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Passion, Politics ANDPOWER OF Shadia Mansour

On tour in the States, the London-born Palestinian First Lady of Arab Hip-Hop discusses her growth as an activist and artist By Janne Louise Andersen
Rolling Stone, September 2011 59

58 Rolling Stone, September 2011

had commitment and talent. Hes unconcerned about the potential criticism Mansours politics might bring to his label. She is passionate about her point of view. To tell artists what they should be rapping is not my call. For her part, Mansour cites her new label boss as a huge inspiration, from the way he thinks to the way he deals with youth. He helps take females out of the shadows of the male-dominated hiphop scene. Shes currently learning how to make beats with Juice, who is producing her debut album, scheduled to drop by the end of the year, and who has no doubt about Mansours potential. There is a huge void in hip-hop concerning female MCs who are socially conscious, he says. I wouldnt be doing this if I didnt believe in her. Mansour admits that anger drives a lot of her lyrics, particularly in her early work. But she has matured, she believes, since those days both as a woman and as an artist. Much of that is due to her experiences in the West Bank, where she first performed in 2008. Actually being in the Occupied Territories made her realize just how complex the situation is there, and made her opinions less black-and-white. I have let my emotions guide me in the past. I was pro- anything that was resisting Israel. I felt so much anger about what we knew was happening that I didnt look at the problem with a microscope, she admits. Today, she says, she is more selective and critical. The first time Mansour performed in front of Palestinian kids in the refugee camps in the West Bank she was overwhelmed with maternal feelings and patriotic emotion. She felt an urge to prove her loyalty to the cause. She says the experience made her somewhat overzealous in her songs celebrating Palestinian nationalism and praising its resistance movement. It was her collaborations with Mahmoud Jreri and brothers Tamer and Suhell Nafar of DAM, the Palestinian hip-hop group from Lod in Israel, that were instrumental in making her reconsider her hardcore stance on Palestinian nationalism. The band revealed the complexities of Palestinian politics and society to her. During the Israeli offensive on Gaza in 2008 Mansour asked the group to guest on her track Kolon 3endon Dababaat (They All Have Tanks) first produced by Sandhill with an outro by the Palestinian intellectual and literary critic Edward Said. Suhell was rapping that he supported neither Fatah or Hamas, she explains. That was important for me. Prior to that, Mansour had featured on Mahmoud Jreris 2007 track Badi Salam (I Want Peace), a call for resolution between Hamas and Fatah. Since then, she says, she has become more realistic in her lyrics. I am a member of the [Arab]

ou can take my falafel and hummus, but dont f***ing touch my keffiyeh, declares 26year-old British-Palestinian MC Shadia Mansour from a New York stage as she introduces her song, El Kofeyye 3arabeyye (The Keffiyeh Is Arab), written when she discovered that an American company had created a blue-and-white version of the iconic Arab scarf with stars of David on it. Then she starts rhyming. Arabic words emerge like a burst of machine-gun fire.
Mansour only became an MC by chance. But today shes regarded as one of the luminaries of the Arab hip-hop scene, a platform she has used to declare a musical intifada [uprising] against oppression be it the occupation of her peoples land, the repression of women, or conservative opposition to her music. Im like the keffiyeh/However you rock me/Wherever you leave me/I stay true to my origins/Palestinian, she raps from the stage. In response, numerous red-and-white and black-and-white checked scarves appear above the crowd at Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo, Brooklyn, where Mansour is performing. This is the first concert on a fundraising tour for the organization Existence is Resistance, which organizes hip-hop tours in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Mansour is part of a crew of MCs from the Arab diaspora performing both their own songs and collaborations with each other. This is how we wear the keffiyeh/The Arab keffiyeh, she sings. Her voice, so uncompromising and stern just a second ago, has switched to soft velvet. The audience is rapt. Every single man, woman and child that the Israeli government kills will give birth to another rapper/Because we are the new generation, Mansour shouts. The keffiyeh has become an important focus of Mansours image and her music, as it has for many Arab MCs. She received her first keffiyeh from her grandfather in Nazareth. Originally, it had purely personal, sentimental connotations for her. Now when I put it on, its like a statement. Its Arab, she says. Our image is still being distorted, and I am not going to allow that. The keffiyeh represents struggle now more than ever before, says Mansours friend Yassin Alsalman, the Iraqi-Canadian rapper who goes by the stage name The Narcicyst, with whom Mansour collaborated on the track Hamdulilah. (Praise God.) At first it represented nationalism, but for our generation it represents the oneness of nations. That explains the anger Mansour expresses in her lyrics: Now these dogs are starting to wear it as a trend No matter how they design it, no matter how they change its color 60 Rolling Stone, September 2011 The keffiyeh is Arab, and it will stay Arab The scarf, they want it Our intellect, they want it Our dignity, they want it Everything thats ours, they want it We wont be silent, we wont allow it It suits them to steal something that aint theirs and claim that it is. Its cultural appropriation, says Alsalman, of the current clamor for keffiyehs among non-Arabs. There is a thin line between showing respect to a culture and appropriating it because you assume it is cool or hot or chic. Both artists agree that wearing the scarf and singing about it is their way of reappropriating and reowning it. ith her fierce attacks on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Mansour is seen by some as an angry, anti-Israeli activist intent on radicalizing her audience. Others consider her a vital, socially conscious artist and a role model who can help empower youth. Among the latter group you can count Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, who is in the process of signing Mansour to his online label Slam Jamz. In 2010, he profiled her on, his hiphop portal for female MCs. Shadia is a groundbreaker, he says. The first time I heard her was when Johnny Juice [an original member of legendary hip-hop producers The Bomb Squad, famous for their work with Public Enemy] had her in the studio. It was very clear she

