Of Course Lowkey Is a Target – Music Is Essential to the Palestinian Struggle

Attacks on pro-Palestinian musicians are nothing new.

by Somdeep Sen

13 April 2022

Pro-Israel lobby group We Believe in Israel has launched a campaign against British rapper Lowkey. Wiktor Szymanowicz/Reuters

During the First Intifada, Riad Awwad – an electrical engineer by training – released the Intifada Album. The album contained songs describing “a lost homeland and the struggle for freedom”, with the lyrics of one of the songs written by Mahmoud Darwish – the Palestinian national poet.

Until recently, this album was all but lost. Immediately after its release, Awwad was detained by Israeli authorities for several months. Most of the 3,000 tapes he had made and distributed to local cafes, businesses and music shops were confiscated by Israeli forces, who feared the songs’ lyrics – which reference Molotov cocktails and stone-throwing – would stoke Palestinian uprisings.

In the spring of 2020, this lost album was recovered by the London-based Palestinian actor and filmmaker Mo’min Swaitat when he stranded in his hometown of Jenin due to the Covid pandemic. Swaitat digitised and re-released the album through the Majazz Project, which digitally restores and archives Palestinian musical heritage.

History now seems to be repeating itself. On 24 March, UK-based pro-Israel lobby group We Believe in Israel launched a ‘counter-extremism’ campaign demanding that Spotify remove content they claim incites “hatred, violence, and disinformation against Jews and Israelis”.

Among the songs targeted by the campaign is ‘Long Live Palestine’ by Lowkey, in which the British rapper castigates the “Zionist lobby”, declares Israel to be a “terrorist state” and chants “free, free Palestine”. Other songs targeted include ‘Free Palestine’ by British rapper Ambassador, and ‘Strike A Blow At Tel Aviv’ by Palestinian artists Shadi al-Bourini and Qassem al-Najjar.

This and other campaigns are part of longstanding efforts to silence free speech when it comes to Palestine. This specific round of attacks on activist musicians, however, is also a reminder that protest music has long been an expression of the Palestinian cause.

Resistance through music.

The Palestinian scholar Moslih Kanaaneh once wrote that “the organic bond between music and history” is more visible in Palestine than most places. In Palestine, music isn’t just shaped by history, “music reflects history”. Kanaaneh notes, for instance, that processes of globalisation that blur national and cultural boundaries have led to hip hop’s popularity in Palestine. Before that, the Islamisation of Palestinian politics was reflected in Palestinian musical traditions – especially Palestinian Islamic music and Islamic anashid (anthems), which are similar in “melody, lyrics and instrumentation” to Islamic music from other parts of the Muslim world. 

Yet throughout this history, Palestinians have also sought to preserve the ‘Palestinianness’ of their musical traditions. This has been part of their resistance to a Zionist, settler colonial project premised on the myth that Palestine was ‘terra nullius’ – nobody’s land, without a (Palestinian) people with a distinct national identity. As Israeli historian and lecturer Rona Sela has uncovered, this process of colonisation didn’t just involve erasing Palestinians from the ‘Holy Land’ – it also involved erasing any evidence of Palestinian culture. 

This is the context in which we must understand Palestinian protest music. Before the Nakba of 1948 – when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were dispossessed and displaced by the violent creation of the Israeli state – a key figure in the rise of Palestinian resistance music and literature was Nuh Ibrahim. Ibrahim became popular across the Arab world as a revolutionary poet, writing nationalist verse in the colloquial and improvisational style of zajal – a popular Levantine form of folk poetry. His writings chastised the British mandate, Zionist colonisation and the inaction of the Arab world.

Undoubtedly, however, the trauma of the Nakba brought the vibrant musical life in Palestine that existed prior to 1948 to a standstill. Consequently, Palestine became the focus of a regional struggle against imperialism and occupation, reflected in the work of Arab musicians like Umm Kulthum, Layla Morad and Riyad al-Sunbati. However, the Palestinian struggle also became subsumed into a wider, regional nationalist agenda, and the failures of the Arab nationalists in the war of 1967 confirmed the Arab world’s inability (and unwillingness) to protect Palestine. 

Consequently, Palestinian protest music experienced a renewal after the war as part of attempts to counteract the Zionist effort erase Palestine and Palestinians. This period saw the emergence of the revolutionary Palestinian singer Mustafa al-Kurd. When al-Kurd witnessed the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the transfer of Palestinians out of the West Bank in 1967, he realised the Nakba was happening all over again. The Jerusalem-born singer decided to “speak out through song”. In ‘Hat al-Sikkaih’ (‘Give Me The Plow’), he evokes imagery of Palestinian permanence in the region: “Give me the plow and sickle / And I will never leave the land”. 

Another key influence in this period was the band al-Baraem. Initially al-Baraem only played Western pop and rock music; however, as Palestinian-American composer Issa Boulos writes, after the Six Day War and events of Black September – when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was expelled by the Hashemite monarchy from Jordan – they began singing in Arabic. al-Baraem didn’t just limit themselves to the themes of “resistance, endurance and emigration”, however – they were also critical of the PLO. As such, they were criticised both for their Western style of music and their “nonproductive criticism of the PLO”. Nonetheless, similar forms of musical innovation continued through the 1980s as Palestinian artists negotiated “the politics of tradition and innovation, Western classical and popular musical forms, and indigenous Palestinian folk material”.

Today, musical representations of the Palestinian plight can be heard in the pop songs of Bashar Murad. In ‘Maskhara’, Murad uses catchy hooks and satire to portray the fractured lives of young Palestinians living under occupation. Likewise, hip hop group Palestine Street, from the congested alleyways of Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp, has found popularity with songs like ‘Pain’, which expresses the absurdity of living as refugees on one’s own land.

British Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour – considered the first lady of Arab hip hop – is another iconic figure in the Palestinian rap scene. In ‘Al Kufiyyeh 3arabeyyeh’ (‘The Keffiyeh is Arab’), featuring Dead Prez’s M1, she sings about protecting “the kuffiyeh as a symbol of the Palestinian struggle and Arab identity”. What’s more, DAM and its frontman Tamer Nafar have garnered global recognition for being at the forefront of Palestinian hip hop. Nafar has been a vocal critic of Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the region, highlighting the insecurity that defines the lives of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

International musicians like Lowkey have also been essential in drawing attention to the Palestinian struggle. In 2012, renowned British guitarist John McLaughlin and iconic Indian tabla player performed together at a solidarity concert in Ramallah. In 2019, some of Ireland’s most notable musicians staged a solidarity concert on the same night as the Eurovision Song Concert was taking place in Tel Aviv. What’s more, artists from Chile to Norway to New Zealand have written and performed songs that specifically address the Palestinian struggle

‘We will not be silenced’.

Given that music has long been a vehicle for the Palestinian struggle, it’s not entirely surprising that We Believe in Israel is targeting musicians like Lowkey. Indeed, the hope of those running such campaigns is that they have a chilling effect on the music industry more widely, making any advocate for Palestine a persona non grata. 

The overwhelming support he has received in response to the campaign, however, shows there is growing awareness of this concerted effort to censor critical voices when it comes to Israel. Lowkey, for his part, has vowed he will not be silenced.

Somdeep Sen is Associate Professor in International Development Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark.

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