Gaza’s Rhyming “Revolution Makers”

“If you want to hear my music, please don’t listen to it simply because I’m a Palestinian, listen because we’re something different, we are the Revolution Makers!”

Over the course of our conversation, it was clear that Muhammed Elsusi, one-quarter of the Revolution Makers, is not interested in symbolic solidarity. The Gaza band is spitting out defiant raps geared to a Palestinian people exhausted with siege, occupation and a divided leadership. This is the new Palestinian rap: ditching the nationalist slogans for lyrics that look inward and demand individual and collective uplift.

Muhammed – whose influences range from West Coast rappers Tupac, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Hopsin; French-Argentine civil resistance female rapper Keny Arkana; melodic American Western-style rapper YelaWolf; Egyptian rapper Ahmed Mekky; and Eminem – had long been interested in rap, and in late 2009 he first started putting pen to paper while searching online for beats that he could rhyme along to. (Rap and hip hop artists generally do not create their own beats, but adopt and modify existing tracks.)  But even after he had assembled lyrics and beats and was ready for the rap scene Muhammed was determined not to go solo. “I needed to make a band because I knew that without collaboration I couldn’t continue to make progress as an artist,” Muhammed relayed. Luck would have it that his brother Osama was similarly a devotee of rap and he was the first to join Muhammed. A few other individuals came and left. After several false starts, the two brothers eventually met composer Muhammed Khira and videographer Haitham Nuraldeen. “Revolution Makers was now no longer a rap band, but a musicians’ band,” Muhammed related, as the four artists “mix styles of music together.”

That collective style has been ably interwoven by the band into compelling rhythms, captivating videos, and honest lyrics. Revolution Makers’ songs and videos are decidedly political, confronting the Palestinian reality in all its manifestations – both the intra-Palestinian predicaments and the Israeli occupation.

Life in Gaza is not easy for anyone, and for Muhammed and his bandmates there have been no shortages of obstacles confronting them. “We can’t actually perform a real concert in Gaza because rules dictated by Hamas [the Islamist organization that has governed Gaza since 2007] are not compatible with our performances,” Muhammed indicated. For instance, men and women are forbidden from sitting together at concerts. Moreover, while Hamas does not explicitly condemn rap as haram (proscribed in Islam), it nonetheless shuts down rap concerts and discourages the pursuit due to its foreign nature and the perceived ill effects of rap’s influence, according to Muhammed. That makes it practically impossible to acquire the necessary permit to stage a show. Beyond Hamas’ restrictions, “a hard life,” Muhammed observes, “means most Gazans are disinclined to buy a concert ticket.” And when they do, Muhammed adds, “many do not want to hear about the situation in Gaza,” instead they prefer the escape from daily reality that purely “entertainment” shows offer.

Revolution Makers is not interested in escapism. As Muhammed puts it, the band produces “artistically” challenging tracks. Where I previously characterized their music as “political,” Muhammed clarifies that they’re not interested in vanguard politics – “Revolution Makers is not fighting a government.” He adds that rapping in support of organized political protest would be disconnected from the current reality on the ground. “I can’t rap about something that’s not real,” he tells me. He and his comrades are not hoping to provoke protests, their aim is more humble: to convey “real lyrics from the Palestinian people on the street to the whole world.” In their collaborative spirit, “my music and my band,” Muhammed says, “are universal.”

It is a testament to Gaza’s gloomy reality – the victim of three wars since 2008 and under a blockade since 2007 – that expressing the desire to be a free artist is revolutionary. Revolutionary Makers are not alone. Gaza, as Muhammed informs me, is filled with artists “using rap like a weapon to fight an unjust enemy” and inform the rest of the world of the oppression they face. But there is the problem of making a living. “Some people have great talent, but can’t continue because music needs money and people don’t have money,” Muhammed says. He goes on to relay that some Gaza-based NGOs fund rap artists, but funding is conditional on the rapper’s promotion of NGO projects. Revolution Makers has rebuffed the NGOs whose efforts, Muhammed argues, produce stale rap that undermine the genre’s appeal. “Eighty percent of the people do not understand Western music culture,” Muhammed says. And first impressions determine whether audiences embrace or shun rap. But NGO-funded rap, Muhammed bemoans, means “we don’t have an opportunity to really introduce ourselves.” A rapper acting as an “undercover” messenger for an NGO, he observes, is “neither interesting nor good.”

At the end of the day, Revolution Makers strive to reach their audience at home and abroad mainly via online platforms, primarily YouTube. I tell Muhammed that his band reminds me of Gaza’s hopeful and defiant surfers, parkourists, and street bodybuilders engaging in everyday resistance. Is rap another way to escape Gaza’s isolation? Muhammed concurs that recreational activities allow people to at least momentarily “live a good life,” but as he stresses, “we can’t escape.” Nor does he want to, literally or figuratively. Revolution Makers are rooted in Gaza and it is in Gaza that they intend to fight for their space in the cultural landscape. “We were born here and leaving Gaza would strip us of our identity.”

Revolution Makers, however, are no nationalist band; their message is devoid of chest-beating patriotism. And their vision is one of a just peace, a peace that affords Palestinians opportunities to pursue dignified lives. Mohammed hopes listeners abroad who harbor suspicions toward the Palestinians will reexamine their ideas. “I want them to see my identity as not a criminal but a noble one,” Muhammed says, “I want to see peace for all people without surrendering the rights of the Palestinians.”

Muhammed, Osama, Muhammed Khira, and Haitham hope to record an album (so far Revolution Makers releases video-singles on YouTube), stage concerts in Gaza and around the world, and produce a film chronicling their experiences. The name might sound grand at first, but the revolution they’re creating is humble, and it is this simple clarion call that illustrates the most basic desire of the Palestinian people: to live their lives freely. That’s a revolutionary message that all artists can embrace!

By Khelil Bouarrouj.

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