Protest Singer
As a child (1), Mansours parents took her along to political rallies, which she continues to attend as an adult (2). (3) In the studio with Lowkey, one of many MCs from the Arab diaspora with whom she has collaborated. (4) Onstage at the American University in Beirut in 2010.

diaspora, I am not living under occupation, she says. And if we are not aware of our own problems, then we are walking on hot coals. ts march, and for two weeks Mansour has been performing in universities, clubs and shisha cafs from the west coast to the east. Today is her day off. Tired but relaxed, she is sitting in a caf in lower Manhattan waiting for her sister so they can go to New Jersey and meet up with the local Palestinian community. We talk about her childhood. Mansours family are originally Christian Palestinians from Haifa and Nazareth, the largest Arab city inside Israel. But Mansour was born in London. I was really Arab, really Palestinian, when I was at home with my family, she says. And very lost when I was in school lost in terms of who I was, where I was from. I was kind of wild as a child. I had no patience for school, she says, sipping her coffee. Being black, white or Asian in a London school at that time was no big deal. But there was only a minimal Arab presence, and Mansour didnt really fit there either. I wasnt a part of that crowd, she

clockwise from top left: courtesy of shadia Mansour; laith majali (2); courtesy of shadia mansour

We are the generation that goes to the battlefield with weapons of creation. We communicate, debate and protest through art. Our weapons will never run out of ammunition.

says. They were the girls who were paying attention in class. Since all Mansour wanted was to be on stage and perform, she became a troublemaker, a distracting element in class, escaping to sing and act whenever she could. Which isnt to say she didnt get an education. I was always reading and listening, she says. Thats how I got to learn about the situation in Palestine and Israel, the politics behind it and the rest of the Arab region. Her parents and teachers tried to convince her to aim for a more conventional, stable future, but the fiery young Mansour wouldnt hear of it. She found a way to navigate between her own desires and those of her family. Mansours parents had taken her to protests and Palestinian cultural events since she was a baby, and when they realized that she had built a reputation for herself in Londons Palestinian community, by performing classical Arab protest songs wherever she could, they backed off. Eventually, Mansour went on to study performing arts in London, appearing in numerous plays and musicals. She made some concession to her parents too; after

