Music in Conflict Areas: Protest Rap in Kashmir and Palestine
By Najrin Islam
Music has traditionally been received as an art form that carries with it the capacity to stir emotions. It is precisely this quality that renders music vulnerable to censorial complaints from self-proclaimed guardians of the ‘culture’ of a community who attempt, from their position of influence, to regulate its content and by extension, control that community. I discuss here this phenomenon in the context of two such societies – Palestine and Kashmir, which, owing to their status as conflict zones (as many others in the contemporary global moment), are under perpetual institutional surveillance on constant lookout for potentially condemnatory works of art and literature: ‘condemnatory’ to the hegemonic narratives that function to discursively nullify the minority cultures in question. The link between these two conflict zones is the use of hip-hop and rap by local musicians to counter the official discourses about the conditions of their region by focusing on local narratives of struggle and survival. In both cases, it is the youth that has made use of this form of music as an oppositional rhetoric for a project of self-assertion. This has opened up doors to discussions about the formal politics of hip-hop and rap, and how they lend themselves to such rhetoric. Although a number of conflict zones makes use of music as a form of protest, I focus here specifically on these two areas not only because of the long history of territorial dispute that they share, but also because a new cultural and political geography of Kashmir and Palestine has emerged owing to the production and dissemination of this audio-visual material on the digital platform. The existence of these conflict zones in the collective imagination is consolidated therefore through digital channels for the non-resident where state narratives are fractured in favour of intimate narratives of torture drawn from memory and experience.
The digital platform for the people belonging to the conflict areas in question has become a conduit for attempts to dismantle the “oppressive identity-producing apparatus of the (modern) nation-state” (Safieh 72) and open up spaces for new and open-ended notions of belonging. The notion of the “self” can now be refashioned away from hegemonic conceptions of the same, thereby creating an alternative notion of power. While such an idea of representation also carries the risk of undermining the micro differences in culture within that area, it nevertheless counts as an attempt to draw on collective memories of a geography that has been systematically neglected by hegemonic discourses. Case in point: Kashmir. Kashmir has historically been denied the right to self-determination, the conflict generally framed as “an intractable territorial dispute between two belligerent neighbour(ing)” (Behera 83) countries. Such a simplistic explanation detracts from the contextual politics of the region as well as the daily struggles faced by its local residents (including curtailment of mobility), focusing instead, and exclusively, on the uprisings for freedom in Kashmir as channeled by extremist forces. This is an institutional, exclusivist account of the Kashmir conflict that allows little or no space for local accounts of dissent. This space is now being carved out by contemporary rappers like Roushan Ilahi (who goes by the stage-name, MC Kash), who draw on the traditionally lowbrow musical idioms of hip-hop and rap to create a language easily communicable to a mass audience. In the music video titled Like a Sufi, MC Kash draws on traditional iconographic images of Kashmir (evoked by the staple metonyms of the Dal Lake and picturesque snow-covered mountains, for instance) to counter them with the lived reality of its constituent people, which is revealed in the content of his lyrics. In Rebel Republik, he takes a more confrontational stance and sets the music video directly against the pervasive geographical dilapidation of the region. Another video in the mould of the latter, titled No Justice, No Peace has been removed from YouTube owing to what was perceived as overtly contentious lyrics (they were local slogans placing an undisguised demand for Kashmir’s right to self-determination separate from the Indian nation-state). This directly points to the workings of censorship codes. While live performances are sometimes enabled through flows of capital from private sponsors, the censorship exercised by local authorities cuts through online channels, with the digital realm thus increasingly coming under the ambit of authoritative surveillance. The consequence of such patriarchal denial of the narrative of the “other” takes the shape of transnational flows of capital, wherein these local artists perform across borders in an attempt to transform the discursive silence of their community through the “speech art” (Whitely 10) of language and rhythm, thus disseminating this emerging discourse across boundaries. This global diffusion is aided by the affirmative reception of the forms of hip-hop and rap by the youth market, which further attests to music’s capacity for resonating with diverse experiences of marginalization across cultural contexts.
