Friday, July 8, 2011

Interview with Palestinian Hip Hop artist Sabreena Da Witch

Last week I was fortunate enough to interview Sabreena Da Witch (, the first lady of Palestinian Hip Hop. Sabreena, grew up in the Israeli town of Lydda (Lod), the site of one of the largest mass expulsions of Palestinian civilians in the Israeli 1948 Israeli war of independence. As a Palestinian woman with Israeli citizenship growing up in an ethnically mixed town she grew up with a unique perspective on a familiar conflict.

 Some of her early work was done with fellow Lydda residents DAM (a name that can stand for “Da Arab MCs”, the Hebrew word for Blood, and the Arabic word for eternity) with clear influences from the “Nation Conscious” hip hop of the early 1990’s (evident in their video “Born Here”)

This and other work brought her and her associates to the attention of filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum who was shooting a documentary about Palestinian Hip Hop in Israel and the occupied territories. The film, Slingshot Hip Hop, was highly acclaimed, received multiple awards and was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. It also gave Sabreena her first major international exposure.

At the same time Sabreena was clashing with her family over her ambitions as a performer and artist - shortly after the film finished shooting she moved to the US, settling in Baltimore Maryland.

Ixak: You’re originally from the Palestinian town of Lydda, but after Slingshot Hip-hop came out you moved to Baltimore. What brought you here?

Sabreena: There were many reasons that led to my immigration in 2007. The final decision was made when I met my partner Ben in Jerusalem. Ben is from Baltimore and we chose Baltimore -his hometown- as our first base city. I have been living here since then and there is no other city in the states I would rather live in. Baltimore is perfect for me , I love it.

I: Have you gone back home since then?

S: No, unfortunately I did not get the chance to visit home yet.

I: How do you stay connected to the hip-hop scene there?

S: I stay connected with the hip-hop scene, activists and artists in Palestine mostly by following online news and speaking to friends. I try to keep up with everything but the Hip-hop scene in the middle east is growing so fast, I doubt that I have the whole progress updated in my knowledge system.

Many rappers and R&B artists in Palestine get in touch with me through e mail. I trade cds with many of them. Sometimes we collaborate on projects or debate life. There are many talented people out there.

I: As a female performer in a male-dominated scene, coming from a culture that is strongly patriarchal, that is itself subordinate to a government that has little regard for your culture and ethnicity puts you under something of a triple-whammy of disadvantage. You’re in a rather unenviable position. Where do you look for inspiration?

S: I am constantly inspired by people, official artists and not. At times I am inspired by some of the men from my society, inspired by some Israeli people and whomever might be considered “on the other side” of my point of view. I draw inspiration from the joy and struggle of the oppressed and the ignorance and humanity of the oppressor.

I: The last six months have seen unprecedented upheaval across the Arabic speaking world, from Morocco all the way to Oman, and it’s happened differently in every country, but with the exception of the two border-crossings/shootings in the Golan, there really hasn’t been clear manifestation of the Arab Spring in the Palestinian sphere, either in Israel or in the occupied territories (except maybe the Hamas/Fateh unification talks, which seem to be more of an effort to protect their own weakening power structures).

Why haven't we seen stronger signs of the Arab spring in Palestine? Do you think this is this tied to a desire to wait until the issue of statehood comes up before the UN? Are people waiting for a catalytic event? Is there some other reason why we aren’t seeing it? Is it there but being overshadowed by the surrounding events?

S: I think it’s all the things you said, all together. combined.

I believe that Palestinians have been uprising since 1948 and they never really stopped. furthermore I believe that the Palestinian issue and the activism around the crises has in part empowered and inspired many of the protesters in the Arab world and beyond. One of the many reasons Egyptians, Tunisians Syrians, Libyans and other protesters are out, is their disapproval of their countries relationship with Israel, the United States and other colonizing forces in the region.

As for why the Palestinian spring is not as strong as the others, it’s very hard to point at one reason, mostly because I haven’t been there in a long time. I can tell you however the different opinions I have been hearing from friends and colleagues.

Some friends of mine think that what’s happening in Libya and Syria is a result of lack of organization. People saw Egypt and Tunis and reacted without planning well for the coming. That could be the reason why some Palestinian activists are not ready. Maybe they are planning for a more organized and powerful resistance that will not cost them many casualties.

Other friends of mine say that some of the Palestinian people are starting to accept slowly that Palestine might never be free and the Israelis have too much support in the world to behave as it wishes. and that a third “Intifada” is not the right solution.

As far as I’m concerned we haven’t seen the end of the battle, the Arab spring might last for a while before fair and just reforms are made. I don’t see the Palestinian people giving up anytime soon, but they might consider not to engage in a third intifada for now. That might change. We will see.

I: Something that often comes up when Palestinian protests in Israel and the occupied territories are being discussed is the issue of nonviolence. People are quick to say things like “the Palestinians need to give up their support of terrorism and take up nonviolence” – completely ignoring the fact that there has been an active nonviolence movement there for decades (ignored by the media as well). Lately, however, it seems that the nonviolent protests are getting a bit more traction and a bit more visibility. Do you think this is the case?

S: Well yes and no. yes, because it’s true there have been more attention toward Palestinian nonviolent movements, and that I think is mainly a result of the modern technology. Every event now is on live broadcast, people can see for themselves if it’s violent or not. you don’t need reporters for everything these day. Social networks now provide first hand testimony which helps to develop faster changes in the point of view of the public opinion.

No, because I believe that the public opinion is always somewhere in the middle about Palestine and the movement associated with it. It might take a decade before more people will tell you Palestinians are not terrorists. And that’s not because of ignorance or apathy, it’s simply a matter of convenience. To fit in.

I: Looking at the various revolutionary movements that are becoming active through the arab-speaking world, particularly during these past six months, the youth-dominated nature of the protests is one of the most immediately evident characteristics. Certainly there are people of all ages, but the heavy lifting is being done by people in their twenties, (and teens and thirties). People are continually talking about this from a political perspective –This obsession with politics ignores the fact that the “youth bubble” is going to shape the Middle East for the next several decades – what do you see in the future? What does the next generation look like in the Middle East?

S: I am not good at predicting the future. But I’m generally a believer of balance. Where there will be good results there will be bad and vice versa.

I’m hoping and praying to hear good news.

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