graduating, she got her YMCA certificate to become a personal trainer a profession she has since used to finance her music career. But her thirst to perform, and for an audience, has always dominated. I wouldnt say I was spoiled, she says. But I got a lot of attention because I demanded it. I had a really bad temper when I was young. She smiles, revealing a hint of embarrassment. I still have. eople who have worked with Mansour know that temper and love of attention well. Lowkey, a 25 year-old Iraqi-British MC, is also touring the U.S. with Mansour (they perform his track Long Live Palestine together and have previously shared the bill on several tours in Israel and the Occupied Territories). He describes Mansour as passionate, headstrong, and a natural performer. Character traits that seem to run in her family. Her Palestinian relatives whom she got to know during her annual summer visits to Nazareth and Haifa include a host of writers, artists and political activists. Mansours eyes light up as she talks about this particular branch of her
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family tree. I have a lot of respect for them, she says. These are people who are artists and writers but at the same time very strong people. They know who they are. Her cousin, the actor, writer and director Juliano Mer-Khamis, in particular, played a major role in shaping Mansours life and opinions. The son of the late Saliba Khamis, the Palestinian Christian leader of the Israeli Communist Party and Arna Mer, a Jewish Israeli peace activist, actor and educator, Mer-Khamis founded the Freedom Theater in Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, where he taught the children of the camp about art, drama, writing and filmmaking, as well as computer skills. Mansour first met her cousin in 2008 when she performed in the Freedom Theater as part of her first tour of the West Bank. Are you the Shadia Mansour? he asked, as he recognized the girl he had only ever seen in family albums. Mer-Khamiss intensity, defiance, wit and social commitment had a major impact on Mansour. But their interaction was to be short-lived. On April 4th this year, in Jenin refugee camp, the 52-yearold Mer-Khamis was gunned down outside the Freedom Theater by a masked assassin. The motive behind the killing remains unclear, but Mer-Khamis, who identified himself as 100 per cent Palestinian and 100 per cent Jewish, had enemies on both sides of the conflict. While many Israelis regarded his work with the Palestinians as treason, plenty of conservative Palestinians wanted to put an end to MerKhamiss progressive influence on the culture of the camp. Whatever the reason, Mer-Khamiss assassination was a tragedy for many in Palestine and beyond. Shadia and her sister Nancy jumped on the first plane to attend his funeral, after which Shadia and students from the Freedom Theater headed straight to Ramallah to attend the second performance of Mer-Khamiss final play The Chairs, which premiered the day before his death. Both cast and audience wept as his lines were spoken: This is how I want to die and be remembered. Mer-Khamis described his efforts to resist the occupation through poetry, music, film and theater as a cultural intifada. One that could succeed where the two previous physical Palestinian uprisings had failed. Mansour has taken up his call, and terminology, and refers to her music as part of that struggle. We are the generation that goes to the battlefield with weapons of creation, she says. We communicate, debate and protest through art. This is why I refer to our activities as a musical intifada. Our weapons will never run out of ammunition because they are weapons of the soul. 62 Rolling Stone, September 2011 While her musical ear was shaped by Umm Kulthum, Fayrouz, Marcel Khalife, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Mohammad Abdel Wahab, the people who have shaped her politics include the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, political scientist and author Norman Finkelstein, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and journalists John Pilger and Robert Fisk. Hip-hop is our last weapon. If you are not facing guns, you will be facing artists armed with mics, says Mansour. She says she has only recently come to understand that alongside his fight for the liberation of Palestine, Mer-Khamis was trying to open closed minds around issues of gender and culture. She adds that Arab diaspora artists like herself, who are exposed to other cultures, have a particular responsibility to speak up about these issues. Im a messenger, she says. Like her cousin, Mansour believes that awareness and social change challenging closemindedness in conservative communities can best be achieved through education and dialogue, not through provocation. I still dont think it is OK to go into a camp and play by my own rules, she says. I wouldnt be like, F*** all of you, and be walking through the camp in my bikini. Has Julianos murder made her fear for her own safety, as a high-profile, outspoken Arab female? Hell no, she says. It makes me really angry. I feel I didnt do enough to support his struggle. When she first arrived in the West Bank, she admits, she was wary of expressing herself around conservatives in the refugee camps. I was more careful with how I spoke, careful about how I carried myself, she says. In one venue Mansour was asked to perform by herself to an only female audience. She said no. She does not understand the need for gender separation. Why is it so hard to teach men to respect women and to teach women to respect themselves amongst men? Mansour is sitting on the edge of her chair, her hands gesticulating frantically. I went there with an open mind, but could only reveal certain parts of myself as a woman because of the narrow-mindedness of certain communities. But who is my audience? Who am I representing? Its not the people sitting at home watching me on TV or listening to me on the radio who are going to help her achieve the change she craves. Its the people coming to my shows, she says. The people who are spreading the word. Its the people walking the road with me who I am doing this for. utside a shisha caf in pat terson, New Jersey, the venue for the final show of the tour, a short, stocky 54 -year-old Palestinian man named Abu Anas the shows promoter and a Patterson resident is awaiting the performers. The lineup includes several of the leading rappers from the Arab diaspora: Mansour, Lowkey, The Narcicyst, Syrian-American Omar Offendum, Libyan-American Khaled M, and Iranian-American Mazzi, as well as several American MCs. Its an illustrious cast. And they are all walking the road with Mansour: using their art to initiate dialogue and bridge cultural divides. In the local mosque the night before, Anas spoke to around 50 Arab-Americans about hip-hop. Rap is not what you think, he told them. This is an absolutely different kind of rap; its not what you see in the streets, guys rapping to sell drugs. We are rapping to educate, we are rapping to make the youth understand their struggle and their rights and what they should do as the new generation. We dont want to leave them lost. His audience was a mixture of supporters and opponents. One man complained that the lineup included a female rapper. What is wrong with a song saying the keffiyeh is Arabic? Anas responded quickly. What is wrong with [Mansours song] Asalamu Aleikum? Its about peace. Do you know the lady who sings it is Christian? She is from Palestine and she has as much of a right [to sing] as I do. For me its so uplifting to see someone of Abu Anass generation speak out for us in that way, Mansour says the next day. I guess we need someone like that to be able to instill understanding within our community, especially the conservative community, and help put forward a clearer picture of what we do. There was a time when Mansour had no idea that she would be doing what she does. In 2003, she flew to Amsterdam, having been invited to sing a chorus of Madinet Beirut, a song written by Syrian MC Eslam Jawaad and the hip-hop collective Arap. She ended up doing much more. When she arrived at the studio, Jawaad told her that one of his MCs hadnt turned up to record a verse of the song, and he wanted Mansour to do it.