In a similar fashion, hip-hop in Palestine attempts to reclaim the history of a people whose very existence has been neglected and subsequently denied, the conflict dating back to the early 1900s and gaining traction in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel. Palestinian hip-hop is aimed at reclaiming collective identity, their lyrics reflecting a temporal longing for a perfect past and a utopian future – an imagined ‘elsewhere’ (Whiteley 27) constructed out of a dialectic of rage and hope. The pioneer of hip-hop in Palestine is the band, DAM, founded by the Nafar Brothers in the late 1990s after the Second Intafada/uprising of the Palestinians against Israel. So the hip-hop scene in Palestine arose with the concomitant collapse of the internationally-attempted peace treaties. As a result, a strong code of conduct (in the face of the ongoing hostilities) was in place, which allowed the censors full authority to regulate/ban live performances by the band. These censors were mostly militant Islamists, especially those associated with Hamas, who viewed hip-hop as a morally degenerate culture owing to the attitude it impressed on the body of the performer. The tracks thus proliferated on online platforms, an example of which would be the DAM music video, Born Here, where scenes from documentary footage of protest events have been reconstructed and used as backdrop to the lyrics, which overtly condemn the creation of Israel. This further points to the role of “postmemory” (Hirsch 103) wherein generations twice or thrice removed from the actual trauma of the dispossession are mobilized enough to take up the cause through the immediately available means of graffiti, language and rhythm. This transmission of memory is enabled by its repetitive realization through the continuous lived experience of institutional oppression resulting from the irresolvable nature of the conflict. Thus, poetry (with or without rhyme) becomes one of the most relevant and relatable institutions of transmission with the victim/survivor gaining discursive agency and finding a channel to respond to their immediate context. The resulting body of literature/songs thus comes to constitute “a repertoire of embodied knowledge absent from the historical archive” (Hirsch 105).
Originally an African-American form, rap and hip-hop were a response to the impoverished conditions faced by poor black people in the 1970s and 80s following the creation of the Cross-Bronx Express in New York City. Street gangs emerged and with them, a new performative vocabulary that found an expressway through the spoken word with its unique vocal inflection and occasional break-beat rhythm. This form, as it kept evolving, spread through digital aural networks and was consequently appropriated by different subcultures to express personal angst. Commonly seen as a devalued genre with the potential to corrode young and impressionable minds, rap manifested its deviant tendencies in conflict areas by enabling multiple discourses of dissent. It is ironic how hip-hop, which is essentially a cultural phenomenon with its roots in the United States, has been appropriated by the conflict areas in question, and subsequently reconciled with the Palestinian cause (given that their present conditions are a result of political maneuvers of the American political authority) as well as Kashmiri sub-nationalism. In the latter case, the phenomenon could be read as a subversion of the colonial hegemony of the English language in the South Asian community, creating an oral culture of resistance against the immediate hegemony of the Indian nation-state. However, it may be argued that the form of hip-hop (and rap), which comes essentially from ‘black culture’, has become, owing to its large-scale dissemination, a de-contextualized art form, thereby having translated into a ‘global culture’, open to appropriation in varied socio-cultural contexts. In both Kashmir and Palestine, the protest rap carries influences local to each region. Kashmiri hip-hop tracks, for instance, would incorporate lyrics in the regional language, thereby producing a cultural amalgamation on the level of the word, sound and image. While the rap would carry a rhetoric of oppression, the content of the folk lyrics would generally invoke the picture of a ‘lost paradise’, the resulting contrast functioning to push the picture of ‘a Kashmir no more’. This is a case of a “distinctive musical syncretism” (Whiteley 27) that serves to push the boundaries of rap to accommodate a culturally-specific counter-narrative of self-preservation. Another way of interpreting this narrative as countering its official counterparts would be to look at how this music serves to individualize the artist in terms of their symbolic power (to create) and thus, dissolve the hardened label of the “terrorist” – the label being, in any case, a parochial public construction for the undifferentiated Kashmiri.
