its music often addresses issues such as Israeli occupation, discrimination, and the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. In their song “Who’s the Terrorist?”, they challenge the portrayal of Palestinians as terrorists, asking, “Who’s the terrorist? I’m the terrorist? How am I the terrorist when you’ve taken my land?” Nafar’s music often reflects on his experiences growing up in Palestine and the challenges Palestinians faced under Israeli occupation. In his song “Free,” he calls for releasing Palestinian political prisoners, including his brother, whom Israel has imprisoned for over a decade. Through their songs, Palestinian hip-hop artists can reclaim their agency to share their personal stories and experiences with a global audience, drawing attention to the ongoing struggles of Palestinians and the need for international solidarity in their fight for freedom and justice. 

As Nafar stated in an interview with The Guardian, “Music is a very strong tool to spread messages. It’s not just entertainment; it’s a way of telling stories.” Palestinian hip-hop and rap are not just a form of cultural expression but also a tool for resistance and activism. By blending traditional Palestinian music with contemporary hip-hop, these artists can create a unique sound that reflects the struggles and hopes of the Palestinian people. Their songs serve as a call to action for people worldwide to stand in solidarity with Palestinians in their fight for freedom and justice. 

As Palestinian hip-hop and rap continue to gain popularity and recognition on the international stage, they are helping to bring Palestinian folk music to a new generation of listeners. These artists are preserving and promoting Palestinian culture and history through their songs while also advocating for the rights of their people. Their work is a testament to the resilience and creativity of the Palestinian people and a powerful reminder that music can be a tool for resistance and social change. As Tamer Nafar said, “If there’s anything that’s going to change the world, it’s going to be art.”

To Be Continued in Part II

Edited by Majeed Malhas

Sude Guvendik

Sude spent her formative years in Western Africa, primarily in Ghana and Turkey, before relocating to Vancouver to pursue her Bachelor's degree in International Relations, Legal Studies, and History at...