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Middle East rappers escalate word wars

Until he starts to rap, you would hardly suspect the anger in Ibrehiem Ghoneem. He's 17 and looks like he's been pulled from a U.S. high school and transplanted into war-torn Gaza. A sharp-dressed kid, he carries himself with the absolute confidence of a rock star.

His hip-hop obsession fits around his schoolwork and his disapproving neighbors. Gaza is more conservative than the West Bank, and many frown on youngsters in unfamiliar fashions making what they consider to be un-Islamic Western music. For the most part, traditional Palestinian music is about love.

"Habibi means 'baby,' " Ghoneem explains. "Now listen to the radio for an hour. That is the word you hear the most. It's Habibi music, and it's really beautiful . . . but what we're doing with rap is completely different. This is about resistance. The violence never seems to change anything, so maybe people will listen to us this way."

His mellow voice hardens as he vents about the human toll from Israel's recent offensive in Gaza, much of which happened within a mile of his home — 1,300 Palestinians killed; 4,000 buildings destroyed and more than 21,000 damaged; 50,000 people left homeless and 400,000 without running water.

He remembers listening to a bootleg Eminem CD and liking the sound, but without understanding the words he didn't connect with the music.

Then, in 2006, he went to a local hip-hop concert and heard rap in Arabic for the first time. That night at home he started trying his own rhymes and practicing gangsta rap moves in front of his bedroom mirror. Now he fronts the band Lost Souls and dreams of being signed to a record label.

He wants to tour countries far outside the Israeli walls that confine the residents of Gaza. He'll wage jihad on stage. He will make people understand, then make them care.

But first he has geography homework and final exams.

Muhammad Mughrabi remembers being a little boy, walking with his father in the valley near his home, on an adventure to his favorite climbing tree. Today he starts along the same path. He is 22. Mirrored sunglasses reflect the desert around him. Slick new Nikes crunch pebbles and kick up dust. He reaches a two-story concrete wall that stretches to the horizon in both directions. He stops. Built after the second intifada, the wall separates his home in Shu'fat, West Bank, from the rest of Israel. He pulls a cigarette from a pack of Marlboro Reds and walks downhill, beside the graffiti. After a few minutes, he stops again and turns to stare into the concrete.

"Our tree is right here, just maybe 100 meters that way, on the Israeli side . . . so I can't have it anymore," he explains. "Israelis say this wall is going to bring peace for them, but I think it just increases the hate."

He feels humiliated at how he is treated by the Israeli soldiers and stunned by recent destruction in Gaza. He is angry enough to fight, but something in him believes in peace.

So he has chosen an unlikely weapon that is proliferating in the occupied territories: American-style hip-hop. He changed his name to B-Boy and founded the rap group G-Town.

"Hip-hop for me, as a rapper, is a way to resist. Instead of using guns and stones, maybe words are going to bring me a solution," he says. "Or maybe just make me feel better."

Rap in the occupied territories doesn't follow the formula. Its first goal is protest. Though it shares the rhythm, clothing, movement and style of its American forefathers, it doesn't share its commercialism. The artists say it's a product of their world. You rap what you know, and that kind of wealth just isn't their life. In the United States they say it's all about the Benjamins. Here it's about justice and change.

On the other side of the fence in Jerusalem, Khen Rotem, 40, a.k.a. Sagol 59, is billed as the Israeli Godfather of Hip-Hop.

"Jerusalem is a politically torn, sometimes violent, sometimes crazy, city. I would say it's a mad, crazy town with crazy people who do crazy things," he says.

"I had a friend called Benny Brewstein, he was my DJ, who died in a suicide bombing in Hebrew University. Everyone knows someone who got killed or injured, so I'm not going to do a body count. What's the use? You have to talk about what's happening right now. Move forward to find solutions."

He believes hip-hop is doing just that.

"With hip-hop you start a dialogue, Jews and Palestinians. You go to the root of the problem. You don't hide behind diplomacy or political talk . . . Obviously not everything is going to work out. We live in reality, but when you have real talk between real people you get to the root of the problem."

With his 13-year-old son, Tommy Rotem, doing beatbox, he raps it like this:

If you could push a magic button

and go back a generation,

to before smoke covered our eyes.

To fix our mistakes.

To walk the high wire and not fall.

To discover all you hold dear,

you bought on the cheap.

To be able to ask the one you loved

one more question.

To have the chance to be brave when it mattered and save their life.

To feel your borders closing in.

To hear the crickets at night

singing just for you.

Put your hand on your heart and swear you want to go back to simpler days.

Yes, it's madness. Life is out of control.

But you have to move forward.

You just have to stick to your path.

And know you can never look back.

On the Web

For video of these rappers to go magazine.tampabay.com.

Middle East rappers escalate word wars 03/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 9:31am]

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