The Passion, Politics and Power 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
“You can take my falafel and hummus, but don’t f***ing touch my keffiyeh,” declares 26-year-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 she’s 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 people’s land, the repression of women, or conservative opposition to her music.
“I’m 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 Mansour’s 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, it’s like a statement. It’s 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 Mansour’s 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
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 that’s ours, they want it
We won’t be silent, we won’t allow it
It suits them to steal something that ain’t theirs and claim that it is.
“It’s 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.
WITH 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 shemovement.com, his hip-hop 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 had commitment and talent.” He’s unconcerned about the potential criticism Mansour’s 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 hip-hop scene.” She’s 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 Mansour’s potential.
“There is a huge void in hip-hop concerning female MCs who are socially conscious,” he says. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Jreri’s 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] 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.”
IT'S MARCH, and for two weeks Mansour has been performing in universities, clubs and shisha cafés from the west coast to the east. Today is her day off. Tired but relaxed, she is sitting in a café 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.
Mansour’s 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 didn’t really fit there either. “I wasn’t a part of that crowd,” she 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 isn’t to say she didn’t get an education. “I was always reading and listening,” she says. “That’s 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 wouldn’t hear of it. She found a way to navigate between her own desires and those of her family. Mansour’s 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 London’s 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 wouldn’t 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.”
PEOPLE 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. Mansour’s eyes light up as she talks about this particular branch of her 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 Mansour’s 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-Khamis’s 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-year-old 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 Mer-Khamis’s progressive influence on the culture of the camp.
Whatever the reason, Mer-Khamis’s 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-Khamis’s 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.”
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. “I’m a messenger,” she says. Like her cousin, Mansour believes that awareness and social change – challenging close-mindedness in conservative communities – can best be achieved through education and dialogue, not through provocation.
“I still don’t think it is OK to go into a camp and play by my own rules,” she says. “I wouldn’t be like, ‘F*** all of you,’ and be walking through the camp in my bikini.”
Has Juliano’s 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 didn’t 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?”
It’s 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. “It’s the people coming to my shows,” she says. “The people who are spreading the word. It’s the people walking the road with me who I am doing this for.”
OUTSIDE A SHISHA CAFÉ in Patterson, New Jersey, the venue for the final show of the tour, a short, stocky 54-year-old Palestinian man named Abu Anas – the show’s 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. It’s 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; it’s 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 don’t 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 [Mansour’s song] ‘Asalamu Aleikum?’ It’s 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 it’s so uplifting to see someone of Abu Anas’s 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 MC’s hadn’t turned up to record a verse of the song, and he wanted Mansour to do it.
“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 hadn’t rapped before, not in front of anyone. But she didn’t 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,’ Mansour’s 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 hip-hop 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 doesn’t 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 People’s Army.
There is no sex to be sold when Mansour is on stage. And she’s not into the hedonistic after-show parties often associated with hip-hop culture. “I am a very private person,” she says. “I’m kind of old-fashioned that way. But I don’t judge others, and I don’t want to impose my lifestyle on them. It’s just my choice.”
HER FIERCELY INDEPENDENT streak will come through on her album, she says. “It’s 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 don’t believe in century-old regimes that refuse to question or reflect on themselves. It’s 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 Mansour’s 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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