Hip Hop as Conflict Resolution

By Alexander Gelfand

Published September 08, 2006, issue of September 08, 2006.
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CORRECTION: In the print version of this story, the Palestinian group DAM was mistakenly identified. The members are from Lod, Israel.

If the only rap you’ve heard is of the gangsta variety, and the only MCs you recognize are those whose mug shots you’ve seen on television, you’re not likely to think of hip hop as a vehicle for conflict resolution. But think again. Because thanks to one intrepid, peace-loving DJ, the world is about to get its first hip-hop sulha.

The word sulha refers to a traditional Arab ritual used to resolve conflicts among aggrieved individuals, families and tribes. A mediator, known as a jaha, manages the affair, ensuring that victims are compensated; offenders express contrition, and everyone saves face. The deal is sealed with coffee and a ceremonial meal, and the results are considered binding and permanent.

In recent years, the concept has been adopted as both a metaphor and a model for achieving peace in the Middle East. The best-known example is the Sulha Peace Project, which holds an annual gathering called On the Way to Sulha at the Latrun Monastery outside Jerusalem. The event features forums for bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families, an interfaith prayer tent, music and storytelling sessions, and other vehicles for fostering dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, and between Muslims and Jews.

But these are difficult times for peace activists. Due to recent events in Lebanon, On the Way to Sulha 2006 has been postponed indefinitely, and other, smaller sulha initiatives have been canceled altogether. Which makes DJ Handler’s Hip-Hop Sulha, scheduled for September 13 at S.O.B.’s as part of The Oyhoo New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival, all the more exceptional.

Billed as an Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop showcase, the Hip-Hop Sulha is designed to bring Muslim, Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian rappers together onstage in order to foster unity and understanding. (Each act will first present its own set, with everyone joining forces for a combined effort at the end.) Proceeds from the concert will be donated to such organizations as Hand in Hand and Givat Haviva, which promote peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Handler had, in fact, conceived the idea of the Hip-Hop Sulha long before war broke out in southern Lebanon. “It’s just unfortunate that the timing’s perfect,” he told the Forward in an interview. And escalating tensions between Arabs and Jews, both in the Middle East and abroad, have made the event more controversial than he had originally intended. Dan Sieradski - aka Mobius of Jewschool, a DJ and concert promoter who has organized a series of events in Israel involving Israeli and Palestinian MCs and who introduced Handler to several of the rappers who will appear at the Sulha - was among the first to raise a red flag. “You know you’re going to have to have a lot of security for this,” he told a dismayed Handler. Others within the Jewish community have expressed reservations over holding the Sulha at this particular time, arguing that “it’s time to fight.” Handler, however, has no qualms about proceeding as planned. “I support Israel’s right to self-defense, but there are also people who are involved who are innocent, and that’s who the show is for,” he said. Moreover, he’s convinced that hip hop, with its dance-friendly grooves and its emphasis on lyric content, is particularly well suited to carry a message to an audience. Orthodox rapper Y-Love, who will appear at the sulha, is in agreement. “Hip hop has the propensity to drive dialogue between people,” he argued. This is in part because of the style’s origins: Developed by urban black kids who used it as a means to vent their frustrations and aspirations “as a downtrodden part of society,” it was taken up by suburban whites, for whom rap provided a window onto a world that they otherwise might never have known.

Collaborations between Palestinian and Israeli or Jewish rappers aren’t unknown - several of the participants in the Sulha, including the West Coast Palestinian MCs Ragtop and Omar Offendum, and the Israeli rapper Sagol 59, have worked on similarly mixed bills - but they’re hardly common, and not entirely for lack of trying. On his most recent visit to Israel, in February, Y-Love tried to collaborate with Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, based in the Israeli town of Lod. Getting the band to Jerusalem proved to be impossible, and Y-Love, who wears the uniform of an Orthodox Jew, was told in no uncertain terms that he ought not board the bus to the occupied territories. “Can I go to Ramallah?” he remembered asking someone. “Not dressed like that,” came the reply.

Like Handler, however, Y-Love is not ready to give up on the idea of seeking rapprochement between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. “Any interpersonal dialogue between Jews with a connection to Israel, and Muslims with a connection to Palestine, is a positive thing. If a mind can be changed, a life can be saved,” he said. Other participants share his careful optimism - an optimism that dares to hope for incremental increases in harmony and understanding rather than a wholesale, intercommunal lovefest. Asked about his goals for the sulha in an e-mail interview, Ragtop replied, “If we can get folks to understand that Palestinians are human beings who deserve the same rights as anyone else, that’ll be a start.” The Palestinian rapper Saz, meanwhile, who was recruited by Sagol 59, wrote: “Let’s be realistic: it’s not like we’re gonna bring worldwide peace. But I think it shows people that, although there are differences [between us], there is one thing that is in common for us, and this is hip hop. Like we are strangers, but we have one mother, and it’s called hip hop.” It might not be a negotiated settlement, but at least it’s a start.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York City.

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