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Youth Solidarity Network

By: 
Nora Barrows-Friedman
Date Published: 
January 01, 2004

Sixteen year-old Amani leans forward into the microphone, fingers tucking black hair behind her ears as she closes her eyes and knocks her head to a beat that was produced in Detroit, a world away. With a breathy, melodic voice, Amani begins her flow, filling the mic with her rapid-fire Arabic which pops against the crisp drum sequence. On the other side of the sound booth sit international activist-musicians and Palestinian youth who crowd the computer, press the record button, turn up the speakers, and watch as digital wave-forms jump across the screen.

Just hours earlier, before daybreak, Israeli jeeps and armored personnel carriers swarmed the summer-sweaty alleyways beneath the recording booth windows. Across the valley, cement mixers poured foundations in expanding illegal settlement colonies. And to the south, Amani’s father, Hossam Khader, woke up again inside Bir el Sabi’aa prison, guilty of being Palestinian, silenced because of his tireless advocacy for refugee rights.

“At first, I didn’t like the way [hip hop] sounded. I thought it was just for people who couldn’t sing,” laughs Amani. “But after I heard about the history of hip hop, and working with Ilana [Weaver, aka Invincible, an established MC from Detroit], I felt that this music is special. You can tell a story many different ways. When I talk about my father’s situation, how he has been in prison for four years, I used to feel just sad. But with this hip hop skill, I can make everyone know him and know my story. I’m going to tell my friends about hip hop and maybe we’ll start a group in my camp.”

Amani grew up in Balata refugee camp, the largest camp in the occupied West Bank. Almost every day, Israeli military death squads invade Balata, tear through the narrow streets with armored vehicles, kidnap civilians and resistance fighters and open fire. There are regular home demolitions and ongoing brutal attacks. Amani says there are few outlets for her and her friends to express themselves and communicate their struggle to the outside world.

That’s where hip hop and digital media come into the frame, according to the vision of the US-Palestine Youth Solidarity Network (YSN), a new collaboration of Palestinian and US-based activist organizations facilitating youth-centered cultural skills sharing as a vehicle for global resistance and community empowerment.

Sharing experiences

YSN has embarked on a wide-ranging mission to “raise awareness about the struggle in Palestine by connecting it to the struggles of oppressed communities in the US,” says Ora Wise, a Brooklyn-based educator and organizer with PEP (the Palestine/Israel Education Project), one of the groups coordinating YSN. “Through this project, we [help] facilitate the exchange of experiences of shared oppression and strategies of resistance between Palestinians and communities in the US.”

In August 2007, a group of US-based YSN members partnered with community leaders at the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh refugee camp and the Lajee Center in Aida refugee camp, both near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, to continue a media project series that began in January 2007. For approximately three weeks, US and Palestinian facilitators brought together around 25 youth from several areas of the West Bank to explore hip-hop, digital storytelling, and web design while fostering cultural exchange and creative strategies of solidarity.

When she’s not onstage, educating and inspiring the masses through explicitly political hip hop, Ilana Weaver works with two community initiatives in Detroit. She works with the youth-led and community-centered Live Arts Media Project (LAMP), and Detroit Summer, a multi-racial, inter-generational collective which uses creativity, media art projects and critical thinking to confront community problems.

Weaver and fellow Detroit Summer/LAMP members Joe Namy and Mariana Castaneda mentor young MCs, poets, writers and artists and, when talking to friends in the hip hop community about the YSN project in Palestine, were flooded with donations of breakbeats, microphones and recording equipment which they packed inside their suitcases.

Weaver says hip hop can be a global instrument of solidarity. “One thing in particular that really stood out was when the young people in Palestine had a chance to listen to Detroit youth rapping. And when they heard a particular song off the LAMP CD [that we made in Detroit and brought to Palestine], none of them had heard of the kinds of police attacks and criminalization of youth that happens inside oppressed communities and communities of color in the US. What surprised the Palestinian kids was that they could relate to that.”