In both the regions under discussion, geography provides the music with the experiential setting for its production. The tracks are accompanied by videos; space is narrativized in accordance with the lyrics, with the audio-visual semiotics either confronting the viewer with documentary/constructed footage of the violence in question, or presenting the conflict zone as a haven, in which case, its dissonance with the lyrics puts across the intended picture of the conflict. Just as the nationalist rhetoric relies on a specific pool of adjectives to produce a restrictive set of ideological values in the service of aggrandizing the ruling ethnic group, so do these subcultures make use of performative tools (both linguistic and visual) to represent the history and conditions of a historically dispossessed people. Thus, rap – a radical variant of the national anthem – creates its own listening communities on its dissemination: a phenomenon that consequently transgresses both place and time. It makes use of its ability to communicate easily through confrontational lyrics sung in catchy break-beat to create a listening public that otherwise may not engage in formal discourse to empathize with the marginalized; the base of reception is thus widened through unfiltered accessibility. In the process, resistance vernaculars indigenous to the region/context get appropriated by an audience who are otherwise at a wide remove (historically as well as geographically) from the experience in question. While this may be read as dishonest to the experiences of the afflicted, rap nevertheless effectively functions to mobilize a geographically and politically vast and diverse urban generation through rhythm and rhyme. With the experiences of the marginalized resonating across cultural contexts, rap also attests to the “crossover appeal” of its medium (Tanner 697).
Thus, there exists an intricate relationship between music and society wherein both are mutually inclusive, in that they rise out of each other’s contexts. Just as the region and its socio-political as well as geographical dynamics determine the inflections of its music, so does the music reflect in its character the cultural context from which it rises. In fact, as Safieh points out, the applause that Palestinian hip-hop artists receive at pro-Palestine demonstrations dwarfs the applause to the speeches delivered by political orators/activists, thus pointing to the popularity (and symbolic reach) of this art form (80). The role of the artist here becomes that of a mediator where the form of music (whether borrowed or indigenous) becomes a way to author an alternative space in verbal discourses of the marginalized. So, rhythm and word acquire the qualities of resistance in acting as a cathartic medium for a collective experience of frustration, as the music manifests through a rhizomatic alliance of dissenting voices.
Behera, Navnita Chadha. “Reframing the Conflict”, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3/4, A TANGLED WEB: Jammu & Kashmir (WINTER 2010 – SPRING 2011), pp. 80-89.
Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory”, Poetics Today, Spring 2008, pp. 103-128.
Safieh, Randa. “Identity, Diaspora, and Resistance in Palestinian Hip- Hop”, Palestinian Music and Song: Expression and Resistance since 1900, ed. Mosli Kannaneh, Stig-Magnus Thorsen, Heather Bursheh and David A. McDonald, Indiana University Press, pp.69-81.
Tanner, Juian. “Listening to Rap: Cultures of Crime, Cultures of Resistance”, Social Forces, Vol. 88, No. 2 (December 2009) ed. Mark Ashbridge and Scot Wortley, Oxford University Press, pp.693-722.
Whiteley, Sheila. Stan. Music, Space and Place: Popular Music and Cultural Identity. Ed. Andy Bennett and Stan Hawkins, Ashgate Publications 2004.
Working as an independent researcher, Najrin Islam graduated with a Master of Arts degree from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India. A theatre actor and playwright, she takes active interest in Cinema, Theatre, and Performance Studies. She presented her most recent research paper on Post-Colonial Mutations in Shakespearean Texts: Questions of Linguistic Specificity and Universality at the International biennale conference, ‘Shakespeare, Traffics, Tropics’, organised by the Asian Shakespeare Association (ASA) at the University of Philippines (UP), Diliman in May, 2018.
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