I have let my emotions guide me in the past. I was pro- anything that was resisting Israel. I felt so much anger about what was happening that I didnt look at the problem with a microscope.

Here are the lyrics. I gotta fly to London now, he said. Mansour was left in the studio, with the producer Dino (Mo3alim), feeling uneasy. She hadnt rapped before, not in front of anyone. But she didnt have time to let her nerves get the better of her. Dino said Go and she went. One take. That was it. Half an hour later, Mansour was on her way to the airport to fly back to London. She was, she says, already hooked on rhyming. On her return home, she immediately began writing and recording her own songs and uploading them to MySpace. That was the birth of the First Lady of Arab Hip-Hop, Mansours self-chosen alias. Not because she thinks she was the first female Arab MC, but because I see Arab hip-hop as the elected representative of the people, with me as its First Lady. Still, it took a while for Mansour to feel she belonged in the male-dominated hiphop scene. For years she would manipulate her voice to sound deeper than it really is. I tried to sound like a dude, she admits. Friends and other artists warned her she was trying too hard, she says, and eventually she heeded their advice. Today the dude sounds like a lady despite her sometimes intimidating demeanor. To the fans (who she calls sisters and brothers) at her Brooklyn show, the First Lady of Arab Hip-Hop, dressed in her traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, with her long black hair and intense brown eyes, is exactly that: a lady.

Mansour doesnt want to be a Queen Bitch or a Barbie. We are so serious/ Imperious/We demand your attention, she sings, in So Serious, her collaboration with British MC, Logic, from Peoples Army. There is no sex to be sold when Mansour is on stage. And shes not into the hedonistic after-show parties often associated with hip-hop culture. I am a very private person, she says. Im kind of oldfashioned that way. But I dont judge others, and I dont want to impose my lifestyle on them. Its just my choice. er fiercely i n depen den t streak will come through on her album, she says. Its gonna be 110 per cent Shadia; a realistic Shadia. It has taken me a while to come out of my shell, but now I know exactly what I want. Her experiences as a London-born Arab, a female MC, and someone who has witnessed life in the Occupied Territories first-hand will all be reflected in the lyrics, some of which will be in English, she says. The latest inspiration for Mansour, which will also be reflected on the album, is the Arab Spring, the recent popular uprisings in the Middle East. She was featured on the track Not Your Prisoner, which Egyptian hip-hop group Arabian Knightz released during the protests in Tahrir Square. [The uprisings] reassured me that the Arab conscience is still alive, she

says. I grew up in the West and I have been part of all the protests pro-Palestinian protests and anti-war protests. But for us to see it happening there is one step closer to the reality of what we have all been fighting for and dreaming of. She hopes the wave of uprisings will spread to the Palestinian Occupied Territories, she adds. I dont believe in century-old regimes that refuse to question or reflect on themselves. Its really about democracy. We need to practice what we preach, she says. With her passion and political indignation, there will be a lot of preaching to practice when Mansours debut album comes out. Last month, she was back in the West Bank on another tour with Existence is Resistance and her Palestinian keffiyeh. Eight years on from her first rushed, nervous rap in Amsterdam, her fanbase extends from the Middle East through Europe to the U.S. She has gained recognition for a handful of her own songs and numerous collaborations. She has earned the respect of her peers and her audience not as a token female artist, but for her talent, as well as her politics. Backstage at the Hyatt Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, during the tour, Alsalman explains the respect Mansour has garnered in the Arab hip-hop community and beyond. She is wise, beautiful and powerful beyond measure, he says. More than she knows.
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laith majali