New media

Namy, a Lebanese-American multimedia activist, facilitated a website, digital art and video blogging workshop with Rania Jawad, a New York-based filmmaker and member of PEP. Namy described his experience, “We talked [with the youth] about using the internet as a tool for getting their voices heard around the world...What amazed me most was their understanding of politics and the situation. I had never come across youth with so much awareness. I don’t know if you could find a middle schooler here in the US who could engage in serious conversations about solidarity, and teach you about politics and issues of oppression. They were so on point”

With guidance from the members of DAM, Palestine’s #1 hip hop group from the ghettos of Lydd, a town inside Palestine ‘48 (Israel), and Los Angeles-based filmmaker and MC Nizar Wattad, a Palestinian-American member of The Philistines and The Arab Summit, the Palestinian youth polished their lyrics and perfected their flows. But Suhell Nafar of DAM says that it was the youth who inspired the facilitators. “The lyrics and the stories were real, they came from the heart, and the kids inspired everyone who worked with them, whether we were from Palestine or the US.”

Rania Jawad co-facilitated the digital storytelling workshop at Lajee center with Dahna Abourahme, another member of PEP. “We began by introducing radio pieces created by Brooklyn youth who participated in a semester-long course PEP taught at Bushwick Community High School called “Slingshot Hip Hop: Culture and Resistance from Brooklyn to Palestine.” I recall one of the pieces that was written as a direct address to the Palestinian youth, which made a comparison between Palestinian expulsion from their land to the experience of Native Americans in the US. Many of the Palestinian youth in the workshop had not heard this before. Through sharing these voices, we were able not only to share an experience of solidarity from one youth to the other but to break some of the isolation felt by Palestinians.”

Lasting solidarity

Josie Shields-Stromsness of the Middle East Children’s Alliance and an organizing member of YSN says that it’s important that activists keep coming to Palestine to show partnering collectives that “we are serious; since so many foreigners come once, talk big, and then disappear...We have to make sure that we are leaving the technology and the knowledge behind so they can adapt and create their own workshops that can be more congruous to the culture, timeline, and interests than anyone coming in for a few weeks can be.”

A few days after the YSN workshop ended, Amani went to visit her father in prison—an 18-hour journey from Balata camp (near Nablus) through a string of checkpoints, to the southern West Bank and into ‘48, across the so-called Green Line to the prison. With her younger brother and sister in tow (Amani’s mother is prohibited by the Israeli occupation administration from visiting her husband), they waited in line for hours to cross the checkpoints, humiliated and harassed by Israeli occupation soldiers who interrogated and strip-searched them and checked their permission papers over and over. After several hours of waiting inside the prison itself, Amani’s father was led out in handcuffs to meet his children, though they were still separated by a pane of glass.

Amani rapped her song, a capella, to her father behind the glass. “When I sang him my song, he cried. I started to cry while I was singing. When I sang it to him, I forgot the situation around me and I was just happy singing. He felt every word of what I sang. He said I was a poet. I want to be a genetic engineer when I grow up. I want my father to be proud. I want to make Palestine proud. I don’t want to be an ordinary person. I want to be special.”

YSN organizers are currently looking forward to bringing First Nation youth from SNAG Magazine (Seventh Native American Generation)—a hip hop youth magazine based in the Bay Area—to Palestine during August 2008 to join with youth from the YSN Palestinian centers in a trip to visit their ancestral lands and villages of origin and documenting it, using their photos and journals to create digital stories when they return to their camps. A documentary film, digital stories, photos, and other media/art created will be the basis of a traveling exhibition that will be hosted by all of the Palestinian centers and the US-based organizations during the 60th anniversary year of the Palestinian Nakba.

For more information on the Youth Solidarity Network and the other organizations involved, please contact youthsolidarity(at)gmail.com and check out www.youthsolidarity.net.

About the Author
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a journalist, photographer and producer of Flashpoints, an investigative news magazine on Pacifica Radio. She travels frequently to Palestine to document the situation on the ground and can be reached at norabf AT gmail DOT com.